Mirabai Soulful Love of God

  • By Mariellen Ward
  • October 2017

The Life and Legacy of a Poet-Saint by Lakshmi Chandrashekar Subramanian and Mariellen Ward

“It is extremely difficult to find a parallel to this wonderful personality, Mira, a saint, a philosopher, a poet and a sage. She was a versatile genius and a magnanimous soul. Her life has a singular charm, with extraordinary beauty and marvel.” Swami Sivananda 

The most popular songs of Mirabai speak of her unflinching love for Lord Krishna, attempts to poison her, the miraculous escape and her blissful merging with God. Mirabai (c.1498–c.1557) was a remarkable Hindu devotional poet-saint in 16th-century India. She was a princess born in the town of Merta and married to a king in the Mewar region, both in the northwestern Indian state of Rajasthan. Twentieth-century Indian cinema has portrayed this in several accounts. Mirabai, also known simply as Mira, is a favourite among Hindu poet-saints, particularly in the North Indian bhakti tradition, and thousands of poems have been attributed to her. Saint Nabhadas of the early 17th century praised her in his hagiography, “Renouncing respect in society and all family ties, Mira worshiped Lord Krishna in the form of the divine mountain-lifter Giridhari.”  

Entitled Shribhaktamal (“garland of devotees”), Nabhadas’ anthology, comprising descriptions of numerous bhaktas and one of the oldest Indian vernacular hagiographies, contains six meaningful lines about Mirabai. The central message is that of her fearless devotion to Giridhari in the face of familial and societal obstacles. This early mention of Mira, in addition to her large poetic corpus, carves a well-defined place for the saint in the “bhakti movement,” a spiritual revolution in India lasting several centuries during which there was a fervent attempt to make religion accessible to all, irrespective of language, gender or caste.  

A Google search fetches numerous popular Mirabai songs translated into English by Hindu organizations, secular poetry websites and academic scholars. The Western interest in Mirabai started with British colonialists in the early 19th century; and since then there have been several translations of her songs. Immigrant communities as well as academicians carried the baton forward. Today Mira’s songs are found everywhere, from well-attended Mirabai Festivals to informal music sessions at yoga studios. In the 21st century, Mira has surpassed her standing as a pan-Indian devotee to become a global poet-saint revered by an international audience. In the pages to follow, her dramatic life story is unraveled and the path she took in life is documented, along with temples and museums that honor her life. Her linguistic genius and depictions of her life in film and the digital world are also explored.Mira’s Bhakti Poems.

DEVOTIONAL POETRY IS NOT ISOLATED LITERATURE; IT IS CONNECTED to systems of spiritual practice, or sadhana, such as singing, chanting, prayer—undertaken individually or as a community. These practices evoke devotion in the heart of a spiritual aspirant. The uniqueness of Mira’s poems is that they have travelled throughout the Indian subcontinent and beyond, not as texts but as songs travelling on the tongues of people performing various types of personal sadhana. Mira sang: 

I have obtained the precious wealth that is the Lord!
This invaluable treasure is from my true guru.
Out of compassion, he has given this to me.
I have obtained the asset of many lifetimes and lost everything of this world.
Doesn’t reduce with spending, that which no thief can steal.
It increases day by day (by a quarter).
On the boat of truth, with my true guru as the boatman, I have crossed the ocean of endless births and deaths.
Mira’s Lord, the clever mountain-lifter With much happiness I sing his glories.

Mirabai composed sagun poetry, songs about a personal God with particular attributes and personality traits (sagun: sa “with,” guna “attributes”). In her case, divinity is embodied in Giridhari, the heroic form of Krishna as mountain-lifter. Based on signature line (chhaap) and the oral tradition that this song has passed through over the centuries, we can be confident that Mirabai composed this poem.  

Sentence structure is confusing. The base lyrics, paayoji maine, is the starting point, which gets transformed into a musical piece with context-specific elements such as melody, tempo, orchestration and performance setting. The underlying emotion (bhava) in this poem is ecstatic devotion and contentment; Mira joyfully sings about having obtained the greatest wealth, which is the Lord.  

Over time, countless musicians have performed this poem—at temples, concert halls and home altars. More recently, it has been featured in a Bollywood film. “The base lyrics, paayoji maine, is the starting point, which gets transformed into a musical piece with context-specific elements, including melody, tempo, orchestration and performance setting.

 Bhakti, or devotion, comes in many flavors and causes a devotee to completely forget herself. According to some Hindu schools of thought, five kinds of emotions can arise in bhakti: shanta, dasya, sakhya, vatsalya and madhurya. These bhavas arise in one’s heart subconsciously, and one should go towards whatever resonates with his or her temperament. Mirabai’s poetry falls under madhurya bhava, as she thought of the Lord as her beloved.  

In Swami Sivananda’s words, “The lover and the beloved become one. The devotee and God feel one with each other and still maintain a separateness in order to enjoy the bliss of the play of love between them. This is oneness in separation and separation in oneness. Lord Gauranga, Jayadeva, Mira and Andal had this bhava.” 

With madhurya bhava comes viraha vedana, the agony of separation from the beloved. A recent PhD dissertation by Holly Hillgardner compares the expressions of viraha in the poetry of Mirabai and Hadewijch, a 13th-century Christian mystic: “Each woman’s respective longing for the divine not only takes her on an inward journey but also opens her up into an entangling involvement in the beauty and sufferings of the world.” Viraha bhakti transcends the poet’s internal sphere of consciousness and connects them to the external world.

In this poem, Mira shares this feeling with a bird: 

Hey, love bird, crying cuckoo,
Don’t make your crying coos,
For I who am crying, cut off from my love,
Will cut off your crying beak
And twist off your flying wings
And pour black salt in the wounds.
Hey, I am my love’s and my love’s mine.
How dare you cry love?
But if my love were restored today,
your love call would be a joy.
I would gild your crying beak with gold
and you would be my crown.
Hey, I’ll write my love a note,
crying crow, now take it away
and tell him that his separated love
can’t eat a single grain.
His servant Mira’s mind’s in a mess.
She wastes her time crying coos.
Come quick, my Lord,
the one who sees inside;
without you nothing remains.
Hawley and Juergensmeyer 2004 

In her poem, Mira addresses not just any bird, but a cuckoo, a love bird. Like Mira who is cut off from her Krishna, the bird is a legendary symbol of anguish, said to be crying due to love’s separation. In this instance, viraha gives the lover agency. Mira threatens the bird that if it continues to cry, she would cut off its crying beak, twist off its flying wings and pour black salt in the wounds. These threats challenge the gentle demeanor that traditionally surrounds the figure of Mirabai, a royal princess, wife and devotee. If we transpose the image of the rebellious Mira who broke all family ties onto this poem, it starts making more sense.  

My translation of a line from Nabhadas’s Bhaktamal is as follows: “Unrestrained, totally fearless, she enjoyed singing the fame of her lord.” This unstrained image of Mirabai resonates with the harshness of the first stanza. 

The second stanza begins with strong possessiveness, a quality often found in the lovelorn gopika. “How dare you cry love?” she challenges. In the next line, her stance softens and she promises to reward the bird and cherish its love call if her own love is restored. The sudden change in temperament reveals the unstable mind of a virahini, unrestrained in love. Mira then asks the crow a favor: to deliver a note to her Lord. Crows are traditionally known to deliver messages. Mira urges the bird to tell her beloved that because of his distance she can’t eat a single grain. This speaks to the urgency of Mirabai’s love; she cannot stay apart forever and may starve to death. The bird serves as a lady friend (sakhi), confidant and messenger, which reflects Mira’s entanglement with nature. The body-mind connection is apparent: Mira “can’t eat a single grain,” as her “mind’s in a mess.” She then decides that all this cooing is a waste of time as her beloved makes her long in separation. The phrase “the one who sees inside” refers to the Hindi word antaryami, connoting that Krishna knows of Mira’s suffering, and places the onus on him to respond to her urgent coo. Mira finally pleads with her Beloved, “without you nothing remains.” Here is my translation of a Mira bhajan that I often sing. 

Manmohan Kanha Vinati

Mind-captivating Kanha, I make just one request:

All day and nightMy eyes are constantly watching the path.

Give me your darshan right now,O Kunjbihari,My mind is restless and impatient!The thread of love binds us together.

This bond cannot be broken.Hey, flute-bearer Krishna Murari,I don’t have any peace.

My eyes are constantly watching the path.

Give me your darshan right now,O Kunjbihari,My mind is restless and impatient! 

This song can be considered on multiple levels: lover to beloved, devotee (bhakta) to God (Bhagavan), and individual consciousness (soul; jivatma) to supreme consciousness (Paramatma). The poem would interest a person whether they are inclined towards the path of devotion (bhakti marga) or the path of knowledge (jnana marga). One who enjoys devotional literature reflects on their personal relationship with Lord Krishna, while someone who enjoys philosophy gets intellectually inspired by the jivatma-Paramatma dynamic. 

Mira’s poetry also satiates the spiritual seeker who may not be of Indian origin or identify with Hinduism. Nancy Martin, scholar of devotional Hinduism and gender, describes in a 2010 article how Mirabai comes to the US: “Americans begin looking for figures for inspiration and canonization within an emerging non-institutionalized global spirituality and women around the world mine the past to find their spiritual foremothers.” Universalized metaphors of love and longing, union and separation, allow the poems to transcend time and space. Not only can the metaphors in Mirabai’s poetry be universalized, but her turbulent life story also carries the universal message of hope, courage and triumph in the face of adversity. This makes the historical Mira a powerful female character that serves as an inspiration for novelists, filmmakers, philosophers, social activists and feminists, says Martin. Thus, diverse people around the globe find cultural and spiritual relevance in Mira’s 500-year-old poems.

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