Study Guide

Kabīr

Kabīr Essay - Kabir (Poetry Criticism)

Kabir (Poetry Criticism)

Introduction

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

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 Transversion: 400-odd Verses in Iambic Tetrameter Stanza Form (translated by Mohan Singh Karki) 2001

Sayings of Kabir (translated by G. N. Das) (aphorisms) 1993

Maxims of Kabir (edited by G. N. Das) (aphorisms) 1999

The Thirsty Fish: Kabir bhajans (translated by Sushil Rao) (aphorisms) 2000

Criticism

Paul Carroll (review date January/February 1979)

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, speaking good, strong Midwestern, direct and intoxicated. (To the Alexandrine who might fidget, pointing out that Bly worked exclusively from the Tagore translation, which was itself based on a Bengali translation of the Hindu original, the poet's answer suffices: Admitting that many errors may well be built into his version, Bly says: “If anyone speaking Hindi would like to help me, I'll (do the poems) over.”)

Bly earns the thanks of us all. I, for one, will reread The Kabir Book often—the way one takes A Shropshire Lad or Duino Elegies or The Branch Will Not Break or Selected Odes of Horace or the Elemental Odes or The Poems and Songs of Burns along to read during a walk along the lake or on a Sunday picnic in the forest preserve or on a reading tour.

Writing about Kabir is, at once, both tough and easy. The kind of love of God embodied in his poems is not within most of our experience. Thanks to St. John of the Cross and Kabir and a few others, we know something about the Eternal Bridegroom whose hair floats in the wind in the cell in Toledo, and the sound of the ecstatic flute inside the body and soul in Benares, and, thanks to Dante, we also know something about the immensum pelagus essentiae, the immense ocean of existence, the Great Rose...

(The entire section is 1143 words.)

Linda Hess (essay date 1983)

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...

(The entire section is 5837 words.)

David C. Scott (essay date 1985)

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.]

“BHAKTI”

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...

(The entire section is 6295 words.)

K. S. Ram (essay date 1989)

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...

(The entire section is 1760 words.)

Charlotte Vaudeville (essay date 1993)

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....

(The entire section is 5065 words.)