Reading Kabir: A Short History

Reading Kabir: A Short History

by Anshu Tandon - Friday, June 24, 2016 06:13 PM IST
Reading Kabir: A Short HistoryKabir 
  • A brief account of the efforts to compile, verify and interpret Kabir from the beginning of the twentieth century till present day

Pt. Kumar Gandharva has sung many a Kabir bhajan, like

Nirbhay Nirgun gun re gaoonga

(Fearless, formless, That’s the form I’ll sing, yes, I’ll sing, I’ll sing!) or,

Naiharwa Hamka na bhawe

(I don’t feel right in my parent’s place)

It is significant that not just the above two verses but most of Kabir that Kumar ji has sung is not to be found in any of the compilations of Kabir works. That defines, for the uninitiated, the single biggest difficulty one would encounter while beginning to work on the weaver-poet-philosopher—which is the authentic Kabir ?

Where be the real Kabir?

It is a sacrosanct belief among the followers of Kabir that he had composed 6,96,000 Ramaini (a form of Hindi verse). The corollary is that all of these were committed to memory because it was sacrilegious to write them down. It is rumoured that Kabir himself was unlettered and never wrote down any of his sayings:

Masi kagad chhuyo nahin, Kalam gahyo nahin haath

(Never touched ink or paper because the hand never picked up a pen.)

In the above perspective, a skeptic may pose a question on the huge body of work but the followers regard Kabir’s word not as poetry but as Swayam Ved. They also maintain that Kabir is not the name of a particular person but of a transcendental thought that runs through time. Interestingly, H.H. Wilson, in A Sketch of Religious Sects of Hindus, 1828, echoes the same when he remarks that Kabir is not the name of a particular person but a generic word, an honorific. Garcia De Tasi resonated the same thoughts in 1839 when he noted that there were serious doubts about the authenticity of the literature attributed to Kabir simply because there was so much of it.

From the beginning of the twentieth century when the first serious efforts started to compile authenticated works of Kabir and till the 1980s when one of the last authoritative compilations was published, researchers have accessed around 190 manuscripts from Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab, Chhattisgarh, UP, Bihar and Odisha. It is as if, even as one would sit down to start working on Kabir with collected material, a new manuscript would be laid in front of him to start the authentication afresh. No wonder Kabir said:

Hum na Marai Marihai Sansaara, Humko mila jiyawanhara

(The world shall die, not I, because I have found the one who will keep me alive forever.)

The forms of Kabir

Technically, the works of Kabir are available in three styles : Ramaini, Saakhi and Sabad.

Ramaini, technically is a verse in Hindi of “sixteen counts”. However, in Kabir literature, the word Ramaini is also used to denote those verses where the Creation of this universe and the interaction of Jeev with Maya in this physical world is discussed.

The word Saakhi originates from Sanskrit saakshi: witness. In Kabir literature Saakhi is used to denote those sayings that record the observed phenomena. Significantly, all Saakhi are composed in the Doha verse (of two lines).

Sabad originates from Sanskrit shabd. The word Sabad has been consciously used by Kabir followers to denote those sayings of Kabir which they regard as sacred as the Vedas. Sabad is also used as a synonym for praman: proof. Last but not least, Sabad is also a synonym for the Deeksha Mantra handed over by a guru to his shishya (disciple).

Most of the Saakhi are in the khari boli dialect of Hindi, Sabad are in Braj, and Ramaini are either in the Awadhi or Poorvi dialect. Add to this the fact that all three forms are replete with words from various regions.

A history of searching, locating and verifying

The first serious effort to compile the works of Kabir was done by H.H. Wilson in 1903. But the credit of publishing the first work in English on Kabir would go to Westcott who published his work in 1907.

Possibly somewhere around this, time Acharya Kshitimohan Sen of Vishwabharti, Shanti Niketan, published his collection of Kabir verses in Bangla. He drew on the Kabir verses prevalent in the vocal tradition and not on any manuscript. This work greatly affected one of the greatest literary minds of the time, Rabindranath Tagore; so much so that he translated a 100 verses from it. These were published in 1914 in London as One Hundred Poems of Kabir. Tagore maintained that Kabir appeared to be a modern poet and not a medieval one.

Sometime later in 1916, Ayodhya Singh Upadhyay Hariaudh’s Kabir Rachnawali was published by Kashi Nagari Pracharini Sabha. For this work Hariaudh mostly used the Guru Granth Sahib. Incidentally, after Guru Nanak Dev, it is Kabir to whom the highest number of verses are attributed to in the Granth Sahib.

However, the first effort to compile Kabir’s works with an academic approach was done by Babu Shyam Sundar Das whose compilation Kabir Granthawali was published in 1928 by Nagari Pracharini Sabha. This comprised 809 Saakhi, 403 Sabad and 7 Ramaini. The annexures had another 192 Saakhi and 222 Sabad.

This work, however, left another literary critic and a giant of Hindi literature of the times, Dr. Ram Kumar Varma extremely dissatisfied. In his assessment, too many Punjabi words in the verses challenged the authenticity of them. He then set about to do his own compilation with the help of around 85 manuscripts. Ironically, the compilation he published in 1943 depended mostly on the Guru Granth Sahib itself because he regarded it as as the most authentic compilation of Kabir’s work.

The next serious effort was done by Dr. Parasnath Tiwari in his Ph.D. thesis Kabir Granthawali for which he used around 73 manuscripts comprising 1600 Sabad, 4500 Saakhi and 134 Ramaini.

Interestingly, Dr. Mata Prasad Gupt, the research supervisor of Dr. Tiwari, was dissatisfied with the work of his student. In his estimation, the oldest and best preserved sources were not used. He then published his own compilation based on a manuscript available at the K.M. Munshi Vidyapeeth in Agra University. This was reputed to be the oldest authentic Kabir manuscript. However, his work greatly resembled of that of Babu Shyam Sundar Das.

Incidentally, Dr. Parasnath Tiwari gives a list of 32 manuscripts of Bijak. But their content was not used as he didn’t consider them to be authentic.

What of the Bijak?

A word here about Bijak. The word Bijak in Hindi means a document detailing hidden treasure. Among Kabir followers Bijak is that compilation which is shared only with the initiated because it contains pearls of wisdom. Almost all Kabir maths spread across the subcontinent have one version or the other of Bijak. But till the time of Dr. Parasnath Tiwari, their content remained untouched. Significantly, a British sociologist, William Crook, writing in 1896 was forced to take note of Bijak’s popularity which he found was second only to Tulsi’s Ramcharitamanas.

It was Dr. Shukdev Singh who did pioneering work in digging out various Bijak, especially the one of the Bhagtahi Panth based in Bihar. No wonder, he published his work as Kabir Bijak.

One the latest and significant compilations of Kabir was published in 1981 by Jaidev Singh and Vasudev Singh. Although they drew upon previous published works, they contributed to the study of Kabir by comparing similar verses found in various recensions and categorising them in order of authenticity based on the socio-economic and historical contexts.

The importance of Pt. Hazari Prasad Dwivedi

Even as scholars were grappling to appropriately categorise Kabir and his works, one of the best known literary critic of his times, and also the head of the Hindi department at the Banaras Hindu University, Prof. Ramchandra Shukla, was firm in his opinion that Kabir was a saint, great one, undoubtedly, but he failed to make the cut as the poet. It is also rumoured that it was this intellectual positioning which prompted him to reject Pt. Hazari Prasad Dwivedi’s admission into BHU as faculty. Pt. Dwivedi would later establish himself as one of the greatest scholars of Hindi of the twentieth century.

His critical study, published as Kabir, defined and delineated the Kabir that we know today. Undoubtedly, Pt. Dwivedi would have imbibed his love for Kabir from Tagore during his stint at Shanti Niketan.

So, it would come as no surprise that in his compilation of Kabir verses Dwivediji used the same 100 verses of Kshitimohan Sen that Tagore had used. Significantly, these 100 verses present a joyous, unpretentious Kabir, of which other compilers were unaware.

Balam Aao Humare Geh re, Tum bin dukhiya deh re …

ab to Behaal Kabir Bhaye hain, Bin dekhe jiu jaye re

(Oh husband come to my house, the body is sad without you …

Kabir’s condition is now critical, he may lose his life without seeing you.)

Tor Heera Hirayal ba Kichare mein,

Koi dhoondhe Poorab koi dhoondhe Pachchhim,

Koi Dhoondhe Paani Pathre mein

Daas Kabir ye heera ko parkhey,

Bandh lihelaa Jeeyar ke Anchare mein

(You have lost your diamond in trash,

Some search for it in the east,

Some search for it in the west,

Some search for it among pebbles and puddles,

Kabir knows the value of diamond,

So he has kept it safe in the nook of his heart.)

Kabir has immense following, is much quoted by the common man and is revered by the intelligentsia. However, till Dwivediji’s work came out, he was just an icon and not a historical personality, so to speak. It was Pt.Dwivedi, who established the historical Kabir and helped us better understand the stimulations and inspirations of the man. It was he who went beyond the legend of Kabir and Ramananda on the ghats of Varanasi to establish the umbilical cord that connects Kabir to the Nath and Siddha traditions, which preceded Kabir by a few centuries and had as many adherents at that time as Kabir has today.

Kabir on stage

It was only by 1980 that the theatre world applied itself to the opportunities that Kabir offered. Mani Madhukar’s Iktare Ki Aankh could have preceded Bhishma Sahni’s Kabira Khara Bazaar Mein by just a year or so. However, one of the most popular and most staged work on Kabir is a mono-act by Sekhar Sen, which has to its credit a few hundred performances.

Kabir and Kumar Gandharva

Any scholar of Kabir would concur that Kabir is one poet who should be listened to more than read. Feelings are mutated by the time they become thoughts and thoughts are in turn poorly represented by words. But all such limitations disappear when a singer like Pt. Kumar Gandharva sings those words. The listener would encounter the same intense feelings that would have stimulated Kabir.

Pt. Kumar Gandharva though, would have been the first to point out that he never sang Kabir. For, he had imbibed the technique of mendicants, traditional singers of Nirgun, whom he first heard in a Kabir math at Dewas, while recuperating from a life-threatening disease. These mendicants, he would point out, did not sing the notes. They would toss them into the ether.

Thus, he would capture the imagination of audience each time he would perform Kabir. Today in his absence, one of the most evocative interpretations of Kabir would go to the credit of Prahlad Singh Tipaniya, a traditional Kabir singer from the Malwa region in Madhya Pradesh. Interestingly, his village Lunia Khedi is around 40 kilometers from Dewas.

However, most of what Kumarji was singing was unavailable in any of the published compilations. It would be a few decades before Linda Hess, a scholar in the department of religious studies at Stanford University would take up collation of Kabir available in the oral tradition. In this effort, till date, she has published Singing Emptiness and Bodies of Song.

A few thousand books cannot explain the Kabir which is available in a few hundred verses. A start could be made with this verse from Linda Hess’ Singing Emptiness. One could classify the piece as Nirgun, bhajan or a folk song or as Kabir could have meant it, which could be all of the above:

Ramaiya ki dulhin loota bazaar ji,

Surpur loota naagpur loota teen lok macha hahakaar,

Brahma loote Mahadev loote Narad muni ke pari pichhar ji

Shringi ki mingi kar dali, Parasar ke udar vidar,

Kan phooka chir Kashi Loote, Loote Jogeshar karat vichar ji,

Ham to bachige sahib daya se, Shabd dor gahi utare parr,

Kahat Kabira suno bhai sadhu is thagani se raho husiyar ji

Ram’s bride has looted the market.

She looted the cities of gods and snakes,

Looted the three worlds, making a racket,

Looted Brahma, Shiva, the great sage Narad,

Put Shringi in his place, ripped Parashar’s belly.

Looted Kashi with a whisper long ago.

After thinking about it, she looted

The lord of yogis.

I escaped by the lord’s grace, got across

On the cord of the word.

Kabir says listen friends, seekers,

When that swindler comes,

stay awake.

Anshu Tandon is a theatre director and playwright based in Lucknow. 

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