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Perspective

The River that Flows in You

The saint-poet Kabir is one of the most interesting personalities in the history of Indian mysticism. His poems and songs have relevance even in today's world.

Amitava Kar

Kabir, a historically shadowy figure, is made more shadowy still by the hagiographies and unreliable narratives that surround his life. He was probably born around the end of the 14th century in Benares, India to parents of the weaver class, recently converted to Islam. Later he became a disciple of the celebrated 15th century ascetic Ramananda, a great religious reformer. Kabir was illiterate, and his poetry was composed aloud and never written down in his lifetime; later it would be transmitted by acolytes, scholars and admirers. There exist thousands of poems attributed to him without any single reliable text. Translation of Kabir by Ezra Pound, Robert Bly and most notably Rabindranath Tagore has brought the poetry of the great 15th-century saint-poet to life to the english reader.
Still, most scholars agree that Kabir came out of what's called the Bhakti movement, an anticlerical, anti-authoritarian tradition that originated in South India, in the sixth century A.D. and made its way to North India, where it flourished from the 15th century to the 17th. Bhakti encouraged the informal over the formal, the spontaneous over the prescribed and the vernacular over Sanskrit. It disregarded class distinction in the Hindu social structure. It regarded no single religion as providing the exclusive way to God. Scripture was seen as an impediment to the union of man and God, a union Kabir describes: “Lying beside you, / I'm waiting to be kissed. / But your face is turned / And you're fast asleep. . . . / I have one husband: you. / You have one wife: me. / Who's there to come between us?”

Photo Courtesy: Wikipedia
Photo Courtesy: Wikipedia

The structure of his poems varies within a limited range and is deceptively simple and straight-forward. Kabir favours the rhetorical method of apostrophe, addressing someone absent: “Friend, / You had one life, / And you blew it.” Many of the poems conclude with a summing up, with the poet citing himself as the final authority on the matter at hand, enjoining, pleading, prescribing, scolding, giving forth, usually in the form of a miniaturized homily: “Listen, says Kabir, / I have a prayer to make. / I'm handcuffed to death. / Throw me the key.” “Seeing that she's got the butter, / Seeing that the pot is smashed, / The dairy-wife, Kabir says, / Rejoices.”
Kabir liked riddles. He enjoyed play, the ludic impulse that encourages the reader or listener out of habituated patterns of thought into some deeper experience or recognition, in Kabir's case toward a heightened consciousness. “How do you, / Asks the chief of police, / Patrol a city . . . / Where frogs keep snakes / As watchdogs, / And jackals / Go after lions? / Does anyone know / What I'm talking about? / Says Kabir.” These riddles have an affinity with the Zen koan — “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” — that are likewise designed to trick the mind into greater clarity and realization. And the Zen Buddhist notion of not mistaking the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself is a central theme throughout Kabir's poetry.
In Arvind Krishna Mehrotra's Songs of Kabir, considered by critics and readers alike one of the best translation of the poet, the final poem begins as  “I won't come / I won't go / I won't live / I won't die” and ends with  “I'm nothing / says Kabir / I'm not among the living / Or the dead.”
These last two lines closely resemble the conclusion of ancient Greek poet Cavafy's  “Eternity,” which is based on a conversation between Arjuna and Krishna in the classic fourth-century Indian poem the “Mahabharata,” in which Krishna says, after Arjuna protests that he cannot kill his fellow humans: “Not one life is taken. Know that no one / was ever born, nor does anyone die.”  Mehrotra wrote, “This is, suddenly, in the midst of the turbulent Greco-Roman world, the calm voice of Krishna. All is illusion for the enlightened. Plainly, Cavafy, himself no Arjuna, did achieve something very like that ultimate state of enlightenment where, not fooled by words, he was able to so order them as to make our common voyage, viewed from his unique angle, seem beautiful, even consoling, in its shining nothingness.”
“This “shining nothingness” sums up Kabir's view of human life,” wrote Mehrotra. “And it's a view he repeated in poem after poem, almost obsessively.”
Kabir's poetic personality has been variously defined by the religious traditions that revere him, and the same can be said for his hagiography. For Sikhs he is a precursor and interlocutor of Nanak, the founding Sikh Guru. Muslims place him in Sufi lineages, and for Hindus he becomes a Vaishnava (devotee of the god Vishnu) with universalist leanings. But when one goes back to the poetry  that can most reliably be attributed to Kabir, only two aspects of his life emerge as truly certain: he lived most of his life in Banaras (now Varanasi), and he was a weaver, a low-ranked caste that had become largely Muslim in Kabir's time. His humble social status and straightforwardness contributed to his celebrity among various other religious movements and helped shape the Kabir Panth, a sect found across north and central India that draws its members especially but not exclusively from the scheduled castes (formerly known as untouchables).
The birth of Kabir (Arabic: “Great”) remains to this day shrouded in mystery and legend. Authorities disagree on both when he was born and who his parents were. One legend proclaims a divine virginal birth. His mother was of the Brahman caste and became pregnant after a visit to a Hindu shrine. Because she was unwed, she abandoned Kabir, who was found and adopted by a Muslim weaver.
The saint-poet is one of the most interesting personalities in the history of Indian mysticism. Legend has it that after his death his Muslim and Hindu disciples quarreled over the disposition of his body (to bury or to cremate?) As they argued together, Kabir appeared before them, and told them to lift the shroud and look at what lay beneath. They did so, and found in the place of the corpse a heap of flowers; half of which were buried by the Muslims at Maghar, and half carried by the Hindus to the holy city of Benares to be burned--fitting conclusion to a life which had made fragrant the most beautiful doctrines of two great creeds.
He may or may not have submitted to the traditional education of the Hindu or the Sufi contemplative and never adopted the life of an ascetic. Side by side with his interior life of adoration, its artistic expression in music and words, he lived the sane and diligent life of a craftsman. Kabir was a weaver, a simple and unlettered man, who earned his living at the loom. Like Paul the tentmaker, and Boehme the cobbler, he knew how to combine vision and industry. And it was out of the heart of a common man that he sang his rapturous lyrics of divine love.
 Living at the moment in which the impassioned poetry and deep philosophy of the great Persian mystics, Attar, Sadi, Jalaluddîn Rumi, and Hafiz, were exercising a powerful influence on the religious thought of India, he dreamed of building a bridge between the two most dominant cultures of India.
“The river that flows in you also flows in me,” he once sang. 

Published: 12:00 am Friday, January 24, 2014

Last modified: 7:39 pm Friday, January 24, 2014

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