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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #27 – Vanita 2001 “’At All Times Near’: Love Between Women in Two Medieval Indian Devotional Texts”

Full citation: 

Vanita, Ruth. “’At All Times Near’: Love Between Women in Two Medieval Indian Devotional Texts” in Same Sex Love and Desire Among Women in the Middle Ages (ed. by Francesca Canadé Sautman & Pamela Sheingorn), Palgrave, New York, 2001.

Publication summary: 


Palgrave is one of the most important academic publishers of work in the loosely-defined field of “queer history”, both monographs and collections such as the present work. As with the collection on singlewomen, I will be blogging all the articles in Same Sex Love and Desire Among Women in the Middle Ages, regardless of their direct applicability to my project. And expect to keep seeing the various authors included here in other publications yet to be covered.

Vanita, Ruth. “’At All Times Near’: Love Between Women in Two Medieval Indian Devotional Texts”

Today's entry goes even further outside my usual Eurocentric focus and explores the acceptance and even valorization of female-female relationship in the context of Indian devotional practices and literature.

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Medieval Indian devotional mystical texts included representations at love between women. These do not necessarily represent societal approval of lesbian relationships and typically frame the sakhi or female friend as an adjunct and assistant to the primary relationship with a man or god. In this the sakhi functions like a mirror of the self. But this function fulfilled a greater emotional need as seen by elaborations of stories in the mystical traditions, and the multiple layers of envisioning human-divine relationship via gendered (and sometimes cross-gendered) imagery also contributes to bringing female same-sex desire into the portfolio of accepted concepts.

The legendary devotion of intimate female friends can appear as in the mystic Mirabai’s lifelong female companion joined her in romantic suicide. In other contexts, love between women is sometimes justified by reincarnation, either reflecting the prior relationship of a pair of friends or of a previously heterosexual couple. Gender connections in devotional practices can be tangled, as when male devotees of the female figure Radha (wife of Krishna) show devotion to Krishna by dressing as women to represent Radha's role in devotion to Krishna, but then turn their devotion to Radha as an intermediary. Despite all the layered gender representations, the eroticism is always framed as male-female. But in artistic representations of these stories, there are spaces where female-female erotic interactions are clearly depicted, either with the presence or absence of Krishna. The Sakha Bhava tradition frames devotion to god as friendship, combining imagery of familial love and intimate friendships. The female mystic poet Janabai expresses the relationship of a devotee and deity as that of female friends, interacting in everyday or intimate tasks such as bathing and hairdressing. Another tradition with similar imagery is the Varkari where god is seen as an omnipresent parent or close friend and includes female same-sex framings.

The strongest portrayal of female couples may be in the Krittirasa Ramayana. Here Shiva sanctions love between women by instructing two co-widows of a childless man to have sex with each other with the promise that one will become pregnant. (The driving purpose is still male-centered: the dead man’s lineage is fated to produce a hero to perform a task that has not yet been accomplished.)

While not contradicting the heteronormative essence of Indian tradition, Vanita shows a variety of ways in which female same-sex desire existed and was even exalted within that context.


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