Contemporary Poetry Review

Reviewed By:
Ravi Shankar

Ur-woman and the Mountain Lifter  

Mirabai: Ecstatic Poems by Robert Bly and Jane Hirshfield. Beacon Press, 2004.


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          In parts of India, the legend of a woman who withstood asps and caste, possible rapes and family censure to enact her single-minded love of Krishna through song still resonates. Her name is Mirabai. There are temples on plinths and week-long festivals devoted to Mirabai, literary and spiritual exemplar of 16th-century Rajasthan, India. Born into Rajput noble family—her family purportedly founded Jodphur, now famous for its handicrafts and textiles, while her father Ratan Singh was a noted Rajput chieftain and landlord—much as the Siddhartha Gautama on the way to becoming the Buddha, Mirabai began her inward journey via an initial act of renunciation. Stories about her vary. Some say as a child she was given a figurine of Sri Krishna by a wandering Sadhu and that propagated an ardor that could not be sustained. Others claim she was possessed by visions that transformed her life into Bhakti, or devotion. Still others see in her a reincarnation of Radha, Krishna’s great love. Whatever the case, we are lucky enough to have a handful of her poems, or padas, small spiritual songs, preserved and recounted.  

There are few verifiable facts about Mirabai’s life, and her hagiography is patched together through later tellings and the evidence gleaned from her poems, but it is held as historical fact by her devotees. This diffusion of personality and lack of verifiable biographical details makes her, in a sense, the ideal figure to be translated by two poets, Robert Bly and Jane Hirshfeld, who don’t speak Vraja-bhasha, the Rajasthani dialect of Hindi from which we receive her songs. She becomes, then, like Coleman Barks’s Rumi, a perfect screen upon which to project a vision. As religious scholar John Stratton Hawley, who writes the afterword to this collection asks,

But who is Mirabai? Of all the Bhakti poets of North India, none is more familiar on the basis of her life story, yet none is more mysterious when it comes to ferreting out what she actually said, sang and did. Many of her sixteenth-century peers have left a substantial research trail, thanks to manuscripts where their songs are collected, but Mira is almost invisible. How many Mira poems—compositions bearing her oral signature—can be said with complete confidence to have circulated in her own century? One. 

That’s why I would have loved to find out more about the process of translation from the two poets. What manuscripts did they work with? How did their process of collaboration proceed? (Eventually, and by accident, I found an index in the back that listed translation credits; Hirshfield and Bly only collaborated together on one translation.) Did a native speaker shepherd these translations along, or were the two poets creating what they call “versions” of her poems under their own reconnaissance? As Hawley writes,

Robert Bly and Jane Hirshfield . . . give us a Mirabai deeply colored by their own vision of who she was and by their estimation of how poems in the Mirabai “cloud” can best precipitate for readers of contemporary English, especially American ones. 

Not knowing much about their process of translation, I can speak only from reading each poet’s introduction and recalling my own experiences listening to Tamil bhajans dedicated to another female poet. As a young boy going to temples in suburban Virginia, I was more familiar with Andal, Tamil Nadu’s own poet-saint from the 10th century whose mythic history remarkably parallels that of Mirabai. Said to have been discovered under a tulsi plant, Andal was adopted by the sage Periyalvar, who found her as a baby. She refused to marry, or rather asserted, like Mirabai, that her true marriage was to Lord Vishnu in whose worship she would live out her days. As a teenager, she also wrote two works, Thiruppavai, a kind of dramatic monologue in the voice of a gopi (or cowherd girl) during the incarnation of Lord Krishna (it is still chanted to this very day), and Nachiyar Tirumozhi, literally “Sacred Sayings of the Goddess,” a poem of 143 verses that interspersed stories from the Sanskrit Vedas and Puranas with classical Tamil poetic convention (see endnote). This poem was not as readily embraced by the Vaishnavites because of its overt sensuality. Like Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda, the poem’s eroticism mingles physicality with absolute surrender to the Lord. 

Unlike Andal, Mirabai’s parentage was well known, indeed lauded, and she in fact did marry. Though she served her husband, a prince, Bhoj Raj of Chittor, Mirabai spent her free time singing bhajans that would often result in a trancelike ecstatic state, like what the Sufi’s called hal, or discernment, a momentary pause in the stream of ordinary thoughts that illuminated the meaningfulness of life by the sudden discovery of participation in the presence of an universe quite beyond thought. Like Andal, Mira loved Lord Krishna, blue-skinned butter-thief, ninth avatar of Vishnu and charioteer whose words constituted the Bhagavad-Gita, her love for him—which really represented a reunification between her temporal self and Atman, the immortal self—took precedence over anything else. Mira’s family did not approve of her devotion to Krishna, particularly because it meant she would not worship the family deity, Durga, and she was under constant duress to stop her adorations and incantatory poems. Yet, as happens with saints and rock stars, word traveled far enough to reach Muslim Emperor Akbar, who figures prominently in the hagiography of the era. Though sworn enemies of her Hindu family, he apparently traveled swathed in rags with a band of mendicants to visit Mira and grew so enamored of her singing that he left a necklace set with priceless gemstones at her feet.  

When her Hindu husband found out about this visit, he grew furious and ordered his wife to commit suicide for dishonoring him, but, as the legend goes, when she entered the river to take her life, Krishna himself appeared in front of her and ordered her to go to his birthplace, Vrindavan, where she might worship him in peace. But there would be no peace with the in-laws from hell. When her husband died in battle, his family again requested that Mira, whose notoriety was making them blanch, commit Sati and throw herself on the funeral pyre (as was customary at the time for widows). Mirabai refused since her true husband, Sri Krishna, blazed eternally. When that failed, they tried to poison her with a snake and a drink. Each time the venom turned to ambrosia that made her even stronger.  

Bly makes her a sensationalized modern who channels Rimbaud and is “outrageous in ten or fifteen ways. With enormous elegance and an exquisite grace . . . she takes on Krishna who, in view of his dark bluish face, could be called the Dark One.” In his brief introduction, which was short enough to count words (under 500 not including the excerpts quoted from the translations that follow) and in which the phrase “enormous elegance” has been managed to be used twice, Bly seems primarily to celebrate Mira because she’s a rebel with a cause, someone who gave up her station in life to live with unorthodoxy and passion. Barring such vagaries as, “there’s no one exactly like her in the whole history of poetry,” we still don’t learn much from his comments, save for a few of the most titillating and speculative details about Mirabei, such as the familiar story of her tying together saris to sneak out of a castle window or washing the old feet of an Untouchable and then drinking the water. It seems somewhere here, to take a line from Bly’s own “The Raft of Green Logs,” in the “furry herd of images that / have to be saved or murdered,” a few might well have benefited from the knife.  

Thankfully the translations themselves don’t suffer from such frippery. They are laconic, well-crafted lyrics that put one in the mind of Mary Barnard’s translations of Sappho. Mirabai’s devotion comes to be translated here as Love, majuscule, the vibrational dancing energy responsible for the beauty around and inside her. Hirshfield in her introduction, which shares the approximate length but not the excesses of her co-translator’s, compares Mirabai to St. John of the Cross, ostensibly because the latter called his revelation, “the Dark Night of the Soul,” while her poems are addressed to the Dark One. In that prismatic happenstance, Hirshfield sees both saints grappling with a conception of Oneness that arrives and departs with temporary, if not lasting, reverberation, eradicating the borders between grief and love. Seen in this way, Krishna recedes and a more abstract substitution takes place; indeed in the poem “The Clouds,” the Dark One is translated as the “Energy that holds up mountains.” According to Hawley, who is aware of the source texts,

in the Bly-Hirshfield versions, plenty of room has been left for improvisation. One see it in the captivating titles they provide, since the original poems have none . . . this is a little like Rongier van der Weyden painting a Flemish background for an icon of Mary and Jesus, thereby helping viewers imagine the biblical scene as real, belong to their own world. But what about instances where it isn’t just scenery? What about the idea that the central persona of Krishna to whom Mira appeals is “Mountain Energy” or the “Energy that holds up mountains”? There’s no “energy” in an original (or better, perhaps, copy-text) of which I am aware, but Robert Bly must have felt that the whole motif of a divine adolescent lifting a mountain ought to suggest the displacement of matter into its dynamic counterpart: E=mc2. A fundamental transformation like this is invisible to most readers and perhaps, therefore, misleading. But it is not without a deep, intriguing logic . . . I have to confess I can’t follow this usage back to its interpretative source.

 Reading that, I was compelled to wonder on what other occasions such a substitution occurred and what the guiding principles might have been. Was it simply to provide atmosphere or else to provide a sense of an archaic Indian dialect into something comprehensible to the modern American reader who might think the idea of a seductive blue God droll, but who would be on board with superstring theory and the idea of “energy” as constitutive of meaning? Hawley sees an intriguing logic in it, and Mirabai, according to Sri Chinmoy, Indian guru and philosopher, “was a devotee of the high, higher, highest order. Among the saints of India, she is absolutely unparalleled. She composed many, many bhajans, which are prayerful songs to God. Each song Mirabai wrote expressed her inspiration, aspiration and sleepless self-giving.” In this definition, the essence of her singing is universal and can perhaps be unmoored from any fixed plane of reference, though I would still expect that how and why such unmooring was done might be explicated.  

Nonetheless, the timeless nature of her utterance is captured lucidly, particularly in the first poem in the collection, “All I was Doing was Breathing”:  

Something has reached out and taken in the beams of my eyes.

There is a longing, it is for his body, for every hair of that dark body.

All I was doing was being, and the Dancing Energy came by my house.

His face looks curiously like the moon, I saw it from the side, smiling.

My family says: “Don’t ever see him again!” And they imply things in a low voice.


But my eyes have their own life; they laugh at rules, and know whose they are.


I believe I can bear on my shoulders whatever you want to say of me.

Mira says: Without the energy that lifts mountains, how am I to live?

Right away we’re presented with some of Mira’s most persistent tropes. First, longing, or desire is coupled with the idea of compulsion, so the eyes are riveted, magnet-like, to what they find most irresistible: Krishna, in this case rendered as the Dancing Energy. Because Hirshfield had brought up St. John, I also wondered if “beam” were being used pejoratively as in the bible, Matthew 7:3: “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” The beam in this usage is that which obstructs and occludes vision. Next, we have transgression. Mirabai’s incarnation as a radical feminist and true individualist, someone who broke the rules of caste and the expectations of gender, remains a crucial component of her personality, and we see how far she exists from her family’s innuendos and implications. Finally, we have her embrace of the earth, her identification with the vital energies that create mountains. The quirky title in this case is apt because it creates both a sense of voice and presents the situation of someone, like you or I, not waiting or particularly expecting any kind of revelation but who nonetheless gets swept off her feet by a wave of Bhakti, a direct and loving reciprocal relationship with the Supreme Energy. All I was doing was breathing, the voice alleges, so please don’t blame me for my ecstasy.  

In many other poems, Bly and Hirshfield have chosen at the end of the short lyric to turn away from the first-person speaker, or lyric I, that the poem has been in up to this point and to refer to Mira in the third person. So, “Mira belongs to Giridhara, the One Who Lifts All, / And everyone says she is mad,” or “Mira says: The town thinks I am loose, but I am faithful to the Dark One.” This tack of turning from a subjective monologue to a more omniscient narrator is unprecedented and since we’re not given any sort of rationale for this decision, I assume it’s intended to create a distance between the speaker and the reader, to remind us that these are the words of a historical personage, as modern as her passion might seem to be. I also think there’s a way in which the bifurcation of the enlightened consciousness is being underscored—as Meister Eckhart wrote, “the self must lead itself to its own execution”—and that the Mirabai who has been possessed by the Dark One is no longer the same person she once was and as a result, she’s able to adopt another perspective, disassociating herself from the quotidian, from her outward appearance and the very fact of being in and of a body at all. 

Another poem that picks up on this Emersonian theme is “Awake to the Name.”

To be born in a human body is rare,

Don’t throw away the reward of your past good deeds.

Life passes in an instant—the leaf doesn’t go back to the branch.

The ocean of rebirth sweeps up all beings hard,

Pulls them into its cold-running, fierce, implacable currents.

Gridhara, your name is the raft, the one safe-passage over.

Take me quickly.

All the awake ones travel with Mira, singing the name.

She says with them: Get up, stop sleeping—the days of a life are short. 

This poem is a call to arms akin to Rilke asking us “to change our life,” or Emerson advising, “make the most of yourself, for that is all there is of you.” This is a poem like the Buddhist meditation on dissolution and decay that makes us realize that since our time of death is uncertain, the only thing that can help us is passion, the cultivation of spiritual development. One of Mira’s ends is to allow us a chance to realize the rarity of the gift we’ve been bestowed and the imperative that accompanies the gift to participate in the ever-replenishing fullness of the moment. Samsara and the cycle of rebirth are embodied by the image of the ocean in its most unruly state, “cold-running, fierce, implacable currents” sweeping up “all beings hard.” Gridhara is her most common appellation for Krishna, formed from the words for the hero who lifts (dhar) and the mountain (giri). In the midst of the ocean, she sings for the One who Lifts Mountains, gaining foothold in a wavering world.  

Like Sappho or Marie De France, Mirabai has her place fixed in the pantheon of transcendent literary talents, and as such, her testimony needs to be preserved and re-translated from time to time to update the vernacular and to insure her original energies are still being viably transmitted. Bly and Hirshfield’s versions for the most part do an admirable job in collecting and disseminating her ardor. The Mira in these poems feels alive. But the collection would be incomplete without John Stratton Hawley’s afterword, which helps contextualize Mira but also allows for the idiosyncratic and unexplained choices that a translator might make. Her strength, he persuasively argues, is due to her universality, not particularity. Hawley writes,

Mirabai’s power through the centuries contrasts completely with that of her fellow Indian ecstatic poet, Kabir. However many “Kabirs” have composed verse in his name—in his key—it’s almost impossible to think of the earthy grittiness that is his signature without conceiving of it as rooted individually in the wit and trenchancy of a particular historical individual. Not Mira. For all the force of the story that pits her against the king to beat all kings, the rana of Mewar, this is an archetypal confrontation, not a historical one. As we’ve seen, the deepest historical roots of the Mirabai story don’t sink themselves convincingly into Mewari earth. Of course, latter-day historians have tried to shore up these foundations, but the historical ties are not what makes the story live. It’s the story’s archetypal power—the Ur-Woman arrayed against all those powerful men and the structures they create to keep her in place. Her organic link to spirit keeps her safe from the many structure-focused men. This spirit is the Mountain-Lifter, and despite the busy efforts of those same latter-day historians, he too floats above the shrapnel of history. 

Mirabai, then, one of the world’s first feminists, undertook a struggle that hearkens back to Lysistrata, and thereby can be transmuted into someone much more contemporary. There’s also something intriguing in Hawley’s comparison of Mira to fellow “ecstatic” poet Kabir. It’s fodder for another exploration, but in Romanticism’s grand abdication from the stage of world literature, ecstatic poetry, often international in origin, has crept to the wings. There’s something about the idea of ecstasy, from the Greek ek-stasis, literally “stepping outside of oneself,” with its strong implication of bodily and sensory pleasures—gourmandizing, ecotourism, multiple orgasms—that has a certain cache in contemporary discourse. That’s perhaps why certain mystical poets, like Rumi and Mirabai, are being repurposed as sensualists when in fact what they were advocating was such depths of introspection and renunciation that desire itself with its flicker of longing and regret is transformed into the more sustainable state of bliss. I worry that the personification of the Dark Lord, whose chest and dark hair are swooned over, would make it seem that Mira’s primary zeal is sexual in nature. Of course it partakes of that, but in the same way that Simone Weil partakes of surrender and Emily Dickinson’s rhapsodizes a Bee’s experience of Clover; it is a sensuality that comes, paradoxically, from disengaging with the body and from other people. And in that way, it is not sex at all, but ecstasy, through poetry, as wordless euphoria. Because this collection is replete with such traces of beauty and wisdom, it is well worth reading, no matter how re-invented this ethereal and impassioned saint might be. 

Note: As one of the great translators of Tamil poetry A.K. Ramanujan has written about the poetic conventions of the language, “In the Tamil system of correspondences, a whole language of signs is created by relating the landscapes as signifiers to the uri or appropriate human feelings . . . . This progression (from the basic cosmic elements to the specific component of a landscape) is also the method of the entire intellectual framework behind the poetry . . . . Evocations designed like these may be seen in poem after poem. Ullurais—let us call them insets—of the natural scene (somewhat like G.M. Hopkins’s inscape) repeat the total action of the poem . . . . (a) An inset is a correlation of the landscapes and their contents (karu) to the human scene (uri). (b) Unlike metaphor in ordinary language, an inset is a structural feature within the poem; it integrates the different elements of the poem and shapes its message. (c) Unlike metaphor and simile, it often leaves out all the points of comparison and all explicit markers of comparison . . . such an omission increases manifold the power of the figure . . . . The inset is essentially a ‘metonymy,’ an in presentia relationship, where both terms are present, where the signifier and the signified belong to the same universe, share the same ‘landscape.’ Both are parts of one scene. Metaphor implies diversity . . . to be unified by comparison. Poetry for the Tamils does not unify a multiverse but expresses a universe from within, speaking through any of its parts.” Poems of Love and War from the Eight Anthologies and Ten Long Poems of Classical Tamil (Delhi: Oxford UP, 1985); When God is a Customer: Telugu Courtesan Songs, ed. And trans. A.K. Ramanujan, Velcheru Narayana Rao, and David Shulman (Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1994, rpt. Delhi: Oxford UP, 1995)

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