Society & Lifestyle
Fifteenth century was the time for the efflorescence of Bhakti Poetry in India by the participating great devotees of God and poets and singers like Vidyapati, Mira Bai, Ravidas (also known as Raidas or Ruhidas) and the great Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. It had its earlier link with the sixth century Vaishanavite and Saivite saints. Bhakta kabir’s life and work enriched this movement and made a synthesis with the Sufi movement and poetry which was akin to it in essence. He was a man of the earth; a weaver by profession. “Like Paul the tentmaker, Boehme the cobbler, Bunyan the tinker, Tersteegen the ribbon-maker, he knew how to combine vision and industry; the work of his hands helped rather than hindered the impassioned meditation of his heart.” wrote Evelyn Underhill (Songs of Kabir /Introduction). A poet of the earth he became a spiritual leader among his men living in India’s spiritual centre, the oldest town of the world, Varanasi or Banaras. He was a Bhakti poet. His ideas were akin to Sufi and Baul. His poetry was spiritually rich; esoteric and mystic.
A simple life on earth touching the sky with enormous spiritual height, Sant Kabir remained a legend and mystery in his life time (fifteenth-sixteenth century) and beyond. His poetry was based on his mystic, spiritual vision and lifelong faith on God. Many of his poems are songs. Disciple of a great Hindu pundit, preacher and philosopher-reformer, Saint Ramananda, he was steeped in Hindu philosophy. With esoteric practices he was at the focal point of Bahkti cult. Claimed by both Hindu and Muslim community as a man born with their religion, he used to say, “I am the child of Allah and of Ram.” He also said that he was neither a Hindu nor a Musalman. Temple and mosque, idol and holy water, scriptures and priests were usually renounced by him.
He cared little whether people knew him a Brahmin or a Mohammedan, a Sufi or a Vedantin, a Vaishnavite or a Ramanandi. His way of life and preaching were different from any orthodox religion in spite of his deep faith in God. He had large numbers of followers in his life time who were called Kabirpanthi. Kabirpanth has still a million followers, it is said.
Before going through Kabir’s poetry we may try to understand the subject of mystic poetry. For this I prefer to approach Sri Aurobindo who was a poet and yogi; master of spirituality. In letters to his disciple he defined mystic poetry in different sentences.
“Mystic poetry has a perfectly concrete meaning much more than intellectual poetry which is much more abstract. The nature of the intellect is abstraction; spirituality and mysticism deal with the concrete by their very nature.” (Poetry 353)
“Mystic poetry does not mean anything exactly or apparently; it means things suggestively and reconditely, things that are not known and classified by the intellect.” (Poetry 353)
“It is when the thing seen is spiritually lived and has an independent vivid reality of its own which exceeds any conceptual significance it may have on the surface that it is mystic.” (Poetry 355)
“In the more deeply symbolist- still more in the mystic-poem that mind is submerged in the vividness of the reality and any mental explanation falls far short of what is felt and lived in the deeper vital or psychic response.” (Poetry 355)
Among the English poets, Sri Aurobindo said, “Blake stands out among the mystic poets of Europe.” (Poetry 529)
We get the subtle feel and taste of the true mystic poems in the luminous simplicity and vivid vision of William Blake. His poems reveal his apathy towards religious institutions and rituals like that of Kabir. He tells us how a priest deprives a man from the joy and laughter of life. He held satirical ideas about them. His experience about priest and church is expressed in two poems.
So I turned to the garden of love,
That so many sweet flowers bore.
And I saw it was filled with graves
. . . .
And priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars, my joys & desires.
The Garden of Love /Experience 36
Dear Mother, dear Mother, the Church is cold.
But the Ale-house is healthy & pleasant & warm;
Besides I can tell where I am use’d well,
Such usage in heaven will never do well.
The Little Vagabond /Experience 36
When none responded to repeated knocks on a moonlit door the traveller’s words addressed to some unknown listeners echoed and reechoed in the vast without any answer; there were phantom listeners only.
"Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word,"
We get different satisfactions from some great poems like that of Walter De La Mare. It points towards something unknown and occult.
Occult and fairy-tale-flavour in Christina Georgina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” charms us.
And the weird sensation in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” delights us. But they are not mystic or spiritual poems. We get spiritual poems in Swami Vivekananda,
From dreams awake, from bonds be free!
Be not afraid. This mystery,
My shadow, cannot frighten me!
Know once for all that I am He!
Other Poems 7
Sri Aurobindo wrote many spiritual and mystic poems like,
O marvel bird with the burning wings of light and the unbarred
Lids that look beyond all space,
One strange leap of thy mystic stress breaking the barriers of mind
and life, arrives at its luminous term thy flight;
Invading the secret clasp of the Silence and crimson Fire
Thou frontest eyes in a timeless Face.
The Bird of Fire /Collected Poems 571
There are mystic poets elsewhere and in India. Some mystic poets from Pondicherry were Nolini Kanta Gupta, Harindranath Chattopadhyay and Tehmi among few others.
How Kabir’s Poetry was presented and interpreted
Kabir’s works are mostly collections of songs composed in various metres of old Hindi. There are seventy-two works. The most important and famous works are: the Kabir Bijak, the Suknidhan, Sabdas, Sakhis, Rekhtas, Mangal, Vasant and Holy Agams. Kabir Bijak is considered as the authority on all religious matters and doctrines of the Kabir-panthis.
His poems were written in colloquial Hindi of his time. His poems were written at least 144 years after his death as they survived orally. He was unlettered. During the colonial period he was translated by Christian missionaries for religious purposes; such translations were done interpreting the inclination of his utterances towards Christianity. Some of his poems were translated as part of the Adi Granth of the Sikh religion and other books but the translations were not done by any poet. There were purposes behind such representations of Kabir’s poetry. In 1917 Rabindranath Tagore published 100 poems of Kabir in his own English translation. About translated Kabir the observations of a modern scholar is worth noting:
“From the present Dalit critic Dharmveer to Christian missionaries of the colonial period, Kabir has been placed in one religious discourse or the other, denying him autonomy of voice . . . “Kabir is reduced to a countryside version of either a Martin Luther or a Sankara, and if at all he is granted originality, it is translated in terms which are overtly so classical and scriptural that the people-centric discourse of Bhakti remains under expressed.” 1
Tagore’s Translations of Kabir’s Poems
First published in 1917 under the title, One Hundred Poems of Kabir, the work was entirely different from any other so far published. About this occasion a scholar observed, “Coming close on heels of Tagore’s Nobel Prize fame it received an immediate international limelight. It has been reprinted many times over and by different publishers, both in India and abroad. No subsequent translation of Kabir has received so much attention. The purpose of Tagore’s translations in general was to internationalize Kabir as well as his own writings.” 2
It has been held by some scholars that very few or none of the poems translated by Tagore was written by Kabir. Someone wrote that they were done in pseudo-oriental mould. Scholars have also opined that it was for the first time that a poet of Tagore’s stature translated a poet with the pure intention of presenting Kabir as a poet. These are creations by a poet out of love for another poet, for sheer love of his poetry due to their affinity to his ideas and realizations. Many such poems suited the translator’s mood and choice. The translations are highly sophisticated and very pleasing to read though he might have taken freedom of free translation to render them more to the spirit of the poems.
About the source material of Kabir’s songs translated by Tagore, Evelyn Underhill wrote,
“It has been based upon the printed Hindi text with Bengali translations of Kshiti Mohan Sen; who has gathered from many sources- sometimes from books and manuscripts, sometimes from the lips of wandering ascetics and minstrels- a large collection of poems and hymns to which Kabir’s name is attached, and carefully sifted the authentic songs from the many spurious works now attributed to him. These painstaking labours alone have made the present undertaking possible.
“We have also had before us a manuscript English translation of 116 songs made by Mr. Ajit Kumar Chakravarty from Kshiti Mohan Sens’s text . . . . A considerable number of readings from the translation have been adopted by us”. (Underhill /468)
Excerpts from a few Poems by Sant Kabir in One Hundred Poems of Kabir by Tagore
He himself is the limit and the limitless: and beyond both the limited
and the limitless is He, the Pure Being.
He is the immanent Mind in Brahma and in the creature
The Supreme Soul is seen within the soul,
The point is seen within the Supreme Soul,
And within the Point, the reflection is seen again.
Kabir is blest because he has this supreme vision!
Kabir 7 /85 / Das 501
How could the love between Thee and me sever?
As the leaf of the lotus abides on the water: so thou art my Lord, and
I am Thy servant. . . .
From the beginning until the ending of time, there is love between
Thee and me; and how shall such love be extinguished?
‘As the river enters into the ocean,
so my heart touches Thee.
Kabir 34/110/ Das 514
Have you not heard the tune which the Unstruck Music is playing? . . . .
The Kazi is searching the words of the Koran, and instructing others;
but if his heart be not steeped in that love, what does it avail, though he
be a teacher of men?
The Yogi dyes his garments with red: but if he knows naught of that
colour of love, what does it avail though his garments be tinted?
Kabir says: ‘Whether I be in the temple or the balcony, in my camp
or in the flower garden, I tell you truly that every moment my Lord is
taking His delight in me.
Kabir 54/112/ Das 522
Tagore wrote in his poem, “O thou lord of all heavens, where would be thy love if I were not?”
Gitanjali 56 Das 62
I hear the melody of His flute, and I cannot contain myself:
The flower blooms though it is not spring, and already the bee has
received its invitation.
Kabir 68/102/ Das 527
Tagore in his poem wrote,
I have had my invitation to this world’s festival, and thus my life has been
Blessed. My eyes have seen and my ears have heard.
Gitanjali 16 /Das 47
Tagore found similarities of his ideas and feelings in Kabir so he wished to bring him forth before the modern public again colouring him in his own heart’s tune away from the old Hindi versions of Kabir’s songs.
Kabir’s Poems in others’ Translations
Differences are always there between languages while transcreation takes place. The poems in Collected Poems of Kabir as edited by V. K. Sethi have similarity of ideas with Tagore and Kabir is very much present in these poems too almost in the same way as in Tagore though he is more poetic. In his preface to the book, Kabir the Weaver of God’s Name, which contains the poems, S. L. Sondhi writes that, “The primary aim of the translations has been to bring out the spiritual meaning that is the essence of Kabir’s compositions; they are therefore not a rigidly literal rendering of the original, nor are they poetic for the sake of being poetic.” (Sethi Preface)
Here it may be opined that spiritual or whatever may be the content, poetry has its own basic value. The preface writer has said that the translation has not been done keeping the poetry in mind but the essence of it in contents has been retained, meaning that it has been a free transcreation. Tagore too did the same in his own rich language.
Critique of Kabir’s Poetry
Kabir’s poems are sometimes didactic but they always contain his high pitched assertion of conviction, deep faith, devotion and adoration of God. His faith carries him through his poetry and they have music through rhythms and rhymes. Sri Aurobindo in assessing the Bhakti poetry of the time mentioned that “It is the penetrating truth and fervour of a thought arising from the heart of devotion that makes the charm and power of Tukaram’s songs. A long strain of devotee poets keeps sounding the note that he struck and their work fills the greater space of Marathi poetry. The same type takes a lighter and more high-pitched turn in the Poetry of Kabir.” 3
Evelyn Underhill, the introducer of Songs of Kabir translated by Rabindranath Tagore, made several observations on Kabir’s poetry which are worth noting.
“His desperate attempts to communicate his ecstasy and persuade other men to share it- a constant juxtaposition of concrete and metaphysical language; swift alternations between the most intensely anthropomorphic, the most subtly philosophical, ways of apprehending man’s communion with the Divine . . . rooted in his concept, or vision, of the Nature of God; and unless we make some attempt to grasp this, we shall not go far in our understanding of his poems.
“Kabir belongs to that small groups of supreme mystics-amongst whom St. Augustine, Ruysbroeck, and the Sufi poet Jalalu’ddin Rumi are perhaps the chief”. (Underhill /492)
Underhill comes to point when explaining the particular mystic trend in Kabir’s poetry,
“This eternal distinction, the mysterious union-in-separateness of God and the soul, is a necessary doctrine of all sane mysticism . . . . Its affirmation was one of the distinguishing features of the Vaishnavite reformation preached by Ramanuja; the principle of which had descended through Ramananda to Kabir.
“In accordance with this concept of the universe as a Love-Game which eternally goes forward, a progressive manifestation of Brahma-one of the many notions which he adopted from the common stock of Hindu religious ideas, and illuminated by his poetic genius-movement, rhythm, perpetual change, forms an integral part of Kabir’s vision of Reality. Though the Eternal and Absolute is ever present to his consciousness, yet his concept of the Divine Nature is essentially dynamic. It is by the symbol of motion that he most often tries to convey it to us: as in his constant reference to dancing, or the strangely modern picture of that Eternal Swing of the Universe which is held by the cords of love. . . .
“So thorough going is Kabir’s eclecticism that he seems by turns Vedantist and Vaishnavite, Pantheist and Transcendentalist, Brahman and Sufi. In the effort to tell the truth about that ineffable apprehension, so vast and yet so near, which controls his life, he seizes and twins together-as he might have woven together contrasting threads upon his loom-symbols and ideas drawn from the most violent and conflicting philosophies and faiths . . . .
“Kabir’s finest poems have as their subjects the commonplaces of Hindu philosophy and religion: the Lila or sport of God, the Ocean of Bliss, the Bird of the Soul, Maya, the Hundred-petalled Lotus and the ‘Formless Form’.” (Underhill 494-97)
Kabir’s deep knowledge of Hindu religion and philosophy placed him as a leading poet of the Bhakti cult taking him to the heights. Kabir’s poetry was the voice of a learned lover of God. His voice was sometimes akin to Sufi who too find oneness with God; by all references he was a part of the Indian Bhakti cult in the medieval age.
Most of Kabir’s poetry are mystic poetry often carrying allusions to mainly Hindu religious myths and symbols; allegorical, full of devotion, ideas of surrender to God and his adoration. Christians too have truly found that Kabir’s ideas have similarities with Christian ideas of piety and Sufi ideas of directness in addressing God. He was steeped in Hindu philosophy, mythology and even scriptures though he denied them verbally, denied rituals of all religions, declaring himself as illiterate, in direct relationship with the divine; a follower of Sahaja or simple path. He was in fact a pundit of pundits, relied upon by his learned Guru Ramananda as his scholar representative in great debate sessions. Sant Kabir had the wisdom of a seer, knowledge of a scholar and capacity to penetrate the inner heart of man more than a psychologist; a great seer poet without writing an alphabet. Not by intellect but by faith and spontaneous vision he was beyond all religious strictures and rules. Religions have found affinity with him but he denied religions. He was as free as a Baul and Sufi and as near to God as any true devotee. By contradiction he transcended all formalities. Sant Kabir sang,
No one tells me about the bird
That sings within the body
Its colour is a colourless hue,
Its form a formless form,
It lives under the shade of nam.
. . . .
In the vast tree dwells a bird,
It hops, it pecks, it eats,
And from branch to branch it flies.
. . . .
But they fly away in the evening.
Morning they return for the day;
. . . .
But where, O Pundits,
Where, O learned ones,
Is the home of the bird
That no one is able to see,
That sings within each body?
The Bird that Sings Within / Sethi 254
Bird is a symbol of the soul which lives in the world tree or the human body-cage, eating two fruits; good and bad effects of previous birth, leaving in the evening at the end of mortal life and coming back in the morning, at the rebirth of the mortal. Bauls and fakirs are ripe in such bird symbolism who too prefer direct communion and relationship with God without any outward rituals. Lalan Fakir was a prominent Baul of Bengal who sang,
How does the strange bird
flit in and out of the cage.
If I could catch the bird
I would put it under the fetters of my heart. 4
It is an esoteric truth that a seeker when withdraws into his Self leaving the nine portals of the body, concentrating on the inner state in union with the divine, he vanquishes death by dying inwardly before physical death. Death cannot defeat him. And all the usual physical phenomena cease to operate in that condition. It’s a different world altogether; unseen and unheard of by the ordinary men of the world. Upanishad describes the world where neither sun nor stars shines, none of the normal phenomena operates. Kabir tells us his inner experience,
Since you were born, you will one day die;
Be not dejected on this account
But one who willingly dies while living
Will never have to face death again.
. . . .
When the moon becomes one with the sun
The unstruck melody resounds within;
When the melody of the veena resounds
The soul shares the throne with the Lord.
To attain Truth /Sethi 476
Eighteenth century Saint-Poet of Bengal, Ramprasad Sen the Kali worshipper was a singer. He sang in one of his songs,
‘O mind, you don’t know agriculture:
Such a fertile field
as human being
Gold it would yield
after cultivating . . . 5
Kabir had already sung the song in a different way,
O my mind, keep away now,
Through indolence you have
Wasted away your human life;
Burglars have crept into your house,
They are robbing you of your wealth.
To attain Truth /Sethi 478
Contradictory situations continue in the inner world of the mystic;
The vagrant rabbit of the wild woods
Has made the ocean its abode;
The lively fish of the seas
Has made the mountain peaks its home.
The base one has devoured liquor,
But the noble one has become intoxicated.
Without an orchard, without a tree
Grows a fruit of rare delicacy.
. . . .
Says Kabir; Hearken O, sages,
On the path of supreme knowledge,
By my master’s grace
The elephant comes and goes
Through the needle’s eye.
Fish Climbs to the Peaks /Sethi 480-81
Fish, a symbol of soul leaves its ordinary watery region to enjoy the spiritual heights and rabbit of the wood goes to the ocean of bliss. Paradoxical as they are: ordinary mind swollen with impurities like an elephant becomes so humble and small by God’s grace that it passes through the needle. All such things happen as the fallen is raised by the divine grace; examples are found in scripture that by the grace of God a dumb becomes talkative, lame crosses the mountain.
How true it is then when Blake claims,
And the desert wild
Become a garden mild.
The little girl lost /Innocence 45
Like storm the force of God realization cleans the heart and clears all debris of habits like thatched huts, making the devotee pure and strong in his being inviting the divine grace in the shape of rains after the storm and in that state man is established in relationship with God.
When falsehood and duplicity
Fled from my body’s house,
I realized the Lord
In all his glory.
Rain came in torrents
After the storm,
Torrents of divine love
That drenched this slave,
Heart and soul.
Then, O Kabir, emerged the sun,
The glorious sun of Realization,
The darkness faded away.
The Storm /Sethi 265-66
Kabir was famous for denying all paraphernalia of rituals and formalities in establishing relationship with the Lord. He never visited any temple, mosque or church.
What worth yoga and oblations,
What value penance and austerities,
What use almsgiving
If one has not realized
The lord’s name.
The final accomplishment /Sethi 321
Religious rules often work as clogs on the path to spiritual ascendance of the devotee, working as snares rather than freeing him from reaching God. God is free and everywhere; not only in temples, mosques and churches, he is with the suffering humanity rather than in the palace of the King. Tagore wrote,
Whom dost thou
worship in this lonely dark corner of a temple with doors all shut? . . . .
come out of thy meditations and leave aside thy flowers and incense!
and stand by him in toil and in sweat of thy brow.
Gitanjali 11 / Das 46
Swami Vivekananda too sang,
Ye fools! Who neglect the living God,
And His infinite reflections with which the world is full.
. . . .
Him worship, the only visible!
Break all other idols!
The Living God /Other Poems 20
Surrendering at the feet of the divine and receiving its grace are the usual ways of a sadhaka. Kabir, a great devotee is no exception.
Where he likes to keep me,
There will I stay,
There will I act as I am directed.
Merging in His Order /Sethi 474
How the grace acts to uplift the seeker from a fallen state of lower nature is given below:
I was burning in the flame of desire,
He poured the elixir of devotion
And quenched the fire;
I became placid and cool.
The Bestower of Bliss /Sethi 402
A Vaishnav Poet of the eighth century, Andal, wished only God Krishna as her beloved. The legendary Radha was possessed by him whom Mira Bai of Rajasthan later aspired for. Mahadeviyakka, a twelfth century Bhakta poet, wanted Lord Siva in the same vein to marry her. Kabir visualizes his marriage with the Lord which is the culmination of his intense love for the Lord as of Radha for Krishna.
I am smitten, my Master,
With the love of your name.
Separation ceaselessly torments me,
My heart aches in agony;
. . . .
Afflicted with longing for you,
I am without sleep, day and night.
The Disciple’s Yearning; Kabir Sangraha, 2:64:6 Sethi 484
Under the circumstances marriage is the best solution. Here the opposition of the saint poet to all rituals and traditions halts and he feels the ecstasy of marriage where the priest is God himself. The rituals in terms of the Vedic tradition come alive. The source of highest knowledge and wisdom, Veda is invoked here. This is one of the high pitched supreme voices of the seer- poet who feels fulfilled in marriage with the divine.
Sing, O brides, songs of joy and bliss;
To my home has come my royal Bridegroom.
In the lake within my body
I’ll set up the wedding altar;
Brahma himself will chant
Nuptial hymns from the Vedas.
I’ll circle the altar
With my beloved Lord,
And all the sages, gods and deities
Will look on in wonder.
. . . .
The Everlasting One
Has wed me, O Kabir;
And he is taking me Home with Him.
The Wedding /Sethi 530-31
And here are some pithy sayings in quatrains like ruba’i that was preferred for the expression of brief mystical insights by the Sufi poets.
The Lord dwells within your body;
Unaware; you roam in delusion
Like the musk deer that roves about
Sniffing every blade of grass.
Doha /Kabir Granthavali-64:3- Sethi 539
Like the iris within the eye
Is the Lord within the body;
The ignorant ones know it not-
They search for him far and wide.
Doha /Kabir Granthavali-64:9- Sethi 540
Following short poems are echoes of the lore from Upanishad as we often find in Tagore’s song: “Eyes cannot see you, you are in the eyes.”
Like oil in a sesame seed,
Like spark in a flint stone,
Your Lord resides within you;
Wake up, if you will,
And realize Him.
Kabir Sakhi Sangraha 106: 8 /Sethi 540
If I say He is one,
It is not so;
If I say He is two,
It is slander;
From his own knowledge
He, the Lord is
What He is.
Bijak, Sakhi 120 /Sethi 543
Many things look like enigma, paradox and juxtaposition of heterogeneous things which are clear visions of Kabir who used all such terms as are parts of the ancient spiritual vocabulary in vogue at his time. The mystic visions and realizations are expressed in most of his poems but some are blessed with spiritual experiences. Most of the symbols used in poems are in tune with his deep rooted faith. Kabir’s poems are the genuine expression of his love and devotion for the God. Often he confirms his intimacy and oneness with God. He declares,
“I have ascended the divine throne and met the Lord. God and Kabir have become one: no one can distinguish who is who.” (Adi Granth, Asa, Kabirji. p.484. Sethi 39)
This declaration by Kabir brings us closer to similar utterances by some true Sufi poets who were equally averse to all religious rituals like Abu Yazdi al-Bestami the Persian Sufi of the late ninth century. “In one of his sayings one finds a striking parallel with the Upanisadic doctrine of Tat twam asi . . . . Abu Yazdi’s utterance subhami ma a’zma sha’ni (glory be to me, how great is my majesty) was considered as blasphemy, for which he was banished from his native place. Mansur Al-Hallaj was executed for similar offence, that of declaring anal haq, which looks like almost a verbatim translation of the Sanskrit so’ham.” 6
Hallaj confirmed the essential in direct terms,
I am he whom I desire, whom I desire is I:
we are two spirits dwelling in a single body.
If you see me, you have seen him,
and if you see him, you have seen us. 7
Ameer Khusro wrote,
I become you,
You become me, 8
We find that Sufi poets realized the same like Indian Bhakti poets; ultimate union with the God. A sufi calls himself the God: I am He. In Rumi also we find the echo of the same thing. Kabir declares it, Vivekananda affirms it. They did not copy one another but felt or realized the same truth at different times and places which the traditional ritual bound religions could not comprehend nor accept. Poets were punished for uttering the truth they realized. It is the punishment of difference between true spiritualism and traditional religion.
Still they utter the truth. It was repeated, even if one may say intellectually, by a recent poet, Syed Ameeruddin, living among us.
Thus, I visioned
Summits of illumined peaks
Of benign Nirvana
Aham Brahman, Anal Haq,
And touched a moment eternal
Breathing the divine light of bliss-
Syed /Visioned Summit 156
Notes and Refernces