There is a story of a saint in India named Mirabai, who lived in the 16th century. As a child, she saw a wedding procession outside her window and asked her mother who would be her bridegroom. Her mother humored the girl, pointing to a small statue of Krishna. “There is your husband! Gopala himself. Love him and serve him as a good wife would her husband.” Mirabai took her mother seriously and devoted all her time to singing and dancing for Krishna. At night, she meditated in front of his image.
When she grew older, she was married to a prince, and although she did perform her wifely duties, she spent her evenings worshiping Krishna, whom she considered to be her true husband. Her in-laws did not approve of her love for Krishna and told her that she had better fall in line with their goddess, Durga. However, Mirabai refused, citing that she had already committed herself to Krishna. One day, her sister-in-law told the prince that Mirabai was making a fool of him and had taken a lover that she meets in the temple. Enraged, he drew his sword, ready to slaughter his wife’s lover. Instead, he found Mirabai in a state of spiritual ecstasy, pleading to her Krishna statue for love. Figuring that his wife was mentally ill, he decided to humor her, and he built her a small temple of her own.
News of Mirabai’s beautiful voice and dancing spread far and wide, and people began to visit her, enthralled by her ecstasy. One of her husband’s enemies decided to visit Mirabai, but knowing that his presence would cause problems, he disguised himself in beggar’s clothes. After hearing her sing, he was so moved that he offered Krishna a necklace, and he touched Mirabai’s feet, a sign of respect. Unfortunately, news of this exchange reached her husband, and he was so incensed that he told Mirabai to go jump in the lake—literally. As she was a (somewhat) obedient hindu wife, she tearfully said goodbye to her friends and prepared to commit suicide. However, just as she was about to jump, Krishna appeared to her and intimated that she should not kill herself.
Meanwhile, the moodiest man on Earth began to feel bad about overreacting to Mirabai’s…well, she didn’t really do anything, did she? When he finds that she is still alive, and living in a different city, he goes to her and begs for her forgiveness. She takes him back and lives without too much drama until his death, a few years later.
At this point, her in-laws really started twisting the screws. First, they demanded that she commit Sati, the absurdly gruesome and misogynistic practice of a woman throwing herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. Luckily, Krishna had already told her not to kill herself. Her refusal to die infuriated her in-laws, and they proceeded to try to assassinate her on three separate occasions.
Attempt 1: “Oh, here’s a basket with a garland in it for your Krishna. I hope you like it.” (Just kidding, it’s a cobra.) However, when Mirabai opens the basket, it damn well is a garland. You know someone got fired that day.
Attempt 2: “Let’s see how Mirabai likes sleeping on poisonous needs. I’ll just cover them up with these luxurious rose petals.” Mirabai sleeps like the dead but isn’t.
Attempt 3: “Here’s some poison…uh nectar…” Mirabai gulps it down, no problem.
Finally, she gets tired of all the distractions and goes to live with her uncle, who leaves her alone.
It was my favorite “book,” and my mom would often try to talk me out of choosing it as a bedtime story because it was so long. I think I was particularly attracted to the idea that a deity could protect a person, even from snakes and volatile family members. Self-preservation is strongest in the young. Also, I liked that Krishna is depicted as having blue skin and a kind face. He is often drawn as feminine: soft features, long eyelashes. In fact, for part of my childhood, I thought Krishna was a woman.
In graduate school, I was assigned a world literature class to teach and was excited to find Mirabai’s poetry in the Norton Anthology. Actually, very little can be confirmed about Mirabai’s life. It appears that she did experience a troubled marriage and the worst in-laws on Earth. There may have been attempts on her life. What I found most surprising, though, was the poetry itself. There are some poems that mostly focus on praising Krishna and describing Mirabai’s devotion and sacrifices:
in the dark one’s color.
I dressed up in my finery,
put on my dancing anklets,
abandoned all shame, and danced in public.
Gave up reason, went crazy,
kept the company of holy men,
found the true form of a devotee.
Sang and sang the praises
of Hari’s virtues, night and day—
so saved myself from the serpent of mortality.
Without my lord, the whole world’s brackish—
merely a mouthful of salt.
Apart from him, everything’s disposable.
Mira asks her lord who lifts mountains
to give her the kind of devotion
that seeps with sweetness—that’s luscious, flavorful.
(NOTE: The poems I have provided in this post are not indented properly. While I am very disappointed in how ridiculously difficult WordPress makes the simplest of formatting, I have also submitted to its tyranny. #corporatehatespoets #theman)
As a child, I recognized that Mirabai was rebellious; however, I did not realize the extent of her conflict with society. I was unaware, at that age, of the seriousness of India’s caste system, as well as the general history of misogyny. Also, my child’s comic book was riddled with mixed messages. For instance, Mirabai refuses to worship the goddess of her husband’s house. However, when her husband tells her to commit suicide she (according to this particular narrative) dutifully visits the river. The caption above the image of her bidding her friends a tearful goodbye reads, “Mira, the true Hindu wife, did not protest. She fondly took leave of her tearful companions…” (Fondly? She cries in three images leading up to her attempted suicide and looks miserable as she prepares to jump. I suppose she could be fond of her friends, but the word feels flippant, considering the heavy circumstances.) However, moments later in the text, she directly disobeys her husband by agreeing to listen to another man’s order. At least Krishna doesn’t want her to drown herself.
Yet again, though, the text contradicts when her husband asks her for forgiveness. In the image, it is Mirabai who bows to him and says, “Has Mira ever gone against the wishes of her husband? Yes, I will come to Chittor!” Yes, Mira has gone against her husband’s wishes—repeatedly.
There is an interesting short program from BBC (“Mirabai: I Go the Other Way” from Incarnations: India in 50 Lives) that discusses how Mirabai’s narrative is used in modern times. One of the conclusions is that, while Mirabai is used to protest the caste system, India is not ready to see her as an inspiration for women’s autonomy.
I find that inability disturbing. Such a large part of her rebellion (and her sacrifices) were based on the fact that she was a woman. Her experience would have been different, if she had been a man. The danger she willingly faced would not have existed, or at least, not to the same extent. The same imbalance exists today as does society’s need to suppress progress and not just in India. In most parts of the world, including the U.S., women’s “honor” is fragile, mostly controlled by men, and when shattered, results in the woman’s destruction or, in the very least, abuse.
The cowherd who carries mountains
is the one for me—
I want no one else.
I’ve looked and looked
all over the world—
I have no other savior.
I’ve left my brothers,
left my bondsmen,
left my blood relations.
I’ve been hanging out
with the likes of roaming holy men—
I’ve lost my honor in the world.
I’m delighted to see
my fellow devotees,
but I weep and weep when I see the world.
I’ve sown love’s vine—
I water it
with my flowing tears.
I’ve garnered the butter
from the curds,
and thrown away the whey.
The chieftain sent me a poison cup—
lost in love,
I gulped it down, straight.
Just to complicate love and feminist matters even more, Mirabai often proclaims such devotion to Krishna that she doesn’t even mind if he enslaves her.
My lord who lifts mountains—
I’m off to his home.
He’s my one true love.
The moment I see his form,
When night falls, I get up and go to him—
when day breaks,
I get up and return.
Night and day, I play with him.
I keep him happy
any which way I can.
I wear whatever he asks me to wear—
I eat whatever
he gives me to eat.
Our love’s an ancient love,
I can’t survive
a single moment without him.
I sit wherever he tells me to sit—
if he were ever to sell me,
I’d be willing to be sold.
Mira’s master is the lord
who lifts mountains—
again and again, she sacrifices herself to him.
Somehow, though, the poem I find darkest (and the poem that most appalled my students) is when she becomes violently angry at a bird for singing happily, while she’s miserably awaiting Krishna to take away the pain of this mortal coil:
Hey love bird, crying cuckoo,
don’t make your crying coos,
for I who am crying, cut off from my love,
will cut off your crying beak
and twist off your flying wings
and pour black salt in the wounds.
Hey, I am my love’s and my love is mine.
How do you dare cry love?
But if my love were restored today
your love call would be a joy.
I would gild your crying beak with gold
and you would be my crown.
Hey, I’ll write my love a note,
crying crow, now take it away
and tell him that his separated love
can’t eat a single grain.
His servant Mira’s mind’s in a mess.
She wastes her time crying coos.
Come quick, my Lord,
the one who sees inside;
without you nothing remains.
The violence in this poem always surprises. Clearly, the bird can’t win, but it’s the honesty and rawness of her feelings that impress. Can true love justify destruction? In Mirabai’s poem, it does. The bird’s happiness belongs to her, either to snuff out, if her love does not return; or to wear as a crown, if he does. Although problematic, there is something pure about her emotions. Despite the complications and dangers with which the world tries to encumber her, she feels that her love is simple.
What I like most about Mirabai’s work is her determination to buck the current. Although she shrouds each poem with the notion that she wears her “dancing anklets” and abandons “all shame” only to please Krishna, she still succeeds in making her own way, while negotiating abuse from her family and a violent, patriarchal system.
It’s hard to say if Mirabai was indeed sincere in her love for Krishna or if she invoked his image as a cultural shield to combat the relentless oppression that followed her. As a powerless woman of that time and place, I wonder if her love for Krishna was more so a defiant declaration of self-respect. Perhaps, Krishna was a symbol of freedom, for which she gladly, and ironically, welcomed bondage.
* * *
As Valentine’s Day approaches, whether you are giddy because you have picked the most perfectly cheese-tactic card for your wife (as I have) or if you are prepared to twist the beak off an offensively cheerful bird, I hope you find love, respect, and satisfaction!
P.S. Please check out Online Enlightenment, which is accepting new music, art, and poetry submissions!