MIRABAI (b. circa 1500 ce) is the most famous medieval woman saint of bhakti, or devotional Hinduism. Known for her unwavering devotion to God in the form of Kṛṣṇa (the amorous incarnation of Viṣṇu) and for her suffering and perseverance in the face of extreme opposition to that love, Mirabai's lifestory and songs are performed throughout India and beyond. Like other bhakti saints, her sainthood was not conferred by any institutional authority but rather by countless subsequent devotees who have found in her an exemplar of the ideal devotee and a spiritual guide.
According to hagiographic and legendary accounts, Mirabai was born to a minor royal family in Merta, Rajasthan, in western India, probably around the beginning of the sixteenth century. Devoted to Kṛṣṇa from childhood, she was married into the royal family of the neighboring kingdom of Mewar, but she refused to honor her new husband or his family, seeing Kṛṣṇa as her true husband and Lord. Her in-laws found her behavior as a woman intolerable, particularly her public dancing and singing in temples and her conversing openly with holy men. Attempts were made first to stop her and then to kill her, the method of choice being poison. Who tried to kill her varies by account. Some say she was a devoted wife and it was only after her husband's death that an evil brother-in-law began to persecute her, but many more name her husband as her would-be killer.
The Mughal emperor Akbar is said to have come in disguise to see this renowned devotee of God, her appeal extending across religious boundaries. But eventually she grew weary of persecution and left her marital home to become a wandering saint, going first to Kṛṣṇa's holy city of Vrindavan. There Jiv Goswami, disciple of Caitanya (1486–1533), initially refused to meet her, having vowed not to speak to women, but he then welcomed her after she reminded him that all souls are feminine in the presence of the decidedly male Lord Kṛṣṇa. She settled in Dvaraka until a delegation of Brahmin priests arrived from her marital family to escort her back, threatening to fast to death if she refused. Entering the temple to take leave of Kṛṣṇa, she disappeared, merging with his image.
Other stories also speak of Mirabai taking the untouchable leatherworker Raidas as her guru, an act which places her under male authority but also adds defiance of caste to her transgressions. The story of Mirabai's life has inspired not only devotees of God, but also oppressed low-caste people; women whose suffering, longing, and independence parallel hers; Indian nationalists seeking heroic Indian women to inspire their struggle against the British; and such figures as Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948), for whom she was an ideal practitioner of non-violent resistance. Upper-caste male historians have also sought to write the definitive historical biography of Mirabai, but historical sources record little about her, and Parita Mukta has even argued that Mirabai's marital family sought to actively suppress her memory. The resulting biographies, like the stories told by others, are—and indeed must be—shaped significantly by the values and assumptions of the tellers. The dates they give for events in her life and the assignment of Bhoj Raj, son of Sanga, as her husband must be treated as speculative.
Like other bhakti saints, Mirabai expressed her devotion in songs which have been primarily preserved and disseminated through oral traditions. No early extensive written collections of her songs exist, though such collections are available for male saints like Kabīr (c. 1450–1525) and Surdas. Unlike them, Mirabai was never formally adopted by any institutionalized branch of devotional Hinduism—she remained well loved but outside such structures, in all likelihood because of her independent behavior as a woman. Among the songs attributed to her, those actually composed by the sixteenth-century woman cannot be distinguished from those composed by others in her name and style.
These songs speak in the first person of deep love and longing for God and of Mirabai's persecution and rejection of the royal world of her husband. They traverse the range of emotions connected with love—longing, anticipation, the ecstatic joy of union, adoration, jealousy, and anger—but also speak of a merger with the One who transcends all distinctions and forms. Throughout her stories and songs, the overriding theme is absolute love of God, with complete disregard for the consequences.
The variations in the telling of Mirabai's story show a deep appreciation for her devotion coupled with a recognition of the depth of opposition she faced and consequent suffering she endured. However, they also reflect the ambivalence that continues to surround a woman's defiance of social norms even out of devotion to God. Mirabai remains immensely popular as a saint but also both powerful and controversial as an exemplary woman.
For a comprehensive study of the saint, see Nancy M. Martin's Mirabai (New York, 2005). Shorter introductions to the saint with translations of selected songs can be found in John Stratton Hawley and Mark Juergensmeyer's Songs of the Saints of India (New York, 1988) and in Madhu Kishwar and Ruth Vanita's "Poison to Nectar: The Life and Work of Mirabai," Manushi 50–52 (January–June 1989): 74–93. More extensive English translations are available in A. J. Alston's Devotional Poems of Mira Bai (New Delhi, 1980). Detailed studies of low caste traditions surrounding Mirabai, the search for the historical Mirabai, and Mirabai's role as a model for Indian women can be found in Parita Mukti's Upholding the Common Life: The Community of Mirabai (New Delhi, 1994); Nancy M. Martin's "Mirabai in the Academy and the Politics of Identity," in Faces of the Feminine from Ancient, Medieval and Modern India, edited by Mandakranta Bose (New York, 2000); and Nancy M. Martin's "Mirabai: Inscribed in Text, Embodied in Life," in Vaisnavi: Women and the Worship of Krishna, edited by Steven Rosen (Delhi, 1996).
Nancy M. Martin (2005)
"Mirabai." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 16, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/mirabai
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