Kabir, the most popular of Bhakti poets, was probably born in the 15th century in the general area of Benares, and earned his living as a weaver. Many legends have attached themselves to his name — that he was born of a Hindu mother but brought up as a Muslim, that he was influenced by Sufi or Kundalini practices, performed miracles and lived to over 100 years of age — but little is known for certain: even his occupation is supposition, from frequent allusion in his poems. In all probability, Kabir was born into poverty and stayed poor.

His name appears in stories from Gujarat, Maharashtra, Bengal, Punjab and Madhya Pradesh, suggesting that Kabir or his disciples travelled these areas, teaching and propounding his sayings. For Kabir, life was an interplay of two spiritual principles, of the personal soul and of God: salvation comes by bringing these two together. From Hinduism Kabir accepted reincarnation and the law of Karma. From Islam he took the affirmation of the single god and the rejection of caste system and idolatry. Kabir's thought has influenced Sikhism, and his sayings are still very much loved and quoted.

Kabir was illiterate, but his transcribed sayings may have numbered 2,000 songs and 1,500 couplets. The impression is not the sonorous impersonality of Kalidasa, or the pithy good sense of Bhartrihari, but spiritual truth expressed in the most simple and direct language. He espoused honesty, conviction and simplicity, renewed continuously by inner experience and propelled by an unceasing detachment from the web of physical and intellectual realities. How the sayings were transcribed is not known, and Kabir seems to have been much more concerned with changing hearts and minds than with poetry per se, suggesting that much attributed to him has been embellished and added to.

Kabir’s great contribution is his down-to-earth metaphors and examples: comparing God to a weaver, body to a cloth, Guru to a washerman, ignorance to a crow, cosmic experience to the ocean, senses to the deer, humility and steadfastness to the tree, grace and beauty of solitude and completeness to a swan, longing for God to the longing of a newly-wed bride. The experiences have to be lived, when his words flower into a variety of experiences that are not immediately obvious. The words are suggestive, as in all poetry, but it is what is gradually unveiled that is truly significant.

Thousands of bhaktas or saint-poets appeared in India from the 6th century AD onwards, in most religions and languages. Each expressed his or her devotion to a particular deity or, as in Kabir's case, to a more generalised divinity, when they were often critical of dogma, rituals and the caste system. Like the Sufis, bhakti poets sought union with or inspiration from the divine, and took as authority their own visions and immediate experience. Though the poetry was often based on literary i.e. Tamil or Sanskrit models, it was also urgent, personal, colloquial and inspired, speaking directly in a way all could understand.

In time, bhakti poetry became somewhat institutionalised and conventional, particular verse forms being associated with various genres and areas: e.g. the mangalakabya with Bengal, the vacana with Virasaiva poets of Kannada and abhanga with the Marathi poets of Jnanesvar. Some genres cut across languages, however: pada or song, padavali or string of songs, gatha or anthology of poems modelled on Sanskrit, Pali or Prakit forms. Later bhakti poems became entangled with folk stories of love, romance, work and battle, and many were adapted for performance or integrated into dance, music, theatre or dance-drama. Some are immensely long, and interweave medleys of classical texts, court and devotional poetry, vedic stories and contemporary matters: unashamedly directed to a popular audience, and still played on radio stations or told by travelling actors.

Kabir's sayings have been transcribed into all the major languages of India, most notably Urdu and Hindi, and appreciation will be helped by being able to read if not fully master these tongues. Several Kabir anthologies have been published in the west, and more can be ordered through abebooks or alibris from India, or through specialist outlets. Scholarly works include: R.D. Ranade's Mysticism in India (1933), C. Vaudeville's Kabir (1974, L. Hess and S. Singh's The Bijak of Kabir (1983), and R.S. McGreggor's Hindi Literature from its Beginning to the 19th Century (1984). As always, The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (1993) provides useful summaries and references.

Suggestion: Songs of Kabir. Andrew Harvey (Introduction) and Rabindranath Tagore (Translation) Weiser Books. 2002. $10.36

An old translation but still one of the best: Tagore was closer to traditional India than western commentators can get. Now re-issued with an Introduction by Andrew Harvey.

C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if properly referenced.