A Woman to Know: Mira Bai

My mother-in-law says / I destroyed the family honor./ I have ceased to care / For people's opinions. — Mira Bai

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

Mira grew up a princess in a castle, beloved for her beauty, intelligence and piety. But as soon as she got married within the 16th-century Rajput ruling family, she declared her radical intent: to throw off the trappings of the patriarchy and live her life as an independent poet. This, she said, was inspired by her deep devotion to Krishna, who she could only truly honor by eschewing the life of a Rajput princess. Her behavior disgusted her husband's family, who begged her to consummate the marriage and later, after her husband's death, to do her duty and hide from society as a quiet, lonely widow.

But Mira refused. Her in-laws drugged her drinks and hid cobras in her flowers, but every poisoning and ambush failed -- and after every attempt, Mira wrote a triumphant poem taunting her enemies:

O King, I know you gave me poison
But I emerged,
Just like gold, burned in the fire,
Comes out as bright as a dozen suns.

Soon enough, however, Mira had to leave the palace for her own protection, sneaking out of the palace dressed as a traveler. But she continued to write poetry and inspire the masses with her radically independent lifestyle, living in Krishna's temple and inspiring countless women with her departure from the traditional lifestyle. Centuries later, she is honored as a saint, as a poet and as an early advocate for women's rights. "Indian feminists see Mira as a fortifying precendent of a woman who refused to be cowed," wrote Edward White. As legend has it, her "death" was actually a direct ascent into heaven; when emissaries of the court visited her in temple to convince her to return to conventional womanhood, she turned to the statue of Krishna for guidance — and vanished on the spot.

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** Thank you to Swati Sharma for introducing me to Mira! Send your own recommendations for women to know! Reply to this newsletter with your lady and she could be featured in an upcoming edition. You can browse the archive here. **