Sunday, February 8, 2009

History Bite: Mirabai

Mirabai is perhaps the most celebrated Indian female poet and singer of the 15th and 16th century. Mirabai (Meera) was born into the Rajput aristocracy and from an early age she was devote worshiper of Lord Krishna. Mirabai was raised in a sect of mystical Hinduism that is called Bhakti. The Bhakti tradition dictated that pure love was the only way to achieve alignment with one’s god, without the restriction of caste, gender or colour, which were still very visible in marking the path of existence in Indian society at large.

The followers of Bhakti had to give up their families and their worldly lives to wander as teachers of this spiritualism and this thought process, as did Mirabai. She quickly gained the ear of many and soon the formation of communities sprung with like-minded individuals. Mira was a most transformative artist and spiritual enlightener as a woman of her time. Firstly, Hinduism was a polytheistic society and consisted of the worship of multiple deities. Mira however, kept to her strict devotion of Krishna alone. She overtly shared conversations with Krishna through the creation of poetry and music that she preached to the masses. Furthermore in order to practice Bhakti one was also expected to live with people outside of your particular caste system. This thought of unification beyond religion and poverty lines was radical and near invisible at the time. The forbidden was very much driven by the rules of the upper classes. This melted into a reality of charity and humbleness fueled Mira to spread her unwavering message of love of all as equals. The thought of being momentarily subversive was seen as a stepping-stone that would eventually elevate a person to be revered.

In 1516 Mira was married to Prince Bhoj Raj of the Rajput kingdom of Mewar, the most powerful Rajput state in the early 16th century. From the start Mirabai was a problem with her unique way of living and thinking which was in conflict with all realms of monarchial notions. 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 jewel and insisting on associating with the community of Bhaktas (those who practiced Bhakti). Bhoj Raj died after only three short years after they were married, and as a final act of rebellion against compromising her dedication to Krishna and Bhakti religion, Mirabai refused to join him on his funeral pyre. This was a practice at the time expected of high caste Rajput widows, but instead she claimed that now she was free to devote herself completely to the worship of Krishna.

Mira's devotional practices became increasingly intense and it began to harbour the attention of individuals of all social groups and caste systems. She was seen to often sing and dance herself into ecstasies in public places like temples while singing bhajans (religious songs). Mirabai returned once briefly to her family home, but in the face of further family harassment decided to leave the kingdom of Chittor (the capital of the Rajput kingdom) indefinitely. She passed her last days in Dwarka on the coast of the Arabian sea. This was believed to be the site where Krishna dwelled in his youth.

Mirabai’s life and courage resonates in the hearts of many in India today for a multitude of reasons. First there are her words, which with beauty and joy express a kind of female liberation that seemed irreversible to the push of the set politics and minds that were of the ruling class mindset. Through her provocative arts and teachings she rejected the temptation of wealth and living within the lap of luxury to gain the affection and attention of the poor. Beyond her creation of work there is also the evolution of the Indian woman through her literal body. Mira was a childless woman who succeeded in captivating value outside the typical role of mother, which was revered in Indian women above all else.

I Have Found

I have found, yes, I have found the wealth of the Divine Name's gem.
My true guru gave me a priceless thing.
With his grace, I accepted it.
I found the capital of my several births;
I have lost the whole rest of the world.
No one can spend it, no one can steal it.
Day by day it increases one and a quarter times.
On the boat of truth, the boatman was my true guru.
I came across the ocean of existence.
Mira's Lord is the Mountain-Holder,
the suave lover, of whom I merrily, merrily sing.

-Mirabai, Indian Poetess
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