Kabir: Personal and Political

in Article
Published on: 04 December 2018

Purushottam Agrawal

Prof. Purushottam Agarwal is a renowned scholar and has written extensively on Kabir, including a book ‘Kabir: Sakhi Aur Shabd’ and an essay ‘In Search of Ramanand: The Guru of Kabir and Others’. As a consultant to Oxfam he has organized several interfaces of scholars, artists and activists, including one between Kabir Panthis (followers of a Kabir sect) and scholars of Kabir. These events probed the question of social identities and a dialogue on 'spirituality without religion'. Prof. Purushottam Agrawal is former chairperson of the School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.


I came to Delhi as a student in JNU way back in 1977. Before that, I was reasonably exposed to Kabir. I am not one of those who discovered Kabir in MA Hindi Literature, or due to some politically correct film or slogan. I am one of those humble Hindi-speaking Indians, who grow up with Tulsidas and Kabir and Mira Bai, who learn a sakhi (couplet) or two of Kabir before they learn writing their names. But I started studying Kabir and other bhakti poets in a more systematic and academic way only as a student of literature, and the question which I have been asking myself, for many years now is: how did my engagement with Kabir become more than academic? It also became, over the last thirty years or so, more than something merely academic, and also more than merely political. In a very deep sense, my engagement with Kabir has turned into a very personal experience.


Since I started reading Kabir seriously -- and this I have been doing for the last twenty or twenty five years after my MA, I did my PhD work on Kabir and then went on writing, thinking, traveling, meeting Kabir panthis, critics of Kabir, admirers of Kabir and all that -- I have been always wondering: who is this man, Kabir? And I sometimes find him resembling myself so much, and yet at others, I fail to recognize him. The question which I have been asking is: why? Why do I fail to recognize Kabir, why do I want him to be confined to a certain set of situations? How does it happen that when Kabir is ridiculing or caricaturing a pundit or a maulana, I prefer to identify with Kabir and not with the maulana or pundit? I might have many things in common with the maulana or pundit!


I am part of the culture that goes on producing bookish knowledge in this country and throughout the world, without bothering to associate with the life out there. Even in a university like JNU, which is known to be a very progressive, democratic and forward-looking university, I do not think someone like Prahlad Singh Tipaniya performed in JNU before 2003 or 2002, nobody knew about Tipaniya before 2002, and we all were studying Kabir and bhakti traditions.


We were studying Kabir through the printed word, not the living word. Because Kabir in the universities is one thing; Kabir in the political life is another thing. And Kabir in the life of people like Tipaniya and Kabir in the life of so many Kabir panthis spread from Bihar to Gujarat is quite another. And we, the academia, are hardly bothered with any of the readings and images of Kabir which are relevant to so many people. So this has been one question in my mind: Why? How we have failed, how have I failed to see someone who resembles me so much?


Kabir resembles me not because I am unique or I am great or I am a prophet in the making, but because he is an extremely ordinary person. It is remarkable to note that Kabir never claimed to be a dharm. I can say this with some authority. Kabir never claimed to be an avatar of any god or God with a capital G. Kabir always claimed to be a humble julaha from Banaras, and that is it. And sometimes he was quite ironic and satirical when referring to his social origins:


“Aaye hamare kaha kahoge hum to jaat kameena,
tahain jao jahain agar, path patambar agar chandan kasbina
Aye hamare kaha kahoge hum to jaat kameena”.


So he was quite aware of the fact that he is supposed to belong to a 'kameena jaat'. He always claimed to be a humble person, and with this humility, he also claimed to be a person who dared to question. This is true of any one of us. Only if we allow our real, to use the Kabir-ian expression, if we allow our sahaj self to speak out. Sahaj literally means something, which is given to you at your birth, and you do not allow it to speak out and that is why this question becomes pertinent.


Secondly, I also realized over the last so many years that Kabir also is not unique in the sense of being an aberration; he is unique precisely because of being situated; because of being a very striking presence in a continuous tradition. It is not as if Kabir one fine morning dropped from the sky, and then nothing happened. Before Kabir there was a living tradition of interrogation, a living tradition of emphasizing love as the primary moving force of life, and this tradition continued after Kabir.


In our university curriculum, we do not even know the names of people like Dariya Sahib of Bihar or Paltu Das of Awadh or Akha of Gujarat, and people like them. So Kabir is important or Kabir is unique, not because of being something out of this world but precisely because of being very much of this world, and also because of being part of a continuous tradition which continues even today. And I consider it to be extremely significant that Acharya Param Chaturvedi, one of the greatest scholars of bhakti tradition writing in Hindi has written a book called Uttar Bharat Ki Sant Parampara (Northern India’s Saint Tradition). This book starts with Gorakh Nath and the last sant about whom Chaturvediji has chosen to write is Mahatma Gandhi. According to Param Chaturvedi, Mahatma Gandhi is the last link in the chain of uttari bharat ki sant parampara.


So that is the second question I have been asking myself: Why we have made Kabir unique in the sense of being an aberration? He is unique, but not in the sense that there was nobody before him, and there was nobody after him.


Thirdly, I have been wondering, do we, the modern admirers of Kabir really try to understand? I am not saying appreciate, it is not necessary to appreciate, not necessary to agree with everything even Kabir stood for -- I do not agree with many things he stood for -- but do we try to understand the totality of Kabir? This is a question, which becomes pertinent particularly when we talk of Kabir as political. Kabir is sometimes projected as the great champion of Hindu-Muslim unity. To put it quite bluntly, the Hindu-Muslim unity as we know it today, Kabir has nothing to do with, because the Hindu-Muslim unity of today, implies acceptance of things as they are, without being critical of anything, and certainly without being critical of a tradition which is not yours. I, being a Hindu, am not expected to be critical of anything of Islam, and a Muslim is not expected to be critical of anything Hindu, and then we continue to be united in our acceptance of things as they are.


Any reading of Kabir would reveal that, in this sense, he never stood for the so-called Hindu-Muslim or Hindu-Isai (Christian) or Hindu-Sikh or Sikh-Isai unity, no. He actually stood for an interrogation of all kinds of rituals, all kinds of formalism, including his own. In fact in one of his poems, he comments on people like himself:


Shabad keh keh phoole
Aatam khabar nahin jana re!


This includes people like Kabir himself, like Nirgun Panthis. 'Shabad keh keh' is associated with Nirgun panthis. So even if those people who claim to be Nirgun Panthis are not aware of certain things, Kabir will have no hesitation in critiquing them with equal vehemence.


Kabir's criticism of Hinduism or Islam, or any religious tradition available to you including Nath Panthis, and in an indirect way, even the Buddhist and Jain traditions, to my mind, actually reflects a search for a fundamental connection with the cosmos without the mediation of organized religion. That is what Shabnam Virmani was talking about -- spirituality without religion. Let me however add that spirituality is an extremely inadequate translation of what I believe. In Hindi I use the expression adhyaatma, and spirituality is an extremely inadequate translation of adhyaatma.


Adhyaatma in Indian tradition does not mean things pertaining to the other world. It certainly does not mean the spirits with whom you could talk with through the help of a preacher. Adhyaatma etymologically means to go beyond yourself. In the eighth chapter of Gita, the question is put to Lord Krishna: what is adhyaatma, what is Brahma, please tell me? The answer, which is given by Krishna is actually a quintessential understanding of the entire Indian tradition. Krishna says: swabhavo adhyaatmo muchayate - your very nature is known as adhyaatma.


And this, quite interestingly, takes my mind to two nineteenth century European philosophers. One is Feuerbach and the other one is rather unexpected, to many of his admirers, Karl Marx. You don't associate Karl Marx with anything spiritual, but then again that is our problem, not Karl Marx's. In 1844, Karl Marx wrote certain things which were published very late, in the early twentieth century only, under the title 'Economical and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844'. Marx was under the influence of Feuerbach those days, and in that manuscript Marx makes some observations which are strikingly similar to this definition that your very nature is spiritual: swabhavo adhyaatmo muchayate.


Marx says in the manuscript that just as your physical activity gets alienated and becomes labour, becomes a commodity to be sold and purchased in the market, similarly, your basic essence, the essence of your being human becomes alienated in the form of religion and becomes a commodity, becomes an activity imposed upon you from an outside agency, divine or diabolical.


This is Karl Marx in 'Economical and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844'. Again, in the same manuscript, Marx goes along to point out that the essential difference between animal and human is precisely this, that a human being is conscious of ‘being’. An animal is not conscious of its own being. Therefore the relationship with cosmos on the part of the animal is organic but unconscious. The human relationship with the cosmos is inorganic because it is part of the cosmos and yet aware of the difference, and therefore this relation to use Marx's own expression is ‘spiritual’, and it is this spiritual essence which gets alienated through the agency of organized religion, and man gets alienated from his own nature.


You see, when I was a Marxist I never bothered to read the 'Economical and Philosophical Manuscripts' because when you follow a certain ideology, you do not bother to read the seminal texts. The interpretations given by the authorized interpreters are sufficient. If you are a good Hindu, you should never bother to read the Gita yourself. Whatever swamiji says is fine. Similarly if you are a good Kabir Panthi, never bother to read the Bijak hymns yourself, just follow what Tipaniyaji says. After all he is the guru, whatever he is saying must be true of the Bijak. So, similarly, when I was a Marxist formerly, I never bothered to read the 'Economical and Philosophical Manuscripts'. But when I read it, I realized that here is the crux, the key to understand not only Kabir, and I repeat, not only Kabir, but many like him, and not only in India, but throughout the experience of human civilization.


People like Kabir are making a fundamental statement through their poetic praxis. I reiterate the words: poetic praxis. People like Kabir are re-making essential points through their poetic praxis. The point is this, very simply, that you cannot be spiritual if you are not at the same time human in the sense of being laborious. Labour and spirituality, your physical and mental activity, they must complement each other, neither is the alternative of the other. And this comes out so clearly in Kabir.


Basically the point he is making throughout his poetic praxis is this -- that, in the first place, you have a certain universal notion of value. Certain values are universal despite the fact that because of the colonial modernity, and because of various problems of modernity, the expression, the term 'universal' has become universally suspect these days. The moment you talk of something universal, you are being something rather unacceptable. This is postmodern identity politics - nothing is universal. But I think there is something universal.


The very fact that I am concerned with something taking place in the Middle East -- I'm not a Palestinian, I have never visited Gaza, and I do not think that I will ever visit Gaza in my life but there is something which pains me there. That is universal. My friend Lorenzen has written about a singer in 1930s, a Christian singer, singing in the churches of South Carolina, Blind Willy. David Lorenzen has actually compared the compositions of Blind Willy with Kabir line by line, and they seem to be translations of each other... 'God is not there on the pulpit, he is out there, outside the church, go and find him.' This is Blind Willy singing in the thirties in South Carolina, and he obviously had not even heard of Kabir. There are many like him.


Kabir has a most poignant line, which I think expresses his fundamental concern as a poet:


Bhitar kahuo to jag mei laje, bahar kahoon to jhoota,
bhitar bahar sabar nirantar, mein ke vidhi ke to ghambira


If I describe Him as residing within myself, then I am dismissing the existence of everything which is outside, so I cannot say this. If I say that He is outside, that He is residing outside, then I am denying my own experience. I know I am telling a lie, so bahar kaho to jhoota... How to describe that indescribable: bhitar bahar sabar nirantar, mein ke vidhi ke to ghambira?


The profound truth which I want to convey to you is this -- that He actually resides in the continuum of inside and outside. In our own idiom, in our own political idiom we can say that the profundity of our modern concerns, actually reside in the continuum of personal and political. It is very easy to condemn every political thing or every discourse of power or everything connected with power. The point is, am I part of that discourse, that structure in a personal capacity or not?


If something is to be done, if some moral position is to be taken, it has to be taken consistently both in the bhitar and bahar.


Most of our young friends get attracted to Kabir because of his supposedly iconoclastic views. Yes, of course, he was very iconoclastic and he was very aggressive and sometimes he could express things in a most satirical and almost in a manner which would hurt the sentiments of all and sundry in today’s India. And sometimes I feel very, very happy for Kabir, and I thank god that he was not writing in the twentieth or twenty first century characterized by backwardness, by all kinds of sectarianism, all kinds of violence. Kabir was of course forced to leave Banaras for some time. Had he been writing in 1920 or 1990 or 2009, he would have met a more severe punishment for hurting sentiments. So sometimes I feel very happy for Kabir that he died five hundred years ago.


What actually attracts most of us to him is his so-called iconoclasm. This iconoclasm would not have been possible at all in the absence of a very, very humble search for love. Kabir is basically searching for love. Kabir's fundamental concern is love not demolition. He should not be read as some kind of demolition expert or bulldozer let loose. He criticizes people quite categorically, absolutely, but if you read him in totality, he is a poet who brings tears to your eyes, Because of his yearning, because of his agony. And what is he looking for? He calls it Ram, he calls it Govind, he calls it Karim, he calls it Madhav, Keshav and what not. All the names of God, employed by Kabir in his poems are actually nothing but an attempt to name love, and nothing else.


And while I read Kabir, I am always reminded, in fact, that there was another remarkable discovery or route to discovery. Roland Barthes, the famous structuralist philosopher, is known as the father, one of the fathers, of what we call post-modernism and post-structuralism today. Roland Barthes, has written a most moving book. In fact it is not a book, rather fragments or jottings which have been published, put together, called The Lover's Discourse. And the opening sentence of that book really strikes you like a bolt, the opening sentence of the book is: 'The lovers’ discourse is spoken by many in this world, but warranted by none.' Everybody wants to talk of love, nobody wants to hear the talk of love, and nobody wants to act on the talk of love. Everybody wants to talk of love: I love my motherland, I love my religion, I love my faith, I love my ideology, and therefore I am willing to die and I am willing to kill. So this discourse is spoken by many and warranted by none...


I request you - go through Kabir, in his own words, and his most moving English translation is available by friend Linda Hess, which is also important because Linda is the only Kabir scholar so far who has taken Kabir the poet seriously. Otherwise Kabir has been reduced to a social reformer, a revolutionary.


Sometimes I fear that the revolutionaries of the twenty first century do not have faith in their own resources, therefore they sometimes turn Jesus into a revolutionary, they sometimes turn somebody else into a revolutionary and sometimes they turn Kabir into a revolutionary. If you want to do revolution, you should do it on your own premises after your own resources instead of appropriating the popular figures from the past.


Anyway, so if you read Kabir through translation or Kabir in his original, basically he is a poet of love. And if you read you will find his logic is very simple. It is a sahaj logic, commonsensical logic. Common sense not in the philosophical sense of the word, but in our very general sense of the word. If I can relate with my Ram through love, if my Ram has no problem in talking to me with love, or through love, why the hell in this world can I not relate to my fellow human beings in the same way? That is the fundamental question Kabir poses to himself, that is the most fundamental question.


If you look at the work, it will be very, very difficult -- to my mind it will be impossible -- to make a distinction between a spiritual and political Kabir. Spiritual in the sense of adhyaatmik. When I say the word 'spiritual', please first translate that in your mind to Hindi, Sanskrit, Kannada, whatever, into adhyaatmik. Don’t take it in the sense in which it is used in contemporary English.


So this is, to my mind, my way of approaching Kabir, my way of reaching Kabir, that you cannot really make a distinction between spiritual and political, you cannot make a distinction between universal and specific. You can be conscious of the specific manifestations of the universal. You can be conscious of political moments. But you cannot say, like I find many of my friends telling me, that look here, we are interested in Kabir only so far as he is critical of Hindu bigotry or Muslim bigotry or of caste order or of Brahminism or of Brahmin supremacy and all that and the rest of Kabir we are not concerned with. Of course you can do that. I mean nobody can stop you from doing that but I think you would be doing a bit of injustice to the poetic praxis of Kabir.


Last point I would like to make is about this poetic praxis itself. You see we have to distinguish between those who want to use poetry or any creative expression in order to create a political message, and such people certainly have also created great poetry, no doubt about it. But then there are people whose political or social message is almost a by product of their poetic, their creative concerns. They are not doing it deliberately. They are not doing it with a kind of pre-determined agenda. Kabir is not criticizing all kinds of organized religions in order to create a religion himself, in order to create a separate panth himself.


As a student of history I have to say that Kabir's panth was established at least a hundred years after Kabir's death. Kabir never established a panth. In fact in one of the most moving biographies of Kabir written by Anantha Das at the turn of the sixteenth century, which is supposed to be the earliest biography of Kabir, Anantha Das records an incident which is indicative of Kabir's nature.


Because of his poetic performances and because, Anantha Das informs us, because of his miracles, Kabir became very popular, very revered in the city of Banaras and people used to throng his residence throughout the day, and he got fed up. He did not get sufficient time for his music and or for composing poetry or sufficient time for having dialogue with his Ram. He got fed up with the popularity. He was getting a lot of press, so he was not very happy with it. So, how to get rid of it?


Anantha Das informs us that Kabir took some water in a bottle and joined the company of the most famous, the most well-known prostitute of the town, took her around and wandered with her in the city of Banares throughout the day, behaving like a drunkard. By evening the entire town was convinced that he was a rascal not a godly man, and people stopped bothering Kabir and Kabir was extremely happy after that. So such a man is a most unlikely candidate for establishing a cult or a sect or whatever, and that is why to my mind he could speak the truth. You see I realized that if you are too popular you cannot speak the truth. If you have a following to maintain, then you cannot speak many truths. If you have a position to maintain you cannot speak many truths. I cannot speak many truths today, which I could have spoken two years before. It is as simple as that and Kabir realized it in his own way.


If you read Kabir as a poet you will realize that he talks about poetry himself. Updesh (teaching) is only a byproduct of his engagement with his Ram. He is basically trying to talk to his Ram. He is basically trying to live out his idea of love in his relationship with Ram and his relationship with the world. Whatever comes out has a certain component which is attractive to us because we are beset with some problems in which we find Kabir can be used as an associate or as a tool. Let me repeat I have nothing against that. My only point is that please do not reduce Kabir only to a social reformer or only to a prop in our political activity. Kabir is, and many poets for that matter are, much bigger and much more complex than that. Kabir makes some very interesting moral statements as well, which are the statements of his self-confidence and which are the statements of his method.


I would like to quote two sakhis. One is about his understanding of his poetry and his bhakti and his social location and his social vocation.


In one of the sakhis he says:


“Pinjar prem prakasheya, antar bhaya ujaas,
Mrig kasturi mahi base, bani phooti bas"

I had the illumination of love within and it illuminates my outside as well.
It makes my words, my poetry, as fragrant as musk.

“Pinjar prem prakasheya, antar bhaya ujaas,
Mrig kasturi mahi base, bani phooti bas"


So it is the love that makes it possible...


The second sakhi is about his notion of the relationship between him and his god. As you know we are supposed to follow god. We are supposed to worship god and we are supposed to placate god in many ways. Here is a person, who, in his very humble, confident and almost defiant way, says:


"Kabir man nirmal bhaya, jaise Ganga neer.
Peechhey laga Hari phire, kahat Kabir Kabir".

My mind has become as pure as the water of Ganga.
I do not go after God anymore, he comes after me.


I do not say 'Ram Ram!' or 'Hari Hari!' or 'Krishna Krishna!' or whatever. He says 'Kabir Kabir!' because I have turned my mind as pure as Ganga jal.

"Kabir man nirmal bhaya, jaise Ganga neer.
Peechhey laga Hari phire, kahat Kabir Kabir".


I have great faith that all of us, if we take it seriously and strive hard, I am absolutely sure, in personal as well as political terms of our life and activities, all of us can force God to follow after us. The only thing is that we turn our minds as pure as Ganga jal.


Ganga jal not of today, but of the fifteenth century...!