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Bill Garlington  

writer, teacher, U.S.A.


Mirabai: The Rebellious Rajput Rani by Bill Garlington, U.S.A.

Part one

The poet Mirabai was born in the year 1498 in the village of Kudki in the north Indian region known as Rajasthan. Her family was Vaishnava, and acccording to legend, from a young age Mira was much taken with the figure of Krishna. One story recounts how a wandering ascetic gave her an image of the god and how as a rather precocious child she claimed she would one day marry him. Indeed legend plays a large role in what knowledge we have concerning much of Mirabai's life, as actual written documentation is scant. Many of the details are put together from the contents of her songs (poetry) and from stories told much later by members of her community, but even if we are not always speaking of *history* when we view the events of Mirabai's life, the legends and myths themselves are informative as to the nature of the cultural setting (and its socio-religious antagonisms) in which her life unfolded.

At the age of 18 Mira was married to the Rajput prince Bhojran. This was of course an arranged marriage and she was not pleased with it. She had already upset her new in-laws by refusing to perform the first traditional duty of a daughter-in-law of performing puja (ceremonial worship) to the family deity, which in this case was Durga, the consort of Shiva. She also forsook many of the social values the Rajputs held dear. She would visit temples dedicated to Krishna and sing and dance in public as well as mingle with members of other castes. It is also recounted that she refused to consumate the marriage. Although this may well be a backwards projection of later followers meant to signify their saint's perpetual purity, it is still indicative of the absolute loyalty that was required of a Rajput wife and the apparent inability of Mira to conform. Here it must be remembered that it was the Rajputs who had developed the ideal of sati (female immolation at the death of a husband) into a ritual art. In any case, when her husband was killed several years later in battle things only became worse for Mira. This was partly a result of the social position of Hindu widows in general, but more particularly due to Rajput ideas related to a husband's untimely death being a result of a bad wife's curse.

Sometime around 1527 after the death of her own father (who was killed in a battle against the Mughal emperor Babur) Mira left her in-laws and began a period of wandering which would take her throughout the subcontinent. This in itself was highly unusual for a woman, and she often met with criticism. For example, it is recounted how when in Vrindaban (the site of Krishna's youthful exploits with the gopis and a spiritual center for devotees) she desired to meet with a guru of the Gaudiya sect he refused on account that she was a woman. Mira, however, sent him a message in which she pointed out that in the context of Vrindaban Krishna is considered to be the only male, as all of his devotees are identified with the gopis (cowherd girls). Again according to legend, the guru admitted his error and allowed Mira an audience.

Mirabai ended her wanderings in Dwarka (on the coast of Gujurat), the city assoicated with Krishna's reign as an earthly king. The center of her life became the Ranchor temple where she spent much time worshipping her beloved through the mediums of song and dance. There is some evidence that her Rajput clan made attempts to have her brought back to Rajasthan. According to one legend Mira retreated into the temple, and, after fervent prayer, was allowed to merge with Krihna completely, leaving only her sari wrapped around the idol.

Printed in Arts Dialogue, March 1997, page 15

Part two

Another story recounts how she returned to Vrindaban, and while worshipping in the groves was ordered by Krishna to follow him into a fissure in the earth. There is thus an aura of mystery and the supernatural surrounding her final days. The year of her death is recorded as 1545.

Mirabai's poetry does not introduce any radically new theological or philosophical themes. During her years of marriage in Rajasthan she is supposed to have come under the influence of the untouchable Vaishnava saint, Raidas, who echoed the teachings of his own guru Ramananda. These teachings were part and parcel of a general Vaishnava revival that erupted in northern India in the 14th and 15th centuries and included the following elements: the primacy of theism, the exaltation of the avatars Rama and Krishna, the emphasis on bhakti yoga (devotion) as a means of salvation/liberation, the depreciation of jnana yoga (knowledge) and karma yoga (correct ritual action), and the rejection of caste as a barrier between god and man. What her poetry does do is express these themes in a powerfully personal way that breaks through and beyond a theologically correct, yet emotionally superficial style. Her own feelings of pain and alientaion as a rebellious female in a male dominated culture are no doubt one of the main forces at work here. Her calls to her beloved are not just idealized abstractions but spring from the deep felt pain of her own existence.

Throughout her poems Mirabai refers to her impossible marriage to Krishna and all of the pain and joy of self-surrender that this union includes. There are also numerous references to the illusion of existence (maya), the pointlessness of philosophical speculation and the meaninglessness of caste and family identity. For example in one poem she sings:

That Dark Dweller in Braj (Krishna)
Is my only refuge.
O my companion (husband)
Worldly comfort is an illusion
As soon as you get it, it goes.
I have chosen the Indestructible for my refuge
Him whom the snake of death
Will not devour.
My Beloved dwells in my heart
I have actually seen that Abode of Joy
Mira's Lord is Hari (Krishna), the Indestructable.
My Lord, I have taken refuge with Thee
Thy slave.

This *falling in love*, however is not without its price. Many of Mira's verses express a deep and profound pain often referred to in the bhakti traditions as *viraha* or separation:

If I had known
that falling in love
was to fall in love with pain,
I would have thundered a drum
to proclaim through the city
that love was banned for all.

Pritned in Arts Dialogue, June 1997, page 15

Part three

And again;

I am crazy with pain
and no one understands it.
Only the wounded knows the pain of the wounded,
saving the fire in his heart.
Only the jeweler knows the value of the gem,
not the one who has lost it.
O lord, Mira's pain will only go
when the Dark One is the healer.

Mira's marriage to Krishna is thus symbolic of the mystical relationship of the soul with its Eternal Source. However, the dialectical nature of this relationship requires that the soul must experience periods of separation in order to atttain bliss. And how can this relationship with Krishna be achieved?
Mira tells us:

O my mind
Worship the lotus feet of the Indestructible One
Whatever thou see between earth and sky
Will perish.
Why undertake fasts and pilgrimages?
Why engage in philosophical discussions?
Why commit suicide in Benares?
Take no pride in the body,
It will soon be mingling with dust.
This life is like the sporting of sparrows,
It will end with the onset of night.

Only through extreme devotion (bhakti) does one obtain liberation from illusion. Kissing the feet of Krishna is symbolic of the depth of loving self-surrender that is required. No ritual act or philosophical insight will suffice. And herein lies a great irony. Kissing the feet of Krishna is on the one hand the most easy of requirements (it does not take any knowledge or specific training or rigorous asceticism) and, on the other hand, the most difficult in that it requires complete destruction of the ego which other paths claim as a goal but, through their structured willfulness, paradoxically negate. Moreover, such love is not limited by social status:

The plums tasted
sweet to the unlettered desert-tribe girl
but what manners! To chew into each!
She was ungainly, low caste, ill-mannered and dirty
but the God took the fruit she had been sucking.
Why? She knew how to love.
She might not distinguish
splendor from filth
but she had tasted the nectar of passion.
She might not know the Veda
but a chariot swept her away
Now she frolics in heaven, ecstacially bound
to her Lord.
The Lord of Fools, says Mira
will save anyone
who can practice rapture like that.

There are numerous aspects of Mirabai's life and poetry that could be discussed at length, but due to time retraints I will briefly mention two, both of which have to do with gender. First is what might be termed Mirabai's *usurpation* of the male role of wandering saint. While there are periodic examples of females abandoning their domestic roles, this is seen as an aberration by mainstream Hindus, and that a Rajput woman of high standing should do so was at the time viewed as a scandal. Now while it is true that in the Krishna story it is the gopis, or female cowherds, who are seen as his lovers, theologically speaking the various Krishna oriented sects had (and have) generally understood the gopis to represent the individual soul. The *feminine* was thus not so much an expression of gender as an expression of a love relationship between the individual soul and the divine. Thus while some saints such as Chaitanya would often dress in female attire when worshipping Krishna, it was generally understood that they were mirroring this relationship in their persons, not that they were *changing* gender. Females could likewise experience this relationship but only in the same manner that males did: by uniting their souls to Krishna. This, however, did not sanction them to abandon their gender- based social roles, and by doing so Mirabai was stepping beyond conventionality.It is here in my opinion that her heroism lies, for she was willing to stand alone against family and caste, which in India is a virtual death sentence.

The second issue is related to Mirabai's being a Rajput. Throughout their history Rajput women have been held to very high standards of loyalty (especially to their husbands) and bravery. As mentioned above, until the modern period the rite of sati was always held as an ideal towards which Rajput women should aspire, and even today it is maintained as valorous in certain circles.
In this regard there is the famous "mass suicide" of Rajput princesses (by burning) after the defeat of Chittor by the forces of Bahadur Shah. Now it seems to me that in many ways Mirabai maintained the virtues of a Rajput princess but that she redirected them away from the externalized social norm and internalized them in her relationship with Krishna. In other words, she was willing to give to Krishna a "loyalty to death" that she was unwilling to give her husband. Indeed, as we saw above, she *makes* Krishna her husband. In several poems she actually refers to Krishna's killing her, and in one she sings in images of becoming a sati for Krishna, a *plight* which she accepts with all the bravery and loyalty expected of a Rajput rani. So it would seem that Mirabai was more than willing to accept these virtues. It is just that in her eyes they demanded an object worthy of such sacrifice, and this she could only find in the figure of Krishna.

In closing I leave you with the following verses which summarizes Mira´s self understanding.

My only consort is Giridhar Gopal, non else - none else indeed
in the whole world which I have seen through and through.
I have forsaken my brothers, friends and relations, one and all
and sitting among saintly souls have lost regard for worldly honor.
My heart swells at the sight of godly persons and shrinks at the
sight of the worldly.
I have indeed reared the creeper of Godly Love with the water of my tears.
Churning the curds, I have extracted the essence, ghee, and have thrown away the whey.

The king sent me a cup of poison, even that I have drunk with pleasure
The news is now public, everyone knows that Mira is deeply attached to her beloved.
It does not matter now; what was fated has happened!

Arts Dialogue, September 1997, pages 10 - 11


All of the translations except for the last one were taken from the Mirabai Mandir on the internet. The last poem was translated in *Sources of Indian Tradition* vol 1, ed. by Theodore De Bary, Columbia University Press, 1958.

  • Letter: Arts Dialogue, December 1997
  • Article: Mirabai: The rebellious Rajput Rani, part three, Arts Dialogue, September 1997
  • Article: Mirabai: The rebellious Rajput Rani, part two, Arts Dialogue, June 1997
  • Article: Mirabai: The rebellious Rajput Rani, part one, Arts Dialogue, March 1997

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