Sycamore tree at edge of pond

Finding Mirabai

“I came for the sake of love-devotion;
seeing the world, I wept.”

MĪRĀBĀĪ

A few months ago I found that the well of words, of thoughts, that feelings seemed to slip from my grip. I found the days were spent languishing here in my nook, watching TV show, one after the other, after the other, after the other. Documentary, after documentary.

Bored, restless, devoid of inspiration. Waiting. But for what? Well, as everything I tried to reach for this year has dissolved, evaporated, disappeared, gone. Left without the things I thought I had, I am still looking for that next thing, the job, the work I’ll do. All that is elusive. Waiting for things to open up again, for my appointment in January for my teeth to be removed, for my life to go on. And, so I wait.

So I just stopped reaching, and just let the tide take me. Waxing, waning, waves rise and fall, as do I.

Well, and 2020 is such a year that many have found themselves, I don’t know, lost in space, unable to really focus, mind wandering, things put on hold, things gone, and everything this year is different.

A year of this collective uncertainty, anxiety, our pulse waxed and waned, together.

At some point, as the summer was ending, everything just drained out, and I was just this puddle, upright one moment, napping the next, walking Pika, in the woods, round the block, making tea, eating, and all that, but completely out of context. I felt slightly off the track, like a tiny stone was in my sock, but there was no getting rid of it. Inert, the flame dampened. Sputtered, and went out.

“Without the energy that lifts mountains, how am I to live?”

MĪRĀBĀĪ, MIRABAI: ECSTATIC POEMS

Recall the sage wisdom that if you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for everything, and no idea who said it, but if nothing else it would seem that this has decidedly been a year of falling. And, questions round belief. Not like religion, but in faith. Lack of, being as prevalent as blinded by.

So, during this time of numbness, I went searching for an ignition, a way to somehow release the words I felt imprisoned inside.

Well, and I found a tarot deck. Two decks, actually. Dad had given me some birthday money, and as this year has taken most of my ‘mad’ money, I thought why not?

The one deck is more in a traditional Rider-Waite style, but with predominately female characters in the chief roles. a lovely deck, and beautiful images, and just what I was looking for.

Oh, but the other one I found, called The Literary Witches Oracle, it spoke to me. With gorgeous illustrations by Katy Horan, and a little booklet by Taisia Kitaiskaia, this deck invokes that wisdom we all carry, it shines the light inside. I love the texture of the cards, with a painted canvas like feel, introducing me to these amazing women writers, taking me on unexpected journeys.

The Literary Witches Oracle

I sometimes draw one on its own, or within the context of the other tarot deck, using it to relay the spirit of the cards, their intent, their foundational message to me.

Each time I am enchanted. Though, actually, not always to write, but I always find something new, and usually that is enough. To find within the writer, maybe something I have locked away, chipping away at the numbness of days upon days spent on my own. Inspires me to look in new places, read new words.

And so that is how I found Mirabai.

DEVOTION
worship * passion * the sublime
Instead of attending to her royal and wifely duties, princess Mirabai (1450? – 1547?) wrote intense, erotic devotional poetry to the god Krishna, whom she thought of as her lover. Mirabai’s in-laws loathed her unconventional ways, and she miraculously escaped their poisoning attempts twice. When the in-laws tried to bring her back in the family, Mirabai spent the night at a Krishna temple and disappeared. Legend has it that she merged with Krishna’s image that night – or continued on her spiritual pilgramage in disguise.

The Literary Witches Oracle

Now, altogether the reading basically said get your damn butt outside, and guided me to again visit that giant old Sycamore down at The Coves, the one with the hollow core. The one that regardless of being perched on the edge of the pond, with its trunk hollowed with age, still grows, and thrives, even so.

Yet, afterwards, I went looking for more about this mysterious poet, this mystic of long ago, with her devotion to Krishna, and I came upon her words, like she was speaking of a lover. Yet, they are not all loving, all glorious in devotion to her god. She is rebellious and noble, courageous and lived her truth, to an extreme many would not have the strength to endure.

In one translation of her work, she is described as “anti-war, it is indifferent to commerce, and it tends to expose sexism, racism, classism, and crippling religious authority(quote by Andrew Schelling) [Moving Devotion, Moving Displacement: Decolonising Responses to Mirabai and Bhanu Kapil’ 2016 Nisha Ramayya].

Mirabai card
The Literary Witches Oracle

This infamy, O my Prince,
is delicious!
Some revile me,
others applaud,
I simply follow my incomprehensible road.
A razor thin path
but you meet some good people,
a terrible path but you hear a true word.
Turn back?
Because the wretched stare and see nothing?
O Mira’s lord is noble and dark,
and slanderers
rake only themselves
over the coals.

Schelling (2015: 166)

Choosing to live on the streets, on public charity, in 16th century India, turning her back on all the wealth and privilege she was born to, writing poetry and devoting her life to what she believed, would have taken such strength. In her time, she was revered and embraced as a saint, a wise woman, a sage, and became a hero of folklore for the marginalized.

Victim herself, to some degree, of the strict hierarchical system that gripped India for centuries, with her devotion to Krishna her words speak of a liberation of the spirit

And so she was again embraced, centuries later, by the Indian liberation movement in the 19th century. Her words and her devotion, her disregard for the prison of her own privilege, she was embraced as poet-saint, an icon of liberation of women, reconstructed, canonized.

One play from the early 20th century, The King’s Wife (1919) opens with the Mughal emperor Akbar, and his poet Tansen… setting out to meet Mirabai.

His encounter with Mira and her songs open new horizons of knowledge to him. Akbar is lost in the overwhelming ecstasy of Mira’s worship and is moved to comment, “Those who look shall never see/Beyond the eye’s horizon. Those who see/Have no more need for looking“. (Cousins, 1919, p27)

Rita Varghese, Mirabai in Popular Imagination: Reading Bhakai Canon in Contemporary Context. 2020, p. 3 [paper originally published in Artha Journal Of Social Sciences 19.2 (2020)].

There is that universal theme, of seeking for something. Something more, something outside our mundane lives, a presence, a hidden truth, behind maybe the words of a song, of stepping outside our comfortable world, as the courageous Mirabai did.

She broke the rules, she was seen in the company of men, she was called promiscuous, accused of defiling her family honour, transgresses moral and social norms [ibid]. She was radical, but she was true to herself.

She is accused of breaking the rules, tortured, they try to force her to drink poison, yet, she meekly showcases her courage when she is at the verge of doom. She announces her liberation when the decree is issued, ‘ I am a woman… for the first time in my life/Solely and utterly I am myself, / And go on my own way’ (play by Cousins, 1919, p84) [ibid].

She could not live within the lie they constructed for her, and she turns away from it, and embraces the world with no guarantees nor comfort, but that she is free to devote herself to Krishna.

To know what of these stories has merit is difficult to say, and realistically purely from the imagination of the playwright. However, she was a folk hero in her own time, and walked away from all the societal norms of her day. Thought promiscuous by her family, shunned by her class, to them, she is strange and disobedient, throwing away all the advantages of her birthright. The aristocratic class to which she was a part, and how she was raised, she seemingly walks away from in order to follow her heart.

Ponds at the Coves

Now, of course, my circumstances are none so lofty and dire, yet, I admire her courage, and identify with her need to follow her heart, to not be dissuaded by the norms of the day, to live my own Bohemian way.

This year, as everything I’ve reached for has escaped my grasp, still, I now see that it gave me this opportunity to incubate, to nest within my new-found knowledge of myself.

And, with everything in the air, with no idea what will transpire next, I guess I’ve stopped reaching for some things I never really wanted, and instead have gradually learned how to sit back and just go with the flow, bumpy as it were.

My solitude, forced as it is, is a gift. Forced me to look outside, literally, but also outside what I knew, thought I knew.

Mirabai reminds me that I too am taking a different path than the one I believed I was on. That my passions, such as they are, for writing, for taking photographs, for words, for knowledge, does come with a price. I am not lost, for the words did, eventually, break through the wall of numbness. Her words, her devotion, her life, the stories, folktales and all, are inspiring.

I’m certain I’ll be sharing more of these literary witches, for sure.

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.

Mirabai – [Translated by Willis Barnstone]

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