The word spiritual is a rather loose rubric for this post which encompasses women philosophers, traditions of mysticism and wandering minstrels. None of these is entirely exclusive of the other yet they are different ways of pursuing knowledge or the divine.
But older still is the evidence of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, where Maitreyi has been addressed as Brahmavadini. The same Upanishad also mentions Gargi, who had participated in the philosophical conference convened by Janaka. We find a reference in the Mahabharata of Sulabha of the Upanishadic times, who was well versed in Sankhya and Yoga. So does Bhavabhuti vividly describe how Atreyi wandered from ashrama to ashrama in search of spiritual knowledge. [X]
Thera Sariputta replied that she should first become a bhikkhuni; so she became a bhikkhuni, by the name of Theri Kundalakesi. Within a few days, she became an arahat. [X]
There is a long tradition of women as philosophers or simply as having an affinity to a spiritual life or mysticism in India. Gargi is an example of the former, many of the medieval Bhakti poets like Meera, Banhinabai and Lal Dedh examples of the latter. Further the ordaining of nuns was common to both Jainism and Buddhism. Like their male counterparts, many were laywomen who took to the faith, e.g. Kundalakesi. Additionally see Sufism and women. See also [X] And [X].
In the pictures today: 1) A profusion of 17th-18th century miniature paintings (see pics 1–3 that date back to 1680-1770) feature yoginis. Like most of the genre, they are often pictured wandering in a landscape, playing music, receiving visitors and the like. And very often they are pictured with animal companions, like dogs. A number of them also feature the swing which seems to be associated with yoginis in these paintings.
2) ) There are many movies based on the devotional saints, Others capture the tension between domestic life and the ascetic life. In the pics: a) Meera [X] b) the 1950 Jogan c) an episode from Bharat Ek Khoj with Mita Vashisht as Suvasini, a princess who is unable to marry Chandragupta Maurya and becomes a bhikkuni, and d) Anandamath where Geeta Bali plays Shanti, who dresses as a male ascetic to fight the British.
3) Deccan art, which has a slightly different take from its northern counterparts, also has the yogini has subject matter [X] [X] [X]. Yogini with Mynah (1603-1604) is perhaps the most well known. The second pic is as recreated by Pushpamala (2000-2004).
“I have become a Baul. / I dance well, sing well. / I have even gotten a few disciples. / I have become a Baul. / I don’t do Baul dharma-karma. / Never gone to a guru. / I don’t like the sādhu [holy man] community. / Why? I am my own guru.” [X]
4) Wandering minstrels, syncretic mystics, fakirs – the Bauls of Bengal have been extensively written about and documented. The peak of the tradition was in the 19th century/early 20th century. A majority of practitioners are men but there are women too, some from the tradition [X] [X] and some who are drawn to its musical traditions [X] [X]. In popular iconography they appear as part of a couple as in pic 1 (the cover jacket of a study on Baul women), always in saffron and more often than not with the ektara. See also gift dolls. Similarly in Hindi cinema: Devdas, Pyaasa etc.But modern singers/practitioners appear solo as in pic 2. (also Kangalini Sufia).
As the pictures show, there is no definitive norm regarding the wearing of saffron. Saffron is however common, as is white. And dark clothing and other muted tones feature. Very rarely as in pic 2, there is little clothing.
For a brief review of women as gurus i.e. as spiritual teachers or precepts vs traditions of mysticism and bhakti see [X].
Mardi is away but she was in my thoughts when I wrote this post.