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Mirabai


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(c.16th century ce)

The most celebrated and popular North Indian poet-saint (sant). The earliest extended hagiographical account of her life is that of Priyādās (1712 ce). According to this narrative (the basis of numerous variants and expansions in later hagiographies), Mīrā was a Rājput princess who, although married to a prince of Mewār, was so exclusively devoted to Kṛṣṇa, whom she considered to be her real husband (in his guise as ‘Lifter of Mount Govardhana’), that she deliberately contravened all the usual class (varṇa) and social expectations, preferring to keep the company of fellow devotees of all castes, and to express her saguṇa bhakti through ecstatic singing and dancing. Miraculously surviving her husband's family's attempts to incarcerate and then poison her, she left home to lead the life of a mendicant poet and singer. First she travelled to Vṛndāvana, where she acquired a considerable following; later, she settled in Dvārakā, and it was at the temple there that she vanished—drawn by the god into his own image.

Mīrā's Hindi songs (i.e. those attributed to her), many of them seemingly autobiographical, have maintained a wide and undiminishing appeal, and have been set to all kinds of music across the subcontinent. Inevitably, they are particularly popular in Hindi-speaking regions, and especially with lower-caste women, who identify with their antinomian stance in relation to caste and gender differences, and their evocations of ordinary, daily life. In style too, her songs are redolent of the simple and repetitive idiom employed by women's folk songs. In this poetry, Mīrā frequently identifies herself as one of the gopīs, and, because of her sex, she is perceived by her devotees to have a closer and more direct relationship with Kṛṣṇa than that enjoyed by male bhaktas, who have to assume the woman's role. Going even further, some poems present her as married to the god, in the paradoxical union of two world-renouncing yogīs—the union for which she so avidly aspires. Mīrā's ‘biography’, or legend, has been equally popular, inspiring, in the 20th century, comic strips, novels, dramas, and multiple cinematic renditions.

Subjects: Hinduism.


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