The exile and exaltation of Meerabai
Meerabai with rishna by MF Husain
It might seem like an unlikely sort of freedom to roam the wildering forests and dusty tracks of north India, barefoot and dressed in rags. Especially if fate had an altogether more opulent life earmarked for you, as a cosseted and bejewelled bride in an elite Rajput household. And yet, more than 500 years ago, that is exactly the fate that Meerabai chose for herself. Turning her back on the huge forbidding walls of her desert home, she stepped out of the consecrated circle of home and honour into the uncertainty of a restless existence in search of divine love. In the end, it was precisely in leaving the comfort of her cocooned marital home that Meerabai found not only freedom but immortality.
The prosaic truth was that life for women in an elite Rajput home in the 16th century was one of crushing restrictions and denial. Given often only a cursory education, girls were brought up while being constantly reminded that they were ‘paraya dhan’, someone else’s, living in abeyance in their natal homes till they were married off. Elite Rajput clans practiced exogamy and natal alienation, marrying women to higher-status clans, physically far removed from natal homes, to secure better status and prospects for their own clans. When a young girl was married, therefore, often at a very young age, she left the comfort and familiarity of all that she had grown up with—sisters, mother, father, friends. This family, she was constantly reminded, was only temporary. Her marital family was to be her ultimate home, and one that would require a complete realignment of her beliefs, her traditions, her name and even her god. For every Rajput clan had a kuldevi, the goddess of their kul (clan). New brides were expected to demonstrate immediate allegiance to this kuldevi, no matter if they had grown up worshipping another deity. And this was where all Meera’s many troubles began.
For Meera, who adored Krishna, this was an insurmountable problem. According to legend (for very little about Meera is actually documented and a great deal of information is oral), the young bride refused to worship her marital kuldevi, her heart filled only with love for Krishna. For the family that Meera was marrying into, this was an abomination. The worshipping of the marital kuldevi by a new bride, it was stoutly believed, ensured long life for her husband and prosperity for the clan. Indeed the worshipping of a new kuldevi was only the first step in the complete transformation of these young women, who were expected to forget altogether the cadence of their natal songs, the flavour of their hometown’s food and the rites and rituals that had been the heartbeat of their childhood. Even their personal identities were to be erased, as they became anonymous and impersonal, known only by the clan name they had married into.
So pervasive was the custom of sending young girls far away from their childhood homes that an entire genre of song, the ‘bidaai’ lament, evolved over the years, normalising the excruciating pain and isolation of child marriages, exogamy and the complete disinheritance of girls upon their marriage from all that was comforting and familiar.
But Meera’s refusal to worship the kuldevi of her marital family was only the beginning of a long period of unhappiness, brought about by abuse at the hands of her in-laws. In the poems she would later write, Meera talks of a patriarch, the ‘Rana’, who constantly harasses her for not conforming to the inflexible rules of elite Rajput society. Joining in the strident condemnation are Meera’s sisters-in-law and her mother-in-law, all united in their malignant distrust of a woman who would leave the welfare of her husband and clan to the whimsical ways of fate, instead of securing it through a strict adherence to the codes of conduct and kuldevi worship.
Meera found a brotherhood of singers and devotees all similarly consumed by Krishna love. For in the 16th century, the scorching ardour of bhakti was blazing through the hinterland of India
For Meera was a distracted bride, immersed in divine love. It is believed she brought with her a small statue of her beloved Krishna from her maternal home. This small idol, and the vortex of love it demanded from Meera, slowly consumed the young bride as the physical world began to slowly constrict the breath out of her. Elite Rajput homes practised strict purdah and the women were cloistered within the zenana deorhi, shielded behind high walls from even the scouring light. No men apart from family members were allowed into the zenana and young women were even required to veil themselves from other elder matriarchs. Meera would later sing verses listing the relentless attempts to control her:
Mother-in-law fights, my sister-in-law teases
The Rana remains angry
They have a watchman sitting at the door
And a lock fastened on it
The lock that Meera wrote about may not have been a figurative one for she may have tried to visit a temple, which in some cases was forbidden to the women if it was outside the home. In despair, Meera had a small temple built within the zenana walls, where she began to spend an increasing amount of time, singing the glory of her god and trying to forget the constant, gnawing criticisms from her husband and his family. But as Meera began to veer ever further away from the accepted behaviour of an ideal bahu, the attacks upon her became more malicious. There were even attempts upon her life, it is believed, when on several occasions poison and snakes were sent to Meera, hoping to eliminate a problem that had become altogether too complicated.
It was at this point, when her world had narrowed to one of constant belittling and torture that Meera decided to set herself free. The courage that this decision required cannot be overstated. Everything in her upbringing would have instructed Meera in the correct etiquette of Rajput society. She would have been told that there was safety within the narrow walls of the zenana, that the unknown world outside was full of dangers. And that her honour, her ‘izzat’, that thing of paramount importance to a Rajput, could not be defended outside the family home, without a guarding male by her side.
And yet Meera left her cloistered world, driven out by a society that would allow not the slightest concession for a woman who deviated from the mould of perfect feminine behaviour. The sources do not tell us exactly when Meera left her home. Was she widowed, or did she leave a husband behind? What is certain is that she left within a few years, when she was still a young and attractive woman, and therefore one whose chastity and honour was entirely at risk. But despite the dire predictions of her family Meera found freedom outside her home. She found a brotherhood of singers and devotees all similarly consumed by Krishna love. For in the 16th century, the scorching ardour of bhakti was blazing through the hinterland of India. In reaction to Brahminical orthodoxy and the spread of Islam, bhakti’s seductive message of a love divine beyond differences of caste and class was proving irresistible. Meera abandoned her jewels, her veil and her costly clothes with relief, wrapping herself in a saffron robe and loosening her hair. Once again, Meera sang of the many transgressions that she was committing while finally claiming her freedom;
Like the casting off of the veil,
Honour, shame, family pride are disavowed
Respect, disrespect, marital, natal home
Renounced in the search for wisdom
The dusty road in the unguarded spaces outside the confines of her home had always been presented to Meera as forbidden. But Meera travelled the endless miles, tracking the sacred geography of her beloved Krishna, through Mathura and the forests of Vrindavan, safe in the company of other mystics and errant travellers, and her own, impeccable honour:
Of father, mother, brother, kinsfolk I have none
Having cast aside familial tyranny
What people say is of no consequence
Because I sought to keep company with sadhus
People say I have shamed the community’s honour
These verses of Meera’s show that she had gauged the full weight of the sacrifice demanded of her to gain her freedom. The entire gamut of familial relationships, brushed aside simply as ‘tyranny’. Within a very short time, Meera had gained immense popularity and a huge following, pointing to the resonance that her verses found within a large section of the disenfranchised and forgotten. From the Meera verses that remain we know that her followers included Muslims, Dalits, prostitutes and a litany of lower-caste folk. In Brajbhasha sprinkled with Gujarati and Rajasthani dialects, Meera’s verses, echoing the longing of all her followers, sing of freedom from society’s endless barriers. Under the wide open skies of north India, Meera finally found the freedom she had been looking for. Freedom from the jewels and silks, which she had realised were poisoned gifts, asking in return her complete allegiance. Freedom also to love as she wanted to, through song and dance and tripping steps.
Towards the end of her long life, having spent years in Vrindavan in mystical ecstasy, Meera made her way towards Dwarka, to the temple with the black idol of Krishna in his Ranchor, deserter of war, avatar. But if Krishna had deserted war, war would not relinquish its claim on Meera. Martial valour and excess were the very raison d’etre of the constantly fractious clans of Rajasthan. The physical bravery of Rajput men in battle bolstered by the impeccable chastity of their wives were the twin standards that defined Rajput honour. And that honour, it was now claimed, was at stake due to Meera’s persistent refusal to abide by her clan norms.
Under the wide open skies of north India Meera finally found the freedom she had been looking for. Freedom from the jewels and silks, which she had realised were poisoned gifts, asking in return her complete allegiance. Freedom also to love as she wanted to, through song and dance and tripping steps
A delegation was sent to Dwarka from Meera’s marital home, because their clan had suffered a number of defeats in battle. If Meera returned to an ‘honourable’ life within society, they argued, all wrongs would be righted. But Meera had lived for too long a life without the usual constraints on a woman in society. The freedom she had experienced was intoxicating, and she found it intolerable to think of returning to a life of darkness, of walls and veils. Did Meera quietly slip away into the anonymity of her ragged companions? Did she choose to sink into the warm waters of the sea behind the temple, rather than tie the fetters upon her bare feet once again? The legend claims she preferred to unite with the dark idol of Ranchor, sublimating her physical body with that of her beloved god’s. In either case, Meera scripted her own end, as she had her wandering life, and claimed for herself a rare space in the scroll of bhakti saints. She lived and died only by her own rules, needing no son, brother or husband to protect her ‘izzat’:
Nothing is really mine except Krishna.
O my parents, I have searched the world
And found nothing worthy of love.
I am a stranger amidst my kinfolk
And an exile from their company,
Since I seek the companionship of holy men;
There alone do I feel happy,
In the world I only weep.
Five hundred years after Meerabai’s incredible journey, the lakshman rekha that defines a woman’s behaviour in Indian society remains firmly in place. The strictures and rules that tell young girls and women what clothes to wear, what journeys to make and whom to love are often as inflexible as they once were. Public spaces are fraught with danger and the onus for female abuse is firmly on the woman—her choice of attire, friends, spaces, laughter, education. Female voices of dissent and rebellion over the years are stifled or denied. The very word ‘honour’, when used for women, is synonymous with brutality and regressive anger—‘honour killing’. Expectations for girls remain depressingly familiar—marriage and children. It is perhaps not surprising that in a recent show, Indian Matchmaking, in which a ‘matchmaker’ sets up potential brides and grooms for an arranged marriage, the women on the show are expected and encouraged to ‘adjust’ and ‘compromise’. If those women expect more from their life partners, then these women are judged ‘flimsy’. But behind the genteel veneer of these words there is a simmering violence. ‘Compromise’, to a woman, is code for giving up all they once believed in fiercely. It is a code for sacrificing your own desires, ambitions and beliefs. It is a price, as Meera found, too high to pay.
(Most of the Meera Bhajan lyrics are from John Stratton Hawley and Mark Juergensmeyer’s Songs of the Saints of India.)