Revisiting Kabir – the Weaver, the Myth, the Master

By Raza Rumi

Do not go to the garden of flowers!
O Friend! go not there;
In your body is the garden of flowers.
Take your seat on the thousand petals of the lotus,
and there gaze on the Infinite Beauty.

(translation by Tagore)

Fifteenth century India witnessed the coming of age of a process that started brewing with the arrival of Central Asian Sufis who accompanied or followed the invaders from Asia Minor. When Sufi thought, an off-shore spiritual undercurrent to the rise of Islam, met its local hosts, the results were terrific. There was no shortage of fundamentalists and communalists in that cultural landscape; and the gulf between alien rulers and the native subjects was a stark reality as well.

Nevertheless, a synthesis of sorts was navigated by hundreds of yogis, Sufis and poets of India. Very much a people’s movement from the below, Bhakti movement articulated a powerful vision of tolerance, amity and co-existence that is still relevant. This is many centuries before the suave, western educated intelligentsia coined the ‘people-to-people’ contact campaigns. Yes, much has been lost in the tumultuous twentieth century and perhaps the histories and nation states rhetoric are also irreversible. But common ground remains.

Kabir – born 71 years before Nanak – is the supreme, sublime and perhaps the simplest of voices from the bhakti era. His poems have been sung across the subcontinent now for nearly five centuries. Researchers grappled with the challenge of sifting the original Kabir from all that is attributed to his name. Does it matter? At the popular level, not much. Was he a Muslim or a Hindu? We know that there are more than one tombs of Kabir where he is ostensibly buried. Same is the case with confusion over Kabir Samadhi. His name was evidently Muslim and the origins shrouded by labels of all kinds. However, Kabir’s internalization of the Indian spiritual tenets and lore made him a complete hindustanee – beyond the barriers of religion, creed and identity politics that generates violence.

A weaver by profession and therefore at the lower end of socio-economic strata Kabir also represented the woes of rural folk who lived in ‘thousands of villages’ at the margins of central power and its intrigues.Kabir’s songs were reformist in nature and influenced the ordinary villagers and low caste and provided them self-confidence to question Brahmins.

Rabindranath Tagore’s translation of Kabir songs introduced Kabir to the world outside India. Tagore’s translations are lyrical and retain the essential simplicity inherent to his otherwise complex thought. Here is a powerful thought – God is the breath of all breath – the fundamental pillar of Bhakti where worship and divine experience emanate from and are located in the self:

O servant, where dost thou seek Me?
Lo! I am beside thee.
I am neither in temple nor in mosque: I am neither in Kaaba nor in Kailash:
Neither am I in rites and ceremonies, nor in Yoga and
renunciation.
If thou art a true seeker, thou shalt at once see Me: thou shalt
meet Me in a moment of time.
Kabîr says, “O Sadhu! God is the breath of all breath.”

Echoing Rumi and his successor Bulleh Shah, Kabir sings:

I do not know what manner of God is mine.

The Mullah cries aloud to Him: and why? Is your Lord deaf? The subtle anklets that ring on the feet of an insect when it moves are heard of Him.

Tell your beads, paint your forehead with the mark of your God, and wear matted locks long and showy: but a deadly weapon is in your heart, and how shall you have God?

The deadly weapon in the hearts of all is central to introspection and working inwards rather than the external symbols and structures of formal religion and religiosity.

Last year I came across Vinay Dharwadker’s excellent translations titled Kabir: The Weaver’s Songs. The translations are imaginative and open up newer vistas of meaning layered in Kabir’s ostensibly simple songs. However, it was the erudite introduction that added a newer dimension to my previous understanding of Kabir. Dharwadker while exploring the underlying secularism of Kabir’s verse detects the extra dimension that amazingly is far beyond the known boundaries of secularism. He writes of how the Kabir poets and followers between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries added to the discourse of spirituality and that primordial search for God:

” In this dissident conception of the secular, institutionalized religions – with their wealth, power, mediating structures and violent practices – determine what constitutes religion and what is legitimately ‘religious’ in the human world. But the human world belongs wholly to the domain of Maya , so these institutions and their definitions of dharma or religion cannot reach beyond the limits of Maya to be God without attributes. Nirguna God stands outside the immense scaffolding of organized human religions and what they define as religious doctrine and practice, and since the ‘secular’ is that which lies outside the scope of the ‘religious’, God as such is entirely secular.”

Therefore, the process of attaining mukti (liberation) from the trappings of religions to achieve a union with a God without attributes is a secular process. “It is precisely such a secularism that makes both God and mukti completely accessible to anyone and everyone, regardless of caste, class, birth, gender, upbringing, status or rank, and that becomes indistinguishable from the deeply subversive egalitarianism and cosmopolitanism of the Kabir community.”

Amazing!

The Kabir community comprises scores of followers and later poets who kept on adding verse to the Kabir anthology and all that is today ascribed to the great sage. Let’s hope this community grows and flourishes. I will end with my favourite translation from Dharwadker that I posted earlier on this blog:

Allah and Rama

If Khuda inhabits the mosque,
then whose play-field is the rest of the world.

If Rama lives in the idol at the pilgrim station,
then who controls the chaos outside?

The East is Hari’s domicile, they say,
the West is Allah’s dwelling place.

Look into your heart, your very heart:
That’s where Karim-and-Rama reside.
All the men and the women ever born,
Are nothing but Your embodied forms:
Kabir’s a child of Allah-and-Rama
They’re his Guru-and-Pir

That says it all!

This post was published also on desicritics

Image credits here, here and here

About Raza Rumi

A Pakistani blogger. Also writes at www.pakteahouse.wordpress.com and www.lahorenama.wordpress.com
This entry was posted in Culture & Heritage, Hinduism, India, Islam, Society. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Revisiting Kabir – the Weaver, the Myth, the Master

  1. Girish says:

    Amazing post! It has inspired me to go out to my library and borrow Dharwadker’s translation – I will do that this evening.

    I thoroughly enjoy your posts. Keep them coming!

  2. Mohib says:

    Another beautiful piece, Raza saahab. I second Girish’s demand, keep them coming!

  3. James says:

    Great post. The Indian nationalist understanding of Kabir is that he is the Apostle of Hindu-Muslim unity. He brought together two opposed communities. The reality seems to have been, however, that he (or the community that came together around his name) condemned the religious leadership of both communities. I think you get it exactly right, though, in positioning Kabir within a syncretic environment. When we’re talking about elites in this time period, Hindu and Muslim may be appropriate labels, but the general population held much more fluid religious identities. Kabir operated within this fluidity while insisting, quite sharply, that the only true path to liberation was single minded devotion to the
    Name of God.

  4. triple says:

    Great post. Quite inspiring.

  5. razarumi says:

    Dear friends
    This is most encouraging. I am glad that this post was read and appreciated by those who relate to the key message[s] of Kabir. We have suffered enough by highlighting the differences and breeding violence on the basis of these perceived differences that suit the respective clergies. Kabir is a leading light of our past and present. He preached and practised tolerance and his message lives on. The best way to address the communalists and fundamentalists on all sides is to remind them that if we look a little deeper into ourselves, the differences begin to vanish.

  6. mahi says:

    Very good post Raza. Its funny, Kabir’s religious indentity was something I never actually knew till a few years ago. Though I’d heard of him quite often growing up. A reflection of how syncretic his memory in society is, I think. Anyway, a true mystic and saint. From his verses, like ‘Take your seat on the thousand petals of the lotus’ its clear he had profound spiritual experiences.

  7. Beshir says:

    This is most encouraging. I am glad that this post was read and appreciated by those who relate to the key message[s] of Kabir. We have suffered enough by highlighting the differences and breeding violence on the basis of these perceived differences that suit the respective clergies. Kabir is a leading light of our past and present. He preached and practised tolerance and his message lives on. The best way to address the communalists and fundamentalists on all sides is to remind them that if we look a little deeper into ourselves, the differences begin to vanish.

  8. Amit says:

    Nice post, Raza. I’ve always found his poems beautiful, simple yet profound, and it’s always a joy to pick up a book and read his words.

  9. Pingback: Kabir | numii.net

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