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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 17 New Delhi April 13, 2019

Mirabai — A Feminist Par Excellence

Saturday 13 April 2019


by Ashok Celly

The popular image of Mira is that of a saint-poet who composed highly melodious devotional poems known as bhajans. She is seen primarily as a mystic, the dominant note of whose life and work was ecstatic longing for Lord Krishna and the world around was of little consequence to her.

That Mira’s life and conduct has tremendous social significance, that it constitutes a powerful assault on patriarchy and Brahmanical social order is largely ignored or greatly underplayed. The point I wish to make here is: everything that Mira did challenged the status quo—her refusal to commit sati when her husband died, her choice of Ravidas (also known as Raidas) as her guru and last, but not the least, her association with saints and bhaktas irrespective of their gender and caste. She was truly a free individual who lived by her own lights. And an apposite role-model for modern Indian women striving for fulfilment of their aspirations in what is still largely a conservative society.

When her husband died—she was married to Raja Bhojraj of Mewar sometime in the early sixteenth century—Mira like a devoted Rajput wife was supposed to commit sati, that is, throw herself on the funeral pyre of her husband and immolate herself. Her declaration ‘sati na hosya’—I shall not commit sati—amounted to a powerful assault on patriarchy and that too in the very bastion of patriarchy. It signified that she had a right to live the way she wanted and not according to the norms of a patriarchal order. It was also a rejection of the patriarchal notion that a woman’s husband was her god (patiparameshwar) and to live for him and die with him must be the supreme end of her existence. ‘Sati na hosya’ was in fact a grand affirmation of life and repudiation of the pseudo-heroism of sorts that sati implied.

Also, Mira’s choice of a guru would be considered an extremely outrageous act in a traditional, caste-ridden society. She chose the saint-poet Ravidas as her guru. Ravidas was a man of great moral integrity and considerable poetic merit but he belonged to one of the lowliest castes in the Brahmanic order—he was a chamar, that is, a cobbler.

For a princess and the wife of a Mewar Rana choosing a low-caste Hindu as guru would be considered simply shocking and unthinkable as gurus belonged to the highest caste—and the Mewar aristocracy must have been scandalised by it. Mira thus performed the greatest act of defiance violating the supposedly sacred Manuvadi order in the boldest manner. One can imagine that with this act her alienation from the Mewar aristocracy must have been total.

Also, Mira’s choice of a Dalit was pregnant with tremendous social significance. It antici-pated the possibility of an alliance of the two most oppressed segments of the Hindu society in future—Dalits and women—for even the richest woman in the Indian context is an underdog in some ways. One may recall that in the socialist leader Rammanohar Lohia’s strategy of social revolution, both Dalits and women occupied an extremely important place.

Finally, Mira’s desire to interact with other saints and bhaktas, especially the Krishna-bhaktas, irrespective of their gender and caste must be seen as a quest for fulfilment of her creative aspirations. Aspirations which were bound to result in confrontation with her in-laws, for what could be more shocking than a Rajput princess singing and dancing in the company of bhaktas most of whom belonged to the so-called backward castes?

Come to think of it, Mira’s quest for emotional and creative fulfilment is not very different from a modern Indian woman who, in order to fulfil her dreams and aspirations, more often than not comes in conflict with her conservative parents and relatives. I am reminded here of Ms Mohena Kumari Singh, the princess of Rewa, MP, who had a passion for dancing and whose resolve to seek a career in choreography met with stiff resistance from her parents though eventually they relented and she had her way. Sunil Khilnani makes a very apt observation on Mira in his book Incarnations, “.... the central challenge of her life—how to overcome rigid social expectations in order to pursue one’s own free chosen values—is a struggle women all over India are engaged in today.”

Quite possibly Mira derived her strength and courage to challenge the status quo from her love of and devotion to Lord Krishna—in other words, her religious beliefs and feelings. Religion here was a progressive force, an instrument of liberation, something that the progressives in India have been reluctant to recognise. In fact their blanket rejection of religion as a reactionary force seems to have done a lot of damage. It has made the Sangh Parivar the sole spokesman of Hindu culture and they have been trying to propagate a highly sectarian and somewhat weird version of Hinduism known as Hindutva. This has had disastrous consequences for a large number of Hindus have turned bigots and the minorities have been alienated as never before.

The author, now a freelancer, retired sometime back as a Reader in English from Rajdhani College, University of Delhi.

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