‘Kabir, Kabir: The life and work of the early modern poet-philosopher’ review: The plurality of an early mystic

The repetition of Kabir’s name in the title of Purushottam Agrawal’s Kabir, Kabir, The life and work of the early modern poet-philosopher, perhaps comes from the epigraph, a couplet by the 15th-16th century mystic: “I have made my mind as pure as Ganga water,/ Hari follows after, calling out ‘Kabir, Kabir’.” But that would be a simplistic way to explain the plurality that defines Kabir.

A difficult task

Who was this poet, a weaver from Kashi who lived an extraordinarily ordinary life? There is no singular answer to this. Was he Hindu or Muslim? Did he try to establish a new religion or sect? Who was Kabir’s Ram, the crown prince of Ayodhya or eternal consciousness? What was the essence of the Bhakti Kabir preached and what were his views on death and moksha (salvation). Though his couplets are widely quoted and his bhajans are sung across the country, understanding Kabir and his message is not an easy task.

Drawing from several references and his scholarship on Kabir, Professor Agrawal’s book throws light on different facets on each of these complex subjects in great detail. The book points out that Kabir’s worldview does not easily fit into any of the six philosophical systems of the Vedic tradition, nor with Buddhism and Jainism. “Kabir takes all these aspects of Nirgun bhakti to great heights. He articulates his longing for God while showing the moral courage to take on scholars and religious authorities on their versions and interpretations of the ‘laws of god’,” Agrawal writes. Kabir’s rejection of caste hierarchies is discussed at length.

Another recurrent theme in the book is the centrality of Ram in Kabir’s Bhakti, not as an incarnation of Vishnu and the crown prince of Ayodhya but as an intimate and soothing name given to cosmic consciousness. Ram is Kabir’s favourite name for the innermost spiritual experience.

Kabir’s Ram

“With the help of Narada bhakti sutras, we can guess why the name Ram is so crucial to Kabir.... Kabir’s Ram is at the core of his love, longing and emotions; Ram is the source of vivek (wisdom),” Agrawal writes.

The book also provides a glimpse of the times in which Kabir lived. Through the lens of Kabir and a few other poets, Agrawal raises the question whether Europe was the sole inventor and exporter of modernity.

There are also interesting anecdotes about Kabir’s life. His mother led a delegation to Sikandar Lodhi (1489-1517) to file an official complaint about Kabir’s activities. When a bemused Sikandar asks the petitioners in what way had the weaver harmed the people, their answer is blunt: “He has dared to tread a new path. He has discarded the ways of Islam and does not care for Hindu traditions.... He has corrupted so many people. He is neither a Hindu nor a Muslim.”

Devdutt Pattanaik embellishes the book with illustrations. In the introduction, he also exhorts readers to enjoy the several ‘Kabirs’ presented in the book. Kabir is not only one of the greatest early modern poets but his philosophy is so profound that it accepts yet rejects all the existing traditions. In the present times when religion and faith is being tailored to a one-size-fits- all notion, and where differences of views are not welcome, this book is an eye-opener about the multiplicity of all religions and faith.

Kabir, Kabir: The life and work of the early modern poet-philosopher; Purushottam Agrawal, Westland Books, ₹599.

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Printable version | Jan 27, 2022 12:47:49 AM |

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