“Lift the veil that obscures the heart
and there you will find what you are looking for.”
Little is known about Kabir. Legends abound and certainties are scarce. He was a weaver, probably spending most of his time working at his handloom. He was born in a Muslim family in fifteenth Century Benares, and became a mystic and a poet whose songs and ‘bānīs’ – meaning ’utterances’ – spread in the whole of India and beyond, mostly handed down orally between seekers and sadhus along the roads, sometimes written down. They were the expression of a simple man, probably illiterate, and his first-hand understanding of the deepest truth of living.
Kabir wasn’t a philosopher, far from it, and many of his poems were deeply grounded in everyday life. His expression was often ruthless, “I see the world. What a bag of tricks it is!” He execrated the bigotry and hypocrisy of Hindu and Muslim devotees alike, and he never tired of denouncing the contradictions between the religions in place, each asserting their own god, beliefs, practices, about something Kabir knew in his flesh and soul to be one single reality, unbroken, and timeless.
“Servant, where dost thou seek Me?
Lo! I am beside thee.
I am neither in temple nor in mosque:
I am neither in Kaaba nor in Kailash:
Neither am I in rites and ceremonies,
nor in Yoga and renunciation.
If thou art a true seeker, thou shalt at once see Me:
thou shalt meet Me in a moment of time.
Kabir says, ‘O Sadhu! God is the breath of all breath.’”
Sometimes he would warn mischievously against the danger of hearing the truth, “Think twice before you keep the bad company of someone like me.” Or he would question people wittingly, illuminatingly, in the way of a riddle: “The question that’s killing me, says Kabir, is whether the pilgrim or the pilgrim town is greater?” Even the most venerated sadhus and yogis could not find favour in his eyes: “The Yogi dyes his garments, instead of dyeing his mind in the colours of love.”
“I laugh when I hear that the fish in the water is thirsty:
You do not see that the Real is in your home,
and you wander from forest to forest listlessly!”
Although he became associated with this larger devotional movement called Bhakti, Kabir wasn’t addressing, or referring to a particular god, or an objective figure with form and attributes like Krishna for example. The divinity he devoted his poetry to was non-dualistic in nature – Nirguna, without objective qualities. When speaking about god, he mainly used terms like ‘the Guest’, ‘the Lord’, ‘the great Spirit’, or simply ‘He’.
“When He Himself reveals Himself,
Brahma brings into manifestation
That which can never be seen.
As the seed is in the plant
as the shade is in the tree,
as the void is in the sky,
as infinite forms are in the void.”
We imagine Kabir with the Ganges not far, the long hours spent at the loom, the colours, the smell, the repetitive gestures, lulled by the sounds of handloom weaving, shushes, clicks, and the regular slams. What thinking must have taken place, what meditations must have occurred, the occurrences of poems and the singing. And what conflicts must have raised, torn between his growing love for the divine and his daily work: “He can’t thread the shuttle, not anymore, now that Rama’s Love is the thread in his hand.” Kabir weaved his thread of love and turned it into the most exquisite tapestry, yearning to describe its colours and its nature to whoever liked to hear it.
“O How may I ever express that secret word?
O how can I say He is not like this, and He is like that?
If I say that He is within me, the universe is ashamed:
If I say that He is without me, it is falsehood.
He makes the inner and the outer worlds to be indivisibly one;
The conscious and the unconscious, both are His footstools.
He is neither manifest nor hidden,
He is neither revealed nor unrevealed:
There are no words to tell that which He is.”
kabir seems to have been a social man, eager, generous, picking up on all the daily encounters and situations, showing the traps, the veils, the escapes, all the ways of men and women on the path of life. He did it unreservedly and with depth, pointing at our tiniest responsibility in our misery.
“The truth is you turned away yourself,
and decided to go into the dark alone.
Now you are tangled up in others,
and have forgotten what you once knew,
and that’s why everything you do
has some weird failure in it.”
Let’s imagine the threads before Kabir, how they became the fabric of the thousands happenings of life. How they were like a curtain, a veil, blurring, hiding the one and only nature of experience. How the weaver, before his loom, must have sought to extricate himself from these tangled visions, sinking again and again in the silence and presence of the one reality before all realities. How he would meditate on the pathless nature of truth, or the divine.
“To what shore would you cross, O my heart?
there is no traveller before you, there is no road:
Where is the movement, where is the rest, on that shore?
There is no water; no boat, no boatman, is there;
There is not so much as a rope to tow the boat, nor a man to draw it.
No earth, no sky, no time, no thing, is there: no shore, no ford!
There, there is neither body nor mind:
and where is the place that shall still the thirst of the soul?
You shall find naught in that emptiness.
Be strong, and enter into your own body:
for there your foothold is firm.
Consider it well, O my heart! go not elsewhere.
Kabir says: ‘Put all imaginations away, and stand fast in that which you are.’”
As was the case in the bhakti movement, Kabir used the simple vernacular language for his expression. His utterances were in Hindi, not in the Sanskrit of the pandits and religious establishment. He was very aware of the trap that lied in faith and reliance to scriptures, the indulging in words.
“O man, if thou dost not know thine own Lord,
whereof art thou so proud?
Put thy cleverness away:
mere words shall never unite thee to Him.
Do not deceive thyself with the witness of the Scriptures:
Love is something other than this,
and he who has sought it truly has found it.”
Kabir was likely married and the father of two children. He knew that the truth wasn’t disconnected from the daily chores of living. This gave him a practical trend and outlook, and forged his understanding through being experiential, checking things out and trusting common logic.
“There is nothing but water at the holy bathing places;
and I know that they are useless, for I have bathed in them.
The images are all lifeless, they cannot speak;
I know, for I have cried aloud to them.
The Purana and the Koran are mere words;
lifting up the curtain, I have seen.
Kabîr gives utterance to the words of experience;
and he knows very well that all other things are untrue.”
Relentlessly, Kabir pointed to the the place of the meeting with god. “Kabir says, ‘O brother, listen! The Lord of all plays His song within you!’” People around him were soaked in mainstream religion and were seeking to realise god in all sorts of prayers and rituals, addressing the divine outside themselves. He tirelessly explained how these attitudes were, under the guise of devotion and dedication, the perfect explanation for the elusiveness of truth, why the divine presence was so easily hidden and seemingly unattainable.
“The moon shines in my body, but my blind eyes cannot see it:
The moon is within me, and so is the sun.
The unstruck drum of Eternity is sounded within me;
but my deaf ears cannot hear it.
So long as man clamours for the I and the Mine,
his works are as naught:
When all love of the I and the Mine is dead,
then the work of the Lord is done.
For work has no other aim than the getting of knowledge:
When that comes, then work is put away.
The flower blooms for the fruit:
when the fruit comes, the flower withers.
The musk is in the deer, but it seeks it not within itself:
it wanders in quest of grass.”
Kabir was often thrilled by the all-pervasiveness and omnipresence of god. When everywhere around him, people expressed views that emphasised separation, he was eager to describe how, in his experience, the presence of god pervaded every little thing and appearance, and how intimately this reality embraced every experience. He would show the sacredness of such a marriage, and how love is the very fabric of it. “Kabîr says: ‘I have attained the unattainable, and my heart is coloured with the colour of love.’”
“To me, society and solitude are one,
For all feelings of duality have left me.
I have no need to practice austerity,
For I see Him smiling everywhere
As the supreme Beauty in every form.
Whether sitting, walking or performing actions,
My heart remains pure, for my mind remains fixed on God.”
And I’m net
And I’m time.”
“Kabir says: ‘If you merge your life in the Ocean of Life, you will find your life in the Supreme Land of Bliss.’” Although eager to point to the false paths, activities and attitudes which he knew were barriers to the understanding of truth, Kabir was just as eager to describe the happiness and beauty residing at the heart of Presence. “Look within, and behold how the moonbeams of that Hidden One shine in you.” The practice of god wasn’t just about penances and sacrifices, but bears at its core an unfathomable peace. Listen in what beautiful bhakti accents of devotional love he would surrender to the grace of god:
“This day is dear to me above all other days, for today the Beloved Lord is a guest in my house;
My chamber and my courtyard are beautiful with His presence.
My longings sing His Name, and they are become lost in His great beauty:
I wash His feet, and I look upon His Face; and I lay before Him as an offering my body, my mind, and all that I have.
What a day of gladness is that day in which my Beloved, who is my treasure, comes to my house!
All evils fly from my heart when I see my Lord.
‘My love has touched Him; my heart is longing for the Name which is Truth.’
Thus sings Kabîr, the servant of all servants.”
Kabir‘s legacy has been important in India. His poems were incorporated into the ‘Adi Granth’, the Sacred book of Sikkhism, and a religious community – the Kabir Panth – formed around his work with an estimated 10 millions members. In what mysterious and astonishing way could this modest weaver touch the heart of so many men and women. What insight must he have reached, what quality of heart must he have shown, to become one of the most quoted mystic poets in India, and somebody significant to Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and sufis alike. And above all, in what honest and uncompromising ways must he have harangued the world, in what simple and convincing accents of fervour. “Wake, foolish man!”, Kabir says.
“I’ve dyed myself
In the color of Rama;
It’s the only dye
That doesn’t spoil or run.”
Text by Alain Joly
Poems by Kabir (1440–1518)
Paintings by Tanya Bonello
I have here mostly used excerpts and poems from the version translated by Rabindranath Tagore ‘Songs of Kabir’.
Have a look on this page and website dedicated to Kabir and to stories from weavers all over the world: I weave your name on the loom of my mind.
– ‘Songs of Kabir’ – Translated by Rabindranath Tagore – (Createspace Independent Publishing Platform)
– ‘Songs of Kabir’ – Translated by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra – (NYRB Classics)