Steven J. Gelberg’s essay on the poetry of Mira Bai and Tukaram was presented at Harvard University and published in the Journal of Vaishnava Studies (Vol. 4.4, 1996).
Mira Bai (1498-1546) came to Vrindavan in the first stage of her renounced life, so her Bhajans are part of Vrindavan culture. These days, Mira Bai bhajans are enjoyed throughout India and the world, with more and more singers delving into this treasure chest of bhava.
Mira’s bhajans fluctuate between spiritual ecstasy and an awareness of the predicament of living in the material world. The torments of Mira’s life are well known; forced to marry for the sake of policial alliances, and widowed at a young age, she had to fight her inlaws who were concerned about their reputation and disapproved of her wandering freely to temples outside the house so that her brother in law gave her poison. Speaking generally about why saints are often not appreciated during their lifetimes, Gelberg says,
“Saints are very often persistent and eloquent critics of the societies and the world in which they live, and are frequently persecuted, sometimes lethally, for their outspoken opposition to the status quo”
What Gelberg points out about Mira’s padas is that she “radically devalued the conventional world and its reality, depicting it variously as brutal, meaningless, ephemeral, illusory, unnatural and insane”
“Sadhu sant bethbeth loklaj koi / Sant dekh dor ayi, jagat dekh roi” (seeing sadhus and saints i forget my worldly shame / Seeing saints I run [towards them], looking at the world I cry – from ‘Ab To Mera Ram Nam Dusara Na Koi’ – The Name Of Lord Krishna Is My Only Obligation)
“Because these spontaneous outpourings of the heart reveal various and differing phases of religious thought and feeling, they lack any real “logical” consistency…God may be depicted as infinitely merciful or coldly callous, profoundly accessible or heartbreakingly remote, the world as a garden of delights or a bottomless pit of despair, human beings as benighted fools or as spiritual comrades – with little or no attempt to harmonize these apparent contradictions.”
In Mira’s bhajan ‘Payoji Maine Ram Ratan Dhan Payo’ (I have received the jewel of Ram) we see her in a thankful mood, but she is also reminding herself “kripiya karo apanayo” (please take it to heart).
Perhaps the most memorable line from Mira Bai’s bhajans is “dusaro na koi” (all others are nobody of importance). We can find this line in several bhajans including ‘Ab To Mera Ram Nam Dusara Na Koi‘ (The Name Of Lord Krishna Is My Only Obligation) and ‘Mhara Re Giridhar Gopal‘. (I have Giridhar Gopal).
While also serving as a reminder, this line seems like more of a didactic affirmation, that really, the inevitable slings and arrows of this world mean very little to the transcendental soul or to a person who is swept up by the tide of spiritual life. According to Gelberg for saints like Mira, the world is sometimes disturbing, sometimes favourable, mostly inconsequential,
“Their criticism, as they would see it, issues not from any melancholic or dyspeptic disposition, but from a compelling and transformative vision of a higher, more pristine reality. Perceived from those rarefied heights, the world of matter, of the flesh, once taken for granted as the locus of reality, now assumes both a flimsy and frightening aspect.
Tukaram and Mirabai see the world as having an almost dreamlike quality; ontologically real, perhaps, but so effervescent, so endlessly mutable and fluid as to be unreal, like a castle of sand – a dim reflection of another, more real existence. Viewing the present life as fleetingly transitory, a brief flash in eternal time, a mere prologue to eternal existence in Vishnu’s heaven (Vaikuntha), both saints cultivated detachment from the world and from the worldly.
Though for them the dichotomy between the material and spiritual worlds was a stark one, there are times when they seem to sense their lord Krishna and the spiritual realm as graspably near, as if separated from mundane reality by merely a thin, diaphanous membrane, as if about to burst onto terrafirma at any moment – a realm and a state of consciousness immediately realizable through kirtan, joyful praise of the Lord’s holy name, form, attributes, and divine acts. At times like this, as we shall see, the world itself seems to become transformed into Vaikuntha, and the universe seems to shine with a holy aura.”
In some bhajans, Mira begs for closeness, but in others, it seems as if she has found it. In ‘Ghela Ame Bhale Thaya Re’ as well as ‘Paoyoji maine…’ we get the sense of Mira’s awareness of herself as going through several lives where she is both absorbed-in and moving steadily towards her Lord.
Ghela Ame Bhale Thaya Re
(Friend, It’s All Right To Be Crazy For God’s Love) Mira Bhajan, translated by gitanda.org
It is all right for us to be crazy for the Love of God. The most virtuous thing is to run after the Love of Lord Krishna.
All these days without knowing Lord Hari we tied our mind and hopes in the delusion of this world; and when we were lost in our journey of this life, we found a saint on our way.
If we are crazy it is well and good that we are crazy after Lord Hari who freed us from the bondage of maya. We have loved the Lord during our previous lives and therefore Lord Hari has been driving our chariot (life); now in this life.
Only those crazy for the love of the Lord can understand the talks and feelings of such devotees-gopis. How can the worldly know our inner feelings? This love is even rare among the gods, but this crazy devotee here knows this love.
We will not become worldly-wise (foolish) giving up our craze for the Love of the Lord, rather we will surrender to the saints. Mira says: O Lord Krishna-Giridhar! All our works, duties and purposes are finished successfully.