I read the songs of Kabir, partly for their power and beauty, partly for their touching humanity and partly to learn something as a contemplative practitioner. The songs themselves, according to John Stratton Hawley, have survived in late manuscripts from different parts of India, modified over time by the region, religion and caste position of their listeners. When it comes to translation, Hawley notes that Robert Bly presents a Kabir who stands for self-reliance (like Emerson), principled disobedience (like Thoreau) “and a set of practices that honors the meeting of mind and body and celebrates the intense emotions that connect them (like Bly himself?)”
So I feel I’m in good company when putting two songs together in a way that makes the second answer the first, in the pursuit of my own inquiry. It’s about this: how do I avoid the trap of working on my small personal narcissism only to embed a larger spiritual narcissism?
Here is the first, scene-setting song.
Friend, please tell me what I can do about this world
I hold to, and keep spinning out!
I gave up sewn clothes, and wore a robe,
But I noticed one day the cloth was well woven.
So I bought some burlap, but I still
Throw it elegantly over my left shoulder.
I pulled back my sexual longings,
And now discover that I’m angry a lot.
I gave up rage, and now I notice
That I am greedy all day.
I worked hard at dissolving the greed
And now I am proud of myself.
When the mind wants to break its link to the world
It still holds on to one thing.
Kabir says: Listen my friend,
There are very few that find the path.
Here, in the second poem, I find a way through – by not going anywhere. I read the “wanting-creature” below to be bound up in ‘Spiritual’ wanting, rather than the average sensual kind.
I said to the wanting-creature inside me:
What is this river you want to cross?
There are no travellers on the river-road, and no road.
Do you see anyone moving about on that bank, or resting?
There is no river at all, and no boat, and no boatman.
There is no tow rope either, and no one to pull it.
There is no ground, no sky, no time, no bank, no ford!
And there is no body, and no mind!
Do you believe that there is some place that will make the soul less thirsty?
In that great absence you will find nothing.
Be strong then, and enter into your own body;
There you have a solid place for your feet.
Think about it carefully!
Don’t go off somewhere else!
Kabir says this: just throw away all thoughts of imaginary things,
And stand firm in that which you are.
Kabir Ecstatic poems Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1992 (The English translations are free enough for Robert Bly to call them ‘versions by Robert Bly’. There is an earlier set of translations published by MacMillan in New York in 1915 by Rabindranath Tagore assisted by Evelyn Underhill under the title Songs of Kabir. Whilst I don’t follow Bly in calling the English of the earlier work “useless”, I do find that Bly’s interpretation has more passion and power. The Bly work includes an insightful afterword Kabir and the transcendental Bly by John Stratton Hawley).