Turn Me to Gold: 108 Poems of Kabir (1) is a beautiful book, and the fruit of “five years spent in the unremitting presence of Kabir”. For Andrew Harvey, “Kabir is far more than a poet; he is a universal initiatory field, as expansive as Rumi and as embodied, radical and ferocious as Jesus”. Harvey himself is more than a translator, working with his “whole mind, heart and body on breathing and living his words, the fierce temperature of his truth” and speaking of his own work as “strange, precise” and “ecstatic”. I do not think of this post as an attempted book review, since both Kabir and Harvey are asking to be met rather than evaluated. Rather, I am attempting an act of recognition.
I have written about Kabir’s work before in this blog. In the past I have used other translations (2,3), particularly Robert Bly’s. Having now read Harvey’s work, I am clear that it would now be my first port of call when engaging with Kabir, whilst retaining my respect for the other translations and feeling glad to have them. When a text from another language, culture and time is important to me, I like to have multiple translations. Turn Me to Gold has the additional merit of Brett Hurd’s accompanying photographs of modern Varanasi.
A weaver by trade but a poet-singer by calling, Kabir lived in the Varanasi (Benares) of the fifteenth century. His philosophy incorporated various beliefs of both Muslims and Hindus and later became one of the major influences behind Sikhism. Like Rumi, further to the west and generations earlier, he followed a devotional and ecstatic path, and like Rumi he tried to be a bridge builder between traditions. His work, written as songs for public performance with musical accompaniment, was enduringly popular, surviving in late manuscripts from different parts of India, which show modification over time by the region, religion and caste position of generations of listeners. Kabir experienced himself as filled with the Divine, simply, directly and completely, and so was not a friend of religious formalism or extreme practices done for their own sake:
“I’m not in austerities, not in meditation,
Not in feasts, not in fasts,
Not in rituals laid down in sacred texts,
Not in yogic exercises –
Look for Me with passionate sincerity,
I’ll be beside you immediately.
Kabir says; Listen to Me –
Where your deepest faith is, I am.
Kabir had no truck with waiting for an afterlife: “everyone says they’re going to ‘Heaven. Where this ‘Heaven’ is, I don’t know … As long as you look for ‘Heaven’, you’ll never find your home’. To come alive, spiritual experience needs to be present and embodied:
“More than anything else
I cherish at heart,
What in this world
Makes me live
A limitless life”.
That sense of living a “limitless life” in “this world” connects Kabir’s poetic witness to my own contemplative inquiry, helping to enrich its purpose and meaning. I am a modern Druid, more Universalist than Pagan, and I have been concerned, though active, practical inquiry, to craft a practice that I call ‘contemplative’. But this identification, socially useful as it is, dissolves within the molten core of the practice itself. I do not have quite the sense of personified divinity that Kabir and Harvey do, but I have what I imagine to be the cognate experience of at-homeness in the flowing moment. In practice terms, this is represented in the “peace” at the centre of my circle, which I describe further as “the bubbling source from which I spring and heart of living presence”. This is an energised, dynamic and joyful peace, not a calm or static one. Such a peace, for me, is a taste of limitless life in this world. I find it hard to talk or write about – the words keep going subtly wrong for me. Kabir and Harvey use the language of love, and perhaps they are right. This peace is an aspect of love.
“You can’t tell
The story of love.
Not a word of it
Has ever been told.
A dumb man
Eats a sweet
And smiles for joy.”
(1) Kabir Turn Me To Gold: 1018 poems of Kabir Unity Village, MO: Unity Books, 2018 Translations by Andrew Harvey Photographs by Brett Hurd.
(2) Kabir Ecstatic Poems Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1992 English versions by Robert Bly
(3) Kabir Songs of Kabir New York, NY: MacMillan, 1915 Translated by Rabindranath Tagore, assisted by Evelyn Underhill