Perhaps the most remembered and quoted woman in India history is a sixteenth century poet, singer and saint called Mirabai, or Meera. Versions of her songs are sung today all over India, and she appears as a subject in films, books, dances, plays and paintings. Even Mohandas Gandhi promoted her, seeing Mira as a symbol of a woman who has the right to chose her own path, forsake a life of luxury, and in nonviolent resistance find liberation.
Mirabai belonged to the Rajput aristocracy. From an early age, she worshiped the image of Krishna. Her form of worship was influenced by a number of her male relatives who were devotees of a mystical form of Hinduism called Bhakti. In the Bhakti tradition, one approached one's god through pure love, without any restrictions of caste, color, or gender. Many Bhakti followers gave up their worldly life and left their families to became wandering teachers or live together in like-minded communities. Their message usually was spread through deeply personal poems through which they conversed with their chosen God. Female devotees who aspired to live this life also had to give up their husbands and family. They had to live among people from a variety of castes, including those considered forbidden to them. In spite of what many felt were acts of subversive, some who overcame obstacles to follow their spiritual quests in time became respected and even revered.
In 1516 Mirabai was married to Prince Bhoj Raj of the Rajput kingdom of Mewar, the most powerful Rajput state in the early 16th century. It's capital was Chittor. From the start Mira was a problem. She refused to worship her husband's family's goddess (devi), claiming that she already had offered herself to Lord Krishna and considered herself married to him. She refused the family's gifts of silks and jewels. She insisting on associating with the community of bhaktas. And when her husband died after only three short years, Mirabai refused to join him on his funeral pyre, a practice at the time expected of high caste Rajput widows. Instead she claimed that now she was free to devote herself completely to the worship of Krishna.
Mira's devotional practices became increasingly intense. She often sang and danced herself into ecstasies, even in public places like temples. News about her spread all over India and she soon attracted a following of devotees from all social groups and castes.
Mira lived in a time and place when the sexual virtue of women was fiercely guarded. Her husband's family was shocked by her actions and finally locked her inside the house. In her songs Mira says that on two occasions they tried to kill her, but she was miraculously saved both times. At some point she left the palace and city of Chittor and returned to her birth family. They too disapproved of her actions. Sometime around 1527 she set off as a wanderer, traveling to places of pilgrimage associated with the life of Krishna. Her popularity grew. Before she even arrived at the site, people gathered singing her songs. Mirabai returned once briefly to her home, but in the face of further family harassment decided to leave the kingdom of Chittor for good. She passed her last days in Dwarka on the coast of the Arabian sea, the site believed to be that of Krishna's youth.
Mira's life resonates in the hearts of many in India today for many reasons. First there are her words, which with beauty and joy express a kind of female liberation. In them, her rejection and even disdain of the wealthy and their life of riches also appeals to the poor. Then there is her rebellion, which is seen as being against injustice within the family and within kinships groups in general. While valuing women as mothers above all, India also reveres the self-expression of Mira, a childless woman who is identified as having rebelled against her husband and in-laws.
Women Bhakta Poets, Madhu Kishwar, editor, Manushi, nos. 50, 51,52, January-June, New Delhi, India, 1989.
Women in India: Lessons from the Ancient Aryans through the Early Modern Mughals, Lyn Reese, Women in World History Curriculum, 2001. An essay on the Bhakti movement, on Mirabai, and an activity using writings of the Bhakti poets.
Women Writing in India: 600 B.C. to the Present. vol.I, Susie Tharu and K. Lalita, editors, The Feminist Press, 1991.
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