The Idea of India
The Idea Of India Project Update: Project Readings: Kabir: An Irrelevant Voice?

A new set of translations of the works of the Indian poet Kabir are about to be published by The New York Review Of Books.


Nothing can hide the fact that Kabir is largely ignored in India, his words, ideals and spiritual thoughts unknown to almost all of South Asia’s modern citizens. Though there has been a growing focus on his work, with a number of organizations attempting to highlight this messages of inter-religious sharing and tolerance, its difficult to ignore the fact that the thrust of our modernity – with its focus on hard nationalism, intolerant sectarianism, obscurantist anti-intellectualism and fervid consumerism, stands against everything Kabir points us towards. The same of course stands true for other Indian voices like those of Mohandas Gandhi, Darak Shikoh and a number of others who have pretty much been relegated to the ‘has beens’ of our modernity, largely museum pieces to display to visitors and tourists, but not relevant to our day-to-day scramble for wealth and provincialism.

Kabir was a blasphemer, or that is at least how our modern-day mullahs and self-proclaimed protectors of the faith would describe him. And that is where his strength lay. He refused to accept the rituals and hierarchies of organized religion and encourage individuals to ignore the ignorant voices of the priesthood. In a piece I wrote earlier for the India project, called The Art Of Blasphemy: The Poetry Of Kabir I quote two works that underline his disdain and outright disgust of those who claim to know.

O Pande,
what foolishness of yours!
You don’t call on Ram
you, wretched one!

Carrying your Veda and Puranas, O Pande, you go along
like a donkey loaded with sandal wood
The secret of the Name of Ram, you’ve never known
and so you come to shame

You kill living beings and you call it ‘Piety’:
tell me, Brother, what then is impiety?
Among yourselves, you address each other as ‘Great Sage’:
whom then shall I call ‘Butcher’?

The latest issue of Poetry Magazine carries a few of his work, translated by the Indian poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. There is a lovely translation of a work that speaks out against Muslim practices:

If you say you’re a Brahmin
Born of a mother who’s a Brahmin,
Was there a special canal
Through which you were born?

And if you say you’re a Turk
And your mother’s a Turk,
Why weren’t you circumcised
Before birth?

In his explanation of the works, and the poet, Mehrotra write:

Kabir belonged to the popular devotional movement called bhakti, whose focus is on inward love for the One Deity, in opposition to religious orthodoxies and social hierarchies. Kabir called his god Rama or Hari, who is not to be confused with the Hindu god Rama of the Ramayana.

Many of the bhakti poets came from the bottom of the Hindu caste ladder. Among them you find a cobbler, a tailor, a barber, a boatman, a weaver. One, Janabai (see epigraph to “Chewing slowly”), was a maidservant. They wrote in the vernaculars (Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Marathi, Gujarati) rather than in Sanskrit, the language of the gods and the preserve of Brahmins. Occasionally, eschewing his abrupt debunking manner, Kabir speaks in riddles. These enigmatic poems (see “Brother I’ve seen some” and “How do you”) are called ulatbamsi or “poems in upside-down language,” in which the intention seems to be to force the reader (or listener) into new ways of thinking and seeing. They each end in a revelation, though exactly what has been revealed is open to question.

There is actually a community of people who follow the sayings and ideals of the poet. Referred to as the Kabirpanthis who follow the sayings of the poet and consider him a prophet. The singer Prahlad Tipaniya is a Kabirpanthi and frequently tours India and neighboring countries spreading the message of the poet.

Shabnam Virmani, a filmmaker, gave a TEDxTalk recently where she spoke about her quest for Kabir, and other folk poets, and her goal of bringing their message to India and others in the region.


In the talk she talked about the violence that had taken over Gujarat and the pogroms against the Muslims that took place in 2002. This event has scared Gujarat, if not the entire nation of India. It has moved many to speak out, to start to take responsibility of what kind of society that India aims to become. Her’s is a voice that is determined to make Kabir relevant to India’s modernity.

Its a tall task. Or perhaps, surrounded by the xenophobia of Gujarat I find my optimism of the will somewhat jaded. The sectarianized post-earthquake urban geography of cities like Bhuj (See Raju, Kumar, Corbridge’s Colonial & Post-Colonial Geographies Of India, Chapter 4 Simpson & Corbridge’s ‘Militant Cartographies & Traumatic Spaces: Ayodhya, Bhuj And The Contested Geographies of Hindutva’) , the blatant mocking of anyone recognized as Muslim, and the stark ghetoization that now marks the towns and cities of Gujarat leave me little hope that poetry has a role to play in overturning this modernity.

Or perhaps its just a bad day and tomorrow I will think differently and get back to work.

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