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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Nilsson, Usha S., Mira Bai, Sahitya Akademi, 1969.
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"Mirabai: 1498-1547," Sentient,http://www.sentient.org/mirabai (December 19, 2003).
"Mirabai: Biography," Manas: India and Its Neighbors,http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/southasia/Religions/gurus/Mirabai (December 19, 2003).
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"Mirabai." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 18, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/mirabai
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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.
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"Mīrābāī." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Retrieved April 18, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/mirabai