Mirabai was a 16th century Rajasthani princess, a devotional songwriter, poet and a mystic who stood against the conventions of her times to voice her spiritual devotion for Krishna. As is the case with most ascetic figures, there are several versions of who Mira was and it is thus difficult to ascertain what parts of the legend are historically accurate and which are exaggeration and folklore.
Her influence in Bhakti poetry has been profound and innumerable devotional poems and songs (Padas& Bhajans) are attributed to Mirabai/Meerabai. She is popularly called and often regarded as the incarnation of Radha, the Hindu deity.
A passing mendicant presented a statue of Krishna to little Meera. It became the object of her affection from that minute. One day, seeing a wedding procession pass, Meera asked her mother who her bridegroom would be. Her mother playfully pointed to Krishna’s statue. In time, Meera’s attachment to Krishna blossomed into passionate love.
Though she married Rana Kumbha ( also known as Bhojraj) of Mewar, she considered herself the wife of Krishna ( Jaake Sir Mor Mukut Mero Pati Soyee). Kumbha died after a few later. Refusing to become a Sati, as was expected of every Rajput widow, Meera continued with her visits to Krishna’s temple.
Songs poured out as she remained in ecstatic trance. Tying anklets to her feet, she danced in public, in the company of sadhus ( Pag Gunguru Baand Meeraa Naacheere). The temple at Chittorgarh where Meera Bai worshipped is a huge draw even today.
Her conduct shocked her family. The ruling Rana (her-brother-in law) sent a cup of poison to kill her and she drank it with a smile ( Vish Kaa Pyaalaa Raanaajee Bhejyaa; Peevat Meeraa Haansee Re). But her Krishna saved her. However, when the torture became unbearable, she left Mewar for Brindavan and later for Dwaraka where she became one with the Lord, never to be separated again.
Watering her creeper of love with tears, Meera waited for it to bear the fruit of bliss.
Ansuvan jal seenchi seenchi prem bel boyee; ab to bel phail gayee; aanand phal hoyee
Meera is very clear as to who she is and what she wants. She has no one except Krishna ( Mere To Giridhar Gopaal, Doosraa Na Koyee). She has bought him with love ( Maine Govind Leeno mol). She is most willing to be Krishna’s servant; she does not expect anything else from Him ( Chaakar Raakhoji).
Being a sufferer herself, she understands the suffering of others and pleads with her Lord to remove their sufferings. ( Hari! Tum Haro Jan Kee Peer).
Meera broke many social norms of the time. She accepted Raidas (Ravidas), a Dalit by birth, as her guru ( Guru Miliyaa Raidasjee). It is believed that it was Raidas who had given her that statue of Krishna, all those years ago when she was a small girl.
Choosing the language of the people, Meera wrote in Vrajbhasha, interspersed with Rajasthani.
Around 1000 padas of Meera are available now. Around 500 more are attributed to her. Sadly, no attempt was made to preserve all that she composed.
Those that have survived continue to delight listeners, whether sung in Hindustani, Carnatic or as film songs. Her poems may not be scholarly, but no scholar could have articulated raw emotions as well as Meera did.
A famous anecdote often cited is that when Mira was just four years old, she witnessed a marriage procession. She saw the bridegroom and asked her mother,
Who is my bridegroom?” Mira’s mother in jest pointed towards the image of Lord Krishna and said, “Mira, Krishna, the most handsome, is your bridegroom“
Mira, however, did not think of this as a mere joke and began to love the idol of Krishna as her consort and spent most of her time with the idol. When she was a teenager, as per custom, Mira’s marriage was arranged with Rana Kumbha/Bhoj Raj of Chittorgarh. Mira’s mother-in-law tried to impose on her to worship Durga as was the custom in their family, but she was completely devoted to Krishna.
Mirabai’s devotional poetry was only one of the most evident ways of her subversion. During the early 17th century, women were considered subordinate to men in spiritual worth and were meant to assist men in their worldly as well as religious pursuits.
Women were not even considered an individual in their own right and were bound to exist only to serve men. All the other prominent Bhakti movement poets were men. Mirabai defied not only the creative canon but showed open disregard to popular contemporary customs of Rajput clans. She refused to commit Sati on the death of her husband, insisting that her true spouse was forever Krishna. In one of her poems, she wrote:
Sati na hosyan girdhar gansyam mhara man moho ghanasami
I will not commit Sati, my heart and soul belong to Ghanshyam
She did not follow any of the other customs that Rajputs valued. She visited the temple and danced and sang in public, contrary to purdah/ghoonghat practised by other royal ladies. Overstepping the upper caste exclusiveness expected from a Rajput princess, she also freely mixed with other worshipers regardless of their gender or caste.
It is also believed that she accepted Saint Ravidas as her guru, who was part of the then ‘untouchable’ caste of leather workers. Some scholars believe that Mirabai herself wrote about two hundred songs and poems. But most of these were preserved through oral tradition, leading to the ambiguity about which were her original compositions and which were adaptations and additions by her followers.
Mirabai was unique among the poet-saints of the Bhakti movement owing to her socio-economic background as well as her gender. Born a princess, she opted for the life of a mendicant and wanderer living a life of austerity and poverty to be spiritual.
Her life has immense relevance today because her courageous story can find parallels in the lives of contemporary women who still have to fight opposition from families and society to live an independent and creative public life. Even today, we put a lot of pressure on single women to marry and devote their lives to domestic duties. Widows and divorcees are still not considered at par with “saubhagyavati” married women. Mirabai is the beacon for those who want to make their own choices and stick to them, whatever the social consequences.