Notes on Poetry: All I Was Doing Was Breathing (Criticism)

Bryan Aubrey
Bryan Aubrey holds a PhD in English and has published many articles on contemporary poetry. In this essay, he discusses Mirabai's poetry in the context of the bhakti tradition, as exemplified in the teachings of Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita.

In the fifty adaptations by Robert Bly and Jane Hirshfield that appear in their book
Mirabai: Ecstatic Poems, it is as if Mirabai's poetry attains a new lease on life. "All I Was Doing Was Breathing," titled with such subtle resonance by Bly, makes previous English versions of this poem seem flat by comparison. Bly's adaptation is a free one, and indeed the poems are described as "versions" of Mirabai rather than translations. As John Stratton Hawley points out in his afterword to the book, the word energy, which Bly employs twice in different contexts in this poem, does not appear in the original. But, he says, "Robert Bly must have felt that the whole motif of a divine adolescent lifting a mountain ought to suggest the displacement of matter into its dynamic counterpart: E = mc2." Hawley suggests this may be "misleading," but it may be that the first connection a reader makes regarding the word energy is not so much with Einstein's famous equation but with the parallels between subatomic physics and Indian spirituality that have been popularized in books such as Fritjof Capra's The Tao of Physics (1975).

Physicists now understand that the universe is made up of dynamic patterns of energy created by the interactions of subatomic particles, and this fact has reminded some people of the representations in Hindu mythology of the god Shiva, who embodies the eternal cosmic dance of creation and destruction as the underlying basis of all existence. As Ninian Smart puts it in
The Religious Experience of Mankind, "Shiva is god of the dance — as Lord of the Dance he dances out the creation of the world as an expression of his exuberant personality." Capra identifies the dance of Shiva with "the dance of subatomic matter" discovered by modern physicists. When Bly has Mirabai describe Krishna as the "Dancing Energy," he is drawing on this idea and relying on the reader to make the connection. Bly is untroubled by the fact that it is Shiva, not Krishna, who is portrayed as the cosmic dancer, because the phrase supplies him with the metaphor he wants, which presents the divine as an infinitely dynamic, infinitely powerful mode of consciousness. It is this perception of Krishna that has seized hold of Mirabai in the poem; she has felt the all-attractive power of the god, before which everything else pales in comparison.

It is in the Bhagavad Gita — which for Hindus has an authority not unlike that which the New Testament has for Christians — that Krishna is presented in his most majestic form. In the eighteen short chapters of the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna is no longer the divine child who slays demons and flirts with milkmaids. He is now the all-knowing incarnation of the supreme god Vishnu, "the beginning and the middle / Of beings, and the end as well." He describes himself to the warrior Arjuna as "infinite Time"; he is at once death and "the origin of those things that are to be." He is the sun and the moon. (The latter is echoed in the image of Krishna's face "like the moon" in "All I Was Doing Was Breathing.") Everything that exists can do so only through him; he is the fundamental power in the universe: "I support this entire universe constantly / With a single fraction of Myself." This statement recalls Krishna as the "energy that lifts mountains" in Mirabai's poem, which itself recalls the story of Krishna as a boy holding up the mountain with his finger.

In book 11 of the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna presents Arjuna with a vision of himself in his fullest glory. In verse 12, the awestruck warrior sees the whole universe as a manifestation of Krishna in dazzling light:

   If there should be in the sky
   A thousand suns risen all at once,
   Such splendor would be
   Of the splendor of that Great Being.

The vision, of which this verse forms only a fraction, is so amazing that it makes Arjuna's hair stand on end.
Approximately seventeen centuries later, Mirabai well understood what Arjuna saw on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, where Krishna's communication took place. It is because Mirabai had such a deep understanding of the true nature of her divine lord that she had so little regard for things such as family duty and accepted social roles, which others thought were so important. For Mirabai, their rules were as nothing when compared with the majesty of the god. Krishna offers salvation and incorporation in the oneness of all things; society offers nothing but the dull round of petty obligations, small-minded values, and short-lived pleasures.

It is also in the Bhagavad Gita that Krishna sets out the influential idea of bhakti, that salvation can be attained not only through knowledge but also through devotion. The key passages come toward the end of book 9. In verse 26, for example, Krishna tells Arjuna:

   He who offers to Me with devotion
   A leaf, a flower, a fruit or water,
   That offering of devotion
   I accept from him whose self is pure.

In the same book, Krishna promises those who worship with devotion that "They are in Me, and I also am in them." Even if a man is evil, if he worships Krishna with "undivided devotion," he will be considered virtuous and will go to "everlasting peace." In the final verse of the book, Krishna makes a promise to Arjuna:

   With mind fixed on Me, be devoted to Me;
   Sacrificing to Me, make reverence to Me.
   Thus steadfast, with Me as supreme aim,
   Thou thyself shalt come to Me.

In Hindu tradition, devotion can take many forms. Krishna P. Bahadur in his book
Mīrā Bāī and Her Padas, cites a scriptural text that lists nine kinds of devotion, including listening to the praises of the Lord, community singing, remembering God's name ("The name of the Dark One has entered my heart," writes Mirabai in "Mira Swims Free"), ritual worship, complete dependence on God ("I can't live without him," says Mirabai in "The Dagger"), and self-surrender ("And seeing his beauty, I offered him all that I am," Mirabai states in "Not Hiding Not Seeking"). Bahadur cites another scripture in which activities such as keeping company with holy men and saints, cultivating attitudes like simplicity, and being content with what one has and not finding fault in others are also aspects of devotion, as is an expanded perception in which the devotee "see[s] the whole world pervaded by the Divine." Devotion therefore involves an all-encompassing orientation of the entire being of a person. It is not possible to be a part-time devotee or a devotee who retains allegiance to anything other than the lord — in this case, Krishna.
In the eyes of the world, the complete immersion of the devotee in the object of his or her love may look like a kind of madness. Indeed, madness is a theme in a number of Mirabai's poems. She is quite direct about how others regard her: "'Mira is insane,' strangers say that. 'The family's ruined'" ("Ankle Bells"). It is a characterization that does not upset Mirabai in the slightest. In fact, she embraces it, describing herself in several poems as mad. In "The Dagger," she tells what happened when Krishna threw a glance in her direction. It felt to her like a thrust with a dagger. She says, "Since that moment, I am insane; I can't find my body. / The pain has gone through my arms and legs, and I can't find my mind." In "The Fish and the Crocodile," when Krishna's face appears to her, she says, "I forgot about the world and its duties. I went out of my mind." The last phrase is especially resonant, since it suggests both madness and a kind of ecstasy.

The word
ecstasy comes from the Greek word ekstasis, which literally means "a being out of its place." Religious ecstasy means to stand outside oneself in a state of heightened awareness. It is the great paradox of all mystical literature that in standing outside the ordinary day-to-day self, the devotee or mystic discovers the true self in larger measure. She or he comes home to the god, so to speak, just as Mirabai says, "I'll sing about him; then I will be home" ("The Gooseberry Patch"). Mirabai has left her material home, in terms of her family and all her worldly ties, and has discovered her spiritual home, in Krishna. She has gone into him "As the polish goes into the gold" ("Polish into Gold"). In doing so, she has realized the eternal truth of Krishna's words in book 10 of the Bhagavad Gita, that he "abid[es] in the heart of all beings." This is clear from her poem "Not Hiding Not Seeking": "Friends, let those whose Beloved is absent write letters — / Mine dwells in the heart, and neither enters nor leaves." Like all the great seers in all religious traditions, Mirabai has gone beyond the "world's five fabrics" (that is, the five senses), as she calls them in "Not Hiding Not Seeking," and knows the ultimate, unchanging reality that lies beyond all the shifting phenomena of this world.

Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on "All I Was Doing Was Breathing," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.
What Do I Read Next?
  • For Love of the Dark One: Songs of Mirabai (1998), translated by Andrew Schelling, includes a short introduction and a glossary. Schelling's translations bring out the passionate and erotic quality in Mirabai's devotion to Krishna.
  • Rumi: The Book of Love: Poems of Ecstasy and Longing (2003), translated by Coleman Barks, is a collection of poems by the thirteenth-century Sufi poet whose absolute devotion to God resembles that of Mirabai. These poems tell of Rumi's deep desire to lose himself in love for the divine.
  • The Gift: Poems by the Great Sufi Master (1999) is a collection of poems by Hafiz, translated in colloquial language by Daniel Ladinsky. Like his predecessor Rumi, Hafiz was a fourteenth-century Sufi mystic who wrote short, ecstatic, devotional poems to God.
  • Kabir: Ecstatic Poems (2004), versions by Robert Bly, is a collection of the verse of a near contemporary of Mirabai. Kabīr (1440 – 1518) was an important influence in the formation of the Sikh religion. He was a Muslim weaver from Benares, India, who became influenced by Hindu ideas. Kabīr condemned the caste system and disliked the dogmas and rituals that divided one religion from another. He wrote many poems and hymns, and his followers today form a distinct sect within Hinduism. John Stratton Hawley's introduction places Kabīr's work firmly in modern times.