Mirabai

Mirabai, devotee of Lord KrishnaMirabai was a Hindu mystic poet of the Bhakti movement. She referred to the Lord, whom she saw as her husband, with different names like Satguru, Prabhu Ji, Giridhar Nagar, Krishna. She even called him the husband of her soul. Despite facing criticism and hostility from her own family, she lived an exemplary saintly life and composed many devotional bhajans. Mirabai is representative of the Bhakta tradition of sacred poetry.


 

Bhakta Meera
Mirabai, the Rajput Princess who danced for Lord Krishna

Mirabai (Mira, Bhakta Mira, Meera)
Poet and Bhaktha of Lord Krishna
1478 – circa 1540

Introduction

In the tradition of the troubadour, the wandering minstrel, and the Singer of Songs, comes Mirabai, Rajput Princess, famous for her bhaktha poems, her day-long sitting in front of Krishna at Temples, and her wanderings, seeking Lord Krishna. Mirabai’s poems and love songs are sung in many temples, in India. Her spiritual peers were Tulsidas and the blind Surdas.

Recalling greatly honoured women bhaktas, Mirabai stands among Radha and Sukkabai. She is more popularly known as Bhaktha Meera. She achieved mergence through her persistent and complete, all-consuming devotion to Krishna.

I danced before my Giridhara.
Again and again I dance
To please that discerning critic,
And put His former love to the test.
I put on the anklets
Of the love of Shyam,
And behold! My Mohan stays true.
Worldly shame and family custom
I have cast to the winds.
I do not forget the beauty of the Beloved
Even for an instant.
Mira is dyed deeply in the dye of Hari.

 

The Veil of Maya

Over 5000 songs and poems are attributed to Mirabai, who is sometimes accused of simply wanting to bed Lord Krishna. Doubtless many such songs attributed to Mirabai were fuelled by the erotic Krishna-Gopi oral tradition and ignorance of the true rasa-vilola. Mirabai is plainly tormented by separation from her Lord. This separation reaches deeply into the recesses of all she is. Later she will sing most starkly of the torment of being in a body, separated by the veil of maya.

Down by the river a flute!
O ruined heart,
what is conviction
that a flute player dissolves it?
Dark waters, dark trousers
and Krishna darker than ever –
one bamboo flute note
so pure it drives Mira out of her mind.
Lord, this stumbling body,
free it from torment.

 

The erotic slant on the cult of Krishna was very strong in the north of India in Mira’s times. Little – if any – of this erotic Krishna lore bears any resemblance to Mirabai’s dancing in front of Krishna at Temples all over North and Northwest India, nor any relation or account of her thirty years seeking and wandering through villages and forests in search of her Lord and God, Shyam, the Dark One.

I am your slave.
Bind me in tethers, Mira’s your slave.
She wakes up at dawn,
sits in the garden,
haunts the pathways of Brindavan forest
making up ballads.
Fever, memory, craving,
birth after birth they come with me.
I slip on a saffron robe
hoping to see you.
Yogins come to Brindavan to know oneness,
hermits perform terrible spells,
holy men come to sing gospels –
but Mira is deeper, Lord,
and more secret.
She waits with a ruined heart every night
by the river
just for a glimpse.

 

Reviving the Path of Devotion

Mirabai and Tulsidas – quite independently of each other – were to revive devotion in their times. Tulsidas with the Ramayana and his devotion to Rama, Krishna and Siva. Mirabai became famous in her own lifetime as the mad Rajput princess who danced for her consort Krishna, everywhere. Her family pleaded with her not to take to the path of pilgrimage, urging her to turn back. The world of royalty, fort, family, obligation, riches, fame held nothing for her. It was emptiness. No-one understood her single-pointed devotion to her Lord Krishna, her true self. She could not return to live among those who did not see Shyam everywhere. It was a path of thorns, as any path with one pointed discipline is:

This infamy, O my Prince
is delicious!
Some revile me,
others applaud,
I simply follow my incomprehensible road
A razor thin path
but you meet some good people,
A terrible path but you hear a true word
Turn back?
Because the wretched stare and see nothing?
O Mira’s Lord is noble and dark,
and slanderers
rake only themselves
over the coals

 

Mirabai has that rare suddhi, single pointed purity of devotion to Shyam. This vision was to later lead her to wander to all the 68 places of pilgrimage, to stumble and falter, to wear the yellow rags of a yogini, and be utterly single-minded in pursing the consummation of this vision of Krishna:

Hari, hear my plea.
Dark One, I am
your servant,
a vision of you has driven me mad.
Separation eats at my limbs.
Because of you
I’ll become a yogini and ramble
from city to city scouring the hidden quarters –
pasted with ash, clad in a deerskin
my body wasting
to cinder.
I’ll circle from forest to forest
wretched and howling –
O Unborn, Indestructible,
come to your beggar!
Finish her pain and touch her
with pleasure!
This coming and going will end,
says Mira,
with me clasping your
feet forever.

 

From birth to birth through countless wombs

Many poems recall Mirabai’s wanderings through the forests. She slept on the forest floors, seeking only the company of Shyam, (the dark-skinned Lord Krishna) and as a wife would reach out to touch her husband, Mira reached out only to find emptiness. Perhaps the poems capture the driven desire of a physical need to love and be loved, as any faithful woman needs and wants. Perhaps the poems reveal the limits of desire and understanding of the Divine. But Mirabai, not a Brahmin, nor guru, knows she has chased Shyam from birth to birth, through countless wombs. Still, she desires this divine touch. Sometimes the touch of rain on her clothing and skin is for her the touch of the Lord.

Another night without sleep,
thrashing about
until daybreak.
Friend, once I rose
from a luminous dream, a vision
that nothing dispels.
Yet this writhing, tormented self
cries out to meet
her Lord of the outcast.
Gone mad, gone crazy,
mind and senses confused with unspoken secrets –
Oh the Dark One
holds life and death in his hands,
he knows Mira’s anguish.

 

A Rajput Princess

Although there is some disagreement about the precise details of her life, it is generally agreed that she was born in 1498, the only daughter of a Rajput chieftain and landlord by the name of Ratan Singh, in the neighborhood of Merta, a fortress-city, founded by her grandfather Rao Dudaji, about 40-50 miles north-east of Ajmer. Her mother died when Mirabai was only four or five years old. Mirabai is said to have been devoted to Krishna from a very early age, and in one of her poems she asks, “O Krishna, did You ever rightly value my childhood love?”

Mira asked her mother, as a tiny girl, “Mother! We are playing a game. The other girls have all given out the names of the man each will wed; who is to be my husband – tell me, I must tell them his name”. When she worried her for some little time, the mother blurted out, “This Giridhara, installed in this shrine, He is your husband. Go“. Mira dedicated herself to the Lord Giridhara (Krishna) from that moment and saw everywhere, at all times, only His complexion and His compassion.

O sweet tongue’d Enchanter,
I was a child.
You paid no attention to my
little girl love,
then you vanished.
Bewitched, jerked here and there,
I stumble about,
contradictions eating my heart.
Don’t you get it? Mira is yours.
One word, sweet tongue’d Enchanter,
I’ll tell everyone,
I’ll beat it out
on my drum.

 

As her father was away much of the time, she was then sent to be raised at her grandfather’s house. Other members of the family were also inclined towards Vaishnava (devotion to various names and forms of Lord Vishnu, including avatars such as Rama or Krishna) practices, and in this environment Mirabai’s own religious sentiments could grow freely. Upon the death of her grandfather, her uncle Viram Dev took her into his charge, and it is this uncle who consented to have her married off to Bhoja Raj, the heir apparent to the throne of the famous warrior Rana Sanga of the House of Sisodiya.

There were no children from this marriage, and in the event Mirabai took no interest in her earthly spouse, since she believed herself to be married to Krishna. This enraged her in-laws:

Friend, without that Dark raptor
I could not survive.
Mother-in-law shrills at me,
her daughter sneers,
the prince stumbles about in a permanent fury.
Now they’ve bolted my door
and mounted a guard.
But who could abandon a love
developed through uncounted lifetimes?
The Dark One is Mirabai’s lord,
who else could
slake her desire?

 

Mirabai Abandons Royal Caste

Mirabai crossed the one, single structure of society that was rigidly enforced by all members of society – the lines of varna, caste. This was a most courageous act of devotion, a princess putting on the yellow rags of a yogini. Varna, or caste, is the basic melding of all persons born into their rightful place in the immutable order of the society. Varna rules marriage, learning, occupation, dharma, and spiritual upkeep of ancient Bharath and modern India as a whole. For a royal to abandon palace and take to the byways of the sadhu (the renunciate) was cause for gossip:

Let them gossip.
This mind never wavers
Love fixes my mind on that enchanter of minds
like sorcery fixes on gold.
Birth after birth lost in sleep
until hearing the teacher’s
word, I awoke.
Mother, father, clan, tribe –
snapped like a thread!
Mira’s Lord can lift mountains
he has aroused her.

 

All of the time, Mira thought of only Giridhara (Lord Krishna) and chanted His name. Her eyes were filled with the form of Krishna and her mind was filled with the thoughts of Krishna. However, her husband thought that she was crossing her limits in the name of devotion to Krishna. So, one day, he threw her out of the Krishna temple for the sake of false worldly honour. Then she wrote a letter to Tulsidas seeking his advice as to what she should do, whether to give up Krishna, the eternal companion, or to forsake her husband.

Tulsidas sent a reply saying, “Mother, God is the greatest of all and the path leading to God is the noblest of all. Husband is like a passing cloud, but God is always with you, even before your birth and after your death.

Trikalabhadhyam Sathyam (Truth transcends all the three periods of time). How can you give up God who is the Embodiment of Truth? Husband entered your life in the middle and will go away in the middle. You may serve him as long as he is alive. But, when he himself discards you, there is nothing wrong in leaving him for the sake of God.” (Sathya Sai Baba – discourse – 15 April 1999, Brindavan)

My Dark One,
they’ve placed him off limits –
but I won’t live without him.

Delighting in Hari,
coming and going with sadhus,
I wander beyond reach of the world’s snare.
Body is wealth
but I just give it away –
this head was long ago taken.
Full of rapture
Mira flees the jabbering townsfolk,
going for refuge
to what cannot perish –
her Dark One.

 

When atma (the soul) has seen paramatma (the Supreme Soul), no earthly passion or desire can slake the soul’s thirst. Although Mirabai was in the body, her soul was ardently seeking Shyam, Lord Krishna. Her intellect and discrimination were seeking only the paramatma, whom she once described as “slipping through the courtyard” as she slept.

Go! Go to that land
where a glimpse of the Dark One
is had.
Give me the word,
I’ll wear a red sari,
give me the word, I’ll dress up in hermit rags;
one word, I’ll lace pearls
through the part in my hair,
or scatter my braids into dreadlocks.
Mira’s lord rules the true court,
she says, go,
go where he dwells.
Then heed the songs of your
king.

 

That land “seems” to be a physical place, a region called Mathura or Dwakara; yet Mira seeks that which cannot be had in the nights of wasted sleep, tossing, turning, desiring her lord, reaching out for one who is not there;

Another night without sleep,
thrashing about
until daybreak.
Friend, once I rose
from a luminous dream, a vision
that nothing dispels.
Yet this writhing, tormented self
cries out to meet
her Lord of the outcast.
Gone mad, gone crazy,
mind and senses confused with unspoken secrets –
Oh the Dark One
holds life and death in his hands,
he knows Mira’s anguish.

 

Mira seeks that which cannot be found through the senses:

Yogin, a single glimpse
and I’d be exultant.
But life on this crazy planet is torment,
day and night torment.
Mad, raked by separation –
drifting from country to country –
look at Mira’s black hair
it’s turned white.

 

Birth after birth after birth, Mirabai is sickened by separation from Shyam, the Beloved Dark One. Tired of the world and the karma of birth, Surrender is all that is left:

Guide this little boat
over the waters,
what can I give you for fare?
Our mutable world holds nothing but grief,
bear me away from it.
Eight bonds of karma
have gripped me,
the whole of creation
swirls through eight million wombs,
through eight million birth-forms we flicker.
Mira cries. Dark One
take this little boat to the far shore,
put an end to coming
and going.

 

Overstepping all propriety, she would descend from the Sisodiya palace, into town, where she would consort with sadhus and low caste bhaktas in local temples. Her in-laws were enraged. She was suspected of consorting with spies.

Binding my ankles with silver
I danced –
people in town called me crazy.
She’ll ruin the clan
said my mother-in-law,
and the prince
had a cup of venom delivered.
I laughed as I drank it.
Can’t they see?
Body and mind aren’t something to lose,
the Dark One’s already seized them.
Mira’s lord can lift mountains,
he is her refuge.

 

There were three attempts to kill her. A much younger male relative, Vikramajita, is described as having locked her into a room, but when that failed to bring Mirabai to her senses, he attempted, unsuccessfully, to poison her. It has been suggested that her relatives expected her to commit sati, or self-immolation, after the death of her husband; indeed, in one of her poems Mirabai wrote, “sati na hosyan girdhar gansyan mhara man moho ghananami“, “I will not commit sati. I will sing the songs of Girdhar Krishna.”

He has stained me,
the color of raven he’s stained me.
Beating a clay
two-headed drum at both ends
like a nautch girl I dance
before sadhus.
Back in town I’m called crazy,
drunkard, a love slut-
they incited the prince
who ordered me poisoned
but I drained the cup without missing a step.
Mira’s lord is the true prince,
he stained her the color of raven,
birth after birth
she is his.

 

Many narratives agree that at this vital juncture Mirabai was left vulnerable to the hostility of her conservative male relatives, and that this hostility increased as Mirabai became visibly detached from the affairs of the world and her obligations to her in-laws. She quickly departed from Sisodiya territories, took to the road on foot, fled excessive pride and wealth that shackled her, the calculating in-laws, the mediocre religion and the subservient widow role imposed on her.

Shame would kill
these people
if anyone heard them speak a true word.
They dash
from here to there in the village
but complain they’re too tired to visit a temple.
A fight breaks out
they storm off to watch it;
a busker starts jesting,
a whore dances,
the townsfolk sit laughing for hours.
But Mira sits somewhere else-
at the lotus feet
of her Dark One

 

She criss-crossed northwestern India repeatedly, treading the roadways of Rajastahan and Gujarat, pursuing her elusive Krishna through the forests and villages he was rumoured to frequent.

The Dark One’s love-stain
is on her,
other ornaments
Mira sees as mere glitter.
A mark on her forehead,
a bracelet, some prayer beads,
beyond that she wears only
her conduct.

Make-up is worthless
when you’ve gotten truth from a teacher.
O the Dark One has
stained me with love,
and for that some revile me,
others give honor
I simply wander the road of the sadhus
lost in my songs.

Never stealing,
injuring no one,
who can discredit me?
Do you think I’d step down from an elephant
to ride on the haunch
of an ass?

 

In Brindavan doing service;
Family attempts to lure her home

Sometime around 1538 Mirabai arrived in Brindavan, where she spent most of the remainder of her life before moving, shortly before her death, to Dwaraka.

By her fiftieth year Mira had come to reside in the coastal Gujurat city of Dwaraka. In Dwaraka stands the Ranchorji Temple, one of the four main temples for pilgrimage in India. Some legends say Mira set up a soup kitchen and hospice alongside the temple where she would attend to the poor. Back in her homeland the Sisodiya clan meanwhile had suffered a series of devastating military reversals. One account says 13,000 women in Sisodiya territory – on learning their husbands had been lost in battle – collectively immolated themselves on a pyre rather than await an expected humiliation by enemy forces.

Rumour flared through the region that the defeats had come as divine retribution for mistreatment of Mira. Confronted with a possible revolt in their domains, Mira’s in-laws decided to bring home their princess, hoping to manipulate Mirabai’s reputation in order to legitimise their rule in the eyes of the populace. They dispatched a crew of civic officials and Brahmins to Dwaraka to fetch her.

The envoys located her at the soup kitchen she had founded and threatened to starve themselves to death if she did not return with them. This was a blatant misuse of their authority, for they knew that Mirabai would not take on the karma of their deaths.

Faced with the prospect of a return to the indignities of the Sisodiya household, the wealth that held no interest, the title she had rejected once and for all as useless, Mira requested and was granted a final night alone in the Ranchorji temple, which housed a favourite image of her God.

Mirabai’s Mergence

Many noble souls merged in God through love. Don’t you know Mira who attained liberation by chanting Krishna’s name? Prahlada, bitten by serpents, trampled upon by elephants, given poison, yet chanted God’s name and attained liberation. He considered everything divine. Yad Bhavam Tad Bhavati (as is the feeling, so is the experience). So, you should think of God with love (Sathya Sai Baba, Mumbai, 14 March 99)

In the morning when the envoy opened the locked gates, all that remained – draped across the feet of the deity – were Mirabai’s robe and her hair.

O – Mind,
praise the lotus feet that don’t perish!
Consider all things
on heaven and earth – and their doom.
Go off with pilgrims, undertake fasts,
wrangle for wisdom,
trek to Banaras to die,
what’s the use?
Arrogant body just withers,
phenomenal world is a coy parakeet
that flies off at dusk.
Why throw a hermit robe over your shoulders-
yellow rag yogins
are also bewildered,
caught every time in the birth snare.
Dark One, take this girl for your servant.
Then cut the cords and
set her free.

 

 

 

 

 

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