Jump to Content Jump to Main Navigation

In This Article Mirabai

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works in Hindi
  • Devotion
  • Gender and Feminist Analysis
  • Exemplary Power for Women
  • Performance, Oral Traditions, and Resistance
  • Gandhi and Mirabai

Hinduism Mirabai
by
Nancy M. Martin

Introduction

Mirabai (also known as Meerabai, Mira, Meera) is the most well known of the women bhakti (Hindu devotional) saints of India. According to tradition, this 16th-century royal devotee of Krishna was born in Merta in Rajasthan in the kingdom of Marwar and dedicated to Krishna from childhood, but married into the royal family of Mewar in Chittor, most say against her will. She refused to behave as a woman of her caste and class was required to do and instead fearlessly danced and sang for her Lord in the public space of the temple and kept company with holy men and people from all walks of life. The rana, the ruler of Mewar (identified variously as her husband, her father-in-law, or her brother-in-law), tried to stop her, in many accounts repeatedly trying to kill her for these transgressions. Most famously, he sent her a cup of poison in the guise of holy water, but she remained unharmed and undeterred. Ultimately, she departed to become a wandering religious leader, reportedly traveling to holy places associated with Krishna, including Vrindavan (the land of his youthful incarnation) and Dwarka (the capital of the mature Krishna’s kingdom), where she ultimately merged with his image. Though admired by devotees of many different branches of devotional Hinduism, she remains formally unaffiliated and is explicitly rejected by the followers of Vallabhacarya. If she is said to have a guru at all, she is most often associated with the untouchable leatherworker saint, Raidas (also known as Ravidas, Rohidas). She is known not only for her story but also the devotional songs of love and longing she is said to have composed. A multitude of stories have circulated about her as her fame spread across India, and an immense body of songs are attributed to her, with those that might have been composed by this individual woman inseparable from those composed by others in subsequent centuries in her name and style. She has come to inspire many, her popularity crossing the borders of caste, language, religion, culture, and time.

General Overviews

Hawley and Juergensmeyer 2004 provides the most comprehensive general introduction in English to Mirabai and the scholarship around her. For a concise summary of her life, poetry, and appeal, see Martin 2007, and for a very brief introduction, see Tharu and Lalita 1991. Kishwar and Vanita 1989 also provides a broad and accessible introduction, with an emphasis on the norms for women that Mirabai rejects and the place of women saints in bhakti (Hindu devotion). For the broadest introduction to her poetry in translation, see Alston 1980, though the author uncritically follows Hindi academic literature shaped by nationalist and Rajput formulations of the late 19th century in his introduction to her life (see History and Historiography). In contrast, Mukta 1994 situates Mirabai primarily within low-caste communities and oral traditions. See Martin 1995 for a more extended comprehensive study of the saint and Hawley 2005 for detailed analysis of current scholarship and selected issues.

  • Alston, A. J. The Devotional Poems of Mira Bai. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1980.

    E-mail Citation »

    This influential work includes 202 songs from the most popular edition of Mirabai’s poetry in Hindi, that of Parasurām Caturvedī—Mīrābāī kī Padāvalī, 18th ed. (Prayāg, India: Hindī Sāhitya Sammelan, 1989)––offering accurate English translations that are faithful to the originals. His introduction follows the vulgate “historical biography.”

  • Hawley, John Stratton. Three Bhakti Voices: Mirabai, Surdas and Kabir in Their Times and Ours. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    E-mail Citation »

    In this collection of both previously published and new work, comparative essays explore author and authority, the nirgun/sagun (formless/form) distinction, the morality of saints, and the gendered presentation of longing, while those focused primarily on Mirabai examine early manuscript sources, Mirabai as wife and renouncer, and the 1972 “Mirabai” Amar Chitra Katha comic book (see Popular Literature and Fiction).

  • Hawley, John Stratton, and Mark Juergensmeyer. Songs of the Saints of India. Rev. ed. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    E-mail Citation »

    Originally published in 1988. Contextualizes Mirabai in Hindu devotion and Indian society, outlines her story with variations, details the difficulties that arise in trying to determine her historical biography and original works, and analyzes themes in the poetry attributed to her, as well as offering accurate, compelling translations. Excellent introduction for advanced undergraduates (pp. 118–140).

  • Kishwar, Madhu, and Ruth Vanita. “Poison to Nectar: The Life and Work of Mirabai.” Special Issue: Women Bhakta Poets. Manushi 50–52 (January–June 1989): 74–93.

    E-mail Citation »

    Incorporates legendary material and songs in presentation of Mirabai’s story, voice, and symbolic power with particular attention to normative gender expectations, contextualizing Mirabai among other women bhakti saints and addressing the ambivalence that attends Mirabai’s character and actions. Includes an inset on “Gandhi’s Mira” (pp. 86–87). Excellent introduction for advanced undergraduates.

  • Martin, Nancy. “Dyed in the Color of Her Lord: Multiple Representations in the Mirabai Tradition.” PhD diss., Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA, 1995.

    E-mail Citation »

    Extended study of Mirabai examining hagiographic and legendary traditions surrounding the saint; the 19th-century Rajput “historicizing” of Mirabai’s story; contrasting folk epics of her life sung in Rajasthan; her poetry in manuscript, print, and oral performance; and her role as a model for women, including living women religious leaders today called by her name. Reference work.

  • Martin, Nancy M. “Rajasthan: Mirabai and Her Poetry.” In Krishna: A Source Book. Edited by Edwin Bryant, 241–254. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    E-mail Citation »

    This concise essay provides a brief introduction to the life, poetry, and appeal of the saint together with English translations of sixteen songs, drawn from both written and oral sources and thus reflecting the broad traditions of song associated with the saint. Useful short introduction for undergraduates.

  • Mukta, Parita. Upholding the Common Life: The Community of Mirabai. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994.

    E-mail Citation »

    Groundbreaking work, examining oral traditions of Mirabai among low-caste communities in Rajasthan and Saurashtra (in Gujarat). Argues that Mirabai belongs primarily to these communities and her songs provide a language to express solidarity and resistance to patriarchal and feudal authorities, with middle-class and upper-caste appropriations portrayed as inauthentic.

  • Tharu, Susie, and K. Lalita, eds. Women Writing in India: 600 B.C. to the Present. Vol. 1, 600 B.C. to the Early Twentieth Century. New York: Feminist Press, 1991.

    E-mail Citation »

    Very short introduction to Mirabai including translations of four poems, with attention to feminist scholarship on the saint. Mirabai is presented in this text in the context of a multitude of other women writers in India across time. Useful for undergraduate assignment as a very brief introduction. See pp. 90–94.

LAST MODIFIED: 06/26/2012

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195399318-0070

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions and individuals. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.

Purchase an Ebook Version of This Article

Ebooks of the Oxford Bibliographies Online subject articles are available in North America via a number of retailers including Amazon, vitalsource, and more. Simply search on their sites for Oxford Bibliographies Online Research Guides and your desired subject article.

If you would like to purchase an eBook article and live outside North America please email onlinemarketing@oup.com to express your interest.

Article

Up

Down