The murders of rationalists and threats to writers, negate what was achieved through centuries of cross-cultural exchange and intellectually robust reformist movements.

  • “Friend
  • You had one life
  • And you blew it”

Encountering Kabir in Ithaca, a small town in upstate New York, was an unreal experience. The occasion was a reading of new translations of the 15th century mystic bard by the eminent Indian poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. This slim collection entitled “Songs of Kabir” has been published by the New York Review of Books. At the homey Buffalo Street Books, Mehrotra recited some of his own powerful poems before he turned to Kabir.

This is not the first translation. For years, Tagore’s translations have been popular. In recent years,  Linda Hess and Shukdev Singh, Vinay Dharwadker, and many others have attempted to interpret these poems in myriad styles. Mehrotra explained how the performers, who sing Kabir’s songs in their regional dialects and present his profound ideas for their particular audiences, inspired him. In a similar manner, he had treated Kabir’s verse as a modern poet. The result of Mehrotra’s endeavors is delightful as it retains the essence of the poetry, makes it accessible with the right level of punch for the contemporary reader. For instance, note the directness here:

  • You must be mad, says Kabir,
  • Not to sing of Rama
  • And to screw up your life.

There is no single authentic collection of Kabir nor are his antecedents verifiable. Not unlike his poetry that challenges formal religious frameworks, Kabir the legend is equally fluid. There is a Samadhi for Kabir and there is also a grave. Was he a Muslim or a Hindu, is an open question. This is perfectly in sync with the centuries of confluence of religions and ideas that took place during the Bhakti era or movement (15th -17th centuries) in the subcontinent. Religious identities were blurred in favour of a more humanistic vision. Other great figures of this particular phase of our history include Tulsidas, Mirabai, Caitanya, and Guru Nanak.

What was common between all these folk poets and acutely sharp thinkers? First a strong critique of organised religion that resonated with common people who resented the caste divisions among the various communities we know as Hindu or the clerics’ versions of Shariah under the Islamicate that flourished in Delhi. Kabir’s questions for the Brahmins are pertinent as India (and to an extent Pakistan) struggle with the ancient caste faultlines:

  • “If you say you’re a Brahmin
  • Born of a mother who’s a Brahmin,
  • Was there a special canal
  • Through which you were born?”

Or this clear rejection of classifying humans according to the whims (and vested interests) of the priests:

  • “Were the Creator
  • Concerned about caste,
  • We’d arrive in the world
  • With a caste mark on the forehead.”

The Bhakti movement (for the want of a better phrase) also had a discernable element of class resistance (not of an organised Marxist variety) here. As one of the characters in Qurratulain Hyder’s magnum opus Urdu novel Aag Ka Darya ( translated as River of Fire) experiences:

“Leaving the world of Kings, Rajas and commanders, Kamal saw the other world. This other world was inhabited by labourers, barbers, shoe smiths, peasants and poor artisans. This was the democratic Hindustan ruled by Saints who patronized artisans and their guilds. … Tormented over the centuries, the untouchables were chanting Ram with these Sankats without the intercession of upper caste Brahmins…This was a unique world that was beyond the Hindu and Muslim identities. Here Love reigned – and Kamal was in search of Insaan..”

In such a milieu, Kabir and his large number of contemporaries popularised songs that valued transcendent spirituality over the empty formalism of the ritual.

  • Let’s go!
  • Everyone keeps saying,
  • As if they knew where paradise is,
  • But ask them what lies beyond
  • The street they live on,
  • They’ll give you a blank look.

Kabir’s corpus is diverse. Mehrotra mentioned that the iconoclastic Kabir is more popular than the reflective, existentialist (“I’m nothing / says Kabir / I’m not among the living / Or the dead.”) muse who has quite a few dark thoughts about death. What these translations have done is to bring together the multiple voices of the poet (organised in nine sections) for the global reader. But Kabir’s iconoclasm is powerful and relevant even today. While admonishing yogic practice, Kabir is forthright; and Mehrotra’s translation is unswerving:

  • “If going naked
  • Brought liberation
  • The deer of the forest
  • Would attain it first.”

Mehrotra also read out a few poems where Kabir assumes the role of a devoted wife seeking the union of the Beloved. I did remind him afterwards that the adoption of feminine voice is common among Sufis too. For instance, a large body of Amir Khusrau’s work, a Sufi poet of Delhi, uses the similar device. The metaphor is employed for aesthetics as well as to project humility. Even more important is that it emphasises how there should be no one between the lover and the beloved. The institution of clergy and its various manifestations impede spirituality. Here is Mehrotra with another direct translation:

  • “… I have one husband: you.
  • You have one wife: me.
  • Who’s there to come between us?
  • Beware, says Kabir,
  • Of the man you love.
  • He can be a tricky customer.”

Kabir’s verse is no less critical of the Mullah and the Islamic rituals: “One slaughters goats, one slaughters cows; they squander their birth in isms.” In fact most of his work is to reject the conception of God formalised by institutionalised notions of faith. As another translator of Kabir, Dharwadker wrote Kabir’s God is the one without attributes or the Nirguna God; it is outside the possibility of the “religious”, thereby making such a conception of God essentially secular.

India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the inheritors of Bhakti ideas, have veered off into a different direction. Pakistan, in search of an identity, undertook state imposed (and now popularised) campaigns to disown its past. Cultural cleansing has ensured that Mullah’s Islam replaces the hybridity of the country’s spiritual past. We were lucky to hear Kabir’s dohas from the older generations but the young men and women have little idea about who he was. Bangladesh, despite being a secular state is also divided. Its battle with fundamentalist ideas is a work in progress. The recent murders of humanist bloggers are just the tip of a mounting iceberg.

Secular India, too, seems to be adopting a contentious path. The murders of rationalists such as Kalburgi, Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare and threats to writers such as Taslima Nasreen among others, negate what was achieved through centuries of cross-cultural exchange and intellectually robust reformist movements. Today, Wahabi version of Islam, beef ban, and other such literalist forms of religious expression are gaining traction. Kabir certainly would have rejected all of this and perhaps been a victim of extremist Muslim and Hindu mobs of the subcontinent.

“Mehrotra’s work is precious for it rearticulates the (fast eroding) syncretic traditions of the subcontinent in a  modern idiom. Bhakti ideals are universal and remain central to the sustenance of plural societies.”