Janabai was born in a Maharashtra village to a family of the lowest, sudra, caste. When she was a young child, her mother died and her father (shortly before his own death) took her to the city of Pandharpur, where she became a servant in the household of Varkari devotees of Vitthal, an incarnation of Vishnu. A son of the family, Sant Namdev, became one of the chief Varkari poets, writing in vernacular Marathi and teaching equality of all regardless of caste or gender before God. Janabai cared for the young Namdev and remained his servant, his dasi, throughout her life. Tradition says that they died on the same day.
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!