Abstract: The following article includes excerpts from Mirabai’s bhakti poems. They hold authentic information of her personal experience reflecting her feelings, thoughts and ideologies. Following the line of thought in the poems, they can be re-defined as social critique, as romantic, philosophical and mystical. An attempt is here made to conceive these variants in the poems to set forth their relevance even today as much a social distinction as an aesthetic appreciation.
Keywords: love poems, divine romanticism, female stereotypes, myth debunking, freedom, women’s identity, caste hierarchy, feminist views, socio-political-cultural norms, idealisation of women, women mythical figures
Devotional poetry (bhaktikavya) was made overwhelmingly popular by great saints, poets and philosophers, who energised the bhakti movements (800-1700 A.D.) through their literary contributions, with a phenomenal simplicity in its tone and tenor. Prominent female poet saints gained a place in the male dominated movement through their distinctive devotional poems/songs without subtle theological arguments or ornamentation. To mention a prominent few, were Akkamahadevi of Southern Karnataka, Bahinabai from Maharashtra, Andal from Tamilnadu and Mirabai from Rajasthan.
The focus here is on Mirabai’s (1498 — 1547) pristine bhakti (devotion), reflected in her poetry which is one of critical observations of rituals and caste hierarchy thwarting her concentric devotion that provides the succour to resist and assist her to her devotional destinate. Mira’s poetry voices its literariness and relevance as a social document signifying a critical study – tracing the different levels of bhakti, as revelations of the persona as dissentient, romantic, philosophic and mystic, to appropriate the resisting individual’s struggle, to sublime ecstasy, harmonising the blissful state through a perfect blend of rasa and dhvani. Dhvani (suggestion) is the quintessence of poetry and rasa (aesthetic delight) the quintessence of dhvani, an exclusively poetic feature dealing with the appropriateness and beauty of every element in language, that through embellishment (alamkara) of excellence (guna) executed in the apt style (riti), expresses the joy in the bhakta’s mystic incantation. The corner stone of dhvani is rasa the source of which is the combination of bhavas (emotions)-vibhava (stimuli), anubhava (responses) and vyabhicari bhava (complementary transitory states). The dhvani of bhakti resonates in every poem an expression of divine romanticism whether it contains viva, sringara or santdha rasa.
Bhaktamala by Nabha Das,1 as well as other hagiographic texts, record the tale of Mira as a defiant, Rajput princess to have born at Merta, married very early perhaps against her will to Bhoj Raj, son of Ranasangha of the Sisodiyas of Chittor and Mewar. Priyadas 2 who details on Mirabai’s life in his Bhaktirasabhodhini Tika (1712) traces Mirabai’s religious affinities to have developed during her childhood under the tutelage of her grand parents when a religious mendicant visits them and gives her a small idol of Krishna. Her early widowhood drew her to dedicated worship of her Divine Spouse Krishna. Efforts to subdue Mira to the system of the new household, her refusal to commit sati led to several attempts on her life, but all miraculously evaded by the intervention of Lord Krishna. But concerted political manoeuverings of her in-laws drives Mira to her childhood home where she is looked askance on her actions by her disinclined kins and she wanders in search of enlightenment to Vrindavan, to Dwaraka to the temple of Ranchodji where she was said to have merged with the idol. Facts and legends around Mirabai may be lacking empirical data but all reliable sources enunciate her as a cultural icon, oblivious of patriarchal and social restrictions but in a perennial blissful deluge of devotion.
Mirabai’s poetry called padas and musical love poems treated as bhajans were rendered in Rajasthani and Braj languages and later translated to Hindi and Gujarati. The lack of means to preserve manuscripts, the continuous antagonism and persecution from the families, or the disregard for poetic reputation may be reasons for no authentic text for the 1300 songs attributed to the her; nevertheless as Nancy Martin suggests in the Encyclopedia of Women, her songs are ‘preserved in the fluid realm of oral tradition’.
Mirabai’s bhakti poems are authentic information of her personal experience reflecting her feelings, thoughts and ideologies. Following the line of thought in the poems, they can be re-defined as social critique, as romantic, philosophical and mystical. An attempt is here made to conceive these variants in the poems to set forth their relevance even today as much a social distinction as an aesthetic appreciation.
The enormity of social protest expressed in Mira’s poems reflects her valour to defy the socio-political-cultural norms that idealised womanhood through mythical figures like Sita and Savitri. Mira’s marriage with Bhoj Raj of the Sisodiya clan, worshippers of Goddess brings her immediate trouble as she remains unwilling to forsake her allegiance to Krishna. Five years later Bhoj Raj’s death in a battle hastens the impending miseries as she flouts the customary laws, pertaining to widowhood. She is criticised and humiliated. Several attempts are made on her life. She expresses the travails in ‘Mira Danced with Ankle Bells’,
…People said Mira was mad; my mother-in-law
Said I ruined the family reputation.
Rana sent me a cup of poison and Mira
drank it laughing.
I dedicated my body and soul at the feet of Hari.
I am thirsty for the nectar of the sight of him.
Mira’s lord is Giridharnagar; I will
Come for refuge to him.
The criticisms and humiliations have never been a hurdle to Mira who gave no hoot to the sneering lot when her target was her noble Lord. For her the society held nothing but wretchedness. Hence, there was no turning back from her path to the Divine. In the following poem she expresses her resolute self amidst discordant groups.
This infamy, O my Prince,
Some revile me,
others applaud me,
I simply follow my incomprehensible road.
A razor-thin path
But you meet some good people,
A terrible path but you hear a true word.
Because the wretched stare and see nothing?
O Mira’s lord is noble and dark,
and slanderers rake only themselves
Over the coals
The derision to exaggerated modesty is extended further when she defies her royal status to mingle with the religious communities and the low-caste worshippers. In the poem The Dark one is Krishna she says, ‘I’ve waited/its time to take my songs into the street’. Hooting off the social expectation, she accepts a low-caste guru Raidas, and expresses her delight in the initiation as in ‘I Have Found My Guru’.
… he has
given me the pill of knowledge.
I lost the honour of the royal family, I
went astray with the sadhus….
I don’t follow the norms as an oldest
Daughter-in-law I have thrown
away the veil.
I have taken refuge with the great
guru, and snapped my fingers at
She continues to be derisive to the taboos and realising the hollowness of the ‘natal and conjugal families’, decides to sing the praises of Hari and be prepared for the ultimate end. In a philosophical tone she says in I will sing the praises of Hari that life is short and is not burdened with the ‘load of worldly relationships’ since,
Thy parents gave thee birth in the world,
But the Lord ordained thy fate.
Life passed in getting and spending,
No merit is earned by virtuous deeds.
I will sing the praises of Hari
In the company of the holy men,
Nothing else concerns me.
Mira’s Lord is the courtly Giridhari,
She says: Only by Thy power
Have I crossed to the further shore.
The personal experiences, of overturning harsh censure, destructive and restrictive caste hierarchy and debunking traditional female stereotypes, have been able to assert her need for freedom and identity as a bhakta. Mira’s defense of her pursuit in the consummation of divine quest is an achievement from a feminist standpoint. Anderson states in his The Case for a Feminist Philosophy of Religion that:
Feminist stand point is an achievement i.e. the achievement of an epistemically informed perspective resulting from struggle by or on behalf of women and men who have been exploited, oppressed or disseminated including women who have been exploited or even oppressed by very specific pernicious monotheistic beliefs.
Mira revitalises our notions of those exalted and daring women who, have attained their goals, and emerged as social and cultural icons.
These poems that scoff the customary laws and represent Mira’s inherent rebellious urge, evoke a dominant mood of uthsaha (enthusiasm of vitality). The urge to meet the Divine is the uthsaha in the bhakta that dispels every hurdle. The rasa evoked is vim. Deeds of courage proliferate through expressions and images (alambana) of daring, sacrifice and the concomitant feelings (uddipana) of optimism, courage and determination for the ultimate end: such as ‘some revile me/others applaud, 1 simply follow my incomprehensible road’ (Turn back), Mira danced with ankle bell …reputation (Mira danced with Ankle Bells); I have forsaken both god and the family’s honour, (Mine is Gopal) when she refuses to worship Goddess and abide by the tradition.
In a confessional mode she lays bare her emotions and apprehensions through images and metaphors that render a highly romantic appeal. The objective co-relatives employed as symbols and metaphors in Strange is the Path When You Offer Love is a notable illustration of romanticism. In the poem she describes the arduous path of love which is strange, threatening but fulfilling. She says:
If you want to offer love
Be prepared to cut off your head
And sit on it.
Be like the moth,
Which circles the lamp and offers its body.
Be like the deer, which, on hearing the horn,
Offers its head to the hunter. Be like the partridge,
Which swallows burning coals
In love of the moon.
Be like the fish
Which yields up its life
When separated from the sea.
Be like the bee
Entrapped in the closing petals of the lotus.
Mira’s lord is the courtly Giridharai.
She says: Offer your mind
To those lotus feet.
Divine romanticism is excelled in the love poems that are direct, amorous, desperate and ecstatic yearnings of a damsel for her lover. Each of the love poems expressing the different phases of love is a symphonic note reaching a crescendo of spiritual ecstasy. Mira presumes to have been wedded to Krishna in her former births and imagines herself as a cowherd girl ‘unlettered, low-caste ill- mannered’ at Gokul. In the poem Mine is Gopal, having accepted Krishna as her groom since her childhood she sings: …He alone is my husband/father, mother, brother, relative: I’ve none to call my own’, because she has,
`forsaken both God, and the family’s honour’, by sitting near, ‘the holy ones’, she ‘lost shame before the people’. She has abandoned all extravagance of royal household for love which: With my tears, I watered the creeper of love that I planted;
Now the creeper has grown spread all over, and borne the fruit
. . .
I came for the sake of love-devotion; seeing the world, I wept.
Mira is the maid of Giridhari
O with love He takes me across to the further shore.
and a step further in Come to the pavilion she invites the groom to her bed, adorned with delicately selected buds and blossoms:
….And have arrayed myself in bridal garbs
from head to toe.
I have been Thy slave during many births,
Thou art the be-all of my existence.
Mira’s Lord is Hari, the in destructible,
Come, grant me Thy sight at once.
Like a frenzied love Torn lass she awaits her lover to rid her of the unbearable pain of anxious waiting as in I am mad in love. Her yearnings and agonies can be cured only by the lover for
. . .
None understands my plight,
Only the wounded
Understand the agonies of the wounded
When the fire rages in heart
In pain I wander from door to door
But could find no doctor
Says Mira: Harken my Master
Mira’s pain will subside
With Shyam as doctor.
The taciturn lover evokes her desire once again when she says in Mira’s Lord when will you meet? that her
. . .
eyes burn with longing
for a glimpse of you,
My beloved, since you parted
I’ve never had a moment’s peace.
When I hear thy voice
my heart beats faster
for your voice is so sweet
I gaze fixedly at the path you’ll come by
. . .
To whom shall I express my sorrow
Cutting through my heart?
Mira says Lord when will you meet me again?
Then as a tormented and anguished lover, yearning for fruition of her love she sings in Hear my Plea, Dark one that:
a vision of you has driven me mad,
separation eats my limbs,
Because of you
I’ll become a yogini and ramble
from city to city
. . .
come to your beggar!
Finish her pain and touch her
Her dreams of oneness with her Divine lover, as a bride, as yogini (female ascetic) reach a point of desolation when she sings in A login Lover Begets grief that she has gained nothing but grief because her lover:
He beguiles you with intimate whispers-
all worthless. . .
. . .
Then pulls on his robe and is gone
Mira says, Dark One, I saw you once
But tonight I’m an utter wreck.
The indefinite wait, her wanderings in search of her lover
and pangs of separation makes her cry desperately:
Mad, raked by separation—
Look at Mira’s black hair,
It’s turned white
The hapless lover in utter desperation cries once again in Do not leave me that she is bereft of strength and virtue in her relentless pursuit:
Do not leave me alone, a helpless women
My strength, my crown,
I’ am empty of virtues
You the ocean of them,
My heart’s music, you help me . . .
. . .You dissolve the fear of the terrified,
Where can I go
Save my honour
For I have dedicated myself to you
And now there is no one else for me.
An aesthetic rendering of the love poems suggests sringara rasa,3 seen from the point of view of the bhakta in its phase of separation and union, The bliss or ultimate ananda for bhakta Mira is evolved in these love poems through sringara rasa (erotic) evoked by bhava (feelings) of rail (love). Of the two aspects of love, in its separation (vipralambha) and union (smbhoga sringara) the former is effectively illustrated through images of the lover, yogini and yogi. She sings of the love of neither the gopis nor of Radha, but of her own intimate feelings. Each poem has a perfect rasa–dhvani a blend. The aesthetic emotion (rasa) which is the soul of poetry is revealed through the mode (dhvani) in all propriety (aucitya). Thus rasa-dhvani– aucitya remains the formula for every poem. In each of the love poems the sthayibhava (dominant mood) obviously rati (love) is furnished by appropriate images and expressions of love that suggest the sringara rasa; such as ‘Now with love he takes me across to the further shore’ (Mine is Gopal), ‘I’ve spread a bed made of delicately selected buds and blossoms’ (Come to My Pavilion); ‘When the fire rages my heart’ (I am Mad in Love), ‘When I hear thy voice my heart beats faster’ (Mira’s Lord When will you meet?), ‘Finish her pain and touch her with pleasure’ (Hear my plea Dark one), The words construe to form images/characters (anubhava alambana, uddipana), their expressions (vibhava) and the concomitant feeling, ( vipralambha sringara) that reveals the anguish despair, disappointment and gloom is suggested in these lines: ‘I ‘m mad in love /In pain I wander from door to door …understand the agonies of the wounded /When fire rages in the heart’ (I’m Mad in Love);..,’ separation eats my limbs’ (Hear my plea Dark One); … ‘but to night I’m an utter wreck’ (A Jogin Lover begets Grief); ‘Where can I go/save my honour’ (Do Not Leave Me) and finally mad, raked with separation – ‘Look at Mira’s black hair/It’s turned white’ (login Lover begets grief).
Mira is resilient to the ordeals, for the freedom, to pursue her lover God. In passionate, daring and philosophical tones the mystic in her is revealed. The poems contain dialectics of their own; the combatant and philosopher in Mira elicit dialectically a mysticism which is basically understood in terms of Vedantic non-dualism that seeks the identity of the human-soul with the supreme as detailed in the poem O My Mind. The bhakta appeals to the mind to seek its bliss in the worship of the lotus feet which is indestructible and:
…Worship the lotus feet of the Indestructible One!
Whatever thou seest twixt earth and sky
Why undertake fasts and pilgrimages?
Why engage in philosophical discussions?
Why commit suicide in Banaras?
Take no pride in the body,
It will soon be mingling with the dust.
This life is like the sporting of sparrows,
It will end with the onset of night.
Why don the ochre robe
And leave Home as a sanyasi?
Those who adopt the external grab of a Jogi,
But do not penetrate to the secret,
Are caught again in the net joy rebirth.
Mira’s Lord is the courtly Giridhari.
Deign to sever, O Master.
All the knots in her heart.
The notes of surrender at the lotus feet of love expressed in have taken refuge with Thee, The heart of Mira is entangled/In the beauty of the feet of her Guru, suggest the ecstasy of spiritual bliss and evoke santarasa (tranquil sentiment) which is related to moksha (salvation), a supreme human value. The mental status appropriate to salvation is the sthayibhava of santarasa. According to Anandavardhana santarasa is the joy of tranquility that arises from the waning of desire. Anandavadhana holds as its sthayi the ultimate bliss that annihilates all desires. Santa is the rasa relating to the final purusartha, ie; moksa the path to which are varied. The three well known paths being bhakti, karman and jnana as aids to bhakti, Bhakti propounds them with four varieties. madura or sirngara or ujjvala as in the case of the gopis towards Krishna, sakhya as in the case of Arjuna, vatsalya as in the case of Devaki and Yesoda and dasya5 as in the case of other devotees.
Parallels of Mira’s concept of God as a mystic bridegroom appear in the Christian6 and Sufi7 bhakti literature. The amplitude of the mystic spiritualism in Mira can be well defined in terms of A.K. Ramanujan as ‘early dedication to God’ (as reflected in the religious poetry of Mira’s childhood); ‘denial of marriage’ (as seen in her reluctance to marry, to conform to the customs of the time); ‘defying social norms’ (her defiance of social norms in the feverishness of divine love fraught intensely against socio-political patriarchal authority); `initiation’ (as in her accepting a guru in her spiritual pursuit of the Divine Spouse); and finally ‘marrying the Lord’ (the culmination of the Divine Romanticism, in Mira’s merging with Krishna at the temple of Ranchodji in Dwaraka). Mira’s songs of bhakti are expressions of intense devotion, leading her through the spiritual path to divine unity. This blissful state of the highest truth is realised steadily through her faith and bhakti (sthayi) in Krishna, the epitome of rasa. The Taittriya Upanishad says:
rasa vai sah
rasam hy evayarn labdhvanandi bhavati
ko hy evanyat kah pranyat
yad esa akasa annado na syat
esa hy evanandayati
The supreme truth is rasa. The jiva becomes blissful on attaining this rasa. Who would work with body and prana, if this blissful, complete form did not exist. He gives bliss to all.
1. Nabhadas- Sri Bhaktamal, with the Bhaktirasabodhini commentary of Priyadas (Lucnow: Tejkumar Press, 1969) pp.712-713.
2. Priyadas is reported as both a disciple of Nabhadas of the Ramanandi sect and as a disciple of Caitanya. See McGregor, Hindi Literature, P.163 and Friedlander and Callawcart, The Life and Works of Raidas, p.15
3. Rasa– aesthetic sentiment or emotion. Bharata’s rasasutra convives rasa as an emotional experience generated by the representation of causes, effects and emotions accompanying the basic emotional dispositions of man. Rasa is produced by the combination of vibhava (stimuli), anubhava (response) and vybhicari bhava (complimentary transitory states) Rasa is realised by the fusion of these elements with the sthayi bhava. There are eight rasas corresponding sthayi bhavas. Sthayi bhava — instinctual propensities.
Rasa Sthayi bhava
Sringara (erotic) Rati (love)
Vira (Heroic) Utsaha (Energy)
Raudra (Ferocious) Krodha (Anger)
Bhayanaka (Terrible) Bhaya (Fear)
Bhibhadtsa (Odious) Jugupsa (Disgust)
Haysa (Comic) Hasa (Laughter)
Adbuta (Marvellous) Vismaya (Wonder)
Karuna (Pathetic) Soka (sorrow)
Santa rasa — Not mentioned in Bharata’s Natyasastra later introduced by Udbhata in Kavyalankarasaransangraha.
4. Dhvani Suggestion. Assimilating the essence of the previous schools alankara, guna, riti and others Anandavardhana states that a poetic composition must contain all these necessary elements to nourish rasa through the body of poetry.
5. In the elaboration of bhakti rasa, the rhetorician’s of the school of Chaitanya in Bengal give a new orientation to whole scheme of rasa, accepting Bharata’s eight rasas, accepting the santa, vatsalya, ‘sneha–prakrtih preyan’ and add an absolutely new rasa namely dasya (servitude).
6 St.Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) – Mystic and poet lived through Spanish inquisition but was not on trial despite her mystical revelations. She helped to reform the tradition of Catholicism steering away fanaticism. St. Teresa of Avila refers to Christ as bridegroom, when she says:
Love’s whole possession I entreat
Lord make my soul thine own abode
I will build a nest so sweet
It may not be too poor for God.
Mysticism of Islam, wherein mysticism is treated as an inward dimension of a religion. Islam the Arabic word means submission or the surrender of oneself to Divine unity.
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