Bahina (the suffix ‘bai’ means woman or wife) was a Vaishnav poet-saint and devotee of Tukaram. At 13, she was indelibly impressed by Tukaram’s intense chants or abhangas in praise of Lord Vitthal, a form of Vishnu.
She was born in 1628 at Deoghar in today’s northern Maharastra and married at the early age of five to a learned Brahmin and widower aged 30, Ratnakar Pathak, by whom she had a daughter and a son. Homeless due to a family feud, they were given grudging asylum by a Brahmin of Kolhapur named Bahirambhat. From there they travelled to Pandharpur, where Bahinabai heard Tukaram’s soul-stirring songs. On one occasion a sadhu praised Bahinabai for her religious fervour, at which her husband, angry at her forwardness, beat her so severely that she was unconscious for three days. While in this near-death state, Bahinabai had a vision of Tukaram, who came to her, placed his hand upon her head and bid her to sing. She awoke, and a song in praise of the saint came unbidden to her lips. She became a follower of Tukaram and began to go into occasional trances in which she would compose songs. Soon her renown as a poet spread, but her husband accused her of breaking the rules laid down for Brahmin wives. He decided to leave her, but on the eve of his departure suddenly fell ill. Bahinabai nursed him back to health. These events are told in her poetry or abhangas. Her husband repented, and the family moved to Dehu, where they regularly listened to the kirtans or song sessions of hymns by Tukaram.
Bahinabai had a mystical perception of life; she claimed to have seen her own death and to have found it ‘a good omen’. Through her verse she spoke about her previous births. She referred to her own son as kalyanbandhu, fellow aspirant or friend. Her work is conceptually and poetically very complex.
The Vedas cry aloud, the Puranas shout;
“No good may come to a woman.”
I was born with a woman’s body
How am I to attain truth?
“They are foolish, seductive, deceptive -
Any connection with a woman is disastrous.”
Bahina says, “If a woman’s body is so harmful,
How in the world will I reach truth?”