The sixteenth-century Indian poet Mirabai was a controversial figure during her lifetime. She was revered by many, but others regarded her as dangerous because she rebelled against the narrow social codes of her day, particularly those relating to gender roles. Her most controversial act was refusing either to immolate herself or to live the circumscribed life of a widow upon her husband's death. Instead, she devoted herself to worship of the god Krishna.
In "All I Was Doing Was Breathing," Mirabai describes what may have been one of her first encounters with Krishna, who is one of the best-loved gods in Hinduism. Although she writes in a way that suggests a meeting of human lovers, the relationship is, in fact, a spiritual one, conducted between the individual soul and God. Mirabai's experience of Krishna had such a powerful effect on her that she cast aside her former life completely, believing that she could not live for a moment outside the presence of the god. The exact date of composition of "All I Was Doing Was Breathing" is unknown. A modern version of the poem is in Mirabai: Ecstatic Poems (2004), a book that contains fifty poems attributed to Mirabai, which are freely translated by Robert Bly and Jane Hirshfield.
In the first line of "All I Was Doing Was Breathing," the poet explains that she has been, so to speak, taken hold of by a force she identifies at first only as "something." The process is mysterious. The "something" actively reaches out and seemingly absorbs into itself some essence of the speaker that emanates, or radiates, from her eyes ("the beams of my eyes"). The light from the eyes is presented as a tangible, or concrete, thing that can be taken in by another being. Some as yet unspecified spiritual exchange has been accomplished.
In the second line, the poet reveals how she longs for this "something," although she does not say, "I have a longing," Her phrase, "There is a longing," is impersonal, which suggests that the desire may be more universal than the desire of one individual. This longing may be part of the fabric of life in which the finite creature longs for contact with and absorption in the infinite.
In this line, the poet also makes it clear that the object of her longing is the god Krishna, who is traditionally known as the "dark one" and is depicted in pictorial representations as having dark skin, like the color of a rain cloud. Thus, the poet longs for every hair of his "dark body." The image is a very physical one, suggesting the physical intimacy of lovers, but the poet intends this in a spiritual sense. The poet wants to know the divine intimately, in all its manifold aspects.
In line 3, the poet emphasizes her own passivity, as if what happened to her was none of her own doing: "All I was doing was being." It was the god who took the initiative and came calling on her or at least passed by her house. Another interpretation of this phrase might suggest, however, that the poet was well prepared to receive the divine; she was in a state of spiritual readiness, in which she was simply aware of "being," to the exclusion of all sense impressions and physical or mental activities. In this line, Krishna is described as the "Dancing Energy." The image suggests the subatomic world revealed by modern physics, in which subatomic particles interact in a ceaseless flow of energy. Some have likened this view of the world to Indian spiritual thought, in which there is one underlying reality behind all the changing forms of life.
In line 4, the poet says that Krishna was smiling as he passed her house. She saw his face in profile, and she says that it looked like the moon. This unusual image conveys the idea of Krishna's cosmic dimension. Although he lived a life on the earth, he is also the lord of the universe. In Hindu scriptures, Krishna is presented as containing everything in the universe within himself, including the sun and the moon. A simpler interpretation of this line, however, would be that Krishna's face sheds light, like the moon.
The poet explains in line 5 that her family is worried about what they see as her excessive devotion to Krishna. They warn her not to see him again. Perhaps they are concerned that she will neglect her worldly duties and bring dishonor on the family. They whisper about her, perhaps implying that she is mad.
The poet dismisses her family's concerns in line 6. The family has no control over her, because she is now living in a different dimension of life, in which the old rules do not apply. Such rules even seem absurd, something to be laughed at. The poet as devotee has her eyes firmly fixed on the divine, and this is her life now.
In line 7, she shows how confident she is in her new life and understanding. She does not care what others say about her; she is strong enough to bear any burden, because she has surrendered her life to the Dark One.
The poet implies in line 8 that she has no choice now. Her entire existence depends on the god. Describing Krishna as "the energy that lifts mountains," she knows that he is the foundation of her life. The reference is to one of the stories about Krishna's childhood. As a boy, Krishna persuaded the people in the village of Vrindavan, which was suffering from a drought, to stop offering prayers and sacrifices to Indra, the god of the heavens who was responsible for rainfall. This angered Indra, who caused torrential rain to fall for countless days on the village. Rivers burst their banks, houses collapsed, and the whole village turned into a lake of mud. Krishna saved the people from drowning by holding up the Goverdhana mountain with his little finger and using it to protect the villagers from the rain. After seven more days of rain, during which the entire village kept dry under the mountain, Indra relented, and the storm ceased. In the original Hindi, the name given to Krishna at this point in the poem is Giridhara, which comes from two Sanskrit words meaning "hill" and "holding." According to A. J. Alston in The Devotional Poems of Mirabai, the word "means 'He who held aloft the Mountain.'"