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Meera Bai, a poetess-saint, who found independence in devotion

A poetess-saint’s life story

Many saints have lived on earth in various countries and varied regions and most-such true saints have left behind stories of their purity and powers. Similarly, in India there lived a poetess-saint, a once-upon-a-time princess called Meera Bai, who today and always, will remain an iconic figure here. Her story still has an immense hold on people and residents of India. Meera Bai’s name, also written as Mirabai, is associated with Lord Krishna and one cannot be known without the other - such is the story of their bond.

This is the true story of a poetess-saint, who dedicated her life to Bhakti, or devotion to Lord Krishna, a Hindu God of immense powers. Meera Bai (1498-1547) was a princess, poetess and saint and later on, became a renowned name in India. Her birth year and the year of her death are indicatory and the precise dates may vary from the ones mentioned here. Her birthplace in India is the holy Merta city, in Rajasthan. Her name is legendary, and her story is known in almost every household in India. The reasons lie in the extent of her eternal love for Shri Krishna. She removed herself from royal surroundings to move into an abode of extreme surrender to the almighty in his ideal and idol form. Along the journey, she met with resistance, and all kinds of accusations and nonacceptance. However, she sought independence in the vision of the one she loved - only Krishna.

There are many myths and legends attached to her life story, and these cannot really be verified for they happened a long time back. Some of the narratives of her life episodes were transferred verbally through storytelling for generations that followed. Many Indian cinematic ventures have portrayed her story in a similar vein, for the uniqueness of her devoutness and love. However, some of the stories are fictionalized, although, they have tried to keep the basic pious structure of her life intact for viewers to understand and follow.

Truth and Myth

There are myriad renditions and versions of Mirabai’s life. However, the crux of all narratives emphasizes in similarity, her attachment to Krishna and detachment from all else.

Meera Bai was a princess, she was the daughter of the ruler of Merta, a small region in Rajasthan. Her father’s name was Rao Ratan Singh and her cousin brother was prince Jaimal. Her grandfather was Rao Dudaji, founder of the Merta state, who was the son of the founder of Jodhpur state, Rao Jodhaji. They were part of the Rajput clan of Rajasthan. Their family believed in the Vaishnava culture and were also believers of Lord Krishna. It is also known that Meera lost her mother at a young age. How Meera’s devotion and fascination for Krishna began are intertwined with several stories and fables. It is for any believer to decide what they wish to embrace and accept.

One myth revolves around the arrival of a holy man at their palace with an idol of Krishna and how the child Meera played with it, bathed it, dressed it, and took care of it. However, when the holy man left, he took the idol with him, refusing to give it to young Meera. The young princess became sad and could not be comforted after the statue was taken from her, so her brother Jaimal took her to the holy man to get the idol back. Upon reaching his house, they saw how the idol had tears in its eyes, and how it refused any offering made by the holy man to it. Upon seeing Meera, the holy man gave the idol of Lord Krishna to her - for her to keep and cherish.

Another story about her life as a child is about how Meera once saw a marriage procession passing by the gates of their palace, when she saw the groom. Instantly she turned to her mother, Veer Kumari, and asked, “Where is my bridegroom, mother?” In response to this, her mother took her in front of the idol of Lord Krishna and pointing to it, said, “He is your bridegroom, your husband.” From that day, Meera considered Krishna as her soul-mate, her friend and her husband.

As was mandatory with the lives of all princesses, Meera was married to Prince Bhoj Raj (also known as Rana Kumbha) of Chittorgarh in Rajasthan. He was heir to the kingdom of Chittorgarh, a region of valiant warriors and courageous kings. Chittorgarh - as it was the region of princes and rulers, expected the new queen to adapt to their lifestyle and culture. However, they were soon to be shocked and surprised. Meera had married the prince only in name, to her, he would never be her husband or her lover. For her, Lord Krishna was everything - her life was devoted to Lord Krishna and he was her only spouse. Stories of how her husband slowly accepted her love and devotion for Krishna are also well-known. It is also said that her husband became her friend and supported her on several matters.

Although Meera Bai tried to take care of her duties in the new kingdom, she could not give up her Krishna. She started to mix with saints, and was even found singing devotional songs, on streets, unmindful of the decorum and etiquette to be maintained by queens - such was her immersion in Krishna. She is also during the time, said to have accepted the saint Raidas (Ravidas) as her guru. On the other hand, it is also said that she had no guru. Some contrary accounts also suggest that her husband did not entirely agree with her for giving up everything for the lord, for not worshipping the family deity, and even mixing with those from lower castes. She faced the ire of many other people of various ranks for her disobedience to the rules of the society and for her behavior that did not befit a queen of such a kingdom. There is definitely some truth to all these tales, because what she practiced was extraordinary and would have produced such varied responses. It is also important to note that her poems do carry indicative narrations of incidents that may have come to pass in her life.

In Chittorgarh though, there is a temple dedicated to Meera, within the palace walls, and this was here that Meera would pray to her Krishna and sing Bhajans, or spiritual songs to him - songs of longing, searching, love, surrender and belonging. It is said the temple was built for her by her husband so that she did not leave the palace grounds and sing with abandon on the streets. Some stories also mention the presence of a wicked sister-in-law, who was against Meera’s behavior, but later on, understood her selfless devotion to Krishna.

Some stories point out how even the emperor Akbar, and his court musician Tansen, upon hearing about her, came to visit her in the Krishna temple, within the palace grounds in Chittor, in disguise. The Sisodias, the kinship ruling Chittorgarh, were at war with the Mughals, whose ruler was King Akbar, and his presence would have offended the people of the land. When the duo heard her sing and saw her spiritual love for Krishna, King Akbar’s eyes welled up and he left a precious necklace at the feet of the idol of the lord before leaving. He even took Meera Bai’s blessings. It is also often mentioned that on knowing that their arch rival had come into their land and had left jewels and sought Meera’s blessings, Prince Bhoj Raj had asked Meera to leave their kingdom forever - and drown herself in the river. She had followed his instructions and taking the name of Krishna had walked almost into the river, when the Lord himself came to her rescue and asked her to leave Chittor and seek him elsewhere.

However, another story goes that after Meera’s worldly husband gave up his life in battle, Meera refused to commit sati (self-immolation on the funeral-pyre when the husband dies) because Krishna was her real husband. She was then possibly supported by her father-in-law, but he and Mirabai’s own father also eventually died in battle. From then on, there was sharp dissension for her devotion from many directions; later on, her brother-in-law who came to power, tried to kill her many times - by trying to poison her, by putting a snake in a flower basket sent to her and in several other ways. But she survived all this – the poison could not harm her even though she drank it, the snake turned into a garland, and so on - and this is attributed to the protection given by a higher spiritual being like Krishna, to his supreme devotee, Meera. She also tried returning to Merta, but was turned away.

Meera associated with saints, and one of the most-renowned saints during those times was saint Tulsidas, who asked Meera to abdicate material possessions and move to Vrindavan, the heart of Braj, where lived the followers of Lord Krishna. During her journey to some of these cities and while she lived there, she sang, wrote padas, or spiritual poems, songs, all in the name of Shri Krishna - she sometimes danced on the streets in these cities, lost in the love of her Krishna.

What remains now

To gain insight into what the present regions where Meera had lived and visited hold, one may have to visit Merta in Rajasthan, an important city, where she was born (more accurately the village Kudki, which is home to Meera Mahal and a Krishna Temple) and a city that holds many memories of her. Merta city is a small city in the interiors of Rajasthan. At present, it is a very crowded, village-like town, with temples, small houses, buildings, pencil-like narrow lanes and by lanes, local shops, women selling bangles, vegetables, fruits and other items, on streets - a place cumbersome for any outsider to explore without proper directions and guidance. The city however has a wonderful spiritual energy and several knowing citizens. If one wants to go there, it will be a good idea to go to the city either from Pushkar or from Jodhpur. From Pushkar or Jodhpur it would be much closer. Options for travel would be available either via road or train, from other cities of Rajasthan, as well.

Upon reaching Merta - Meera Smarak or memorial, and Meera Mandir, which is a temple, are two important places to see. The former houses many images of Meera and showcases her life as statues, paintings, and text - to impart knowledge to seekers and visitors. The latter is a temple of Lord Charbhujanath, another name for Vishnu, or Krishna, and directly in front of it, is a small temple, encasing an idol of Meera, seen in a worshipping stance. This could be about 120 feet away from the main temple. Mirabai is said to have worshipped Lord Krishna right here when she was a young girl. Both these places are holy and revive the strong pull of Mirabai on her followers and those of Shri Krishna. Here, visitors from other parts of the country and devotees of Meera Bai actively persuade one to know the life of Meera Bai, the saint, and to learn how her devotion is an inspiration for so many followers.

These two remembrances are mostly visited by visitors from within India, and not as much from abroad. However, interested individuals from far-off locations and places, and from foreign destinations also come here to learn more about the life of the saint. During my trip, I saw several locals folding their hands in front of the pictures and statues of Meera Bai in reverence. I was doing the same too. Some mature knowing locals and visitors spoke passionately about Mirabai’s life story, and how she disappeared into nothingness, because of her Prema Bhakti, or divine love for Lord Krishna. I queried them if someone had seen her disappear the way she did - to this, I was answered by an old gentleman who was from Haryana, a state in India, “It is well-known how Meera Bai had disappeared and it happened the way it is said it did. There is no doubt about it.”

I also queried one of the Meera Memorial officials on any real image of Meera Bai that I could see - something someone had painted after seeing her in person. What I was shown was a black and white representation of her – a small picture framed in glass. She was sitting amongst some musicians, with a tambori in hand, clad in a white saree. She had a beautiful side profile in that image - simple, pure and glowing. She looked immersed. The memorial also has a large collection of books on Meera Bai, and her songs, as well.

Some young local students, were also there visiting the memorial and the temple close-by. Some of them took pictures of Meera Bai’s statues inside the memorial, originally a palace-like-house for the members of Meera Bai’s family. They urged me not to miss seeing the Meera Mandir. I was also asked by the Smarak official to be at the temple in time to see the Charbujanath idol before they closed the temple doors. Devotees flocked the temple, queuing up to see the statue of Charbhujanath, whose eyes glowed in the not-so-well-lit temple. He looked impressive and powerful. I was given some prasad by the temple priest. I prayed as I moved up the queue. As soon as I exited from his earthly abode, the temple doors to the dwelling place of the Lord’s beautiful figure closed. I felt lucky to have seen him from such close quarters.

After this, I moved out into a side courtyard and saw local women seated on the temple floor, in colourful sarees, singing hymns and songs written by Meera Bai. People stood close to them and listened to them singing in a group. The entire temple also had illustrations and text bordering the top portion of some of its walls, elucidating some significant aspects of the life of Meera Bai - including letters Meera Bai had written to Tulsidas, asking him to guide her, while he replied to her, asking her to renounce the material end of life.

Chittorgarh, on the other hand, is also in Rajasthan and has some memories of their erstwhile queen, in the form of a temple. There is a Meera temple, a place where she prayed, within the same compound inside the palace grounds, which also contains the Kumbha Shyam Temple. Chittorgarh is much larger than Merta and has a grand appearance because of its many forts, palaces, stambhs (towers) and other sights. Chittor was the place where Meera Bai’s husband lived and the place her father-in-law ruled. Chittorgarh fort also houses Kanwar Pada Palace inside Kumbha Palace where Mirabai had lived after her marriage. However, due to the earlier mentioned problems she faced there she had to leave Chittor and journey like a true wandering minstrel.

Meera Bai is also known to have travelled to Vrindavan, where she spent a few years, and then moved to Dwarka, during the end of her life - both of these are holy places, which have many Krishna followers. These are cities with narrow lanes and by lanes, small houses, religious communities, temples, and locations teeming with devotees of Lord Krishna. Here you can hear songs being sung in the praise of the Lord by ardent Lord Krishna admirers. During her life span, she is also said to have journeyed through Pushkar and some other parts of Gujarat. Meera Bai wrote and sang in Vraj-bhasha (local dialect) and in parts, in Rajasthani language. Meera Bai’s journeys were not an escape, but more an independent path, where she was only searching for her lord, and no fear, worry, societal shackles, could keep her from finding him.

Meera Bai’s name is so significant that many sculptors and artists have created portraits of her, representing her luminescent halo and purity. She would usually wear white or saffron saris, and one can see that in cinematic representations, or as illustrations and paintings of hers. Even in Merta, one can see statues of her in a white saree, or in saffron clothes, inside the memorial, even in the temple, representing purity and chastity. The sculptures present Meera Bai gazing at her Lord with reverence, and playing an instrument like tambori or cymbal and singing, also perhaps conveying the forlornness she sometimes felt, in his absence in the myriad worldly forms.

In Loutolim, in Goa, a sculptor and artist Mahendra Jocelino Araujo Alvares has created the largest laterite sculpture from a single piece of rock presenting Meera Bai in stone, holding a musical instrument in hand. Another temple called the Jagat Shiromani ji temple in Jaipur, housed within Amer fort, is a Meera Temple and houses the real Krishna idol, which was known to have been worshipped by the saint herself. Nurpur in Himachal Pradesh, also contains an antique statue of Krishna, in the temple known as Brij Raj Bihari Temple. The idol is said to have been formerly prayed to by the saint, and was carried there by the King of Nurpur. Another important Krishna temple exists in Gujarat, which is known as Ranchhodraiji Temple - Mirabai had travelled here, too. There are several other temples in the name of Mirabai, in places like Vrindavan and others.

Merging with the idol of Krishna

Although it has been centuries since Mirabai lived, her songs, her poems or padas (verses) are still remembered and listened to by many Indian households, for the devotional aspect they engender in them. She may have written around 1200 and more songs. However, she did not credit them to herself, but they spread orally, and were written down much later. Her poems and songs are all devoted to her love for Krishna, her savior, and her everything. To even think of this kind of love and affection for a God, whom she had never seen in real, but had faith in, is almost rare – to devote one’s life to Bhakti (devotion) is exceptional.

Sant Meera Bai’s songs and poems are known throughout the country. They have been translated into English and are available as books and in other publications. “Mere to Giridhar Gopal, Doosro na Koi,“ meaning, Gopal, my Krishna, is my one and all, no one else is — this aptly describes the state of her devout consciousness.

In spite of the many constraints set upon her by societal norms, she never left her faith in Krishna. She found freedom from worldly bondage, by immersing herself in her devoutness for Krishna’s name. Stories of miracles surround her, anecdotes about the enrapturing nature of her rendition of songs on the streets, temples and elsewhere, in the then, very traditional society, are well-known. Her innocence and purity were in a way, her independence, and in her love and devotion to Lord Krishna, she had found her Moksha, her enlightenment.

She was one among many saints who were the proponents of the Bhakti movement.
Her life was a constant struggle, to achieve freedom to pursue her belief in Krishna. She attained this state of liberation from earthly life, by her selfless devotion to her Krishna, the image of a God she had never seen and the one she always wrote poems about, sang to and searched for. Such a state of veneration and otherworldly independence would require a spiritual love of enormous magnitude and Meera Bai was an embodiment of such spiritual powers.

The end of her life also to date remains a mystery. It is said that her body merged with the stone figurine of Jagat temple, known as Dwarkadhish or Dwarkadheesh, another name for Lord Krishna, the enchanter, the lord of Dwarka, where Krishna is revered and his name is on the lips of every resident. No trace of her is said to have been found in that temple, only her saree, found near the stone idol of Krishna. It is also possible that she embarked on journeys to religious places within some parts of India, without revealing her true identity, and left her human body at an older age. For devotees though, the former story is closer to the heart. Meera Bai had to face numerous challenges, and in many cases had to brave many battles of life and in all of these, she was known to have been protected by Lord Krishna, in several instances. What more freedom could this pure saint have asked for? She only wanted to belong to Krishna and find him, and at the end of her life, she clearly discovered him by merging into his stone-form. She sought independence in the lord and finally found it.

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Picture Credit: Photo of Lord Krishna and Mirabai statue inside Meera Smarak, Merta - by Trisha Bhattacharya

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