LETTERS FROM AROUND THE WORLD
Poetry of Kabir
In love’s narrow street, two makes a crowd,
Will God pass here, where ‘I’ stand proud?
Translated by Vibhas Tattu
Kabir was an Indian poet and philosopher in the Sufi tradition. Although not much is known about Kabir, scholars agree about certain broad aspects of his life. Kabir was born into a so called ‘lower caste’ of weavers who earned their livelihood by weaving shawls and clothes on handlooms. It is believed that Kabir was born around 1215 CE and lived to a ripe old age of eighty. Some traditions place Kabir’s life at 120 years. While Kabir was a married man and a weaver, he was probably not formally schooled. The privilege of education, in those times, was restricted to the elite caste of Hindu Brahmins.
Nonetheless Kabir composed many songs and poems and also ‘dohas’ or couplets (a sort of haiku poem with twenty syllables in two-lines). Legend has it that he sang his songs and his couplets into the eventide of sundown, as he weaved outside his cottage, and so gathered followers around him. Generations of his followers – Hindu and Muslim – (“kabir panthis”, as they are called) have preserved for posterity the body of his work.
Much has been said and written about Kabir’s profound devotion to God, his deep understanding of Godliness. We are told that Kabir was a maverick and had scant respect for both Hinduism and Islam, two mainstay religions then in India. Through his poems and dohas, he has given incisive commentary on the ignorance and hypocrisy of organized religious orders and rites then prevalent.
Although he lived in Banares – the Vatican for Hindus – he castigated the Hindu Brahmins for their mindless rituals and hypocritical ways. This cynicism, which almost defined Kabir and ostracized him from the mainstream, has been much publicized by critics and followers alike. Others have waxed lyrical about the all encompassing philosophy that Kabir expounds in his works. Volumes have been written about the meanings of his many dohas, his mystic songs, and his love of God and his deep insight into the human mind. Much has been made about his meditation technique – which he called called “sahaj samadhi” (casual meditation). Kabir is difficult to comprehend because of his subtle insights and his reverse logic (e.g. in one couplet Kabir actually asks God to pray for him!) But his poetry is profound and stirring. He is regarded by many as no less than a Sufi saint, savant and seer.
However an aspect of Kabir which seems to have received less attention than it deserves is the poetic quality of his work. This is perhaps natural since Kabir’s work is deeply philosophical and mystical in nature and it is difficult not to get swept away by the sheer force of his spiritual argument. However, a significant part of Kabir’s appeal is the basic poetry which frames the spiritual content of Kabir’s message.
You will hardly find any concept in Kabir’s poetry which did not pre-exist in some form or other for instance in scriptures such as the Bhagwad Gita or the Patanjali Yoga Sutras, the Upanishads or Vedas. The ideas he expressed were perhaps not altogether original – but they were expressed in a most powerful and original manner. The medium he used – the two line couplets and the very expressive metaphors he used in them – defines Kabir’s message. Succinctness is the source of his success and the key to his enduring appeal through the centuries.
Kabir’s words encompassed all of life, love, God, and humanity’s eternal quest for meaning, for peace and happiness. It is said that brevity is the soul of wit. If this is true, then it would be difficult to surpass Kabir’s dohas whose two-line messages are at once so simple and so striking. One would be hard pressed to find any other example in world literature where pith and poetry have been so condensed to deliver such a very compelling impact on the reader. The only other example I know, where a ‘couplet’ has been used very effectively is the case of Urdu shayiri. However Urdu shayiri is romantic in genre and is hardly ever spiritual, though, in various instances, it can tend to be philosophical.
Generally speaking, any well-written poem has its own beat or rhythm, its own throb, its own speed and pulsation. That is part of what makes a poem beautiful, and also what differentiates it from prose. It is not just the rhyme or the words. In fact what we as readers instinctively respond to, without always realizing it, is this internal rhythm of a poem.
In quite the same vein – every Doha has its own beat. Each of the two lines in the Doha has two clauses of five syllables each – thus making each Doha a twenty syllable poem. There is a style in which these dohas are recited. Within each clause, there is a rhythm which is slow at first and speeds up at the end. This speed variation is accompanied and indeed synergized by a differential syllabic emphasis – with a higher stress at the start which tapers down near the end of the clause. These fluctuating speed and force elements make up the rhythm of the Doha. This is the beat, the pulse, if you will, of the Dohas. This lively beat is also another factor which adds to the appeal of the Doha, as is the philosophic content and the caustic punch lines which characterize so much of Kabir’s poesy. In other words, this rhythm of the dohas is another important element of their overall beauty.
Love grows not on trees, love sells not for pelf*,
Prince, pauper, anyone, can buy it with his self
Translated by Vibhas Tattu
In translating the Dohas into English, I’ve attempted to understand and reproduce all the following stylistic points as faithfully as possible:
a) Brevity: The Doha conveys its full sock and substance within two lines alone.
b) Beat: To retain the essential rhythm of the lines and clauses of the Doha so as to reproduce the same sense of timing as in the original Hindi.
c) Beauty: A poetic essence of the Doha. Poetry is not so much in the meaning but more so in the words and ways of stringing the words together. The twenty syllable structure has been kept as far as possible in the translation.
d) Content: It is indisputable that Kabir has a powerful and compelling message.Here, however, some changes / deletions / additions in cultural / colloquial phrases / references were unavoidable. It is difficult to exactly reproduce the Dohas for readers who have no prior knowledge of Hindi or of ancient Indian customs and culture.
Also every language has its special words which don’t always have equivalent words in other languages. e.g. the Hindi word “paniharin” (literally a woman who carries a water pot) has no English equivalent. Indeed, even amongst the Hindi speaking populace, this word has lost its relevance in this modern day and age, when water is available on tap and does not have to be fetched in earthen pots from the stream or river near the village. In this case ‘paniharin’ is translated merely as ‘water-belle’. In translating such archaic metaphors there is a real danger of being lost in translation, so to speak.
Another example of this is – Kabir’s phrase “Ganga neer” (which literally translates as the “water of the river Ganga”). The river Ganga (or Ganges, as it is called at times) is considered in Hindu tradition as a holy river descended from the God Shiva’s head. Furthermore the water of the Ganga is considered so pure that it absolves one of all sins if you bathe in it. Hindus believe that if a dying person is given a few drops of water from the Ganga, his soul will ascend to heaven. This entire cultural content of purity and holiness is conveyed in just these two Hindi words “Ganga neer”.
But it is impossible to convey the same meaning in two English words. As such this has been translated simply as “holy river” – a phrase which begs the reader’s interpretation rather than supplies a readymade idea.
Kabir, this home of love, is not your aunt’s place,
Who lowers his head in hand, can enter this holy space
Translated by Vibhas Tattu
Kabir wrote many more dohas than the few that appear here. Whether the translation does justice to the original is for the reader to judge. Yet, the wit and wisdom of Kabir have had such an influence upon me that I felt it was a shame to keep this treasure hidden from those that do not know Hindi. It is from this motivation that I have hazarded this risky venture. Whatever faults this translated poetry has, must all be unequivocally put at my door since Kabir’s poetic power, having stood the test of time for eight centuries, is quite beyond question.
Vibhas Tattu hails from India and is a manufacturing engineer by profession. He has worked in India, USA and now in the United Arab Emirates. Vibhas is interested in Shakespeare, Indian music, poetry (English, Hindi and Marathi) and a new found love of writing.
Tattu has a bachelor’s degree in Production Engineering from the University of Bombay and Master’s degree in Industrial Engineering and Operations Research from the University of California at Berkeley, where he was a Fellow.
by Vibhas Tattu
AIRMAIL/LETTERS FROM AROUND THE WORLD: Transcending Boundaries: Poetry of Kabir