The Love Poems of Mirabai
• Louise Landes Levi • ISBN: 978-1-887276-04-7 •
Small Press Distribution
Sweet on my Lips: The Love Poems of Mirabai, is a collection of translations of poems written by the 16th Century Indian female mystic Mirabai. Included in this book is an historical and linguistic context that deepens our understanding of the uniqueness of a spiritual non-conformist whose revolutionary use of popular languages liberated people and especially women from a life of blind adherence to a culture and society largely defined by male prerogatives.
“Mirabai’s spiritual vision and poetic genius shine through these pages. Verses of wounded pathos and soaring ecstasy are rendered here as vividly as if they had been spoken yesterday, yet with the incantatory power of sacred text. Levi’s translations, brilliant in their lucidity, usher the reader directly into the heart of Mira’s rare, impassioned devotion.” — Miranda Shaw. Author of Passionate Enlightenment.
“The West has St. Teresa d’Avila – the East has Mirabai. Whosoever understands them both understands all there is to understand.” — Claudio Rugafiori
“These poems of Mirabai have been beautifully translated from the Middle Hindi by Louise Landes Levi, and they should serve as a fine key to this tantric poet’s consciousness. ” — Lawrence Ferlinghetti
“Sometimes ancient voices speak more clearly and directly to our inner ear than any today. Their power and beauty, preserved throughout the ages, are a fresh breeze resonating with familiar longings. Mirabai’s legend reads like a fable from an Indian Arabian Nights or a tapestry woven with colored threads — stories that reach from medieval India to the present to tell a tale of nonconformity and devotional love to Lord Krishna. — Griselda Steiner from PARABOLA (Aug 1 ‘98)
Among poets universally there prevails a passionate tradition of the poet as the ‘outsider.’ While entire civilizations may come and go, with the names of its despots, warlords, local heroes and heroines lost for naught, mere fragments of verse have survived centuries as fresh utterance. Such was the case for Mirabai, the 16th century Rajastani princess who’s songs are still sung today in an unbroken lineage of bhakti yoga or devotional love throughout the sub-continent of India, strangely immune to ancient rivalries of caste, religion and tribe. Much has been made of Mirabai’s ‘outsider’ qualities by contemporary Western translators of her work, drawn, no doubt, from the biographical details of her life. However, in my estimate, what makes these translations of Mirabai so remarkable is not so much this simpatico recognition among poets across time and space, but that for the first time these poems are rendered in the context of their original transmissions by one who is herself an initiate, tantric practitioner, and acarya of poetics. Included in this publication are a number of erudite and exquisitely written essays on the music, tantric origins, and methods of translation. I’m very happy that Cool Grove Press has at long last brought this important work to fruition by publishing it.” — Jacqueline Gens, extracted from The Mirror
The Mira Bhajans (from the introduction)
The poems of Mirabai are lyrical representations of her search for and submission to the supreme reality, Krishna, or the inner-self (atman). They evolve from a long tradition of Vaishnavite worship but are especially marked by the deep play of love, which both veils and reveals her sadhana, or search for self. The poems are tantric, the love play is a reflection of her inner state, and the polarities which are involved in the transformation from a relative or subjective to an absolute or objective plane of being.
Mira was an adept of the yogic tradition diffused in the north of medieval India, principally through the great South-Indian Vaishnavite Ramanuja and his disciple Ramananda. Other schools of North Indian bhakti (from the Sanskrit root bhaj, meaning “to share”, hence bhajan) directly related to this tradition are those of the great poet-saints Chaitanya, Kabir and Tulsidas.
Louise’s translations of Mirabai’s songs:
I saw the clouds and cried, Shyama,
I saw the clouds and cried,
They were black and yellow,
and round with rain,
I stood outside waiting while
the earth grew green,
O Love, you live in a foreign land,
but my love for you
I slept for a moment,
the Beloved appeared,
when I rose to greet him,
Some lose him
I lost him
Mira’s lord, Giradhara,
brings happiness to
What made you want to translate Mirabai?
I went to the University of California, Berkeley in the l960’s. There was a Poetic Renaissance in San Francisco and a socio–political climate which encouraged innovation, especially of the mind and the spirit. I was drawn to India, and involved in Indian music, through a geographical coincidence: Ali Akbar Khan’s school opened in Berkeley at the same time that my interests in music shifted to improvisation and performance. Intuitively I knew that Kabir and Mirabai were the poets I wanted to study. I was interested in ‘spiritual’ practice and the poetry that accompanied it. I felt that in order to ‘find my own voice’ I had to first understand the ‘voice’ of a great devotional poet like Mirabai.
In other words: to avoid Imitation, I wanted and needed to understand. Besides, due to a certain frailty &/or latent or concealed mental ‘illness’ I could not to use drugs, the gate to certain kinds of consciousness–expansion in that time. So I turned to a still inarticulate idea of practice and I knew that in India certain states were celebrated in certain traditions directly through poetic practice. The Great Berkeley Poetry readings and Allen Ginsberg’s chanting at one of these alerted me to an ecstatic tradition which I wanted to explore directly. Later, in India, I learned the Devanagari (or Sanskrit) alphabet through a non-dual or direct process and translation from texts in this alphabet, or related to it, became a vehicle of that exploration.
You imply that Mira was liberated. What is the difference in the understanding of a liberated person in the east and the west?
I can only answer subjectively, from my own studies and experience. In general, in the West, we think of liberation in terms of social, economic, even personal factors, all which relate to the ‘I’, to the nature of our ego bound fields of interest and perception. In the East, at least in Buddhist schools and their indigenous predecessors in Tibet, India, Nepal et al., to be liberated implies a liberation from the concept of ‘I’ or ‘self’ or an ego–bound perception of reality. One is liberated from the appearance of reality and released into a world in which the ego is no longer the center of ones reference point. Of course, one can not know these states through the mind, so I offer only my provisional understanding of them.
What does tantrism have to do with Mira’s life and work?
In general, in India, at least, the Tantric schools refer to practices which are not included in the Vedic precepts and commentaries. The school of Bhakti or devotional love which flourished in India in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and produced dozens of brilliant poets—Mirabai was not the only one—resulted from factors which clearly separate it from the prevailing orthodoxy. Considerations of caste, conventional attitudes to love and seduction, the nature of emotion itself was revolutionized during this period. In the North East of India, in communities which survive today, for example in the Baul community, practices directly related to sexuality and the physical polarities between male and female disciples were used in the pursuit of liberation. Moksha in Sanskrit, like most words in the language, has complex variety of meanings. It is both liberation in a directly sexual sense, and liberation as explained above, in the mind. Vaishnavism, in North West India, of which Mira is a supreme exponent, did not refer directly to these practices. Instead, the polarity was, from what we understand, internalized and the great meetings reserved for the inner chakras and channels, which in the Tantric tradition are male and female, by nature, and whose unification internally, leads to this same non-dual liberation.
Does Mirabai’s life have any relevence to people today?
The Industrial-Military complex, capitalism itself, with its underlying message that it is morally acceptable to use others for one’s profit, offers the same challenge that the caste oriented, racially hierarchical and spiritually exclusive society of sixteenth century India did to its citizens. Mirabai and her contemporaries defied this order. Mirabai was from the warrior caste, her father and her grandfather were legendary warriors. Yet she and her contemporaries preached and practiced a non-violent revolution of caste and consciousness. They took a teachings to the streets that had been reserved for the white (fair-skinned/Brahminic) male priests and their constituents, for centuries.
I think, in some ways, the social revolution that occurred in the 6O’s, however ineffective it may have been to deter certain aspects of the later half of the century, did suggest and invoke an individual freedom and a right to that freedom which is the property of the human heart and not the property of any government or institution of that government. Mira’s realization can not be qualified by time and space. This realization resides innately in the human mind and can manifest today as it did in centuries which have passed. Mirabai of course was a woman. She was the only great female voice of the Vaishnavite tradition and she faced the same difficulties which are, in general, faced by women today who wish to free themselves from conventional cultural patterns and the expectations inherent in those patterns.
Is there a difference between translating this kind of poetry and the other authors (Rene Dauman and Henri Michaux) whom you have translated?
If you are talking about traditional and non-traditional forms of poetic activity, of course there is a difference. Mirabai’s poetic is part of a tradition which exists in the sub-continent and which is devoted to maintaining an energetic potential which, in that tradition, is called transmission. It is believed that such literature has the power of sacred utterance or mantra and can directly alter the listener’s or the reader’s state of mind, initiating him or her into a higher field of consciousness.
This literature is at times canonized and given sacred signification. There is even a name reserved, in the tradition, for the language in which such texts are written, i.e.Sandhya Bhasa or Twilight Speech. The poetry of Saraha, the sixth Dalai Lama, Mirabai are a few historical examples.
We have this tradition in the West as well but it is less understood as such. This material requires an extremely responsible commitment from the translator, at least I see it this way. Although it may be impossible to translate this kind of activity, in which consciousness and language are directly merged, one’s intention , one’s recognition of the material, is of utmost importance. One is entering a lineage or enlightened tradition in which the word has served as a principle conduit. One has the same responsibility to a so-called ordinary author; if Enlightenment exists in the human mind stream like salt in water, then that consciousness permeates all forms of activity, naturally. But, in the case of realized beings, like Milarepa and Saraha or Surdas and Tulsidas, this relation is even more clear, and more subtle at the same time and demands a tremendous effort, that at the same time must be effortless in order to reflect the attainment of the so-called author in question.