Janabai – Woman Sant of Maharashtra


Janabai is one of the early women saints of Maharashtra during the period of the medieval Bhakti movement. She was one of the greatest women Sant in the Vitthal Sampradaya, the tradition of devotion to Vitthal of Panadarpur.

Janabai was born in the seventh or the eighth decade of the 13th century and is said to have died in 1350. The daughter of an ‘untouchable’ couple, her father took Janabai to Pandharpur where she worked as a maidservant in the household of Dāmāsheti, who was the father of the prominent Marathi bhakti poet Nāmdev. Janabai was likely a little older than Namdev, and attended to him for many years.

Janabai’s employers, Damasheti and his wife, Gonāi, were very religious. Through the influence of the religious environment and her innate inclination, Janabai was always an ardent devotee of Vitthal, the presiding deity of Pandarphur. Though she did not have formal schooling, she composed many excellent abhangs (अभंग) some of which are preserved alongside those of Namdev.

Janabai composed over 340 devotional songs, abhangas; they survived by being included in collections of Namdev’s own works. Some of Janabai’s songs tell of the lives of her fellow Varkari and of the various incarnations of Vishnu, but the most distinctive are those that tell of her personal relationship with the god Vitthal. She sees Vitthal as her mother (a view not uncommon among the Varkaris), but also as her fellow-serving maid, and ultimately herself.

In one of her poems she sings:

Let me undergo as many births in this world as You please, but grant that my desires are fulfilled. They are that I see Pandharpur and serve Namdev in every birth. I do not mind if I am a bird or a swine, a dog or a cat, but my conditions are that in each of these lives, I must see Pandharpur and serve Namdev. This is the ambition of Namdev’s maid.

In another place, Janabai writes:

Give me only this girl, O Hari, that I shall always sing Your sacred Name. Fulfil my only desire that You will accept my humble homage and service. This is all that I desire. Have mercy on me and fulfil my desires. I want to concentrate my eyes and mind on You and have Your Name on my lips. For this the maid Jani falls at Your feet.

That sums up the philosophy of Janabai and how she attained her desired goal. So intense and sincere was her devotion to Vithoba that the Lord Himself used to lighten her household duties, which, as she became old, she found unable to perform. By her service and devotion to God, she completely succeeded in effacing herself and she got completely merged in Him. A great soul-Janabai! And a greater Master-Namdev!


Janabai and Vittalbai
Janabai and Vittalbai