The name of my son, Adam Kabir seems to intrigue people. Adam’s O.K., but Kabir? After that Kabir? Which Kabir? Ala, that Hindustani film star-lah! Who else? There’s no point getting annoyed with that (I happen to dislike the film star in question). I can’t expect many people to know of that other Kabir, the legendary 15th Century poet-mystic of Benares. Even an established contemporary poet cannot compete with a film star; what hope has a poet who lived hundreds of years ago? Adam Kabir was born four years ago on May 13. The date of his birth had something to do with the choice of his name. No, Kabir the poet was not born on May 13; nobody, in fact, knows when exactly he was born. It’s what Kabir stood for which was behind my choice of name for my son. And what he stood for is precious to people who cannot forget the tragedy of May 13 (May 13, 1969 – the date of the bloodiest racial riots in Malaysian history).
Just as the name Adam transcends the barriers of language, race, culture, and religion, the voice of Kabir, melodious and resonant across the centuries, affirms the oneness of man and of God. Kabir is revered by the mystics of Islam (especially the Islam of the Indian subcontinent), Hinduism, and Sikhism. Many legends are associated with him; but the most famous and also the most apposite to my present theme is the one about his death. After the poet’s death, so goes the beautiful legend, his followers from among the Muslims and the Hindus quarreled over his dead body. The Muslims wanted to bury it, the Hindus cremate. Suddenly, the spirit of Kabir appeared and said: “Why are you quarreling over a mere corpse? Stop it! Lift up the shroud covering the corpse. See what’s under it.” They did so and found masses of flowers. “Divide them among yourselves,” said the spirit, and they did. (In a cynical version of this legend there is a grimly funny twist at the end: The Muslims took the flowers and buried them, the Hindus burnt them.)
I allude to his legend (the non-cynical version) in a poem I wrote in honour of dancer Ramli Ibrahim, who in this country embodies the triumphant spirit of art transcending the boundaries of race and religion:
And like the spirit
Of that impious Sufi,
caught between the dark pit
and the blinding fire,
make your supple body sing,
let it be
the sunlit, infinite
song of flowers.
On this layla of lila
there is no joy but Joy,
there is no god but God
Kabir in Arabic means great. That Kabir was a great soul whose vision of God and man as expressed in ecstatic poems we would do well to listen to, I have no doubt. Whether Kabir was a great poet I cannot judge, because he wrote in Hindi and his poems are mostly lyrics. The lyric is of all poetic forms the hardest to translate into another language; it’s even more difficult when the lyric is mystical, as Kabir’s are. Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore brought out a translation of Kabir in 1915. The selection, One Hundred Poems of Kabir, has been reprinted many times. Most of the translations are merely passable as poetry, but as an introduction to Kabir, the selection is useful. There have been several other versions since Tagore’s. One of them is by the distinguished American poet Robert Bly whose The Kabir Book (1977) – consisting of extremely free renderings in contemporary American English of 44 poems, a few of which read better as poetry than Tagore’s – offers an interesting contrast to the latter. Neither Bly nor Tagore worked from the Hindi original; Tagore translated from Bengali, Bly simply reworked the Tagore versions. Those who want to go deeper into the world of Kabir may turn to a comprehensive collection-cum-study by V.K. Sethi, Kabir: The Weaver of God’s Name (Radha Soami, Punjab, India, 1984). The title of Sethi’s book refers to both the literal and symbolic facts of Kabir’s life and work. The poet was a weaver by trade and in his songs, he was an ecstatic “weaver of God’s name”. It seems that between the two vocations, the latter claimed his attention more.
There are many more legends than hard historical facts about Kabir’s life. But scholars seem to be more or less agreed that he was the son of a Muslim weaver of Benares, that he didn’t practice his trade very much, that as a weaver of ecstatic verses vibrating with devotion and love for the Divine. He was highly eclectic. The orthodox from among the Muslims and Hindus were shocked by his allegedly blasphemous indifference to divisive religious categories. And his insistence on the truths of personal experience as opposed to the untested abstractions of theology was considered a threat. But what Kabir says is said by the great mystics of all religions, proving that in mysticism, all religions meet and affirm Oneness and Unity. “O, servant where dost thou seek Me?/ Lo! I am beside thee./ I am neither in the temple nor in the mosque:/ I am neither in Kaaba nor in Kailash (abode of Siva) … nor in Yoga and renunciation …” (Tagore’s translation). He even dared to say: “The Purana and the Koran are mere words;/ lifting up the curtain, I have seen,/ Kabir gives utterance to the words of experience …” (Tagore). If all this sounds offensive to the fundamentalist Muslim, whose literal mind will no doubt take particular exception to that line about the Holy Book, listen to what the acknowledged Master of Islamic mysticism, Jalal-ud-din Rumi (d.1273), says in his Masnavi: “The lamps are different, but the Light is the same:/ it comes from Beyond … O thou art the kernel of Existence, the disagreement between Moslem, Zoroastrian and Jew depends on the standpoint” (Translation by R.A. Nicholson). Kabir’s words about the futility of finding God or “Truth” in either Yoga or renunciation was affirmed in his own life, for everything with him had to be tested by experience. He flouted social and religious conventions with supreme indifference.
There are many tales about his persecution by both Hindus and Muslims. According to one tradition, a certain Sheikh Taqqi (variously referred to as Kabir’s greatest Muslim foe, rival, or even disciple) came to see him one day, and found a pig tied up outside his door. The Sheikh, of course, rebuked him for keeping the unclean animal. Kabir replied, “I have an unclean animal outside my door; you have many unclean friends inside your heart: greed, envy, pride, anger and avarice.” The same Sheikh Taqqi, according to another tradition, accused Kabir before the Emperor Sikandar Lodi of laying claims to Divine attributes. The Emperor issued a summons for Kabir’s arrest. Kabir took time in responding. And when he was finally dragged before the Emperor, he just stood before him without saying a word. The Sheikh, who was regarded as a pir (saint) by his contemporaries, rebuked him, “Why do you not salute the Emperor, you kafir?” Kabir replied, “Those only are pirs who realize the pain of others, those who cannot are kafirs.”
Kabir may have been hated and persecuted by the religious establishments, but he was popular with the masses. He composed his songs, mostly transmitted orally in his time, in a colloquial idiomatic form of western Hindi. His followers today number about half a million, and his disciples, the Kabir Panthi, are the jealous custodians of his tomb. As usual with such highly individual spirits and reformers, a dreadful irony attended the subsequent fate of his name and memory. The man who poured scorn on all forms of idolatory had his image and book both worshipped by ignorant devotees. And that beautiful legend of the flowers shared by Muslims and Hindus – well, it remains just a beautiful legend mocked by fanatics who keep on spilling innocent blood in the name of God and religion.
15 May 1991