Mirabai is the most famous of the women bhakta poets of north India. Though there is some disagreement about the precise details of her life, it is generally agreed that she was born in 1498, the only daughter of a Rajput chieftain and landlord by the name of Ratan Singh, in the neighborhood of Merta, a fortress-city, founded by her grandfather Rao Dudaji, about 40-50 miles north-east of Ajmer. Her mother died when Mirabai was only four or five years old. Mirabai is said to have been devoted to Krishna from a very early age, and in one of her poems she asks, “O Krishna, did You ever rightly value my childhood love?” As her father was away much of the time, she was then sent to be raised at her grandfather’s house. Other members of the family were also inclined towards Vaishnava practices, and in this environment Mirabai’s own religious sentiments could grow freely. Upon the death of her grandfather, her uncle Viram Dev took her into his charge, and it is her uncle who consented to have her married off to Bhoja Raj, the heir apparent to the throne of the famous warrior Rana Sanga of the House of Sisodiya. There were no children from this marriage, and in the event Mirabai took no interest in her earthly spouse, since she believed herself to be married to Krishna. Her husband died sometime before her father passed away in January 1528 in a battle with the Mughal Emperor Babur in which her father-in-law was also seriously wounded. The standard narrative is that at this vital juncture Mirabai was left vulnerable to the hostility of her conservative male relatives, and that this hostility increased as Mirabai became visibly detached from the affairs of the world and her obligations to her in-laws. She began to frequent the temple, discoursed with the sadhus, and apparently danced before the image: as she put it in one of her poems,
I danced before my Giridhara.
Again and again I dance
To please that discerning critic,
And put His former love to the test.
I put on the anklets
Of the love of Shyam,
And behold! My Mohan stays true.
Worldly shame and family custom
I have cast to the winds.
I do not forget the beauty of the Beloved
Even for an instant.
Mira is dyed deeply in the dye of Hari. [Alston, p. 39]
A much younger male relative, Vikramajita, is described as having locked her into a room, but when that failed to bring Mirabai to her senses, he attempted, unsuccessfully, to poison her. It has been suggested that her relatives expected her to commit sati, or self-immolation, after the death of her husband; indeed, in one of her poems Mirabai wrote, “sati na hosyan girdhar gansyan mhara man moho ghananami“, “I will not commit sati. I will sing the songs of Girdhar Krishna.” Sometime around 1538 Mirabai arrived in Vrindavan, where she spent most of the remainder of her life before moving, shortly before her death, to Dwarka. One of the most famous anecdotes from her life, quite likely apocryphal, relates a meeting she had in Vrindavan with Jiva Goswami, a renowned Vaishnava of the Chaitanya school. Jiva Goswami at first refused to meet with her since she was a woman, whereupon Mirabai is said to have retorted: “I used to think that the Lord Krishna was the only man in Vrindavan and that all the rest of the inhabitants were gopis. Now I’ve discovered that there’s someone else here besides Lord Krishna who thinks of himself as a man.” Different traditions relate that Mirabai met Chaitanya, Tulsidas, Akbar, and Tansen, but none of these have ever been authenticated, and there is an inconsistency in the chronology, since Mirabai lived several decades before Akbar. Mirabai most likely passed away in 1546, but here too the evidence is very scanty. [See also “Mirabai: Poetry”
Chaturvedi, P. Mirambai ki Padavali [in Hindi]. 15th edition, Allahabad, 1973.
Secondary Works and Translations:
Alston, A. J, trans. and introduction. The Devotional Poems of Mirabai. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1980.
Pandey, S. M. “Mirabai and Her Contributions to the Bhakti Movement.” History of Religions 5, no. 1 (Summer 1965):54-73.