Mirabai, the sixteenth-century royal devotee recognized for her unshakable love for God in the form of Krishna, is the most popular of the women saints of bhakti (devotional) Hinduism. She suffered terribly for her devotion, her life threatened repeatedly because she would not adhere to the restrictions placed on married women of her caste. Undeterred, she eventually became a wandering holy woman. She has come to inspire people of all walks of life, men and women from low to high caste. Songs of love and longing for God attributed to her continue to be sung throughout the Indian subcontinent and beyond, and the compelling story of her life has been told again and again across the centuries in hagiographic literature, epic songs, novels, and comic books and enacted in folk, religious, and dance dramas and film.
According to hagiography, Mirabai was born in Rajasthan in northern India in around 1500. Though devoted to Krishna from childhood, her marriage to a prince of a neighboring kingdom was arranged, by most accounts against her will. She immediately angered her marital family by not behaving as a woman of her status ought to behave. Her devotion would have been acceptable if she had remained within the women’s quarters of the palace, but she sang and danced in the public space of the temple and associated with men outside her family, albeit holy men. A series of attempts on her life are recorded, instigated by the ruler, who is most often identified as her husband, though sometimes as her father- in-law or an evil brother-in-law. Poison, a venomous snake, and scorpions were sent to her, but she did not die. In the end, she left her palace home and traveled to holy cities associated with Krishna. In Vrindavan, she met Jiv Goswami, disciple of Chaitanya. He initially refused to see her because she was a woman, but he welcomed her after she reminded him that all devotees are as women before Lord Krishna. She settled in Dwarka, but priests arrived from her marital home to bring her back. When she refused to go, they vowed to fast unto death. She relented, but when she entered the temple to take leave of Krishna, she reportedly disappeared, merging with his image.
There are no traditional historical sources to corroborate her life story and no early manuscript traditions that could be used to determine which of the songs attributed to Mirabai might have actually been composed by her. Nevertheless, a composite tradition of hagiography and poetry retells her story in multiple ways. Many people of different social, religious, and cultural backgrounds have contributed to this material and composed songs in her name, drawing on her authority and articulating a similar experience of love and devotion.
Those of low caste see in Mirabai one who voluntarily renounced a life of privilege. Women draw inspiration to step out of the normative roles of wife and mother. And in the twentieth century she became one of Mahatma Gandhi’s premier examples of a person who practiced nonviolent resistance. Yet her behavior as a woman continues to challenge traditional notions of how women ought to behave and an ambivalence toward her remains.
(Nancy M.Martin in “Holy People of the World”)
A poem by Mirabai dedicated to Krishna, whom she calls Mohan (“the deluder”):
My eyes are greedy. They’re beyond turning back.
They stare straight ahead, friend, straight ahead,
coveting and coveting still more.
So here I am, standing at my door
to get a good look at Mohan when he comes.
Abandoning my beautiful veil and the modesty
that guards my family’s honor; showing my face.
Mother-in-law, sister-in-law: day and night they monitor,
lecturing me about it all and lecturing once again.
Yet my quick giddy eyes will brook no hindrance.
They’re sold into someone else’s hands.
Some will say I’m good, some will say I’m bad—
whatever their opinion, I exalt it as a gift,
But Mira is the lover of her Lord, the Mountain-Lifter.
Without him, I simply cannot live.”