The Women of Yoga Part II: Mirabai, Devotion, and Sexual Liberation
The Bhakti Poets
Mirabai, Devotion, and Sexual Liberation
Last month, on International Women’s Day, in a call for attention to global women’s rights, women from across the globe celebrated each other. The yoga community was no exception. However, the yogis’ dedications to Indra Devi became a subject of controversy across social media.
Often coined “The First Lady of Yoga,” Indra Devi is credited with bringing yoga to the West, specifically for women. However, while some yogis offered their gratitude, others questioned the validity of the claim, even suggesting that bowing to Indra Devi represents cultural appropriation and white saviorism (though I would venture to say that is a mis-definition of white saviorism).
In the inaugural installment of Dharma Drops’ The Women of Yoga, I claimed that we should honor Indra Devi. Her contributions to the yogic teachings were (and still are) significant. However, we cannot pretend that she is “the first lady of yoga.”
Women for thousands of years before Devi were practicing various forms of yoga. Yes, it is true, asana was mostly reserved for men. But to suggest that no women contributed to yoga before Devi does more than put whiteness on a pedestal. It also emphasizes masculinity by undervaluing the historic contributions of women in yoga.
Because, in fact, there were many women practicing and teaching yoga before Devi. For example, the bhakti poets are historical and significant feminine figures of Hinduism and yogic tradition.
Not only did their poetry and hymns influence the bhakti tradition, they also cemented women as leaders of bhakti teachings. And their contributions revolutionized women’s sexual liberation in the 15th century.
Bhakti practitioners or bhaktas practice devotion. According to the yogic teachings, bhakti is one path toward yoga (achieving union or integration). Though the bhakti poets were not necessarily practicing asana, they were practicing a path toward liberation.
Bhakti poetry is a devotional genre of poetry. The poems, often sung as hymns, express devotion to a chosen god. Though the most famous bhakti poets emerged in the 15th century, bhakti or devotional yoga is believed to have developed somewhere between the 6th and 8th century.
The Sanskrit word bhakti is derived from the root bhaj, which means “divide, share, partake, participate, to belong to.” Bhaktas’ practices were (and still are) rooted in love and devotion as religious concepts rather than superficial emotions.
Of the most famous bhakti poets is Mirabai. Considered one of the most significant and quoted women in Indian history, Mirabai (sometimes called Meera) wrote poems and songs that are still sung in India today.
Mirabai was born in the 16th century as part of the Rajput aristocracy. Influenced by many of her relatives, Mirabai, from a young age, was a devotee of Krishna. In accordance to bhakti tradition, many female devotees renounced their commitments and attachments to worldly desires, including their husbands and family.
Mirabai believed Krishna was her true husband. But, against her will, in 1516, she was wed to Prince Bhoj Raj of the Rajput Kingdom of Mewar.
Her devotion to Krisha was a major conflict between her and her new family. She refused to worship her husband’s goddess because she was already devoted to Krishna. But three years after marrying, her husband died in battle. Rather than mourning, Mirabai saw her husband’s death as an opportunity to freely express her love for Krishna.
Quickly, her devotional practices intensified. Often, she sang and danced herself into ecstasies. Her poems recall not just her devotion to Krisha, but also the erotic nature of her devotion. For example, in her poem “All I Was Doing Was Breathing,” she expresses her physical longing for Krishna:
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?
Though by 21st century standards, her poetry may not seem erotic, considering the era in which she lived, Mirabai’s hymns were a radical display of women’s sexuality.
Circa 1527, she began a wandering pilgrimage to places associated with Krishna. As a result, her popularity continued to flourish. Her devotees would gather before her arrival, singing her songs.
Not only did her poems influence bhakti traditions for her devotees (which have carried on throughout history), the erotic nature of her songs and dances influenced a new wave a women’s sexual liberation.
Her poems became a teacher for bhaktas who followed in her path. And they were also a form a rebellion that allowed women to practice spirituality and sexuality.
Though her contributions to yoga are different than Devi’s, if we are to honor women in yoga, we cannot claim there is just one yogini. Who knows, had women like Mirabai not existed, would there have been a path for Devi?
We’ll never know, but it’s safe to say Devi didn’t carve out the path of yoga for women. She helped pave forward a path that had been in place long before her time.
To celebrate all women in yoga, this ongoing series will celebrate all women in yoga. From the past and the present. From around the globe. Young and old. And everything between and beyond. Though I have a running list of women to celebrate, I also want to know who YOU want Dharma Drops to honor. Send your recommendations and ideas to email@example.com.
Rebecca Warfield lives in a small town on the southern coast of North Carolina. In addition to being an avid traveler and writer, she is a university English instructor and RYT-500 yoga teacher. Rebecca spent her 20s traveling solo around the globe, studying literature, and dancing. In her 30s, a New Year’s resolution brought her to yoga, and she hasn’t looked back. She currently teaches yoga full time and is dedicated to sharing yoga’s teachings with others. Rebecca is the founded Rebecca Warfield Yoga and Dharma Drops to celebrate the diversity of practices and experiences of yogis and non-yogis alike.
Cover photo credit from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meera#/media/File:Meerabai_painting.jpg