(Poetry Criticism)

Mirabai 1498?-1550?

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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).”

Critical Reception

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.”