Sixteenth-century north Indian bhakti saint and poet.
The following entry provides information on Mirabai's career from 1969 through 1998.
In addition to her poetic achievements, Mirabai's unyielding, rebellious nature and her resolute adherence to her religious beliefs in the face of opposition make her an important figure in medieval Hindi literature. A royal princess who renounced comfort, family honor and security, crossed caste boundaries, and endured persecution to become a bhakta required great courage. Mirabai's poetry, her personality, and her life became a shining example of devotion and a compelling story of struggle and perseverance. To this day, religious communities in India model their worship after the poet-saint Mirabai.
There is not much historical information about the life of Mirabai, considered one of the most famous of north Indian bhakti poets who, in a movement that pervaded much of India from the thirteenth to the seventeenth century, expressed a devotional and passionate love for a Hindi god. She lived in the sixteenth century and was a Rajput princess, the daughter of the Rathor royal family of the village of Merta in the Rajasthan region. In 1516, she married Bhoj Raj, the crown prince of Mewar. Beyond the date of marriage, traditional historical sources reveal little of who she was. The earliest records of her life appear among the stories of saints collected and preserved in hagiographic texts and religious commentaries. According to the hagiographies, after Bhoj Raj died in battle, Mirabai refused to commit sati, or self-immolation, and spent more and more of her time praying to Krishna, whom she called Gidhari, and visiting and receiving sadhus, or holy men. This was not considered appropriate behavior for a woman, and both Ratan Singh, the brother-in-law who succeeded her husband, and Vikram Singh, who next ascended to the throne, conspired against her. Mirabai rebelled and became a bhakti, or religious devotee, rejecting traditional customs and material wealth to devote her life to Krishna as a sadhu, or holy one. The hagiographies note three attempts on her life by her in-laws after she became a wandering sadhu. She survived each and continued her spiritual wanderings. Legend has it that eventually her in-laws found her and brought her home. She asked to be allowed to spend one last night in a temple with an image of Krishna. When they came to fetch her in the morning, the doors had to be broken down, for they were locked from within. But Mirabai had disappeared, leaving behind only her robe and hair.
Although scholars have found it difficult to confirm which of the many padas, or poem-songs, attributed to Mirabai are authentic, there appear to be about two hundred in total. It is uncertain what language she wrote the poems in, as she presented her work as sung ragas or melodies to be passed on in an oral tradition, and her poems were not written down until well after her death. Scholars believe her poems were sung in Marwari, Gujrati, and Braj Bhasha languages, the regional languages spoken in the provinces in which she lived. Mirabai inherited a long, rich tradition of song-poems dedicated to Krishna. The founder of this tradition was a thirteenth-century poet, Jayadeva, who wrote in Sanskrit. Later poets such as Vidyapati, Narsi, and Chandi Das followed Jayadeva's Gita Govinda as the model for their songs, written in Maithili, Gujrati, and Bengali languages. In praising Krishna through song, Mirabai adopted and continued a living literary tradition, although unlike those predecessors, she did not write down her songs of praise. According to Usha S. Nilsson, the padas of Mirabai provide a miscellany of Mirabai's spiritual experiences at different stages in her spiritual life. They do not cover a wide range of subjects but are rich in spontaneity, imagery, and lyricism. They fall into two categories, songs of entreaty and salutation to Krishna and songs of love for Krishna. In the first category, Mirabai followed the tradition of bhakta poets in showing herself as a helpless, unprotected, and sinful being, entreating Krishna to overlook her faults and to help her. The bhakta poets regarded themselves as the lowliest creatures so that in helping them Krishna's great kindness became manifest. Most of Mirabai's extant padas address her love for Krishna in multiple facets: attraction, hope, longing, disappointment in separation, and joy in union. These padas are predominantly an expression of her oneness with Krishna, and generally end with the words, “Mira's Lord is none other than Giradhara (Krishna).”
An important figure in Hindu religious practice, Mirabai is praised as much for her life of devotion as she is for her poetry. Shreeprakash Kurl writes that Mirabai's “majesty rests on the foundation of devotion” and that “a study of Mira's poetry is a study of the phenomenon of the poet as a devotee.” For Ananth Nath Basu, Mirabai is a “poetess of rare gifts, who has left us her songs as a spiritual heritage.” According to Krishna P. Bandahur, “most critics are of the view that Mīrā did not deliberately choose her words to create an effect” but considered her poetry to be “the spontaneous outpouring of her heart” which “achieved perfection because of her artless and deep emotions.” David Halpern claims that although Mirabai “was not seeking literary acclaim, some of her lyrics have been called among the greatest of Indian literature.” Nancy Martin-Kershaw praises Mirabai's padas as “exceptionally beautiful songs of love and longing for God.” For Usha S. Nilsson, “Mira Bai's poems hold a very special place in mediaeval Hindi poetry.” Further, Nilsson contends that “few poets have surpassed the lyrical quality of Mira Bai's verses” and that “Mira Bai is at her lyrical best when singing of her love for Krishna.” Nilsson states that Mirabai's “genius was especially suited to the form of the short lyric, in which a highly intensified mood was sustained.” The appeal of Mirabai's poetry, Nilsson finds, lies in the thematic content, which expresses or describes a single situation or an experience of deep emotional significance, which is intensified by her subjectivity. Her poetry is compelling. Suguna Ramanathan writes that when we read Mirabai, “Krishna is once again present; we hear the flute; we rise and go.” Andrew Schelling argues that “Mīrā walks with those who've composed the world's durable poetry.” In Songs of the Saints of India, John Stratton Hawley summarizes the power of her poetry and the story of her life as a saint: “Whoever she was … she fired the imagination with her fearless defiance. … [A]s the only one of her gender to have earned a place on the honor roll of north India Bhakti saints, she exerts a fascination that none of her male counterparts can match.”
Mirabai, Saint and Singer of India: Her Life and Writings [translated by Anath Nath Basu] 1934
Songs of Mirabai [translated by R. C. Tandan] 1934
Poems from Mirabai [translated by S. M. Pandey and Norman H. Zide] 1964
The Devotional Poems of Mirabai [translated by Shreeprakash Kurl] 1973
The Devotional Poems of Mirabai [translated by A. J. Alston] 1980
For Love of the Dark One: Songs of Mirabai [translated by Andrew Schelling] 1993
Mīrā Bāī and Her Padas [translated by Krishna Prakash Bahadur] 1998
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SOURCE: Nilsson, Usha S. “Mira Bai's Poems.” In Mira Bai, pp. 29-36. New Delhi, India: Sahitya Akademi, 1969.
[In the following chapter from a treatise on Mirabai's life, legend, and poetry, the author categorizes Mirabai's padas (sung poetry) into poems of entreaty and salutation and poems of love. The author provides a close reading of several padas.]
The poems of Mira Bai do not cover a wide range of subjects. They are strictly a form of self-expression, completely dedicated to Krishna. It is difficult to gauge from her poetry that she had lived in a time of political upheavals, and internal intrigues. She did not use her poetry to criticize religious rituals like Kabir, nor did she present a highly idealized portrait of her deity like Tulsi Das. She regarded herself first and foremost a devotee completely absorbed in Krishna. That is why she sang of him, not of human beings. All the references to people are in the obsessive context of her bhakti, e.g. in the poems where she mentions Rana's attempts to kill her, she is actually showing how merciful and compassionate Krishna had been to her.
Mira Bai's padas fall into two categories:
(1) The songs of entreaty and salutation.
(2) The songs of love and related experiences.
The songs in the first group are very few in number. While composing these, Mira Bai was...
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SOURCE: Kurl, Shreeprakash. “Bhakta Mira.” In The Devotional Poems of Mirabai, pp. 15-23. Calcutta, India: A Writers Workshop Publication, 1973.
[The following essay, from an extended introduction to a translation of Mirabai's religious poetry, places her poetry in the context of the bhakti (devotional) religious movement and offers examples of her devotional poetry.]
A study of Mira's poetry is a study of the phenomenon of the poet as a devotee. Choosing the short lyric as the most powerful style through which to convey the intensity of religious emotion, Mira express the urgency of a single experience—the agony and the intense longing of a human soul in separation from God. Mira belongs to that tradition of religious poetry that individualized and humanized its gods—a process which inspired the intimacy and familiarity associated with personal relationship. These gods inspired not only awe and gratitude but also love and companionship. Mira envisions her God in all his human attributes and expresses her religious experience of him in terms of an immediate involvement. To state it metaphorically, Mira's poetry is the soul's journey to the beloved God.
To her, God revealed himself in the form of Krishna, and in the form of a lover. Mira's Krishna is an incarnation of Vishnu, who saved his devotees and set them free from the bondage of the world through his grace and...
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SOURCE: Ram, K. S. “Kabir, Surdas, and Mirabai: A Note on Bhakti Poetry in Hindi.” Literary Criterion 24, nos. 1 & 2 (1989): 147-52.
[This essay provides a brief history of Bhakti poetry and its influences and compares Mirabai with two predecessors.]
Kabir, Mirabai and Surdas are three of the top four Bhakti poets in Hindi. The fourth is Tulsidas who, in terms of ranking, would probably come first but is excluded from the scope of this note.
‘Bhakti’ is a rather wide label under which each of the three poets discussed in this note has his or her own distinctness. For the sake of convenience and not on any criterion of merit, we could consider Kabir first.
The two significant factors of Kabir's world (XV Century) were: one, the shift of Vedantic religion to dry, abstract intellectualism; and two, the Hindu-Muslim quarrels which had become a sad fact of daily life. It was natural for the sensitive Kabir (fostered by Muslim parents and later a disciple of Guru Ramananda) to react to these two factors. His poetry is such reaction. A very common verse in many of his Bhajans is:
Kahat Kabir Suno bhai Sadho. … Says Kabir, hearken good brothers. …
This line indicates an essential characteristic of Kabir's poetry: it is reformist.
To call Kabir a Bhakti poet is half-truth. He is as much a poet of Jnana....
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SOURCE: Schelling, Andrew. “‘Where's My Beloved?’: Mirabai's Prem Bhakti Marg.” In Vaisnavi: Women and the Worship of Krishna, edited by Steven J. Rosen, pp. 47-58. Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1996.
[In the following essay, both academic and personal in tone, Schelling identifies Sanskrit influences on Mirabai's work, reflects on why Mira's songs are so compelling to modern North American audiences, and finds the reasons partly in the prem bhakti marg of the title, the path of romance and worship.]
Two poets linked across centuries by the act of translation develop a perilous intimacy. I want to speak a word about this intimacy, about the intricate wildness, about the unpredictable responses poets provoke from each other. I want to consider why the song of a poet from a far distant time or culture sings to contemporary ears, and how this kinship called translation, forged across centuries, can only imperfectly be explained by scholarly expertise. I am not being vague or mystical. It is with gravity and reverence I bow my head to the task of scholarship. Any act of translation should be founded on as much discipline as possible in the language, culture, biography, hagiography, poetics and prosody of the poet you would work at. Every book you arm yourself with, every shop-talk you engage a colleague in, plays its indispensible role. Knowing your...
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SOURCE: Bahadur, Krishna P. “What Mira Wrote About.” In Mīrā Bāī and Her Padas, pp. 25-9. New Delhi, India: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 1998.
[In the following essay, Bahadur provides an overview of the descriptive language and themes of Mirabai's padas and suggests that they are strongly rooted in an oral tradition.]
More than four hundred years ago, God sent on earth a puppet of his love. She came immersed in the love of God, held fast in his embrace and merged with his form, uniting her heart with the jingle of ankle-bell, pouring out her soul in the notes of his flute, held spellbound by his yellow garment of silk and his soft smiles, laying open her heart to him as though a carpet for his feet to tread on;—thus that artless yoginī, ankle-bells on her feet and cymbals in her hands, danced away and sang on, intoxicated with the ecstasy of love.1
—B. N. Mishra ‘Madhava’
THE NATURE AND LANGUAGE OF MīRā'S POETRY
In his letter to John Taylor of 27 February 1818 John Keats wrote, ‘If poetry comes not as naturally as leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all’, and in the Preface to his Lyrical Ballads William Wordsworth remarked, ‘Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’. Further, poetry, and for that matter prose too, appeals most...
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SOURCE: Bahadur, Krishna P. “Mira's Poetical Art.” In Mīrā Bāī and Her Padas, pp. 30-2. New Delhi, India: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 1998.
[In the following essay, Bahadur considers Mirabai's padas as lyrical poetry.]
Mīrā's poetry may be termed lyrical verse, which, Earnest Rhys says, ‘is a form of musical utterance in words governed by overmastering emotion and set free by a powerfully concordant rhythm.’1 In fact the lyric was sung to the accompaniment of the lyre. In some recensions Mīrā's songs are classified according to specific tunes (rāgas). This does testify to their musical quality, but it is very doubtful if she herself classified them under such heads. Quite possibly the editors of later anthologies arranged them that way. That they could do so shows, however, that they were more songs (gīta) than mere poetry (kavitā). This should not be taken to mean that what she wrote was not poetry. It was that too, and it was poetry of the highest order. Hindi poets use alamkāras in polishing up their verse. It's much like adorning a woman in fine clothes and ornaments, and may be termed ‘embellishment’. It is often understood as figures of speech. It is that too, but much more. A Hindi dictionary calls it ‘those devices which establish such a relation between word and meaning as add to the charm of poetry.’2...
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SOURCE: Bahadur, Krishna P. “The Nature of Mira's Love.” In Mīrā Bāī and Her Padas, pp. 33-8. New Delhi, India: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 1998.
[In the following essay, Bahadur addresses how Mirabai's padas express her love for Krishna.]
Sensual love and spiritual love are worlds apart. One pampers to the body, the other is balm for the soul. Krishna says, ‘As rivers enter the sea and lose themselves in it, while the sea is ever the same, so too that man achieves peace in whom all desires are extinguished, not he who clings to his desires.’1 The person who has reached the topmost height of spirituality, sees God everywhere. To him love becomes, in Shelley's words, a kind of worship.2 He attains to a state of fine frenzy: ‘The rustling of the wind is taken as indicating the Lord's approach, the dark blue sky, the sea and the landscape become symbolic of the colour of the Divine figure. Every sound seems to convey to him a message from the Lord, every form a sense of the Divine presence, and every touch the warmth of the Divine contact.’3 Mīrā's love for Krishna was of this all-encompassing kind. Her Krishna was enshrined in her heart and her soul. She saw him as Shri Ramakrishna saw Mother Kali. He said to his disciple, Swami Vivekananda, ‘God can be seen and talked to. One can talk to him just as I am talking to you. But who cares to do...
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Bly, Robert. Mirabai Versions. Illustrated by Ellen Lanyon. New York, N.Y.: Red Ozier Press, 1980.
Selections of Mira's poetry translated into English by American poet Robert Bly. Illustrated by Ellen Lanyon.
Dhingra, Baldoon. Songs of Meera: Lyrics in Ecstasy. New Delhi, India: Orient Paperbacks, 1977.
Gives translations of Mirabai's devotional poetry.
Futehally, Shama. Songs of Meera: In the Dark of the Heart. New York, N.Y.: HarperCollins, 1994.
A contemporary translation of Mirabai's “songs.” Contains introductory material and accessible translations.
Halpern, Daniel. Holy Fire: Nine Visionary Poets and the Quest for Enlightenment. New York, N.Y.: HarperCollins, 1994.
Mirabai is one of nine poets in this anthology that includes Rumi and Robert Bly. Includes a short biographical note.
Levi, Louise Landes. Sweet on My Lips: The Love Poems of Mirabai. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Cool Grove Press, 1997.
Criticism and interpretation of Mirabai's poetry.
Martin, Nancy. “Mirabai: Inscribed in Text, Embodied in Life.” In Vaisnavi: Women and the Worship of Krishna, edited by Steven J. Rosen, pp. 7-46. Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1996.
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