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Mirabai, a 16th century Indian royal, is known more through legend than verifiable historic fact. The following biography is an attempt to report those facts of Mirabai's life which are commonly accepted.
Mirabai was known for her songs of devotion to Krishna and for forsaking traditional women's roles to devote life to Krishna-worship. She was a Bhakti saint, poet and mystic, and also a Rani or princess. She lived from about 1498 to about 1545. Her name has also been translated as Mira Bai, Meerabai, Meera Bai, Meera, or Mīrābāī, and she is sometimes given the honorific of Mirabai Devi.
Heritage and Early Life
Mirabai's Rajputi grandfather, Rao Dudaj, created the fortress city of Merta, where Mirabai's father, Ratan Singh, ruled. Mirabai was born in Merta in the Kudki district of Pali, Rajasthan, India, about 1498. The family worshipped Vishnu as their primary deity.
Her mother died when Mirabai was about four, and Mirabai was raised and educated by her grandparents. Music was stressed in her education.
At an early age, Mirabai became attached to an idol of Krishna, given to her (legend says) by a traveling beggar.
At age 13 or 18 (sources vary), Mirabai was married to a Ranjputi prince of Mewar. Her new in-laws were upset with the time she spent at Krishna's temple. On the advise by letter of the poet Tulsidas, she left her husband and his family. Her husband died only a few years later.
His family was shocked that Mirabai did not commit sati, burning herself alive on her husband's funeral pyre, as was considered proper for a Rajputi princess (rani). Then they were further shocked when she refused to remain secluded as a widow and to worship his family's deity, the goddess Durga or Kali.
Instead of following these traditional norms for a widowed Rajputi princess, Mirabai took up enthusiastic worship of Krishna as part of the Bhakti movement. She identified herself as the spouse of Krishna. Like many in the Bhakti movement, she ignored gender, class, caste, and religious boundaries, and spent time caring for the poor.
Mirabai's father and father-in-law were both killed as a result of a battle to turn away invading Muslims. Her practice of Bhakti worship horrified her in-laws and the new ruler of Mewar. The legends tell of multiple attempts on her life by Mirabai's late husband's family. In all of these attempts, she miraculously survived: a poisonous snake, a poisoned drink, and drowning.
Mirabai returned to her home city of Merta, but her family also opposed her turning from traditional religious practices to the new Bhaki worship of Krishnu. She later joined a religious community in Vrindaban, a place holy to Krishnu.
Mirabai's contribution to the Bhakti movement was primarily in her music: she wrote hundreds of songs and initiated a mode of singing the songs, a raga. About 200-400 songs are accepted by scholars as being written by Mirabai; another 800-1000 have been attributed to her. Mirabai did not credit herself as the author of the songs - as an expression of selflessness - so her authorship is uncertain. The songs were preserved orally, not written down until long after their composition, which complicates the task of assigning authorship.
Mirabai's songs express her love and devotion to Krishna, almost always as Krishna's wife. The songs speak of both the joy and the pain of love. Metaphorically, Mirabai points to the longing of the personal self, atman, to be one with the universal self, or paramatma, which is a poet's representation of Krishna. Mirabai wrote her songs in Rajasthani and Braj Bhasa languages, and they were translated into Hindi and Gujarati.
After some years of wandering, Mirabai died at Dwarka, another place sacred to Krishna.
Mirabai's willingness to sacrifice family respect and traditional gender, family, and caste restrictions, and to devote herself completely and enthusiastically to Krishna, made her an important role model in a religious movement that stressed ecstatic devotion and that rejected traditional divisions based on sex, class, caste, and creed.
Mirabai was a "loyal wife" according to her people's tradition only in the sense that she devoted herself to her chosen spouse, Krishna, giving to him the loyalty she would not give to her earthly spouse, the Rajput prince.
Religion: Hindu: Bhakti movement
Quotes (in translation):
“I came for the sake of love-devotion; seeing the world, I wept.”
"O Krishna, did You ever rightly value my childhood love?"
“The Great Dancer is my husband, rain washes off all the other colors.”
"I danced before my Giridhara. / Again and again I dance / To please that discerning critic, / And put His former love to the test."
"I have felt the swaying of the elephant's shoulders; / and now you want me to climb / on a jackass? Try to be serious."