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Title: Songs of Kabir

Author: Rabindranath Tagore (trans.)
Release Date: September, 2004 [EBook #6519]

[Yes, we are more than one year ahead of schedule]

[This file was first posted on December 25, 2002]
Edition: 10
Language: English
Character set encoding: Latin1

This eBook was prepared by Chetan K. Jain.

Originally scanned at by John B. Hare.


Translated by Rabindranath Tagore
Introduction by Evelyn Underhill
New York, The Macmillan Company


The poet Kabîr, 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, be became in early life a disciple of the

celebrated Hindu ascetic Râmânanda. Râmânanda had brought to

Northern India the religious revival which Râmânuja, the great

twelfth-century reformer of Brâhmanism, 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 Vedânta philosophy, the exaggerated monism

which that philosophy proclaimed. It took in Râmânuja'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 level of spiritual culture, and which

creeds and philosophies are powerless to kill.

Though such a devotion is indigenous in Hinduism, and finds

expression in many passages of the Bhagavad Gîtâ, there was in

its mediæval revival a large element of syncretism. Râmânanda,

through whom its spirit is said to have reached Kabîr, appears to

have been a man of wide religious culture, and full of missionary

enthusiasm. Living at the moment in which the impassioned poetry

and deep philosophy of the great Persian mystics, Attâr, Sâdî,

Jalâlu'ddîn Rûmî, and Hâfiz, were exercising a powerful influence

on the religious thought of India, he dreamed of reconciling this

intense and personal Mohammedan mysticism with the traditional

theology of Brâhmanism. Some have regarded both these great

religious leaders as influenced also by Christian thought and

life: but as this is a point upon which competent authorities

hold widely divergent views, its discussion is not attempted here.

We may safely assert, however, that in their teachings, two--

perhaps three--apparently antagonistic streams of intense

spiritual culture met, as Jewish and Hellenistic thought met in

the early Christian Church: and it is one of the outstanding

characteristics of Kabîr's genius that he was able in his poems

to fuse them into one.

A great religious reformer, the founder of a sect to which nearly

a million northern Hindus still belong, it is yet supremely as a

mystical poet that Kabîr lives for us. His fate has been that of

many revealers of Reality. A hater of religious exclusivism, and

seeking above all things to initiate men into the liberty of the

children of God, his followers have honoured his memory by

re-erecting in a new place the barriers which he laboured to cast

down. But his wonderful songs survive, the spontaneous

expressions of his vision and his love; and it is by these, not

by the didactic teachings associated with his name, that he makes

his immortal appeal to the heart. In these poems a wide range of

mystical emotion is brought into play: from the loftiest

abstractions, the most otherworldly passion for the Infinite, to

the most intimate and personal realization of God, expressed in

homely metaphors and religious symbols drawn indifferently from

Hindu and Mohammedan belief. It is impossible to say of their

author that he was Brâhman or Sûfî, Vedântist or Vaishnavite.

He is, as he says himself, "at once the child of Allah and of Râm."

That Supreme Spirit Whom he knew and adored, and to Whose joyous

friendship he sought to induct the souls of other men, transcended

whilst He included all metaphysical categories, all credal

definitions; yet each contributed something to the description of

that Infinite and Simple Totality Who revealed Himself, according

to their measure, to the faithful lovers of all creeds.

Kabîr's story is surrounded by contradictory legends, on none of

which reliance can be placed. Some of these emanate from a Hindu,

some from a Mohammedan source, and claim him by turns as a Sûfî

and a Brâhman saint. His name, however, is practically a

conclusive proof of Moslem ancestry: and the most probable tale is

that which represents him as the actual or adopted child of a

Mohammedan weaver of Benares, the city in which the chief events

of his life took place.

In fifteenth-century Benares the syncretistic tendencies of

Bhakti religion had reached full development. Sûfîs and Brâhmans

appear to have met in disputation: the most spiritual members of

both creeds frequenting the teachings of Râmânanda, whose

reputation was then at its height. The boy Kabîr, in whom the

religious passion was innate, saw in Râmânanda his destined

teacher; but knew how slight were the chances that a Hindu guru

would accept a Mohammedan as disciple. He therefore hid upon the

steps of the river Ganges, where Râmânanda was accustomed to

bathe; with the result that the master, coming down to the water,

trod upon his body unexpectedly, and exclaimed in his

astonishment, "Ram! Ram!"--the name of the incarnation under

which he worshipped God. Kabîr then declared that he had

received the mantra of initiation from Râmânanda's lips, and was

by it admitted to discipleship. In spite of the protests of

orthodox Brâhmans and Mohammedans, both equally annoyed by this

contempt of theological landmarks, he persisted in his claim;

thus exhibiting in action that very principle of religious

synthesis which Râmânanda had sought to establish in thought.

Râmânanda appears to have accepted him, and though Mohammedan

legends speak of the famous Sûfî Pîr, Takkî of Jhansî, as Kabîr's

master in later life, the Hindu saint is the only human teacher

to whom in his songs he acknowledges indebtedness.
The little that we know of Kabîr's life contradicts many current

ideas concerning the Oriental mystic. Of the stages of

discipline through which he passed, the manner in which his

spiritual genius developed, we are completely ignorant. He seems

to have remained for years the disciple of Râmânanda, joining in

the theological and philosophical arguments which his master held

with all the great Mullahs and Brâhmans of his day; and to this

source we may perhaps trace his acquaintance with the terms of

Hindu and Sûfî philosophy. He may or may not have submitted to

the traditional education of the Hindu or the Sûfî contemplative:

it is clear, at any rate, that he never adopted the life of the

professional ascetic, or retired from the world in order to

devote himself to bodily mortifications and the exclusive pursuit

of the contemplative life. Side by side with his interior life

of adoration, its artistic expression in music and words--for he

was a skilled musician as well as a poet--he lived the sane and

diligent life of the Oriental craftsman. All the legends agree

on this point: that Kabîr was a weaver, a simple and unlettered

man, who earned his living at the loom. Like Paul the tentmaker,

Boehme the cobbler, Bunyan the tinker, Tersteegen the

ribbon-maker, he knew how to combine vision and industry; the

work of his hands helped rather than hindered the impassioned

meditation of his heart. Hating mere bodily austerities, he was

no ascetic, but a married man, the father of a family--a

circumstance which Hindu legends of the monastic type vainly

attempt to conceal or explain--and it was from out of the heart

of the common life that he sang his rapturous lyrics of divine

love. Here his works corroborate the traditional story of his

life. Again and again he extols the life of home, the value and

reality of diurnal existence, with its opportunities for love and

renunciation; pouring contempt--upon the professional sanctity of

the Yogi, who "has a great beard and matted locks, and looks like

a goat," and on all who think it necessary to flee a world

pervaded by love, joy, and beauty--the proper theatre of man's

quest--in order to find that One Reality Who has "spread His form

of love throughout all the world." [Footnote: Cf. Poems Nos. XXI,

It does not need much experience of ascetic literature to

recognize the boldness and originality of this attitude in such a

time and place. From the point of view of orthodox sanctity,

whether Hindu or Mohammedan, Kabîr was plainly a heretic; and his

frank dislike of all institutional religion, all external

observance--which was as thorough and as intense as that of the

Quakers themselves--completed, so far as ecclesiastical opinion

was concerned, his reputation as a dangerous man. The "simple

union" with Divine Reality which he perpetually extolled, as alike

the duty and the joy of every soul, was independent both of ritual

and of bodily austerities; the God whom he proclaimed was "neither

in Kaaba nor in Kailâsh." Those who sought Him needed not to go

far; for He awaited discovery everywhere, more accessible to "the

washerwoman and the carpenter" than to the self--righteous holy man.

[Footnote: Poems I, II, XLI.] Therefore the whole apparatus of

piety, Hindu and Moslem alike--the temple and mosque, idol and holy

water, scriptures and priests--were denounced by this inconveniently

clear-sighted poet as mere substitutes for reality; dead things

intervening between the soul and its love--

The images are all lifeless, they cannot speak:

I know, for I have cried aloud to them.

The Purâna and the Koran are mere words:

lifting up the curtain, I have seen.


[Footnote: Poems XLII, LXV, LXVII.]

This sort of thing cannot be tolerated by any organized church;

and it is not surprising that Kabîr, having his head-quarters in

Benares, the very centre of priestly influence, was subjected to

considerable persecution. The well-known legend of the beautiful

courtesan sent by Brâhmans to tempt his virtue, and converted,

like the Magdalen, by her sudden encounter with the initiate of a

higher love, pre serves the memory of the fear and dislike with

which he was regarded by the ecclesiastical powers. Once at

least, after the performance of a supposed miracle of healing, he

was brought before the Emperor Sikandar Lodi, and charged with

claiming the possession of divine powers. But Sikandar Lodi, a

ruler of considerable culture, was tolerant of the eccentricities

of saintly persons belonging to his own faith. Kabîr, being of

Mohammedan birth, was outside the authority of the Brâhmans, and

technically classed with the Sûfîs, to whom great theological

latitude was allowed. Therefore, though he was banished in the

interests of peace from Benares, his life was spared. This seems

to have happened in 1495, when he was nearly sixty years of age;

it is the last event in his career of which we have definite

knowledge. Thenceforth he appears to have moved about amongst

various cities of northern India, the centre of a group of

disciples; continuing in exile that life of apostle and poet of

love to which, as he declares in one of his songs, he was destined

"from the beginning of time." In 1518, an old man, broken in

health, and with hands so feeble that he could no longer make the

music which he loved, he died at Maghar near Gorakhpur.

A beautiful legend tells us that after his death his

Mohammedan and Hindu disciples disputed the possession of his

body; which the Mohammedans wished to bury, the Hindus to burn.

As they argued together, Kabîr appeared before them, and told

them to lift the shroud and look at that which lay beneath. They

did so, and found in the place of the corpse a heap of flowers;

half of which were buried by the Mohammedans at Maghar, and half

carried by the Hindus to the holy city of Benares to be burned--

fitting conclusion to a life which had made fragrant the most

beautiful doctrines of two great creeds.


The poetry of mysticism might be defined on the one hand as a

temperamental reaction to the vision of Reality: on the other, as

a form of prophecy. As it is the special vocation of the

mystical consciousness to mediate between two orders, going out

in loving adoration towards God and coming home to tell the

secrets of Eternity to other men; so the artistic self-expression

of this consciousness has also a double character. It is love-

poetry, but love-poetry which is often written with a missionary


Kabîr's songs are of this kind: out-births at once of rapture and

of charity. Written in the popular Hindi, not in the literary

tongue, they were deliberately addressed--like the vernacular

poetry of Jacopone da Todì and Richard Rolle--to the people rather

than to the professionally religious class; and all must be struck

by the constant employment in them of imagery drawn from the

common life, the universal experience. It is by the simplest

metaphors, by constant appeals to needs, passions, relations which

all men understand--the bridegroom and bride, the guru and

disciple, the pilgrim, the farmer, the migrant bird-- that he

drives home his intense conviction of the reality of the soul's

intercourse with the Transcendent. There are in his universe no

fences between the "natural" and "supernatural" worlds; everything

is a part of the creative Play of God, and therefore--even in its

humblest details--capable of revealing the Player's mind.
This willing acceptance of the here-and-now as a means of

representing supernal realities is a trait common to the greatest

mystics. For them, when they have achieved at last the true

theopathetic state, all aspects of the universe possess equal

authority as sacramental declarations of the Presence of God; and

their fearless employment of homely and physical symbols--often

startling and even revolting to the unaccustomed taste--is in

direct proportion to the exaltation of their spiritual life. The

works of the great Sûfîs, and amongst the Christians of Jacopone

da Todì, Ruysbroeck, Boehme, abound in illustrations of this law.

Therefore we must not be surprised to find in Kabîr's songs--his

desperate attempts to communicate his ecstasy and persuade other

men to share it--a constant juxtaposition of concrete and

metaphysical language; swift alternations between the most

intensely anthropomorphic, the most subtly philosophical, ways of

apprehending man's communion with the Divine. The need for this

alternation, and its entire naturalness for the mind which

employs it, is rooted in his concept, or vision, of the Nature of

God; and unless we make some attempt to grasp this, we shall not

go far in our understanding of his poems.

Kabîr belongs to that small group of supreme mystics--amongst

whom St. Augustine, Ruysbroeck, and the Sûfî poet Jalâlu'ddîn

Rûmî are perhaps the chief--who have achieved that which we might

call the synthetic vision of God. These have resolved the

perpetual opposition between the personal and impersonal, the

transcendent and immanent, static and dynamic aspects of the

Divine Nature; between the Absolute of philosophy and the "sure

true Friend" of devotional religion. They have done this, not by

taking these apparently incompatible concepts one after the

other; but by ascending to a height of spiritual intuition at

which they are, as Ruysbroeck said, "melted and merged in the

Unity," and perceived as the completing opposites of a perfect

Whole. This proceeding entails for them--and both Kabîr and

Ruysbroeck expressly acknowledge it--a universe of three orders:

Becoming, Being, and that which is "More than Being," i.e., God.

[Footnote: Nos. VII and XLIX.] God is here felt to be not the

final abstraction, but the one actuality. He inspires, supports,

indeed inhabits, both the durational, conditioned, finite world

of Becoming and the unconditioned, non-successional, infinite

world of Being; yet utterly transcends them both. He is the

omnipresent Reality, the "All-pervading" within Whom "the worlds

are being told like beads." In His personal aspect He is the

"beloved Fakir," teaching and companioning each soul. Considered

as Immanent Spirit, He is "the Mind within the mind." But all

these are at best partial aspects of His nature, mutually

corrective: as the Persons in the Christian doctrine of the

Trinity--to which this theological diagram bears a striking

resemblance--represent different and compensating experiences of

the Divine Unity within which they are resumed. As Ruysbroeck

discerned a plane of reality upon which "we can speak no more of

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but only of One Being, the very

substance of the Divine Persons"; so Kabîr says that "beyond both

the limited and the limitless is He, the Pure Being." [Footnote:

No. VII.]

Brahma, then, is the Ineffable Fact compared with which "the

distinction of the Conditioned from the Unconditioned is but a

word": at once the utterly transcendent One of Absolutist

philosophy, and the personal Lover of the individual soul--

"common to all and special to each," as one Christian mystic has

it. The need felt by Kabîr for both these ways of describing

Reality is a proof of the richness and balance of his spiritual

experience; which neither cosmic nor anthropomorphic symbols,

taken alone, could express. More absolute than the Absolute,

more personal than the human mind, Brahma therefore exceeds

whilst He includes all the concepts of philosophy, all the

passionate intuitions of the heart. He is the Great Affirmation,

the font of energy, the source of life and love, the unique

satisfaction of desire. His creative word is the Om or

"Everlasting Yea." The negative philosophy which strips from the

Divine Nature all Its attributes and defining Him only by that

which He is not--reduces Him to an "Emptiness," is abhorrent to

this most vital of poets.--Brahma, he says, "may never be found

in abstractions." He is the One Love who Pervades the world.,

discerned in His fullness only by the eyes of love; and those who

know Him thus share, though they may never tell, the joyous and

ineffable secret of the universe. [Footnote: Nos. VII, XXVI,

Now Kabîr, achieving this synthesis between the personal and

cosmic aspects of the Divine Nature, eludes the three great

dangers which threaten mystical religion.
First, he escapes the excessive emotionalism, the tendency to

an exclusively anthropomorphic devotion, which results from an

unrestricted cult of Divine Personality, especially under an

incarnational form; seen in India in the exaggerations of

Krishna worship, in Europe in the sentimental extravagances of

certain Christian saints.

Next, he is protected from the soul-destroying conclusions of

pure monism, inevitable if its logical implications are pressed

home: that is, the identity of substance between God and the

soul, with its corollary of the total absorption of that soul in

the Being of God as the goal of the spiritual life. For the

thorough-going monist the soul, in so far as it is real, is

substantially identical with God; and the true object of

existence is the making patent of this latent identity, the

realization which finds expression in the Vedântist formula "That

art thou." But Kabîr says that Brahma and the creature are "ever

distinct, yet ever united"; that the wise man knows the spiritual

as well as the material world to "be no more than His footstool."

[Footnote: Nos. VII and IX.] The soul's union with Him is a love

union, a mutual inhabitation; that essentially dualistic relation

which all mystical religion expresses, not a self-mergence which

leaves no place for personality. This eternal distinction, the

mysterious union-in-separateness of God and the soul, is a

necessary doctrine of all sane mysticism; for no scheme which

fails to find a place for it can represent more than a fragment of

that soul's intercourse with the spiritual world. Its affirmation

was one of the distinguishing features of the Vaishnavite

reformation preached by Râmânuja; the principle of which had

descended through Râmânanda to Kabîr.
Last, the warmly human and direct apprehension of God as the

supreme Object of love, the soul's comrade, teacher, and

bridegroom, which is so passionately and frequently expressed in

Kabîr's poems, balances and controls those abstract tendencies

which are inherent in the metaphysical side of his vision of

Reality: and prevents it from degenerating into that sterile

worship of intellectual formulæ which became the curse of the

Vedântist school. For the mere intellectualist, as for the mere

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