The Mystical Indian Poet Who Defied Her Family And Married God
By Mary Mackey
Whenever I read the ecstatic love poems of Mirabai, I emerge elated, inspired, and awed. Discussing this great mystical poet is like trying to write a history of the universe on the head of a pin, but I think Mirabai herself would not only have approved of such an attempt; she would have found it quite rational, since she believed that everything in the universe was an emanation of a single, divine consciousness.
Born in the region of Rajasthan in 1498 into a wealthy, royal family, Mira (as she is affectionately known throughout India) was passionately devoted to the wordship of the Hindu god Lord Krishna whom she sometimes refers to as the “The Dark One.” Every poem Mira wrote was a love poem to Krishna, the the god of compassion, tenderness, and love who, Mira insisted, was her true husband.
I have always admired Mira’s energy, stubbornness, courage, powerful devotion to her own vision of the world, and unrelenting determination to follow her own path to the truth as she saw it. Abandoning her upper class family and all the power, advantages, and social expectations of a woman of her era, she refused marriage and child-bearing, threw away her jewels and silk saris, dressed herself in rags, and wandered alone through Rajasthan dancing and singing the highly-erotic poems she had composed to her divine lover.
The best English translations of her poems appear in Mirabai: Ecstatic Poems (Boston MA: Beacon Press 2004) translated from the Hindi by two of America’s finest poets: Robert Bly and Jane Hirshfield. In Bly’s translation of “It’s True I Went to the Market,” Mira tell us:
I went to the market and bought the Dark One . . .
What I paid was my my social body, my town body,
my family body, and all my inherited jewels.
Mirabai says: The Dark One is my husband now . . .
Mira’s conservative Hindu family, was—to say the least—displeased to have one of their daughters leave home, throw aside all modesty, wander about unaccompanied, write erotic religious poetry, shamelessly dance in the marketplace before a statue of Krishna, and study with a teacher who belonged to the lowest social cast. So they did what any highly conservative family of the time was obliged to do with regard to an errant woman who ignored social conventions: they tried to kill her, not just once but several times sending her goblets of poison and baskets filled with venomous snakes.
Legend has it that when Mira drank the poison, Krishna turned it into nectar, and when she reached into the baskets, the snakes turned into flowers. In any event, she survived her family’s attempt to murder her, went on writing exquisite love poetry to Krishna, mourning him when he was absent, delighting in his return, and bringing joy to her many followers until the moment when, so the story goes, Krishna appeared to her, opened his heart chakra, and she merged with him and disappeared.
Mira’s poems are still sung today all over India. She is a celebrated Bhakti saint, particularly in the north. I read her work often these days, not because I share her worship of Krishna, but because her ecstatic verse inspires me to write poetry that is free of constraints and expectations. I revel in the beauty and power of Mira’s language and stand in awe of her ability to merge the erotic with the divine and the mystical with the worldly. Like Santa Teresa, Saint John of the Cross, and Rumi, Mira reminds me that there is more to the universe than what we can see or even express in words. As Mira says in her poem “All I Was Doing Was Breathing”: “Without the energy that lifts mountains, how am I to live?”
Mary Mackey’s essay on Mirabai first appeared in the anthology Readers Without Borders 2019/2020, edited by Sharon Bard, Karen Petersen, and J.J. Wilson and published by The Sitting Room, a privately funded Community Library in Penngrove, California. To obtain a copy and read essays by 36 American writers about writers from all over the world whom they admire, you can go to https://www.SittingRoom.org or write to The Sitting Room, P.O. Box 838, Penngrove, CA 94951.