Mystics on the Margins (Mirabai)

by Susmita Dave

 

I was keen to learn more about the female theologians before starting university however, I had limited space to study this at university almost exclusively focusing on male theologians and philosophers. The mysticism paper was an entry to a world of feminist thinking within theological discourse, including the way women use their physicality and sexuality to take up space. I got to explore two exciting female mystics Hadewijch and Mirabai, and appreciate how two women from different geographical and temporal locations can provide solace and inspiration to me as a female theologian today, through their ability to be subversive and creative in their devotional practices.


Firstly, I'd like to introduce you to Mirabai. Mirabai is a late 15 th and early 16 th century Hindu mystic whose work was a central part of the bhakti(devotional) movement of that time. This movement is distinct for expressing love of God through the analogy of human relationships, touching upon nuptial and erotic imagery.


Although Hindu poets of her day incorporated desire in their work, Hillgardner calls the unique form used in Mirabai’s work ‘viraha bhakti’. She defines this as a “mystical eroticism of longing” from the Vaishnava tradition. It includes erotic love but also themes of grief, jealousy and conflict. (Hillgardner). This technique, is what Mirabai employs to sing to Krishna, as her lover, and to reflect her own varying human emotions and physical urges directed towards him. If women were to express the emotions encompassed in Viraha Bhakti day-to-day, such as excessive grief for a lost lover, it would likely be viewed as stereotypical hysteria. Mirabai challenges this stereotype by employing it in her work as a way to cultivate an exceptional devotion for God both physically and spiritually. Through encouraging women to direct emotions like yearning and desperation towards God it legitimises women’s emotional depth in a religious sphere as a significant tool.


Mirabai transcends boundaries in her social context. Medieval Indian society, which had

some deeply patriarchal elements, saw women face the prospects of child marriage,

Sati(burning widows on the funeral pyre with their husband) and caste discrimination.

Mirabai was in a better position than most women being of Rajasthani royalty by birth and

becoming part of the kingdom of Marwa, through forced marriage. (Martin) Yet Mirabai did

not fit into the roles of a dutiful chaste wife and daughter-in-law that Rajasthani society had

expected her to fulfil. Her absolute devotion to God alone, frequent discussions with holy

men and expressing her sexuality openly in her songs provoked disapproval from her

extended family since this disloyalty to her husband was considered shameful. Mirabai holds

power as a woman describing her own physical sensations since males’ poets can only hope

to imitate these experiences but are not able to feel them to the same extent. In her song titled “ Saffron” she says ‘All the covers of the earthen vessel of my body are wide open; I have thrown away all shame before the world. Mira’s Lord is the Mountain-Holder, the suave

lover.’ The erotic imagery lets her reach Krishna as lover and shows a receptivity both

physically and emotionally to his embrace. Due to this disapproval attempts were made on

her life, including sending her poison disguised as holy water (Martin).


Mirabai was a defiant figure being able to take on multiple guises. These include a

“mystically inclined, wandering, rule-breaking, independent woman, a daughter, a wife, a

widow, a bhakta, an adulteress, a dancer, an ascetic, and, in some sense, a sati.”(Hillgardner).

After being exiled from Marwar for her behaviour, she is believed to have become an ascetic

denying her womanhood and bringing her closer to impurity (through associations of rubbing ash on her body and neglecting her appearance). This is reflected in one of her songs where she confesses to ‘stripping down from her clothes, taking off her ornaments, cutting her hair and putting on holy garments’. She does this as a protest while waiting for Krishna to return, illustrating her longing to desire and be desired. Yet it also reflects that she does not fit the categories society has placed on her as a woman but moves seamlessly between them andothers. This was the impetus for the title she was given: ‘Multiple Miras’.


 

Susmita Dave is currently in her third year of studying philosophy and theology at St Benet's Hall. Her interests include Buddhist ethics, mysticism, and feminist religious art.


keep an eye out for Mystics on the Margins part 2