On the Poetry of Mirabai and Kabir

Mirabai and Kabir are not only two of India’s greatest poets, they are among the finest mystic poets in all world literature. The exquisite devotional lyrics of Mirabai, still sung in India today, and the knotty, acerbic sayings of Kabir, which resonate with seekers of all spiritual traditions, are on a par with the work of the other great spiritual artists of the same pre-Renaissance era – the ecstatic poems of St John of the Cross, the visionary art and music of Abbess Hildegard of Bingen, the revolutionary frescos of Giotto, the and the lyricism of the Persian Sufi poets Hafiz and Rumi.

However, a gulf separates contemporary Western culture from that of late Medieval India. The following biographical and philosophical sketches are offered to help conjure in the reader a sense of the world in which the poets lived and wrote. To offer the reader an impression of the poets’ intellectual milieu, a number of Indian words have been left untranslated. The mythological and metaphysical concepts behind these words is clarified in the appendix the follows the poems.

The life of Mirabai

Legend says that, as a baby, Mira was found in a river near Kurki, in Rajasthan, and was taken into the household of the local king, Ratansi. The truth is somewhat more prosaic.

Mira was born on 15 April 1498, in Bajoli, a small village six miles south-east of Degana Junction, on what is now the Delhi-Jodhpur railway line. Both her parents were of royal lineage, her father being Ratansi Dudawat, her mother, Kusumb Kanwar. Ratansi was the second of five sons born to Rav Dudaji Jodhawat. On Mira's birth, Ratansi had a new palace built at Kurki which became her home for her early years. An interesting story relates a supposed incident from this time. It is said that one day Mira saw a marriage party and, on asking what was happening, the event was explained to her. Mira then asked who her husband was. Perhaps jokingly, perhaps seriously, her mother said Lord Krishna. From that day, Mira began worshipping Krishna as her husband.

While Mira was still a child, her mother died. Viramdeo, Mira’s father's oldest brother, then called her to live with him. Thus Merta became her home. A story from these years indicates the strength of her devotion. Every day Mira accompanied the king to the temple where they offered milk to the statue of Krishna. One day the king was unable to attend, so Mira took the milk alone. She asked Krishna to accept the milk, but nothing happened. Then she pleaded, saying he should drink or the king would become angry with her. Lord Krishna then appeared from within the statue and drank the milk. Later, Mira told the king what had happened but he didn't believe her; so again she took the milk, and again Krishna appeared and drank it.

While we can’t know exactly why Mira chose Krishna to worship rather than some other form of God, we do know that at some time, a saint gave Mira a statue of Krishna, which she worshipped daily. This statue, called Saligram, now rests near the statue of Charbhuja, in the Mira temple at Merta.

The next significant event in Mira's life occurred in 1517 when, at the age of nineteen, she was married to Bhoj Raj Sangawat, son of the Maharana of Mewar. The marriage bore no children and ended six years later, on her husband's death in 1523. Mira remained in the household of her parents-in-law, who lived in Chittore, under the rule of her brother-in-law, Ranaji. Whether the references, in her poetry, to Ranaji trying to poison her are literal or metaphorical, her life there must have been difficult. After a final conflict in 1534, she left, never to return; an occasion recorded in the fourth of the following poems.

Once again, Merta became Mira's home; but only intermittently, for during those years she traveled a great deal, regularly visiting the holy cities of Pushkar, Vrindaban, and Dwarika. A final story relates to those years. Mira had gone traveling to Dwarika and the anxious king of Merta sent a number of men to bring her back. Meeting them, Mira agreed to return, but only after she had worshipped Krishna. Thus, she entered the temple and the men waited outside. Some time passed. At last, frustrated by the delay they went inside, but to their surprise Mira had disappeared. All they found was her cloth hanging from the statue of Krishna. In the depths of her devotion she had become one with her Lord.

It was during one of her visits to Dwarika that Mira died. The year was 1547 and she was 49 years old.

The life of Kabir

We know less about Kabir's life than we do about Mirabai's, and even that comes to us not through the certainty of historical record, but through the haze of oral legend. Some of Kabir’s followers claim he lived from 1205 to 1505 CE. Scholars variously date his birth from 1437 to 1497, while his death could have been anywhere between 1505 and 1575.

As with Mira, legend says of Kabir's birth that he was found as a baby in a river in or near Benares, in this case by a Muslim couple who then adopted him as their own. An alternative birth story is that Kabir was born to a widowed Brahman, and that his (apparently miraculous) birth had been foretold by Ramananda, Kabir's eventual guru. Whether he was actually adopted, no one knows, but when his reputation became established, both Hindus and Muslims claimed him respectively as a Brahman and Sufi saint.

Details of Kabir's spiritual development are equally scarce. One tradition maintains that he taught from an early age but, as he lacked a guru, people laughed at him; refusing to accept he had any authority to teach. Thus, he decided he needed a guru. The teacher he was drawn to was Ramananda (c. 1400–1480), who was leading a revival of Vedic knowledge in Benares. But there was one obstacle to Kabir becoming Ramananda’s pupil.

This obstacle was that Kabir was a Muslim, and traditionally Muslims were not accepted by Hindu teachers. Accordingly, so the story goes, Kabir hid on the steps down which Ramananda walked on the way to his daily bath. Stumbling over Kabir, in surprise he uttered, “Ram!” After this, Kabir claimed, he had been initiated and was now Ramananda's pupil. Later in his life, Kabir's guru was possibly the equally revered Sufi Pir, Takki of Jhansi.

Kabir was no desert ascetic. He was married, most likely at a young age as was the custom, and had a son and a daughter. One story relates that when Loi, Kabir's wife, first met him she asked him what his caste was, and he replied, “Kabir.” She then asked what his religion was. Again he responded, “Kabir.” Finally, she asked what cloth he wore. Yet again came the answer, “Kabir.”

Kabir's outlook was his own, derived from his spiritual experiences. In expressing his vision, he bluntly criticized both Muslims and Hindus for their blind attachment to dogma and ritual forms. Naturally this led to conflict, not only with the Brahman authorities in Benares, but with the ordinary believers he met in his frequent journeying from village to village. A story relates that to counteract the popular animosity, he hired a prostitute to approach him in these various villages to try to seduce him. When the people saw he was not seduced, but rather she was converted to his teaching, they began calling him a saint. Thereafter, the animosity declined in intensity.

Another story shows Kabir’s ability to exploit a situation for teaching purposes. One day a fakir visited Kabir to pay his respects, but on finding a pig tied to a peg in the yard, he became upset. He said that since pigs are unholy, he couldn't stay. To which Kabir responded: “There are five pigs inside the body. Why don't you hate these pigs too, and refuse to sit with them?” Immediately, the fakir bowed his head and begged to become Kabir's pupil.

Yet, despite his acumen, the Brahman authorities finally did catch up with Kabir. Following a report that he had used magic to raise a person from the dead, the Brahmans complained to the ruler of Benares, Sikander Lodi, demanding retribution. Kabir was a Muslim, and so was not under their jurisdiction. Nonetheless Sikander Lodi recognized the difficulties such a free-thinker posed and Kabir was banished. He continued his traveling between various northern Indian cities and villages and probably died in Maghar, near Gorakhpur.

After Kabir's death, both Hindus and Muslims claimed the body. Legend says, however, that when they lifted the death-shroud all they found were two flowers. Each group took one, and both were satisfied.

The poets’ philosophies

In order to appreciate the spiritual context in which both Mirabai and Kabir worked, it is necessary to briefly consider Kabir’s teacher, Ramananda. During the decades preceding the births of both Kabir and Mirabai, Ramananda had been leading a revival of Vedic knowledge in Benares. With this revival came a number of significant religious and social reforms. While Ramananda personally practiced traditional Vedic asceticism, his philosophic outlook involved a rejection of traditional caste and religious distinctions, and a conviction that sincere worshippers of all religions worshipped the same God. A popular teacher, his followers accordingly included Hindus, Moslems, and Dalits (untouchables). Central to his teaching was the intense worship of Lord Rama, an avatar of Vishnu, one of the key ancient Vedic gods.

Ramananda’s own outlook was shaped during his own youth when he studied in Southern India. There he was exposed to the ideas of Ramanuja (c. 1017–1137), a highly influential thinker, writer, and religious reformer who rejected the stilted, heavily ritualised and intellectualised Vedic religion of his day. Ramanuja taught a philosophy of qualified non-dualism. This philosophy argues that only God exists, and that everything in existence is a manifestation of God. Thus when a worshipper bows to any form of God, whether to traditional Vedic nature gods such as Indra or Agni, to abstract forms such as Brahman or Shiva, or to personalised gods such as Krishna, it is always the same one Absolute God, underlying all manifest reality, that is being worshipped. Yet few can kneel to an abstraction; most devotees require a concrete form of God to worship. Because he considered Vishnu was the god most cited in the Vedas, Ramanuja taught that Vishnu, particularly Vishnu in the form of Narayana, should be the object of worship. Nara means water, while ayana means flowing, or movement. Thus Narayana indicates that the cosmos is like an undulating ocean, with both the shifting waves of existence, and that which moves the waves, being one and the same. At the heart of Ramanuja’s teaching was the practice of bhakti, the intense and highly emotional devotional worship that is advocated throughout Vedic spirituality and literature, including The Bhagavadgita.

All this Ramananda absorbed into his own spiritual philosophy. However, by the time he returned to Benares and started teaching, Sufi thought, and particularly the love ethic that lies at the heart of the poetry and philosophy of the Persian Sufis, was also impacting, via Islam, on traditional Indian worship. Coupled to the religious reforms begun by Ramanuja, this led to music, dance, and songs becoming coupled with devotion, to poets writing in their local dialects rather than in formal Sanskrit, and to the creation of a popular oral literature that all could enjoy, not just the few who were educated and able to read. This merging of Sufi devotional literature with traditional Vedic bhakti not only meant that the love ethic impacted on India’s religious practises, but it provided a common ground for Hindus and Moslems to meet. Thus in Ramananda’s school, yogis and Sufis, ascetics and householders, and scholars and the uneducated, met openly discuss the issues of God-realization.

Mirabai and Kabir both absorbed these ideas. However, as poets they have very different strategies. Mirabai begins most of her poems by directly representing an emotional situation drawn from the circumstances of her life. She then uses that situation as a springboard from which to spiritually transcend it, with the aim of taking the reader with her. In contrast, Kabir is more cerebral, often starting his poems with an abstract concept, then presenting a series of examples to show how that concept applies to – and may be used to make sense of – the world of everyday experience. Nonetheless, as both are Medieval Indian poets, and both possess a mystical disposition, they share more than they diverge. The following comments will briefly explore the ideas and practices that they share.

First is bhakti. Bhakti is a devotional practice by which the seeker strives initially to devote herself or himself to a particular form, which is perceived as a manifestation of God. As the practice intensifies, the worshipper is no longer attached to any particular form of God, but rather sees all forms, indeed the world itself, as the manifestation of God. Eventually, the worshipper becomes united with the object of worship and spiritually there is no longer a manifested form or worshipper, perceiver or perceived; just God. This is the process Mirabai sought to capture in her poems and that is also symbolized in the story of her disappearance from the temple recounted above.

Psychologically, the practice of bhakti offers the seeker a way of transcending the limits of personality and ego. This is achieved as the intensity of devotion and love that the worshipper engenders within burns away the dross of selfishness, fear, envy, desire, resentment, self-pity, and so on. It is only after this inner purification that the seeker is able to transcend her or his limited, self-based perception, and to see God in – and as – all.

Where Mirabai’s poems recount events from her own life in graphic terms, and provide very sensual images of Krishna as her preferred form of God, Kabir’s approach is more abstract. The name he predominantly uses for God is Ram, which is, both historically and today, one of India’s most common names for God. However Kabir, unlike Mirabai, does not offer the reader a physical description of Ram. Thus Ram, the common God of India, who is pictured in countless paintings, poems and statues, actually exists for Kabir in the same imageless, transcendent sense as Islam’s Allah, and the Vedas’ Brahman. But while, for Kabir, the object of devotion has no sensual reality, he still directs towards it the same intensity of devotional feelings as did Mirabai; likening the worshipper’s feelings to those of lover for beloved, baby for mother, and wife for husband.

What Kabir does describe, in graphic terms, is the process by which bhakti helps the seeker burn away the dross of the self. He also describes, as does Mirabai, the pain that burning involves; for while the path of bhakti is sustained by great love, it is also a path of great inner suffering, as giving up the self, and seeking to become transformed into a being capable of becoming immersed in That which transcends the experience of selfhood, is a complex and difficult task.

For both Mirabai and Kabir, the guru plays a significant role in this inner transformation. Mirabai, in one of her poems, acknowledges the significance of the guru as a conduit for guidance regarding God, as well as for specific exercises necessary to practice bhakti. Kabir presents the relationship between seeker, guru and God in greater detail. In Indian spirituality, as in that of the Sufis, the pupil is encouraged to view the teacher as a manifestation of God. In practical terms, this involves submitting oneself to the teacher’s instructions – and carrying out whatever tasks the teacher assigns – without objection or argument.

It is easy to misunderstand the intent of this practise, especially when both East and West are full of stories of all-too-human teachers. However, the esoteric purpose behind it is to provide the student with the opportunity to work against the ego. Carrying it out successfully presupposes that the teacher has eliminated ego from his or her relationship with students, thus removing pettiness or personal desire from the teacher’s actions; and that the student does not indulge in greed, vanity, self-pity, resentment, selfishness, arrogance, or any of the numerous other psychological weaknesses that impede spiritual development. It must have been out of frustration with the way neither teachers nor pupils measured up to this ideal that Kabir wrote: “No competent gurus nor pupils I found, just players of greedy games.” For, ultimately, neither the guru nor the seeker are human beings. Rather their spiritual parts transcend the human form and are part of the Unmanifest Consciousness that permeates the cosmos.

Another exercise promoted by both Mirabai and Kabir is ramnam. This involves the repetition of either a name of God, or a phrase containing a name of God; on the breath, with the heartbeat, or in the mind. The Christian mystical tradition refers to this as interior prayer. Psychologically, the practice of repeating one of the names of God helps the seeker burn off the limited, negative, mundane, and petty aspects of his or her ego. Any name of God may be used in this exercise, because it is not the name, but the concentration, and the depth with which it is repeated, that facilitates its usefulness.

Prayer and mediation were also advocated and practiced by both poets. The inner focus that these engender in the seeker purifies all energies. Among them is sex energy, which the Indian tradition calls kundalini. Kundalini is transformed sex energy that feeds the seekers’ higher, spiritualized parts. Mirabai refers to kundalini when she makes reference to “Jamuna and Ganges,” the twin channels by which kundalini energy travels up the spine. It is also referred to in the final poem that begins with the phrase: “Now a high desire for God’s name rises in me.” The last of Kabir’s eight poems is also wholly about kundalini and its internal effect on the seeker.

The reason struggle resonates throughout all Mirabai’s and Kabir’s poems is that it provides the means by which a seeker may transcend his or her limited sense of self, and achieve spiritual freedom. Such freedom does not liberate the seeker from the body’s limitations, suffering, karma, and death. But it does facilitate the seeker’s consciousness in achieving a state of awareness such that he or she is aware of that within which transcends all physical, sensorially-experienced existence.

As poets, Mirabai and Kabir not only illuminate the deep struggle that is required in order to achieve such an experience, but also create intense, intelligent, emotional, and challenging poems. In Western cultures, dominated by materialist values and superficial religiosity, the profound spirituality at the heart of both poets’ work is as relevant today as it was when Mirabai and Kabir originally wrote.

Copyright Keith Hill 2007