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Translator's Notes: “His death in Benares”

About Kabir, the facts are few, the legends many. He was born in Benares (now Varanasi) and lived in the fifteenth century, though opinion is divided whether it was in the first or the second half. From his poems we learn that he was a julaha, or weaver, his family perhaps having recently converted to Islam to escape its low status in the Hindu caste system. In several poems, Kabir speaks out against caste, as he does also, with as much vehemence, 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?

Kabir’s Muslim birth was something not liked by his Hindu followers, who, beginning around 1600, concocted legends to gloss over this uncomfortable fact. In one of them, he was a foundling, born to a Brahmin widow and raised in a Muslim household. Similarly, there are stories about his death. In the best-known one, after he died both Hindus and Muslims laid claim to his body. A quarrel broke out but when they lifted the shroud they saw instead of the corpse a heap of flowers. The two communities divided the flowers and performed Kabir’s last rites, each according to its custom.

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.

The Kabir songs have come down to us in essentially three groups of texts. They are the Bijak or “eastern” tradition, the Rajasthani or “western” tradition, and the Punjabi tradition centered around the Adi Granth, the sacred book of the Sikhs. Kabir may never have traveled outside Benares, but his songs certainly did. To further complicate matters, the Rajasthani manuscripts come in different recensions, so the same song can appear in more than one version. As it passed from singer to singer, the song kept changing, as is the case with blues.

Outside the work done by or commissioned by colonial administrators, some of the earliest English translations of Kabir were made by Ezra Pound. They were based on literal versions supplied by one of Rabindranath Tagore’s young Bengali friends, Kali Mohan Ghose, and published in the Modern Review (Calcutta) in June 1913. The following year Tagore brought out his own One Hundred Poems of Kabir, which became the basis of several European- and Asian- language translations of Kabir as well as of Robert Bly’s reworkings. Both Ghose’s literal version and Tagore’s translation were made from Kshiti Mohan Sen’s Kabir compilation of 1910-11. It gave the Hindi originals along with their Bengali paraphrase. In 1945, in one of the Pisan cantos, Pound recalled his London years: “Thus saith Kabir: ‘Politically’ said Rabindranath.”

Subsequent scholarship has shown that of the 341 poems in Sen, only three are in the pre-1700 manuscripts. And even they are likely to have been composed by someone other than Kabir. An authentic Kabir poem, in the thousands attributed to him, may never be found, nor does it matter. If you catch the spirit, anyone can write an authentic Kabir poem. Innumerable anonymous poets have done so in the past and continue to do so even today, adding their voices to his. A researcher in Rajasthan in the nineties looking for Kabir songs in the oral tradition came across one that used a railway metaphor and English words like “engine,” “ticket,” and “line.” Asked how Kabir could have known these words, the singer replied that Kabir, being a seer, knew everything. In “To tonsured monks,” too, Kabir knows everything, including a Jamaican sect and the name of a London publishing house. — akm

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This poem originally appeared in the March 2011 issue of Poetry magazine

March 2011

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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