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Women and renunciation in Bengal Vaishnava Sahajiya tradition

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

Publication date2020
Number of pages293
Awarding Institution
Award date20/03/2020
  • Lancaster University
<mark>Original language</mark>English


This research is an ethnographic study of the Bengal Vaishnava Sahajiya tradition, which is the tantric influenced tradition blended together with Bengali devotion. Esoteric ritual is the Vaishnava Sahajiya key religious practice which leads the practitioners to liberation as well as marginalisation. Through participant observation, I draw on the unconventional lives and renunciant experiences of Vaishnava Sahajiya female renouncers to highlight the diversity in the lives of third-world women and the variety of female renunciation in South Asia. Brahmanical renunciant themes of celibacy, solitude and social engagement appearing in the Vaishnava religious practices of brahmacharya, madhukari and sadhu seva, will respectively be taken into account in analysing female renouncers’ positions and how they exercise their agency within the Vaishnava context and in the broader context of South Asia. Female agency as seen in the Vaishnava tradition will demonstrate that third-world women, South Asian women in particular, do not adhere to the typical perceptions of them attributed by some Western Feminists, being powerless, subordinated and victims of a patriarchal system. Indeed, women in the context of Vaishnava are under patriarchal control where men either of this worldly (householder) or the other worldly (renouncer) are dominant actors. The women, however, make the most of their lives by utilising womanhood, motherhood and wifehood qualities in a male defined renunciant sphere. The extent to which Vaishnava female practitioners become autonomous actors and gain the most benefit from their marginalised situation is to conform to what has been prescribed to them; that is, being good Bengali women whose lives are valued by being dependent to either a male partner, gurus, disciples, or lay the community.