(My column in Mint Lounge, February 03 2018)
Perhaps if Meerabai of Mewar had jumped into a fire, she too might have had armies of 21st century men prepared to smash glass and destroy public property in the name of protecting her honour. After all, nothing rouses patriarchal masculine pride more than illusions of stoic sacrifice by unreal beauties, who, between managing their heavy jewels and rich skirts, spout tedious lines about valour and fortitude. So where (the possibly fictional) Padmavati, by dying the way she is supposed to have, went down as the right kind of tragic heroine, the definitely real Meerabai presents a minor problem by refusing to bow out in the correct fashion. On the contrary, far from yearning to kill herself after her husband succumbed on the battlefield, Meerabai declared firmly, “I will not be a sati.” She chose, awkwardly instead, to live for decades more, singing praises of her favourite deity, Krishna, while rejecting pressures from the muscular guardians of Rajput society. While patriarchy accommodated her as an icon of feminine, god-loving devotion, in her own verses, we find also a lady with a mind of her own; one who stood up to all established norms of honour, and to the authority of every mortal man around her.
Meerabai was born at the dawn of the 16th century in Merta in Rajasthan. According to hagiographies composed by her earliest admirers, this motherless child was raised in her grandfather’s household, and from a tender age showed great affection for Krishna. Around 1516, when in her late teens, she married Bhojraj, son of the legendary Rana Sangha of Mewar. Their complicated union did not last, however, for in the next decade, Meerabai lost her husband and her footing in his royal household. Her refusal to commit sati might have added to the erosion of status that came automatically with widowhood, but she did not care about being perceived as an inconvenient woman. As one of her verses, addressed, evidently, to her husband’s heir, declares: “Rana, to me this slander is sweet…Mira’s lord is (Krishna): let the wicked burn in a furnace.” There is no doubt that Meerabai was passionate in her love for God—some of her greatest works are those expressing deep sorrow at her “separation” from her divine beloved. But there is also no doubt that hers was a voice that challenged the world, refusing the control her husband’s relations sought to exercise in the name of their own prestige and her patent lack of aristocratic reserve.
Some of this resistance is encapsulated in Nabhadas’ Bhaktamal, composed soon after Meerabai’s time. “Modesty in public, the chains of family life/Mira shed both for the Lifter of Mountains,” the saint writes, for instance. So too she had “no inhibitions” and was “totally fearless”. “She cringed before none, she beat love’s drum.” In other words, far from leading an unobtrusive life in widow’s garb or fitting into the role of a pativrata (devoted wife), as Padmavati is supposed to have done, Meerabai engaged freely with other devotees and moved in spaces not ordinarily permitted to women. Her interlocutors, furthermore, included a diverse cast of men, from backgrounds that did not make them ideal companions for a Rajput widow. Where custom demanded social invisibility of her, Meerabai chose the opposite, further enraging her family. Still, she did not care—“I don’t like your strange world, Rana,” she records. “A world where there are no holy men, and all the people are trash.” Indeed, in the face of her resolve, there was even an attempt to poison her, but our poet was uncowed: “Rana,” she announced, “nobody can prevent me from going to the saints. I don’t care what the people say.”
Eventually, Meerabai was cast out and became even more determined in her ways. “Fools sit on thrones,” she sang, while “Wise men beg for a little bread.”Elsewhere she proclaims: “If Rana is angry, he can keep his kingdom/But if God is offended…I will wither,” making clear where her loyalties resided. “She danced,” writes Bhakta Dhruvadas, “with anklebells on her feet and with castanets in her hands. In the purity of her heart, she met the devotees of God, and realized the pettiness of the world.” Much had to be given up, but she did so readily in the pursuit of her calling. “What I paid,” writes Meerabai, “was my social body, my town body, my family body, and all my inherited jewels.” With Krishna as her focus, however, she was able to survive every loss and become one with the people. She would sing his songs and, through him, be also her own person.
In due course, Meerabai became a travelling saint, an outcast where she was once a princess. Her satsangs were attended by many, but the path was riddled with privations and tests—there are even those within the Bhakti tradition who challenged her or sought to take advantage of this woman on her own. But she survived, dying on her own terms in Dwarka by the middle of the century (and not in a blazing flame). Her story has since found several takers—Mahatma Gandhi saw an exemplar of non-violent resistance, while Carnatic singer M.S. Subbulakshmi highlighted Meerabai’s religiosity at the cinema. But just as importantly, in what is often forgotten, Meerabai also “disowned, defied and subverted the…values associated with powerful and entrenched institutions—family, marriage, caste, clan, royalty and even the realm of bhakti.” She threw off the weight of expectations from every quarter, and painstakingly embraced only that which brought her closer to God. Passion, flaws, rejection and greatness were all woven into this mortal one, remembered to this day by that fascinating, immortal name, Meerabai of Mewar. And so she went down as the woman she truly was, refusing to become another Padmavati, that paragon of monochrome glory.