The Rajput princess whose spiritual anthems rejected the patriarchy.
Edward White’s The Lives of Others is a monthly series about unusual, largely forgotten figures from history.
In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to a church door in Wittenberg and sparked the Protestant Reformation. At the same time, thousands of miles away in South Asia, a phenomenon known as bhakti was coming to its conclusion, one that slowly transformed the Hindu faith over several centuries. Just as the Reformation swapped Latin for the vernacular, and Catholic hierarchies for a more direct connection between God and His worshippers, so bhakti—“devotion,” loosely translated—rejected Sanskrit (the ancient language of the social and political elite) for regional tongues, and the didactic wisdom of the Brahmins for the evangelical fervor of ordinary people. Unlike Luther’s plans for reform, bhakti was not a conscious, deliberate movement with a coherent body of thought or doctrine but a radical spirit and style of worship that some liken to the Great Awakening in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America, and what one historian has described as “intensely emotional, participatory, demotic and demonstrative … a glorious disease of the collective heart.” The most notable symptom of this disease was the great profusion of songs and poems created by adherents across India and Pakistan. The bhakti canon is vast and glorious. One of its greatest figures is a woman remembered as Mira Bai, whose songs have endured half a millennium, and whose singular significance in Indian society has only increased since the nation’s independence seventy years ago.
Born in the late fifteenth century, Mira was a princess of Merta, a small kingdom in what is now Rajasthan. When her mother died, Mira was sent to live with her grandfather, Rao Dudaji, under whose tutelage she received an intense education in religion, music, and the ways of the Rajput, the caste to which her family belonged. For close to a thousand years the Rajput had dominated northern India through a network of kingdoms based on a kind of super-sized chivalry: an ancient warrior code which stressed physical courage, martial skill, and unquestioning observance of masculine honor. But in the early sixteenth century their pre-eminence was challenged by a Muslim interloper named Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire. Hounded by the threat of foreign invasion and the collapse of their dynasty, Mira’s family made efforts to forge an alliance with Mewar, a fellow Rajput kingdom, led by the legendary Rana Sanga, the Rajput’s best last hope of maintaining their supremacy. Mira’s father had no more powerful way of binding himself to Rana Sanga than by offering the seventeen-year-old Mira, a renowned beauty and educated in the finest Rajput tradition, as a bride to the great warrior’s eldest son.
All Mira had to do was bow her head, seal her lips, and know her place. But nobody had accounted for her impudence: she denied the legitimacy of her marriage and refused to consummate it, causing outrage among her family and crippling shame to Bhojraj, her new husband. Appeals to honor made no difference; not even threats of violence dissuaded her. Princess Mira was a one-man woman, she told the royal courts, and that man was an impish, blue-skinned cow-herder: Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu adored by medieval low-caste Hindus for his twinkly-eyed pranking of authority, his love of women—he had more than sixteen-thousand wives—and his fantastical charisma. Krishna was both an everyman and a super-being who, not unlike Jesus, offered followers wisdom rather than lectures. Even aristocrats were susceptible to his charms. Seemingly since her early teens Mira had spent hours at temple worshipping Krishna, and even wore an idol of him about her person at the wedding. If her family thought this was a passing, juvenile phase, they were wrong. Mira was smitten.
Her father was appalled. In attempting to raise a daughter of impeccable Rajput virtue, he had created an iron-willed zealot who felt duty-bound to reject the authority of husbands, fathers, and kings. This, at least, is what we learn from the earliest accounts of Mira’s life, written many years after her death. There may have been all manner of reasons behind her audacity. Perhaps Bhojraj was an obnoxious creep she just couldn’t stomach, a pampered brat who mistook his fearsome father’s triumphs as a reflection of his own worth; an Uday or a Qusay, an Eric or a Don Jr. But the record tells us only that Mira refused to accept any man in her life other than Krishna. It was simultaneously a quiet expression of one girl’s moral conscience and an act of seismic political rebellion.
Roughly a decade into their unconsummated marriage, Bhojraj died. Just as Mira had refused to be his wife, she also repudiated the role of his widow. She would not wear the mourning garb, nor follow any of the customs expected of a royal woman grieving a lost husband. In Rajput culture, female self-sacrifice was crucial to the maintenance of clan honor. One folktale—probably apocryphal but perfectly emblematic—tells the story of a recently married woman who feared that her husband’s desire to return safely to her might prevent him from fighting with fearless abandon. She hit upon an ingenious solution: she had herself decapitated. The bracing, brutal logic was that seeing his wife’s mutilated head served to him on a plate would rob this young warrior of any reason to live, therefore giving him no excuse not to fight to the death. The woman might also have reasoned that she was merely accelerating the inevitable: suicide, usually by immolation, was expected of high-born women following military defeat of their men.
Mira was having none of that. Under enormous pressure to submit to the memory of Bhojraj, she chose to embrace Krishna more tightly than ever before. She withdrew almost entirely from palace life and spent her days at a temple where she welcomed mendicants, vagrants, and peasant mystics, and used her musical education to compose songs in praise of Krishna, renouncing the bonds of family in the most explicit terms:
I took to keeping hermits’ company,
Lost conventional modesty
My mother-in-law says
I destroyed the family honor
I have ceased to care
For people’s opinions
Soon after Bhojraj died, his father did, too, following an ignominious defeat to the Mughals. Now the embattled state of Mewar was in the hands of Bhojraj’s brothers: anxious, callow young men who carried the enormous burden of keeping the kingdom intact as its enemies lurked on its borders. The atmosphere at court was choking; intrigue, discord, and suspicion filled every corner, as insidiously as curls of drifting smoke. You were either with the ruling family or you were against them. Mira’s behavior was interpreted as open sedition. Bhojraj’s brothers decided that she must be eliminated.
Mira wrote songs that taunted her adversaries, detailing their wickedness and her miraculous strength, the foundation of her legend. In attempting to end her life, her in-laws made her immortal. They sent her a deadly cobra in a basket, but when she lifted the lid the snake turned into an idol of Krishna; they drugged her food, but it turned to ambrosia in her mouth; they sent her a bed of nails, but the spikes became soft petals against the bare skin of her back. Sounding like Édith Piaf railing against the indignities that life had tried to pile upon her, she told her masters that she regretted nothing, and could not be destroyed:
O King, I know you gave me poison
But I emerged,
Just like gold, burned in fire,
Comes out bright as a dozen suns
Eventually, she decided that the two parts of her existence—Rajput princess and devotee of Krishna—could no longer be sustained. One night, disguised as a vagabond, she snuck out of the palace to start a new life. There would be no more half measures: her every breath would now be dedicated to Krishna, traveling on pilgrimage to the places he had lived, worshipping him every step of the way, living the life of an itinerant singer. As the seventeenth-century saint Nabhadas remarked, the greatest living embodiment of Rajput womanhood had broken “the fetters of family … the chains of shame,” in exchange for bondage to the eternal lover.
There are hardly any undisputed historical facts about Mira’s life. All we know of her stems from her songs, a beguiling mixture of autobiography and praise, a celebration of individual identity that at the same time dissolves it in devotion to the Almighty. Consequently, there can be few women from the sixteenth century, anywhere in the world, whose emotional lives are so open to us. She sang about Krishna as though he were a real man, and, in keeping with the burning emotionalism of what we have come to know as bhakti, her love for him was not only reverential but palpably erotic, and completely human. In certain songs she adopted the persona of one of his thousands of lovers, singing of the thrills he gave her, but also of the jealous fury that enveloped her when she saw him with other girls, and then the quivering insecurity she felt at the thought of losing him, crying and running around in panic, begging friends to help her get him back. “[He] doesn’t even touch my fingers, but playfully twists her arms … please look at me … Mira’s pain will go, only when the Dark One is the healer.” In praise of Krishna, Mira stripped herself bare. She threw off her learning, her poise, her cultivated manners. There’s nothing she wouldn’t do for Krishna: change her appearance, dress up, dress down, act the refined lady, or a wanton peasant:
If he says so, I’ll color my sari red;
if he says so, I’ll wear the godly yellow garb;
if he says so, I’ll drape the part in my hair with pearls;
if he says so, I’ll let my hair grow wild.
Where the verses about Mira’s family evoke Piaf and other brass-plated divas, the verses about Krishna could almost be lyrics from early sixties girl groups like the Supremes, a guileless coo of devotion to Mr. Right that is also, paradoxically, a holler of female agency in an era before the sexual revolution. It is precisely that mixture of daring assertiveness and humble submission that has attracted ordinary Hindus to Mira’s songs.
Mira is one of only a very few female bhakti singers whose legend has spanned the centuries, but many of her male counterparts composed their most enduring songs in the guise of a woman. The historian Mark Juergensmeyer explains these moments of gender swapping: “They understood a woman’s gift for feeling to be a bhakti virtue … [They] willingly stripped themselves of the status that went with their male rank to learn what true feeling meant.” Think of drag queens, who slip on the exaggerated persona of a battle-bruised but indestructible woman as a means of conveying thoughts and feelings that dare not speak their name.
The growing legend of her disobedience exacerbated the shame she had caused among the Rajput aristocrats. Eventually, two emissaries came face-to-face with her in a temple in Dwarka, the city said to have been built by Krishna. There were no weapons, vicious beasts, or lethal potions brandished on this occasion. Instead, the emissaries staged a “dharna,”—the type of sit-in protest that Mahatma Gandhi would one day make famous—and told her they weren’t moving until she agreed to return with them to the Mewar court. Mira listened to their appeal and said she would take a moment to seek Krishna’s advice on what she should do. She stepped inside the sanctum sanctorum, stared into a statue of Krishna, and dissolved into his image, her form and his becoming one. The emissaries were left sat alone. Mira was never seen again. She passed from this life a free woman.
In the five centuries since her death, Mira’s songs have kept her vibrantly alive. In the days of Company rule and the Raj, she fascinated British scholars who elaborated on her legend, transforming her into a kind of Eastern Britannia, an allegorical representation of the subcontinent. In the early 1900s, she became a Joan of Arc figure to Hindu nationalists, who saw in her rejection of the elite power structures of her day a parallel with their own struggles against imperial domination. Four years before Independence, the artist Kanu Desai published the story of Mira’s life in ten illustrations. One of them, featuring Mira in the throes of ecstasy while communing with Krishna, is etched out with Aubrey Beardsley’s whiplash line, looking like Salome’s Rajput cousin: an ancient parable and a modernist pioneer.
The sharp edges of Mira’s story haven’t completely eroded. In the 1990s, the British scholar Parita Mukta traveled to Rajasthan to investigate Mira’s connection to the rural communities among whose ancestors Mira spent her final days. To her astonishment, she discovered that although Mira had always been lauded by the Dailt—“untouchables”—for hundreds of years her songs had been taboo among the Rajput of Rajasthan, the community against whom Mira had sinned; the word Mira was a Rajasthani term for slut. “It was not that we were ordered to never mention the name of Mira,” said a civil servant Mukta interviewed. “We knew not to … She was hated completely. I know that if anyone had dared to talk about her, he would have been thrown out of state service.”
Yet, perhaps now the time has come for Mira’s final and most triumphant transformation: into an embodiment of Rajput pride. In recent times, several horrifically violent, and very public, sexual assaults in cities like Delhi, Mumbai, and—just this past week—Bangalore, have made the role of women in Indian society a topic of global interest; in their fight against vicious misogyny, some Indian feminists see Mira as a fortifying precedent of a woman who refused to be cowed. Rajput women have doubly strong interest in celebrating Mira’s life and legacy. Not only was she a woman who rejected patriarchal authority, but she did so by exhibiting typically Rajput traits: obdurateness, tenacity, and boundless courage.
Edward White is the author of The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America.