A Tale of Two Female Devotees

by f

Lately, I’ve been reading poems by two famous historical poetesses — Rabi’a Al-Adawiyya and Mirabai.

Rabi’a Al-Adawiyya was born around 801 BC to very poor parents in Basra, Iraq. She later became a slave until, according to fable, she was emancipated by a master in awe of her intense devotion to God.

Mirabai, on the other hand, was Rajput royalty, born 1498 AD — seven centuries after her Iraqi counterpart.

Their backgrounds make for a fascinating study of contrasts: Rabi’a was a former slave and Mirabai spent the first twenty years of her life as a princess in one of the wealthiest city-states in the world. Life, however, eventually saw them as ascetics. Mirabai gave up her marriage to follow Krishna and Rabi’a became a Sufi holy woman, wandering through Iraq seeking solitude.

It’s amazing how much these two women from vastly different eras had such similar ideas about God.

The Sufis make up the mystic outer reaches of Islam. Historically, its poets sought to have a personal relationship with God, a tradition that continues today throughout Africa, Asia and the diaspora. The Sufi traditions also encompass pre-Islamic philosophy as well as branches and modes of worship not present in either Sunni or Shi’a orthodoxy. They consider their goal unity — unity with Allah through intense personal devotion. A sufi’s love is loud, eloquent, and passionate. They perpetuate the Gnostic tradition by gathering and absorbing spiritual knowledge.

Rabi’a Sufi poetry exemplifies this personal connection. She — the devotee — is always filled with longing for her beloved God. Like this:

Brothers, my peace is in my aloneness.

Brothers, my peace is in my aloneness.
My Beloved is alone with me there, always.
I have found nothing in all the worlds
That could match His love,
This love that harrows the sands of my desert.
If I come to die of desire
And my Beloved is still not satisfied,

I would live in eternal despair.

To abandon all that He has fashioned
And hold in the palm of my hand
Certain proof that He loves me—
That is the name and the goal of my search.

Desire and satisfaction — two intense feelings we associate with lovers in our earthly relationships — characterize the way she feels about her Beloved. In this poem she is always alone with God. She’s jealous of anyone who gets too close. It’s the perfect encapsulation of her need to be set apart from the world. She can’t bear to share this emotion with others.

Mirabai

The Hindu Bhakti tradition came as a rejection to the powerful, codified societal structures of medieval India and its material excesses. Bhakti poets also sought a personal connection to God, believing enlightenment was accessible to anyone regardless of caste or sex or creed. Does this sound familiar? Does this sound like the Sufi philosophy I discussed earlier?

Mirabai was a Rajput princess whose mother put her onto the idea of worshiping Krishna when she was a young girl. Krishna, the doll-husband. (This is all, by the way, according to the Amar Chitra Katha comic books I devoured when I was younger; Mirabai’s story was my particular favorite.) She married one huge jerk Rajput prince of a husband. Then war made her a widow. Mirabai fled the relentless persecution of her in-laws who refused to let her continue her worship.

Then, the story goes, she tried to commit suicide because she believed she had been repudiated by the Divine. And as she’s about to jump into the river, the lord Krishna pulls her back to safety and whispers in her ear.

The rest is history.

No one knows my invisible life

No one knows my invisible life.
Pain
and madness for Rama.
Our wedding bed is high up
in the gallows.
Meet him?
If the dark healer comes,
we’ll negotiate the hurt.
I love the man who takes care
of cows. The cowherd.
Cowherd and dancer.
My eyes are drunk,
worn out from making love
with him. We are one.

I am now his dark color.
People notice me, point fingers at me.
They see my desire,
since I’m walking about like a lunatic.
I’m wiped out, gone.
Yet no one knows I live with my prince,
the cowherd.
The palace can’t contain me.
I leave it behind.
I couldn’t care less about gossip
or my royal name.
I’ll be with him
in all his gardens
.

The jealousy — in Mirabai’s poetry, more explicitly sexual — is there. Krishna is a larger human personality than the deity Allah; Krishna’s earthly incarnate lends a lot of personal anecdotes: some from his bucolic childhood in Vrindavan, some from his kingly existence in Dwaraka and yet others on the grim battlefield of Kurukshetra, advising his cousins on the justice of war.

But Mirabai sees Krishna as the lover who loved Radha his whole life — despite the fact she could never be his — and kept his future wives blissfully happy and devoted to him. Krishna represents the seduction of Heaven, perfection and truth.

In her poems, Mirabai is open with her desire for his physicality; most notably, for his blue skin. (It’s the color of darkness in Hindu mythology, and it’s Krishna’s trademark physical characteristic.) She worships him as a way of focusing her energies and becoming something outside herself. This was her achievement and the way she transcended what could have been a very narrow future for her. Her poems have been set to music and are sung even today as passionate fragments of a restless woman’s desire for the divine.

When I read Rabi’a and Mirabai at once, I feel a sense of deep peace. Sometimes I have this crazy desire to command a time machine and bring the two together. They would’ve understood each other as saints and fellow worshipers. They were women passionately in love, but with something beyond even their own imagining. Their words and thoughts are two overlapping waves in the presence of a being who transcends time.

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