12 Notable Female Gurus of India
The Unnamed Saint in King Janaka’s Court
There is a beautiful story of a female saint, who suddenly appeared in the Vichar sabha (a place where debates are held) of King Janaka and questioned Astabakra (son of Kahole) and proved that he wasn’t Brahma Gyani. Then she briefly explained the question posed and asked him to get taught by Janaka Raja (King Janaka) as He too was Brahma Gyani like this unnamed female Saint. Thereafter she disappeared in full view of the court.
Brahmavadini Gargi Vachaknavi, daughter of Vachaknu, is honored as a great natural philosopher, renowned expounder of the Vedas. She is said to have written many hymns in the Rigveda. In the 6th and 8th Brahmana of Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, her name is prominent as she participates in the Brahma Yajna, a philosophic debate organised by Brahma Gyani King Janaka of Videha and challenges the Brahma Gyani Sage Yajnavalkya.
Brahmavadini Maitreyi was a venerated ancient Indian philosopher. Ten hymns in the Rigveda are attributed to Maitreyi, where she explored the concept of Atman in a dialogue with Brahma Gyani Sage Yajnavalkya in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.
Maitreyi, who is also mentioned in a number of Puranas, is regarded as one of the most learned and virtuous women of ancient India and symbolizes intellectual women in India. She was a leading scholar who also made rich contributions to propagate education. Maitreyi is an example of the educational opportunities available to women in Vedic India, and their philosophical achievements. She is considered a symbol of Indian intellectual women, and an institution is named in her honour in New Delhi.
Hemalekha (mentioned in Tripura Rahasya) was Guru to her husband (Prince Hemachuda), her Mother-in-law and many others. She slowly and beautifully takes her worldly husband on the path of Brahma Gyan. Such was her power that in time the entire city was full of Brahma Gyanis, where even the parrots spoke of renunciation and Gyan.
Queen Chudala (mentioned in Yoga Vasistha) became Guru to her Husband, King Sikhidhwaj. She attained Brahma Gyan soon after instructions from scholars. Her story is detailed in Yoga Vasistha.
Sri Sarada Devi
In recent times Sarada Devi, wife of Ramakrishna Paramhansa, was Guru to many and is considered Divine Incarnate.
In 1861, Ramakrishna accepted Bhairavi Brahmani, an orange-robed, middle-aged female ascetic, as a teacher. She carried with her the Raghuvir Shila, a stone icon representing Ram and all Vaishnava deities. She was thoroughly conversant with the texts of Gaudiya Vaishnavism and practised Tantra. According to the Bhairavi, Ramakrishna was experiencing phenomena that accompany mahabhava, the supreme attitude of loving devotion towards the divine, and quoting from the bhakti shastras, she said that other religious figures like Radha and Chaitanya had similar experiences.
The Bhairavi initiated Ramakrishna into Tantra. Tantrism focuses on the worship of shakti and the object of Tantric training is to transcend the barriers between the holy and unholy as a means of achieving liberation and to see all aspects of the natural world as manifestations of the divine shakti. Under her guidance, Ramakrishna went through sixty four major tantric sadhanas which were completed in 1863. He began with mantra rituals such as japa and purascarana and many other rituals designed to purify the mind and establish self-control. He later proceeded towards tantric sadhanas, which generally include a set of heterodox practices called vamachara (left-hand path), which utilise as a means of liberation, activities like eating of parched grain, fish and meat along with drinking of wine and sexual intercourse. According to Ramakrishna and his biographers, Ramakrishna did not directly participate in the last two of those activities, all that he needed was a suggestion of them to produce the desired result. Ramakrishna acknowledged the left-hand tantric path, though it had “undesirable features”, as one of the “valid roads to God-realization”, he consistently cautioned his devotees and disciples against associating with it. The Bhairavi also taught Ramakrishna the kumari-puja, a form of ritual in which the Virgin Goddess is worshiped symbolically in the form of a young girl. Under the tutelage of the Bhairavi, Ramakrishna also learnt Kundalini Yoga. The Bhairavi, with the yogic techniques and the tantra played an important part in the initial spiritual development of Ramakrishna.
The Avvaiyars (Tamil: ஔவையார்; ‘Respectable Women’) was the title of more than one poet who was active during different periods of Tamil literature. The Avvaiyar were some of the most famous and important female poets of the Tamil canon. Abithana Chintamani states that there were three female poets titled Avvaiyar.
Avvaiyar II lived during the period of Kambar and Ottakoothar during the reign of the Chola dynasty in the 10th century. She is often imagined as an old and intelligent lady by Tamil people. She wrote many of the poems that remain very popular even now and are inculcated in school textbooks in Tamil Nadu. These books include a list of dos and don’ts, useful for daily life, arranged in simple and short sentences.
There is a very famous legend that is associated with Avvaiyar (Tamil: ஔவையார்), a prominent female poets/ethicist/political activist of Sangam period (Tamil literature), and Naaval Pazham (Jambu) in Tamil Nadu. Avvaiyar, believing to have achieved everything that is to be achieved, is said to have been pondering her retirement from Tamil literary work while resting under Naaval Pazham tree. But she is met with and was wittily jousted by a disguised Murugan (regarded as one of the guardian deities of the Tamil language), who later revealed himself and made her realise that there was still a lot more to be done and learnt. Following this awakening, Avvaiyar is believed to have undertaken a fresh set of literary works, targeted at children. These works, even after a millennium, are often among the very first literature that children are exposed to in Tamil Nadu schools.
When Adi Sankara was proceeding on his Jaitra Yatra (victory march), the great scholar Mandana Mishra in Mahishmati presently Mahishi. Sankara entered into a scholarly debate with him. Ubhaya Bharati, the wife of Mandana Mishra, was also a great scholar. She was well-versed in the principles of Ritham, Sathyam, Mahattattwam, etc. It was decided that Mandana Mishra would take to Sannyasa if he were to be defeated in the debate. Sankara chose Ubhaya Bharati to be the adjudicator of the contest. As the debate was in progress, she listened to the arguments and counter arguments with utmost concentration. She was impartial in her judgement and declared Sankara to be the winner. Being one of wisdom, she did not feel dejected that her husband was defeated in the debate. Mandana Mishra took to Sannyasa in accordance with the terms and conditions of the debate. Ubhaya Bharathi, being his Ardhangi (better half), followed suit.
Both husband and wife renounced the world and propagated the path of wisdom. Human life has no value if one does not acquire wisdom. “To have the vision of the effulgent light of Atma, you have to remove the soot of ego covering your mind”. This was the teaching of Ubhaya Bharati. She was living in a hermitage on the banks of the river Ganga, imparting spiritual teachings to women. Many women had become her disciples. Every day in the morning, they used to go the Ganges to have a bath. On the way, there lived a Sannyasi whom people called Brahma Jnani. Truly, he was a renunciant and one of wisdom. However, he was very much attached to a small earthen pot in which he used to preserve water.
One day, he was lying down using the pot as a pillow, lest somebody might steal it. Ubhaya Bharati who was on her way to Ganges with her disciples observed this and remarked, “Though he is one of wisdom, there is a small defect in him. He has renounced the world, but is attached to his earthen pot which he is using as his pillow.” The Sanyasi overheard their conversation and became angry. When Ubhaya Bharati and her disciples were coming back from Ganges, he threw away the pot on the road, just to show that he was not attached to it. Seeing this, Ubhaya Bharati said, “I thought there was only one defect in him -Abhimana (attachment). Now I realise that he has another defect also — Ahamkara (ego). How can one with Ahamkara and Abhimana be a Jnani (one of wisdom)?” It was an eye-opener for the Sanyas. Ubhaya Bharati toured the length and breadth of the country preaching and propagating the path of wisdom.
Tiruppavai is a sacred poem composed with utmost love and devotion By Sri Andal at the young age of 15 years of age in praise of the Lord Vishnu (also known as Perumal, Sri Ranganath). These are 30 Stanzas known as Pasurams that are written in Tamil (South Indian Language) and is also considered as a part of the ‘Divya Prabandha’ (Holy Texts) compiled by the twelve Alvars of Vaishnava (Followers of Vishnu).
Tiruppavai is recited during the sacred month of Margashira (also known as Marzazhi in Tamil), that is in the Auspicious month of Dhanur masa. Dhanur masa is considered so Holy and sacred that during this month, no Vydic Hindu marriages take place as every one want to devote all their energy and time in the Holy name of the Lord Sriman Narayana.
Andal is an 8th century Tamil saint and one of the twelve Alwars (saints) and the only woman Alwar of Vaishnavism. She wrote the great Tamil works of Tiruppavai (30 verses) and Naacchiyaar Tirumozhi (143 verses). Andal is known for her unwavering devotion to Lord Vishnu.
Andal was discovered under a Tulasi plant in the temple garden of Srivilliputtur, by Vishnuchitta who was one of the most revered saints in Hinduism, Periyalwar. She was named Kodhai or Goda. As she grew, her love and devotion for the Lord grew to the extent that she decided to marry none but the Lord Himself. She started to live in a dream world with her beloved Lord and was constantly fantasizing about marrying Him. Goda made flower garlands for her beloved Lord at the temple. She started wearing the flower garland which was meant to be offered to the Lord before sending it to the temple. One day, she was caught red-handed by her father. The Lord appeared to Vishnuchitta in his dream and told him that He whole-heartedly accepted Goda’ s offering. From this day on, Goda was respected by the devotees and came to be known as “Andal”, the girl who “ruled” over the Lord. She is also known as “Soodi kodutha Sudarkodi”. Periyalwar took Andal to Srirangam to marry Her to the Lord Ranganatha. She entered the temple sanctum and became one with him.
Meera Bai (Mira Bai)
Saint Meera, also known as Meera Bai, was a 16th-century poet and devotee of Krishna. She is a celebrated Bhakti saint, particularly in the North Indian Hindu tradition. Meera Bai was born into a Rajput royal family of Kudki district of Pali, Rajasthan, India.
Akka Mahadevi (ಅಕ್ಕ ಮಹಾದೇವಿ) (c.1130–1160) was one of the early female poets of the Kannada languageand a prominent personality in the Veerashaiva Bhakti movement of the 12th century. Her 430 extant Vachana poems (a form of spontaneous mystical poems), and the two short writings called Mantrogopya and the Yogangatrividhi are considered her most notable contribution to Kannada literature. She composed relatively fewer poems than other saints of the movement. Yet the term Akka (“elder Sister”), which is an honorific given to her by great Veerashaiva saints such as Basavanna, Siddharama and Allamaprabhu is an indication of her contribution to the spiritual discussions held at the “Anubhava Mantapa”. She is in hindsight seen as an inspirational woman for Kannada literature and the history of Karnataka. She is known to have considered the god Shiva (‘Chenna Mallikarjuna’) as her husband, (traditionally understood as the ‘madhura bhava’ or ‘madhurya’ form of devotion).