Kabir (Poetry Criticism)
Kabir c. 1440-c. 1518
(Also known as Kabīr-Dās) Indian poet, mystic, and religious reformer.
The following entry presents criticism of Kabir's poetry from 1915 through 1993.
Kabir is considered a major figure among fifteenth-century Indian religious teachers. He rejected mainstream Hindu rituals and Muslim doctrines, yet his philosophies were influenced by both traditions, as well as by Sufi mysticism. A legendary figure in Northern India, Kabir is venerated as a social reformer of his day and a charismatic teacher whose works were adopted as sacred writings of the Sikh religion.
Kabir was born Varanasi Benares in Uttar Pradesh, India. The precise year and circumstances of his birth remain undetermined. Some sources say he was born before the beginning of the fifteenth century, circa 1398, while others set the date as circa 1440. The year of his death also oscillates between circa 1448 and circa 1518. Legends surrounding his birth and life variously describe him as the abandoned son of a widowed Brahmin woman and the product of a miraculous virgin birth to a young Muslim girl. He was likely raised by Muslim foster parents in a poor weaver's family. Although he rejected traditional Hindu rituals and strict Muslim practices, the influence of grassroots religious doctrine from each tradition is evident in his teachings. Calling himself “the son of Allah and Rama,” he incurred the wrath of religious leaders who had no interest in the blurring of political or theological boundaries between the two traditions. Kabir's continued teaching of a monotheistic spirituality that was neither Hindi nor Muslim earned him the affection of many in Northern India who advocated tolerance and unity despite more than two centuries of conflict among numerous leaders intent on dominating the political and religious landscape. Kabir's legacy as the supposed unifier of two major and opposing traditions led to his legendary status as a holy man and teacher.
Although his poems and sayings are considered foundational to the development of religious thought throughout India, Kabir is believed to have been illiterate and thus unable to record in writing his own thoughts and ideas. The vocabulary of his poetry is rough and unpolished; the metrical forms reflect the popular dialects of the uneducated masses who came to revere him. His disdain for sacred Brahmanic language is seen in the lack of literary ornamentation of his works. The authorship of the large number of works attributed to Kabir cannot be verified with any degree of certainty, but it is believed that they were probably recorded by disciples during and following Kabir's lifetime. These works are found in four compilations. The first to attract the notice of Western scholars was the Bījak (“Account”), which was compiled after his death by members of the Kabirpanth. It was considered the most important of his religious teachings. A second volume, known as the Granth (“Book”), was assembled at the outset of the seventeenth century and became the sacred writings of the Sikh religion. The Pamcvānīs is a collection of sayings of five important teachers of the day, including Kabir. Finally, the Sarbangī, a compilation attributed to Rajjab, a later Indian poet, also includes a collection of Kabir's verse; it remains unpublished, however. Kabir's works have been translated and edited numerous times since the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries. They are characterized by popular literary forms such as padas—short, rhymed poems adapted from religious use from folksongs—and dohas—popular dialect lyrical writings sung or recited by the common people.
As influential as they have been in his native India, Kabir's works are not particularly well known to Western readers. In large part this is due to a lack of English translations of his verse and teachings. For much of the twentieth century, the primary translation available was the 1914 edition by Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore. American critic Paul Carroll notes that in this edition Kabir's words sound Victorian, “sober and didactic.” By contrast, Carroll praises the appearance in the late 1970s of an edition of Kabir's works translated by American poet Robert Bly, in which the Indian poet's voice is that of “an ecstatic, generous saint.” Carroll further comments that in the Bly rendition, the poems are “clear and direct and mean exactly what they say.” Charlotte Vaudeville contends that it is inaccurate to portray Kabir “as an apostle of religious tolerance and of Hindu-Muslim reconciliation,” noting that what the tolerance critics read into Kabir's teachings is “a kind of rationalism which rejects absolutely every revelation based on an authority extrinsic to the human soul.” She acknowledges that “the greatest hurdle to be confronted by Kabirian scholars is the lingering uncertainty about the relative value and degree of authenticity to be accorded to any given verse.” Commentator David C. Scott writes that Kabir's “immense popularity throughout the Indian subcontinent is due as much to his mystical perceptions as to his maverick nature.”
Bījak [Bījaks] 1868
The Ādi Granth [Gurū Granth] [contributor] (translated by E. Trumpp) 1877
One Hundred Poems of Kabir (translated by Rabindranath Tagore, assisted by Evelyn Underhill) 1914
Songs of Kabir (translated by Rabindranath Tagore) 1915
The Bijak of Kabir (translated by Ahmad Shah) 1917
Kabir-granthāvalī 3 vols. (edited by S. S. Das) 1928
Kabir the Great Mystic (translated by Isaac A. Ezekiel) 1966
Kabir Granthavali (translated by Charlotte Vaudeville) 1974
The Kabir Book (translated by Robert Bly) 1977
Bijak of Kabir (translated by Linda Hess and Shukdev Singh) 1983
Mystical Poems of Kabir (translated by Swami Rama and Robert B. Regli) 1990
Couplets from Kabir (translated by G. N. Das) 1991
Songs of Kabir from the Ādi Granth (translated by Nirmal Dass) 1991
Love Songs of Kabir (translated by G. N. Das) 1992
Touch of Grace: Songs of Kabir (translated by Linda Hess and Shukdev Singh) 1994
Kabir: In the Light of Kriyayoga (translated and edited by Jogesh Chandra Bhattacharya) 1997
Selected Couplets from the Sakhi in...
(The entire section is 195 words.)
SOURCE: Underhill, Evelyn. Introduction to Songs of Kabir, translated by Rabindranath Tagore, pp. 5-43. New York: Macmillan Company, 1915.
[In the following essay, Underhill provides a historical context through which to consider Kabir's work, positing that the poet was “plainly a heretic” whose unorthodox view of the human relationship to God “was independent both of ritual and of bodily austerities.”]
The poet Kabīr, a selection from whose songs is here for the first time offered to English readers, is one of the most interesting personalities in the history of Indian mysticism. Born in or near Benares, of Mohammedan parents, and probably about the year 1440, he became in early life a disciple of the celebrated Hindu ascetic Rāmānanda. Rāmānanda had brought to Northern India the religious revival which Rāmānuja, the great twelfth-century reformer of Brāhmanism, had initiated in the South. This revival was in part a reaction against the increasing formalism of the orthodox cult, in part an assertion of the demands of the heart as against the intense intellectualism of the Vedānta philosophy, the exaggerated monism which that philosophy proclaimed. It took in Rāmānuja's preaching the form of an ardent personal devotion to the God Vishnu, as representing the personal aspect of the Divine Nature: that mystical “religion of love” which everywhere makes its appearance at a certain...
(The entire section is 5417 words.)
SOURCE: Vaudeville, Charlotte. “Kabir and Interior Religion.” History of Religions 3, no. 1-2 (1963): 191-201.
[In the following essay, Vaudeville links Kabir's spirituality with his status as a poor weaver, explaining that the poet's work is evidence of a “profound contempt joined with the most resounding indignation” for the influence and statutes of institutionalized religion.]
Kabīr (1440-1518)—from his true name Kabīr-Dās, “the servant of the Great (God)”—is one of the great names of the literature and religious history of North India. He belongs to that first generation of poets of the “Hindi” language who composed couplets and songs for the people in a language which they understood: a mixed Hindī dialect, a kind of dialectal potpourri which is not amenable to the classifications of the linguists. This jargon was first used by the innumerable itinerant preachers who at the time, as from all antiquity, traversed the country in all directions: Yogis covered with ashes, Muslim Sufis draped with picturesque patchwork robes, Jain ascetics dressed in white or only in “cardinal points,” sants and bhagats, as one called the Vishnuite “saints” or “devotees”—all intoxicated with the Absolute or with divine love, all free and bold, exploiting without mercy the inexhaustible liberality of the poor Indian peasant. Kabīr, who knew them well, often evoked...
(The entire section is 4940 words.)
SOURCE: Carroll, Paul. “Paul Carroll: on Bly's Kabir.” The American Poetry Review 9, no. 1 (January/February 1979): 30-31.
[In the following review, Carroll praises Robert Bly's translation of selected works of Kabir and considers the nature of God and faith as revealed in Kabir's poetry.]
Kabir is one of the great poets of the love of God. He wrote his poems in old Hindi and Punji between about 1460 and 1518. He was the son of a poor basket weaver in Benares; early in life, he became a disciple of the great Ramanada and, in turn, attracted disciples himself, while raising a family through his work as a weaver of wool. So joyous, so deep, so radiant and so natural is the love embodied in his lyrics that reading them can be both awesome and frightening. If the reader feels moved to seek a comparable love he may well end terrified: the search could end in a revelation which would change his life forever. Yet many readers will probably feel tempted, as I certainly was, to abandon everything and take to the road, searching for Kabir.
Before Bly's superb translation, most readers knew Kabir only in the translation made in 1914 by Rabindranath Tagore, assisted by Evelyn Underhill. The Tagore translation presents Kabir as a rather stuffy, portentous Sufi educated at Victorian Oxford, sober and didactic. The Bly translation, on the other hand, offers an ecstatic, generous saint,...
(The entire section is 1143 words.)
SOURCE: Hess, Linda. Introduction to The Bijak of Kabir, pp. 9-24. San Francisco, Calif.: North Point Press, 1983.
[In the following excerpt, Hess offers a critical overview of the works of Kabir as a bhakti poet who, more than any other religious poet, challenges, unsettles, and shocks his audience.]
ADDRESS AND ASSAULT
In his mastery of the vocative, Kabir is unique among the bhakti poets. Not in the saguna devotees, not in nirguna Dadu or reformer Nanak, not in the radical Bengali Buddhist poets, the iconoclast Gorakh or the surreal Bauls, whatever else they may have in common with him, do we find the intense bearing down upon the listener that is so prominent in Kabir. It shows itself first in the array of addresses he uses to seize our attention: Hey Saint, Brother, Brahmin, Yogi, Hermit, Babu, Mother, Muslim, Creature, Friend, Fool! Many poems are simply directed at “you.” But titles or pronouns of address are only the beginning. Kabir pounds away with questions, prods with riddles, stirs with challenges, shocks with insults, disorients with verbal feints. It seems that if one read him responsively one could hardly help getting red in the face, jumping around, squirming, searching, getting embarrassed, or shouting back.
For a taste of the style, here is a pastiche of lines from various poems:
Pandit, you've got it...
(The entire section is 5837 words.)
SOURCE: Scott, David C. “Kabir's Religious Doctrines and Practices.” In Kabir's Mythology, pp. 205-220. Delhi, India: Bharatiya Vidya Prakashan, 1985.
[In the following excerpt, Scott explores the pathway to salvation that is set forth in the poetry of Kabir.]
The bhakti of Rām is hard to obtain; it is not for cowards. Sever your head with your own hands, and then invoke rām-nām.(1) From the top of the pyre the satī(2) calls; Listen, friend Masan,(3) The people, mere wayfareres, have gone way, only you and I remain at the end.(4) The hero(5) taking spear in hand, donning the (ochre) robe of sahaja(6) Mounting the elephant of (supreme) knowledge, he is ready to die on the battlefield.(7)
For Kabīr, the way that leads to salvation is not, as most Vaiṣnava(s) believe, an easy way. It is rather, an abrupt, rugged path which few can find and even fewer can follow. Real bhakti is conceived of a heroic8 path, open only to those who have renounced the comforts and pleasures of this life, who have put behind themselves all desire or hope for bodily satisfaction and fulfillment and who strive stubbornly for the summit at the risk of their lives. For Kabīr, as for many Sūfī(s), the true lover, the seeker has a tryst with death. The soul striving for salvation is compared with the satī, the...
(The entire section is 6295 words.)
SOURCE: Ram, K. S. “Kabir, Surdas and Mirabai: A Note on Bhakti Poetry in Hindi.” The Literary Criterion 24, no. 1-2 (1989): 147-52.
[In the following essay, Ram provides a comparison of the works of three Bhakti poets in Hindi: Kabir, Surdas, and Mirabai.]
Kabir, Mirabai and Surdas are three of the top four Bhakti poets in Hindi. The fourth is Tulsidas who, in terms of ranking, would probably come first but is excluded from the scope of this note.
‘Bhakti’ is a rather wide label under which each of the three poets discussed in this note has his or her own distinctness. For the sake of convenience and not on any criterion of merit, we could consider Kabir first.
The two significant factors of Kabir's world (XV Century) were: one, the shift of Vedantic religion to dry, abstract intellectualism; and two, the Hindu-Muslim quarrels which had become a sad fact of daily life. It was natural for the sensitive Kabir (fostered by Muslim parents and later a disciple of Guru Ramananda) to react to these two factors. His poetry is such reaction. A very common verse in many of his Bhajans is:
Kahat Kabir Suno bhai Sadho. … Says Kabir, hearken good brothers. …
This line indicates an essential characteristic of Kabir's poetry: it is reformist.
To call Kabir a Bhakti poet is half-truth. He is as much a poet of...
(The entire section is 1760 words.)
SOURCE: Vaudeville, Charlotte. “Selected Verses.” In A Weaver Named Kabir: Selected Verses with a Detailed Biographical and Historical Introduction, pp. 131-47. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1993.
[In the following essay, Vaudeville discusses the authenticity and origin of verses and sayings attributed to Kabir.]
The measure of authenticity to be attributed to the various recensions of the Kabīr-vānīs or The Sayings of Kabīr, is a particularly vexing one. Scholars agree that Kabīr, born towards the middle of the fifteenth century in Benares or in nearby Magahar, as a Muslim weaver, must have been illiterate—or at most half-literate. It is unlikely that he himself wrote down any of his compositions and even more unlikely that he composed any literary work. His famous utterances, couched in a form of old ‘Hindui’ must, therefore, have been transmitted orally at least one century before they were first written down.1
This oral mode of transmission naturally let the door wide open to all kinds of alterations, interpolations and additions—so that the number of verses attributed to Kabīr today may well run into the thousands:
Like the leaves of a great tree, like the grains of sand in the Ganga are the words which came out of Kabīr's mouth.(2)
Besides the numberless oral or written additions to the cherished...
(The entire section is 5065 words.)
Machwe, Prabhakar. Kabir, New Delhi, India: Sahitya Akademi, 1968,
Biographical and literary overview of Indian poet Kabir.
Saraswati, Baidyanath. “Notes on Kabir: A Non-literate Intellectual.” In Dissent Protest and Reform in Indian Civilization, edited by S. C. Malik, pp. 167-84. Simla, India: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 1977.
Discussion of Kabir's religious teachings and their historic and cultural evolution.
Bahadur, Krishna P. A New Look at Kabir, New Delhi, India: Ess Ess Publications, 1997, 288 p.
Critical assessment of the works of Kabir.
Jha, Ashok Kumar. “Kabir in Tagore's Translation.” Indian Literature, no. 113 (May-June 1986): 48-60.
Assessment of Rabindranath Tagore's treatment of Kabir in translation.
Keay, F. E. “Kabir.” In A History of Hindi Literature, pp. 21-5. Calcutta, India: Y.M.C.A. Publishing House, 1960.
Offers a brief overview of the life and works attributed to Kabir.
Topa, Ishwara. “Self-Culture.” In The Social Philosophy of Kabir: A Study of His Thought-World, pp. 59-78. Buxiper, Gorakhpur, India: Sahitya Sansar Prakashan, 1975.
Traces Kabir's writings about...
(The entire section is 192 words.)