Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Kabir and his Rama

The poet Kabir deserves to be counted alongside Rumi and Julian of Norwich as one of the greatest mystics of the last millennium. From the fifteenth century onward, his Hindustani-language poetry has resonated across north India, where verses and phrases from the corpus of poems attributed to him are known to just about everybody. Kabir’s power derives from a syncretic, independent-minded reading of God and religion, particularly Hinduism and Islam, that is not only compelling on its own terms but has proved ideologically useful for modern liberal projects like the secular Indian republic. That power can best be experienced in a slim book of translations by the Indian poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra.

Kabir was a low-caste Muslim weaver who was born and lived all his life in the holy city and bustling metropolis of Banaras (now Varanasi). He stands in Indian literary history at the center of an enduring religious and philosophical movement called bhakti, which stresses transcendent spiritual devotion without distracting rituals and doctrine.

Many translations of his work into English exist, from the slightly orotund, Victorian versions composed by the Bengali Nobel poet-laureate Rabindranath Tagore in the early 20th century to the Americanized versions in the 1980s produced by the poet Robert Bly. But Kabir’s famed iconoclasm, speed of thought, slashing paradoxical style, metaphorical zest and rhetorical brilliance have rarely been rendered into English better than in Mehrotra’s versions.

Kabir is that rare thing: a skeptical, disillusioned poet who nevertheless speaks in a voice of rapture and entrancement. His work can be situated within a long tradition of Hindu thought that asks penetrating questions about the nature of perception, and insists that what we think we know through our senses about the nature of reality is merely maya or illusion. Or, as he says in a poem not included in this collection, “The knowledge that knows what knowledge is:/ That’s the knowledge that’s mine.”

Here is one of his sallies upon the subject in Mehrotra’s brief, bleak and astringent rendition:
The mind’s a shortchanging
Huckster with a crafty
Wife and five
Scoundrel children.
It won’t change its ways.
The mind’s a knot, says Kabir
Not easy to untie.
The mind’s “wife” here is the body, the “scoundrel children” the five senses. Mehrotra’s cunning deployment of enjambment—the breaking of a phrase or sentence across a poetic line—propels us from one line to the next, re-enacting, in the four-line opening sentence, the way the mind pieces together the meaning of the world from the messages of the senses, before knocking it out with the clean, flat declaration of the line that follows.

Mehrotra is one of those translators who is not just a facilitator of the original, but almost a competitor. His use of the unclassical and perhaps anachronistic word “huckster” shows us both what he takes from and brings to Kabir’s poetry, which is to allow his own poetic mind to take off from the basic message and conceptual frame of Kabir’s Hindi lines, without hankering after a word-for-word fidelity. At many points in this book his use of a clipped, colloquial idiom (“Friend/ You had one life/ And you blew it”; or “I’ve taken a shine to this thug”) perfectly realizes Kabir’s tart message. Mehrotra’s bucking, slangy versions attempt ambitiously to make Kabir sound in English as Kabir must have sounded to the Hindustani audiences of his day.

To those audiences, Kabir’s verse must have come as a jolt. Like Socrates or Thoreau, Kabir delights in asking questions from first principles. He is the scourge of what one might call metaphysical preening, of the certainties that on closer examination turn out to be hollow. This is especially powerful when Kabir applies it to the grand social distinctions of medieval Indian society—like the caste system—that under the light of his corrosive intelligence seem trivial.

In the first of a series of rebukes to yogic practice, he says, “If going naked/ Brought liberation/ The deer of the forest/ Would attain it first.” To Brahmins, the self-appointed elite of the caste system, he asks, “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?”

Here he is, mocking those who are always speaking of salvation:
Let’s go!
Everyone keeps saying,
As if they knew where paradise is,
But ask them what lies beyond
The street they live on,
They’ll give you a blank look.
The booming opening line seems ever more ironic when found reduced to the “blank look” of the close.

Although Kabir frequently chastises the godly, it is not that he is godless. Rather, the God that he believed in was—to use the majestic phrase of one of his other translators, Vinay Dharwadker—“the God beyond God.” In his poems he frequently enjoins his auditors to cast away the masquerades of conventional belief and to put their faith in “Rama.” But this Rama is not the historical prince of the Ramayana epic or the idealized Hindu god of many attributes who derives from that epic.

Rama, in Kabir’s verse, is rather the luminous personal god within each man, who becomes available once he learns how to go beyond the colorful constructs of the human religious imagination and “open the inward eye.” Mehrotra’s rousing versions perfectly capture the message, at once sardonic and ecstatic, of a great poet who insists that “Looking heavenwards/ For heaven is to look/ In the wrong direction.”

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