Mirabai: Biography, Poems & Books

Instructor: Ian Matthews

Ian teaches college writing and has a Master's in Writing and Publishing

Mirabai, Mira Bai, or Meera is known by many names. She was a canonical poet of Hindu faith, but how much of her story is true and how much is legend is still unclear. Let's take a look at the life and work of this remarkable woman.

The Trouble with Legends

Like many holy or mythical figures, it's tough to know which details of Mirabai's life are true, and which are exaggerated. Since she was so influential in Hinduism and in art, the legend and the reality are sometimes hard to separate. For instance, there are over 1,400 poems and songs attributed to Mirabai - scholars say she only wrote a couple hundred at the most.

No authentic primary sources exist that detail Mirabai's life. The facts that we know about Mirabai today are pieced together from a few different sources, mostly her own poems and the secondhand accounts of people who met her during her lifetime. So, here's what we know.

The Rajput Princess

Mirabai was born around 1498 to aristocratic parents of the Rajput clan in India. When she was very young, a traveling priest gave her family a doll of the god Krishna. Mirabai formed a strong bond with the doll - some stories even say she wouldn't eat unless she had the doll with her.

Mirabai's mother died when she was very young, about 5 years old, and Mirabai devoted herself to Krishna from about the same age. She even performed a wedding ceremony for herself and the doll, which she took very seriously. For the rest of her life, Mirabai believed Krishna to be her husband.

Trouble With the In-Laws

Mirabai's earthly marriage was arranged for her, to a prince named Bhoj Raj. His family worshiped Shiva, so there was friction between Mirabai and her in-laws because of their competing beliefs. There was further friction when Mirabai insisted that she was actually married to Krishna, so her marriage to Bhoj Raj was of no consequence to her.

Mirabai was part of a group of Hindus called the Bhakti, who emphasized pure, total love for an unspecified God figure. There wasn't room in Mirabai's life for a husband or another god since she had devoted herself entirely to Krishna.

Widowed

Bhoj Raj died in battle after a few years of marriage. At the time, the cultural expectation was that a widow would throw herself on her husband's funeral pyre, burning to death with him, but Mirabai refused. Krishna was her husband, so why burn up with this guy? Her defiance of the rules and restrictions for a woman during that time caused her to become more popular and celebrated among her audience.

But it really angered her in-laws, who were still the rulers of the kingdom where Mirabai lived. Her brother-in-law, the new ruler, tried to have her killed (here myth takes over a bit - some say he tried to poison her but Krishna turned it into tasty juice, others say that he put nails in her bed that Krishna turned into rose petals, etc.).

One with Krishna

Mirabai eventually left her kingdom to fully devote her life to Krishna. She danced from village to village, writing poems and studying with various holy men. Much of this time is lost or embellished by folklore, especially her death. Stories say that Krishna appeared to Mirabai one day in front of a temple crowd, and she joined her soul to his, leaving her earthly body behind.

Mirabai's Poems

Mirabai's love for Krishna (called the Dark One in her poems) is the sole subject of her writing. She differs from other Bhakti in this way, as their god is less specific, but Mirabai was totally devoted to Krishna. She viewed herself as a learner at his feet, waiting for him to take her away as his true wife into a higher realm.

Most of Mirabai's poems are of a form called pada, meaning verse. They're short, spiritual songs, with simple rhythms and often with repeated lines. Here's an example.

Keep Up Your Promise

'Take my arm

and keep up your promise!

They call you the refugeless refuge,

they call you redeemer of outcasts.

Caught in a riptide

in the sea of becoming,

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