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)
Immortalized since the 15th century as a Brahmin princess whose love for Krishna compelled her to wander in search of enlightenment, Mirabai (1498-1547) was a Hindi poetess, mystic, Rajput princess, and Bhakti yogini saint whose life was steeped in legend, but whose contribution to Indian culture remains uncontested.
The one thing that is certain about the life of Mirabai is that everything that is currently known about her is conjecture and educated guesswork at best. The details of her life are so obscured by legend that they remain a hotbed of argumentation due to the essential lack of empirical data regarding her history. Usha Nilsson's account of Mirabai's life in her biography Mira Bai is based on the best that previous scholars had to offer, and can be relied on as a respectable source for readers interested in both the facts and the legends that surround Mirabai's story.
Life vs. Legend
Mirabai's birth has been estimated to have occurred in 1498, and her birthplace was Merta. Merta was an independent kingdom with a fortress city created by Mirabai's grandfather, Rao Dudaji, and ruled by her father, Ratan Singh. The political and social climate during Mirabai's lifetime was one of great unrest between the Muslim forces invading northern India and the Hindu population struggling to maintain their livelihoods and culture. Mirabai's mother died when her daughter was a young child of perhaps four or five years old. With her father wrapped up in the responsibilities of war, following the death of her mother Mirabai was sent to live with her grandparents. As a Brahmin and a royal princess of Merta, the girl was educated at home, with particular attention paid to instruction in music. This grounding in music helps to explain the hypnotic simplicity of Mirabai's later songs, which belied a thorough knowledge of musicality.
Mirabai's religious affinities are believed to have their roots in an event that occurred during her childhood with her grandparents. Her grandfather was a committed follower of the god Vishnu, and Mirabai's childhood environment was one of religious piety and early praise of Krishna. Legend states that a traveling mendicant—a religious beggar—was welcomed into the household, having with him a small idol of Krishna. Mirabai was instantly and deeply smitten with the idol, and cried for it once the mendicant had gone on his way. The mendicant was told in a vision to return to the house and give the idol to the little girl, which he did. From that day on, Mirabai is said to have kept the idol with her at all times and thus began her worship of Krishna.
In 1516, at the age of 18, Mirabai was given in marriage, perhaps against her will, to Bhoj Raj, crown prince of Mewar. Bhoj died of fatal battle wounds only five years later, in 1521. Mirabai welcomed widowhood as an opportunity to live as the devoted spouse of her divine lord Krishna. She dedicated her days to worshiping him and singing and dancing his praises. She also devoted her time and energies to caring for the religious poor, an open denial of her caste and her royal position. This activity was considered unbecoming of a highborn princess who was expected to be secluded and aloof and pay homage to the preferred goddess of her late husband's family, the destructive deity Kali. Mirabai considered Krishna to be her divine match. Her religious fervor did not sit well with her in-laws, and when she refused to commit sati—the act of a newly widowed woman throwing herself on her late husband's funeral pyre and burning alive—multiple attempts were made on her life. The details of these attempts, while completely obscured in legend, are interesting nonetheless. In one story Mirabai was sent a basket of flowers with a poisonous snake hidden inside. The story related that when she took the basket and looked inside, the snake turned into a religious figurine. At another time her husband's family demanded that she drink a cup of poison in front of them as retribution for disrespecting her dead husband by refusing to commit sati as Rajput princesses were supposed to. Mirabai drank the poison, but remained unharmed. In a third story, when asked by her late husband's family to drown herself, she attempted to do so, but her body floated and did not sink. Still another tale tells of the princess being forced to lie on a bed of nails, but then arising unharmed. Each of these miraculous escapes were attributed to the intervention of Krishna and are believed to be Mirabai's reward for her undying devotion.
Tired of her family's political maneuverings, Mirabai eventually left Mewar and returned to her childhood home of Merta. In Merta, however, the princess found herself facing more persecution, this time by an uncle who had taken control of the kingdom following the death of Mirabai's father in battle. This uncle, like many others, objected to the young widow's public displays of religious ardor and he made life difficult for her. She fled Merta and traveled to Vrindaban, the birthplace of Krishna, where she joined a religious community. It is believed that Mirabai spent her 30s as a wandering mendicant, finally moving to Dwarka—another place with deep connections to the god Krishna—and dying there in 1547.
As with her life, there are also many legends surrounding Mirabai's death. The most famous story is that her late husband's family sent a group of high-ranking Brahmins to bring her back to Rajasthan. When Mirabai refused to return with them, the Brahmins threatened to fast until dead if she did not comply. Not wanting their deaths to be her responsibility, she asked if she might consult her lord Krishna, and disappeared into the temple. It is believed that Krishna allowed Mirabai to merge with him completely, and she became one with his temple statue, never to be seen again.
Authored Spiritual-centered Poetry
Mirabai participated wholeheartedly in the Bhakti movement, which consisted of active devotion displayed and expressed through public, ecstatic, religious song and dance. The tolerant nature of this religious movement gave its members the ability to ignore the restrictions of caste, sex, and creed. This, in turn, allowed Mirabai to rise as a poet-saint through her songs. Mirabai's poetry was written in the form of song verses known as padas and mystical love poems called bhajans. She is credited with creating a unique raga, or mode in which her songs were to be sung, that which was named after her: Mira's Malar. Mirabai composed her songs in a combination of the Rajasthani and Braj Bhasa languages, but they have since been translated into Hindi, Rajasthani, and Gujarati.
There are anywhere from 400 to 1,300 songs attributed to Mirabai, but scholars believe she most likely composed somewhere between 103 and 200 padas. As a devotee of Krishna, she strove to celebrate her love for her god; to take credit for the composition of songs in his praise would have been considered an act of pride for a woman striving, ultimately, for a state of selflessness. As a result of this dynamic, it is difficult to arrive at a definitive account of those lyric poems actually written by Mirabai herself, compared to those attributed to her but not composed by her.
Mirabai's works were not recorded in writing for many reasons. As Nilsson explained, "At the time Mira Bai lived, there were limited means to preserve manuscripts.… After the death of her husband and her father-in-law, Mira Bai was continuously persecuted.… it was highly unlikely that they would have made an effort to [record] her works.… The works of poets like Kabir were preserved by their disciples.… But Mira Bai … did not have a following of loyal disciples.… She was not striving for poetic recognition and probably did not care to leave her songs in writing." As Nancy Martin commented in the Encyclopedia of Women and World Religion, Mirabai's songs have been "preserved in the fluid realm of oral tradition," despite the lack of any authentic, historical text.
Mirabai worshiped Krishna, one of the most beloved of the human incarnations of the godhead Vishnu, and the content of her songs revolve around variations of her love for her god. They are filled with sensuous images and expressions of intense longing, addressed from a supplicant to her lord. She chose to shed the more traditional themes used within the genre and adopted instead more personal and intimate topics. In some of her songs she casts herself as a gopi, one of the many "milkmaids" or "cowherd girls" that lord Krishna consorted with. The majority of her poems, however, are addressed to Krishna as if from a wife to her husband. She sings of the longing of the individual soul, the atman, to join with the paramatman, or the soul of the universe as embodied by Krishna. This construct of husband and wife is unlike that of other Bhakti saint-poets who usually wrote from the perspective of a servant to their god. While those within the Bhakti movement exercised great tolerance and acceptance, many of those outside it did not, and many traditionally minded people, including Mirabai's in-laws, viewed her public displays of spiritual singing and dancing as scandalous and inappropriate, particularly for a woman of high birth.
Living in Memory
Mirabai, while not as well known as her contemporaries Kabir, Tulsi Das, and the blind poet Sur Das, was significant in her own right, and her songs of love and devotion for her lord Krishna became a unique contribution to the history of north Indian culture. One of the earliest poets known by name in Hindi literature, she lives in the minds and hearts of many through her songs, but also as a cultural and social dichotomy. Her name is still used to influence women; saying that a woman is like Mirabai means that she is unwomanly and destined for trouble if she does not straighten up and conform to tradition. Others might say that a woman is like Mirabai and mean that she is a free spirit with the strength of character to stand up for what she believes. As quoted on Sentient.org, Dhurvadas, writing in the 17th century said of Mirabai: "Having forgotten her shyness, she worshiped Giridhar (Krishna). She no longer cared for her family honor. She was Mira, known throughout the world; she was a treasure of devotions. In bliss she visited beautiful Vrindaban. She danced with anklebells on her feet, and with castanets in her hands. In the purity of her heart, she met the devotees of God, and realized the pettiness of the world." Many may claim Mirabai's essence to support their arguments, but none truly possess her.
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MĪRABAI (c. 1500–1545), bhakti saint and poet. Mīrabai is one of India's most popular bhakti saints, a Rajput princess who wrote fourteen hundred ecstatic padas (short devotional songs) to Krishna as Giridhar Gōpal, the divine cowherd who lifted a mountain to save his followers. Mīrabai composed hymns in Rajasthani; in the Hindi dialect of Braj Bhāsha, the language spoken in Mathura, Krishna's mythical birthplace; and in Gujarati, the language spoken in his mythical kingdom of Dwārakā. Her padas were sung, and her imprint on North Indian classical music is seen in the name of the rāga (melody) "Mīrabai ki Malhār." Mīrabai's sensuous verses highlight her divine lover's beauty, the agony of separation, and their beatific union. In one metaphor, Krishna's lips are like nectar, as sweet as curds; in another, her pain at separation is like the agony of a tree gnawed by insects. Despite her tone of intimacy with Krishna, her poems focus on her yearning for a surreal, sublime union, in contrast to Andal (6th century) and Akkamahadevi (12th century) who sometimes described their spiritual journey in sensual lyrics.
The Bhīl woman tasted them, plum after plum,
and found one she could offer him.
What kind of genteel breeding was this?
and hers was no ravishing beauty,
Her family was poor, her caste quite low,
her clothes a matter of rags,
Yet Ram took that fruit—that touched, spoiled fruit
for he knew that it stood for her love.
What sort of Vēda could she have learned?
But quick as a flash she mounted a chariot
And sped to heaven to swing on a swing,
tied by love to God.
You are the Lord who cares for the fallen;
rescue whoever loves as she did:
Let Mīra, your servant, safely cross over,
A cowherding Gōkul girl.
(Translated by John Stratton Hawley and Mark Juergensmeyer, in Susie Tharu and K. Lalitha, eds., Women Writing in India: 600B.C. to the Present, vol. 1, New York: Feminist Press, 1991.)
For Mīrabai, Vishnu was the Lord of the universe yet resided in the soul (antarayāmin). Inspired by the Bhāgavata Purāṇa like the other North Indian upper caste saints, Chaitanya (b. 1486), Sūrdās (sixteenth century), and Tulsidās (1532–1623), Mīrabai worshiped a God with attributes (saguna bhakti), using metaphors to revel in his names (nāma) and forms (rūpa). In contrast, working-class saints (sants) like Kabir, the fifteenth-century weaver, drew upon the Upanishadic vision of an "Unmanifest Being beyond attributes" (nirguna), encompassing the universe, yet uncontained by temple or icon. The difference between the two traditions lay only in the paths, as they shared an identical goal, that of spiritual knowledge and moksha, or freedom from the cycle of births and deaths (saṃsāra).
The earliest hagiography is dated 1712 as facts enriched by legends. Mīrabai's father was the powerful Rathor clan rānā (ruler) of Jodhpur (Marwar), and her family ruled Mērta near Ajmer. In 1516 they allied themselves politically with Chittōr (Mewar) by marrying Mīra to Bhōja Rājā, heir to the Sisōdia Rānā Sangha, who met the Mughal Babur in battle in 1527. Even as a girl, Mīrabai distanced herself from courtly preoccupations by visiting sadhus (renunciants) who gave her an image of Krishna, with whom she became enamored.
Declaring that Krishna was her true husband, Mīrabai rejected her husband's bed, and she remained childless. She sought sadhus, and danced in front of the temple, in direct opposition to patriarchal Rajput notions of chaste wives and clan loyalties. Tradition states that Bhōja Rājā first suspected her infidelity, but realized that her lover was divine. In any case, at his death, she repudiated widowhood and refused to become a sati who immolated herself on her husband's funeral pyre. Mīrabai describes his family's attempts to kill her, and her escape through Krishna's intercession. Their gift of a basket of snakes turned into a garland around her neck; when they sent her poison, it turned into ambrosia when she drank it. She appears to have left then for Dwārakā, but she was hounded by the powerful Rajput community. Mīrabai is believed to have finally disappeared into Krishna's image at a shrine.
Despite her acts of marital insubordination, some feminists suggest that Mīrabai was a conformist who reinforced the hierarchy between the genders by calling herself Krishna's dāsi (slave). Others point to her dismissal of Rajput paradigms for women, and of caste boundaries, as demonstrated by her poem in which she identifies with the low caste woman Sabari, who tasted plums before offering them to Lord Rāma.
Sita Anantha Raman
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The grace, melody, and simplicity of her songs have been preserved in Hindī and Gujarati, and her songs are still popular in many parts of India.