How a great Bhakti poet was awakened

How a great Bhakti poet was awakened

Despite being taught that ‘God is One’, Meera Bai clung to the path of Krishna love, even in a kingdom that worshipped Shiva. Meera saw him as her lord and found poems pouring out of her. Many poems are attributed to her in the old stretch of Krishna country along the Yamuna

This week, I would like to revisit the incredible legend of Meera Bai, the Bhakti poet. Meera came to Chittor in 1513 as a bride of fifteen, clutching her foot-high bronze statue of Krishna, her best-loved possession since she was five. She called him ‘Shyam Sundar’, the ‘Dark, Handsome One’. A visiting ascetic at the Dakorji temple in Meera’s grandfather’s kingdom, Merta, owned it, obtained from across the Vindhyas. Meera wanted it the minute she saw it and wept inconsolably, and so he let her have it.

Meera’s husband Bhojraj, the Crown Prince of Chittor, let her be once he understood she could not be a wife to him, for she was married already in heart and head to Krishna. No children appeared to contest this rumour. Bhojraj died in battle against invaders, as did her tolerant father-in-law Rana Sangram Singh, king of Chittor.

The clan god of the Sisodias of Chittor is Shiva, whom they worship as Eklingji in his grand temple. But despite being taught that ‘God is One’, Meera clung to the singing-dancing path of Krishna-love. Meera saw him as her lord, and found poems pouring out of her. Many poems are attributed to her by the doting common folk of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Brijbhumi, the old stretch of Krishna-country along the Yamuna. They sang her songs for nearly five centuries after she died in 1547 at Dwaraka. But for 21 years, Meera was immured in the Chittor palace.

Outside lay the bustle of the byways and temple fairs. Groups of wandering mendicants and devout lay people thronged the discourses of saints. A new movement, a spiritual revolution, had refreshed the common people for some time. It made them love God anew with the direct personal devotion called bhakti.

After Bhojraj died and his step-brother Vikram became king, Meera was unrelentingly persecuted. Her sister-in-law Uda Bai, who never liked her, was the new king’s confidante. Uda’s family pride was hurt by Meera’s obsession with Krishna. Her complaints had not dented the lofty natures of her father Rana Sangram Singh and brother Bhojraj. But Vikram was a pleasure-seeker who lacked kingly qualities.

At Uda’s urging, Vikram sent a snake concealed in a basket of flowers to Meera but somehow it failed to bite her. He ordered poisoned thorns to be scattered on her couch but nothing pierced Meera’s tender skin. Vikram put Meera into solitary confinement in a ruined old house said to be haunted by demons, a place of cobwebs, rats and bats. No food or water was allowed to her for ten days. But he and Uda found Meera serenely meditating on Krishna. Vikram then banned Meera from going to the Krishna temple or meeting the sadhus that came there to hear her songs.

Now Meera had to decide what to do. But whom could she consult? Was there no wise, honourable person who understood that a life without Krishna-love was a howling wilderness? “I know existence is just a passing illusion,” thought Meera, with a sudden, lonely shiver. “But while we exist, we need love. The best love is to love God, and through that refining filter, love everyone with equal respect. But I am a woman and a royal woman at that. I have no rights at all. Who can advise me?”

Faint sounds from the outer courtyard broke into her tortured thoughts. The clink of cymbals, the beat of the hand-drum and a strain of pilgrim song wafted in through the window. ‘Janani, main na jiyun bin Ram…’ she heard, ‘Mother, I cannot endure to live without Rama’, from Goswami Tulsidas’s new Ramayana in the common people’s language. Surely, Tulsidas would understand her desperate situation?

Meera asked her maid to discreetly ask the pilgrims to convey a letter from her to Tulsidas at Varanasi. The maid came back with their promise. Meera poured her heart out to Tulsidas:

“My humble greetings to the noble poet and true devotee of God. I write to say that I cannot forsake Krishna whom I have loved from childhood, merely because my relatives constantly torture me. I am no longer able to worship Krishna freely in the palace or meet God-minded sages and ascetics as is my practice. I have made Krishna my friend since I was a little child and am wholly unable to break that bond. Please advise me on the proper thing to do. Meera salutes you most respectfully.”

An agonised wait followed. A fresh crisis appeared as a chalice of poisoned kheer. “Drink it, Meera. The king will be pleased that I watched you drink it,” said Princess Uda. Meera was about to raise it to her lips when she noticed her maid’s wide, terrified eyes, silently warning her not to drink. “I accept it, Krishna,” said Meera and drank it. Flushed with emotion, she began to dance and sing, “I, Meera, dance with my anklets on. The king sent me a poisoned chalice but I drank it and laughed.”

Uda ran away with a wail of terror. Within minutes, the tale flew from the palace to the bazaars of Chittor. Vikram and Uda were helpless against the tide of public opinion that surged through Chittor and in a few days, through all of Mewar.

Tulsidas’s startling reply finally arrived. The legend goes that he wrote: “Abandon those who cannot understand you, even if they are your dearest relatives. Prahlad left his father Hiranyakashipu for that reason. All other relationships are unreal and transient. But not God-love.”

That very day, Meera sent for permission to go on pilgrimage. Given the strong public mood in her favour, the king dared not withhold it, and Meera left Chittor forever to find Krishna.

Renuka Narayanan

(Views are personal)


The New Indian Express