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On the Poetry of Mirabai: A Voice of Dissent and Devotion from the Bhakti Movement in India

Born in the 16th- century, a time of religious orthodoxy and extensive feudalism, Mirabai was a poet who transcended the limits of gender, caste, marriage, faith, and her time to achieve a union with her God, her consort and her lover – Krishna.

“Sati na hosyan girdhar gansyam, mhara man moho ghanasyami”

(I will not commit Sati; my heart and soul belong to Ghanshyam)


Credits: TFP

In medieval Indian history, the Bhakti Movement represents a revolutionary epoch that challenged the whole idea of Brahmanical orthodoxy and feudalism by popularizing devotional surrender or ‘bhakti’ to a personally conceived supreme God. It was subversive for its time because, as the Bhakti saints and poets radically philosophized – the idea of bhakti rests on the core belief that a bhakta or devotee doesn’t need the means of organized religion, like priests, temples, rites, and rituals regarding the caste system and gender differences, to achieve moksha. The path to salvation, according to them, was, thus, a personal quest that was based entirely on one’s deeds in this world or karma and not, as was monopolized by the feudal lords, on one’s caste, gender, or faith (dharma).

Besides being a time of immense social change, the age of the Bhakti movement, quite fascinatingly, also represents an age of tremendous literary output with poetic giants like Kabir, Tulsidas, Surdas, Nanak, and Mirabai writing ecstatic poetry to give vent to their progressive philosophies. It is evident, as the intrepid voice of a woman, in the poetry and philosophy of the radical and defiant Bhakti poet Mirabai, who believed in religious equality and identified herself, despite being a Rajput by birth, with the sufferings of the lowly and the downtrodden.

Born roughly around 1503 C.E. in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, Mirabai was a Kshatriya by birth, and her family folks were worshippers of Vishnu. Hence, she grew up amidst Vaishnava influence which had a lifelong impact on her. She was a powerful proponent of Vaishnava bhakti and composed thousands of verses and poetry set to music, called bhajans, in praise of Lord Krishna – an incarnation of Vishnu. And it was this resolute devotion towards Krishna, her God, her consort, and her lover, that gave Mira the strength to go against the inhibitions that society and even her family put in her way. She writes about this deep surrender in her poem, ‘I am pale with the longing for my beloved’ translated from Marwari by Susie Tharu and K. Lalitha:

"Don’t address me by my name
It’s the name of God that has wounded me.
They (People) have sent for a country doctor;
He grabs my arm and prods it;
How can he diagnose my pain?
It’s in my heart that I am afflicted." 

We behold this spirit of fearless rebellion, time and again, in Mirabai’s work and life. For instance, as the legend says, Mira disagreed to perform Sati, which was customary on the death of one’s husband, because she asserted herself to be married to Krishna, her ‘Girdhar Gopal’. She exclaimed her love for him as thus:

"Mere to Girdhar Gopal, doosra na koye"
(I only belong to Krishna and no one else.)
"Jaake sir mor mukut, mero pati soye"
(He (Krishna) who has a peacock-feathered crown on his head. He is my companion.)

This unconventional stance of Mirabai is also evident when we find that she stood against the conventions of her time regarding caste rigidities and accepted Raidas; an untouchable, as her religious teacher, or when she wrote, in a tone of defiance, such powerful verses confronting the men of power and their conception of beauty:

"Thara desa mein Rana saadh nahin chhe, log base sab kudo"
(In your kingdom Rana, the people are all garbage)
"Gehna gaanthi Rana hum sab tyaga, tyaga karro chuudo"
(I have renounced all jewelry and finery, even my wedding bangles)
"Kajal teeki hum sab tyagya, tyagya hai bandhan judo"
(I have renounced all makeup and stopped tying my hair too)

Moreover, it is important to realize that the very act of Mirabai writing poetry was revolutionary in itself. She was composing verses in an age where women were considered subordinate to men in all respects, even in spiritual worth, and were, therefore, deemed appropriate to follow men and not lead them in their worldly as well as religious pursuits. And in such a patriarchal world, Mirabai as we see, in her non-conformist way, wrote about the freedom and fulfillment she derived from taking a seat at the feet of her Almighty who is also her beloved, and her audacious love which forced her to not budge from that place, despite the objections from society.

Credits: InsightsIAS

Naturally, her poetry also resonates with this kind of absolute surrender and purity which very few of us can imagine let alone reach. In turn, it was her devotion for Krishna that made her so simple and transparent that the inequalities, differences, and obstacles of the world or samsara appeared nothing but an illusion to her.

Her bhakti had, thus, washed all her misconceptions and prejudices about the world, to such an extent, that she had gone beyond the petty barriers of caste, personal ego, and further ahead of caring how she looked or was perceived by the world. And it is because of this divine and humane love which Mira embodies that she becomes a poet of unity in discord, a spokesperson for the very equality of mankind, and a voice of dissent and devotion.

English translation of ‘Sati na hosyan…’ and ‘Thara desa mein Rana…’ by Pooja Priyamvada.

Vinay Rajoria is a student pursuing English Literature from Jamia Millia Islamia.

Edited by: Farzan Ghani

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Written by Vinay Rajoria

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