By Ratna Raman
The Vision of Wisdom
Kabir: Selected Sakhis
New Delhi, 2020.
Price Rs 295
It was a pleasure to read Chandan Sinha’s translation of Kabir’s dohas into English. This labour of love provides a significant illustration of not only how language is a means of ordinary communication, but also that the ideas expressed in one language promote and enrich our understanding of deeper human truths when translated into another.
Chandan Sinha graduated with an honours in English literature, continued to hone his reading in Kabir’s tongue and struck a deep acquaintance with the metric feet of the sakhis, or couplets. Absorbed, working with the couplets, he chose to share his learning through an English rendering of Kabir’s verse. Sinha retains the form of the couplet and metrical basis, along with meaning and rhyme — a very difficult feat to achieve in translation in English wherein modern verse has left behind rhyme and metrical feet. Kabir himself is a poet who sets difficult blueprints with his nimble, direct, colloquial verse.
In Kabir’s couplets, the whore who takes many lovers is supposedly barren and in darkness, and
comparable to the person who worships false gods. Similarly, anyone who does not worship the true lord
and runs after others is like the son of a whore who has no knowledge of his father. The whore and her
offspring, denied any kind of fecundity or imminence, remain unworthy seekers for all time.
Through this important intervention, Sinha’s book demonstrates that languages seamlessly graft and share ideas and cultural values. In times when teachers of literature and language witness the continued reduction of language to mere functionality, alongside sustained attempts to do away with one language or the other by trigger-happy political factions in power, nuanced translations give the lie to such parochial assumptions and add to the life-blood of connectivity between scripts and tongues.
Sinha’s rendering of the sakhis explore their value as couplets as bearing witness (sakshi); but, it is also possible, given the conversational mode of address in the couplet, to include the Sanskrit word sakhi, from the root sakhya (which means female friend), into our discussion. In couplets that are conversational, Kabir addresses his would be listener, involving him/her in the discussion, occasionally pronouncing that he, ‘Kabira’, felt a particular way about a particular issue.
Locating Kabir as a Bhakti poet in North India, Sinha traces the tradition of Bhakti poetry from the 7th century CE when it gained momentum in South India and made its way to the North in the subsequent centuries. Centuries of the development of Bhakti poetry provide evidence of how religious poetry, once at the apex of elite cultures, began to move in the direction of shared folk traditions. From the temples and hallowed Brahminical sites, the music seeped into the world of a weaver, Kabir, whose community was not counted among the privileged.
Both language and context change as Kabir, speaking from a different social space, explores the possibilities of a spiritual life through conversations around God, maya, egotism, anger, pride, insensitivity, good and evil, sin and such like events and incidents that frame human life as we know it.
Kabir communicated the truths he discovered by drawing upon the commonplace images of the world he inhabited. Preserving the directness of the sakhis, Sinha’s translations in the book have been divided into 21 thematic sections wherein he has collated popular verses that address the core of Kabir’s philosophic thought.
Take for instance the lines, “Hell I will accept — of it I have no fear:/But heaven: I don’t want it without you, dear.”
Indeed, this could be Emily Dickinson speaking, in another country in a later time, the nuanced, deeply felt and articulated conviction is one commonality that their work shares.
Take for instance the lines, “Hell I will accept — of it I have no fear:/But heaven: I don’t want it without you, dear.” Indeed, this could be Emily Dickinson speaking, in another country in a later time, the nuanced, deeply felt and articulated conviction is one commonality that their work shares.
A cautionary warning is enclosed within two pithy lines: “Wisps of grass beneath the feet — careful, do not disdain;/If one falls into the eye, it causes grievous pain.”
Yet again, the straggling wayfarer’s attention is drawn to the relentlessness of mortality: “Time the termite, diligently feeds on our frame of wood. Death’s inside our body. Why can’t this be understood?”
Most memorable and poignant is the moment when the wet clay voices its own anguish, chiding the potter: “Clay cries out to the potter, ‘Why quash me with your feet?/A day will come when I shall trample you beneath!’ ”
KABIR DRAWS IMAGES from the ordinary, familiar world that he inhabits and turns them into symbols, and, therefore, his verse remains accessible. His arguments and the connections he seeks to make are easy to understand, and they effectively drive home the point he wishes to put forward.
Kabir dismisses the world of privileged piety, declaring that ostentation and ritualistic incantations will not bring anyone closer to God — who, being nirguna, or, without qualities, recognizes integrity and sincere devotion, and can certainly see through posturing. So, for the unassuming bhakta, with little or no access to ostentatious means of showing devotion, Kabir lays emphasis on the need to develop a rich inner life, proffering through anecdotes and examples, and suggestions for achieving the same.
Stressing on the imperative to abandon egotism, Kabir declares, “ ‘I’-‘I’ is a dreadful curse, if you can –just disappear…/For how long can you pack fire in cotton wool, my dear?”
Speaking volumes, the couplets have travelled great distances from their original contexts. Kabir’s vision continues to inform and illuminate, despite the difference of the centuries, and the newness of the climate from the times that he lived and spoke in. Sinha points out that his wisdom has been so well integrated into our cultural fabric that several couplets that have not been traced back to Kabir, continue to be attributed to him. Over 500 odd years, several Kabirs have been grafted on to the persona of the low-caste weaver from somewhere near Benaras.
Insightful and radical as most of the verse is, one wonders occasionally at the analogy of the date palm that is labeled too tall to provide accessible fruit or abundant shade to the weary traveller. Such dismissal of the hapless palm tree and its transformation into a symbol of unyielding human arrogance, although unfair to the tree, is very much part of the patriarchal oeuvre in several religious traditions.
Jesus, on encountering the absence of fruit when he wanted some, cursed a species of fig to perpetual barrenness. Such dismissal often times extends to women as well.
Indeed, Adi Shankara in the Bhaja Govindam upholds the chanting of the Lord’s name, reiterating that the spiritual seeker must shun female breasts and navels and view them as repulsive meat.
In Kabir’s couplets, the whore who takes many lovers is supposedly barren and in darkness, and comparable to the person who worships false gods. Similarly, anyone who does not worship the true lord and runs after others is like the son of a whore who has no knowledge of his father. The whore and her offspring, denied any kind of fecundity or imminence, remain unworthy seekers for all time.
While fraternity and equality are extended to the ordinary person and enable the questioning of extant hierarchies in caste, religion and class, gender rights continue to remain irrelevant, from the start to the end of the male bhakti traditions and beyond. Women seem to continue existing outside the pale of spiritual lives, in spite of the presence of the Marys’, Magdalenes or otherwise, notwithstanding gritty female seekers such as Andaal, Akka Mahadevi and Meerabai.
As female readers, the closest women get to Kabir is when he draws attention to diurnal activities, and objects and accessories in daily use. By far, women’s alleviation is subsumed under the rubric of alleviating human discomfort in an illusory, unequal world.