#103: A POET LOST IN HIS SONGS. We know hardly more about the Indian poet Kabir than we do about Sappho. His dates are approximate, the latest scholarship putting his birth around 1398 and his death around 1448. He was most likely born into a Muslim family of weavers in that preeminently Hindu city of Varanasi, then called Kashi; he managed, by a kind of persuasive trickery, to get a religious training beyond that of his caste. Whatever the nature of the teaching, he rejected the formalities of both Islam and Hinduism and became the poetic proponent of bhakti (the devotional mode of Hinduism) and nirguna—an adjective meaning “without attributes,” the apophatic strain known in the East through the works of Shankara and Lao Tse, and in the West by figures from Plotinus and Dionysius the Areopagite to the author of The Cloud of Unknowing. It defines the ultimate by saying what it is not—the “neti, neti” (“not like this, not like that”) of the Upanishads. But Kabir’s wily approach is at once to use this skepticism to refuse what he saw as the worn-out externality and ritualism of Islam and Hinduism, and combine it with the multifarious presence—the infinity of names—of the God he worshipped. He gets, poetically, the best of both approaches. He combines the insistent, repetitive message of his songs—only God exists; the rest is Maya, the ruinous, deceptive cloud of the illusory world around us—with the vivid and charming identities of the gods of Hindu story. He rejoices and satirizes in a single breath.
There are some two dozen major manuscript sources for Kabir’s poems, songs, and aphorisms, in three distinct groupings in half a dozen languages and scripts; they have been translated, copied, revised, sung and scattered all over India, to the point that no scholar will ever likely sort out the “real” Kabir from the later additions. While rejecting Islam and Hinduism he was adopted as a poet-saint by the Sikhs, and one part of his work is incorporated into the Guru Granth Sahib, the central Sikh scripture, the originating copy of which is carried every night in Amritsar from the Golden Temple, with chant and ceremony, to its resting place nearby, to be brought forth again the next morning.
In English there are now many versions of different parts of Kabir’s work, translated with varying success. Of the editions that I’ve seen, the best to start with is The Weaver's Songs (Penguin India, 2003), an excellent translation with an immensely helpful introduction and glossary that will help you sort out Kabir’s background and textual situation. Songs of Kabir from the Adi Granth (the works that ended up in the Sikh scripture), translated by Nirmal Dass is, likewise, well annotated as well as a good translation. The Bijak of Kabir, by Linda Hess and Sukhdev Singh (Motilal Banarsidass, 2001) is a reprint of a translation long recognized, and rightly, as a standard in the field. Songs of Kabir, translated by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra (New York Review of Books, 2011) is a graceful and approachable selection. He is spirited, sharp as a tack, unlike any Western poet (though how well he would’ve gotten on with Whitman!) and marvelous, marvelous company. “You shall not be in this world’s ocean again.”
P.S.: Probably the best introduction to the bhakti poets is the now-classic book Songs of the Saints of India, a study and anthology of translations by John Stratton Hawley and Mark Juergensmeyer (Delhi, Oxford, 2004). It covers the six major figures: Ravidas, Kabir and Nanak, of the nirguna school, Surdas and Mirabai (of the saguna school, which advocated devotion to a particular deity, in their case Krishna) and Tulsidas, who in effect straddles the schools. Hawley and Juergensmeyer show an incisive eye for the agendas to which these poets and their works have been reduced and subjected, and seem to value them primarily as poets, not mere theologians in verse. The bhakti poets have in common an iconoclastic and ecumenical spirit; if you believe that much of the violence of the modern world has been due not so much to religion as to its black concomitant, sectarianism, you can respect this book not just for the music of its translations but the intelligent and peacable vision behind it.