Please Wait...

Kabir: The Weaver's Songs

Kabir: The Weaver's Songs
Item Code: IHL372
Author: Vinay Dharwadker
Publisher: Penguin Books India
Edition: 2003
ISBN: 9780143029687
Pages: 324
Cover: Paperback
Other Details: 7.6 inch X 5.1 inch



Vinay Dharwadker was born in Pune in 1954,and was educated at St. Stephen's College, Delhi University, and the University of Chicago. He is the author of a book of poems, Sunday at the Lodi Gardens (1994),and an editor of The Oxford Anthology of Modern Indian Poetry (1994), a co-editor of The Collected Poems of A. K. Ramanujan (1995), and the general editor of The Collected Essays of A. K. Ramanujan (1999). His other edited books include Cosmopolitan Geographies: New Locations in Literature and Culture (2001). He has published translations of modern Hindi, Marathi, Urdu and Punjabi poetry, as well as essays on literary theory, translation studies and Indian English literature. He teaches Indian languages and literatures at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he also serves as the Director of the Centre for South Asia.


Translator's Note




Kabir, His Poetry and His World

1. The Life of a Weaver


2. The Fabric of the Text


3. The Thread of Authorship


4. The Design of the Poetry


The Poems


I. 'Sixty Threads in the Warp'


Poems from the Northern Texts

      The Final State


      Body and Self




      Birth and Light


      The Senses


      The Master Weaver












      Mosque with Ten Doors


      The Way






      The Jewel




II. 'I've Painted My Body Red'


Poems from the Western Texts





      The Provider




      Mother and Son


      Banaras and Magahar


      Let Me See You




      The Love of King Rāma


      Doer and Deed






      Sapling and Seed




      Deadly Business


III. 'The Ganga Drains the Ocean'


Poems from the Eastern Texts



      Rama's Essence


      The Simple State


      The Ten Avatars




      A City Ablaze


      Holiness and Hell


IV. 'Neither Line Nor Form'


A Selection of Aphorisms

      Shaloks from the Ādi Granth


      Sākhīs from the Kabīr Granthavalī


      Sākhīs from the Bījak


V. 'This Sheet, So Fine, So Fine'


A Selection of Songs



      The Flawless One




      The Bhakta's Caste




      The Mystery of Maya






      The Ineffable






      Neither This Nor That






      Don't Stay


Notes to the Poems


Note on Transliteration







Kabir's poems have circulated in several languages across north India for the past five or six centuries, and he is probably the most frequently quoted poet in the modern Hindi world. He nevertheless remains an enigma— a shadowy presence behind the poetry, a voice, a simulacrum, a form of imagination constantly eluding our grasp. After nearly 200 years of scholarly research on his life and work, he appears to be a singer who has disappeared into his songs: he has ceased to be 'a person', and has become 'a whole climate of opinion' instead. In fact, in W. H. Auden's words memorializing W. B. Yeats in 1939, he is the type of poet whose death was 'kept from his poems', and who literally 'became his admirers' (Auden 1991,275,247).

These remote echoes from the twentieth century are significant because they are symptoms of the ways in which Kabir's poetry has stayed alive for more than half a millennium. Yeats himself first encountered a sample of it in Rabindranath Tagore's translations, which were published in Songs of Kabir in 1915 with an Introduction by Evelyn Underhill. The brief fable of the hamsā in the twelfth song in that book must have resonated strongly with the Irish poet, for its symbolism of the soul as a swan or a bird on a journey beyond the human and natural realms seems to have influenced his conception of 'The Wild Swans at Coole' shortly afterwards. Tagore's translation was prosaic and speculative, but it conveyed enough of the idea—which the Kabir tradition had borrowed from older Indian and Persian traditions—to have an impact on Yeats.

Tell me, O Swan, your ancient tale.

From what land do you come, O Swan? to what shore will you fly?

Where would you take your rest, O Swan, and what do you seek?

Even this morning, O Swan, awake, arise, follow me!

There is a land where no doubt nor sorrow have rule: where the terror of Death is no more.

There the woods of spring are a-bloom, and the fragrant scent "He is I" is borne on the wind:

There the bee of the heart is deeply immersed, and desires no other joy. (Tagore 1915, 55-56)

A more attentive rendering of the kind I offer in this volume reveals that the poem is lighter, more lyrical and suggestive, than the older version indicates:

Dear Swan,

talk of ancient things.

What country have you come from,

what shore will you alight on?

Where have you stopped and rested,

what goal have you set your heart on?

It's now the morning of consciousness,

let's leave together.

We won't be filled with grief and doubt in that place,

the fear of death won't strike us there.

Here the forests of desire are in bloom,

their fragrance assails us straight ahead.

A place that ensnares the beetles of the heart

can offer no hope of happiness.

Despite the opacity of Tagore's English, Kabir's song conveyed its mood to Yeats quite precisely, and induced him to create an analogous atmosphere when he wrote about the 'mysterious, beautiful' swans on the lake at Coole Park, Lady Gregory's estate in Galway, in 1916.

The resonances of the poetry associated with Kabir in modern times are not only poetic but also philosophical and conceptual. In the 1960s, Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes and Julia Kristeva, among others in France, discovered that the words texte and 'text' contain the metaphor of 'textile', allowing us to view a text as a woven fabric, and hence as an instance of textuality; a group of texts as an interwoven continuum, and hence as an embodiment of intertextuality; and even the world as a continuous text, and hence as a vast fabrication or ideological construct (Makaryk 1993, 568-72, 639-42). But some three and a half centuries earlier, a canonical version of Kabir's poems had already conceived of God as a Master Weaver, and the universe as an interlacing of warp and weft on His divine loom. More presciently, the poems had imagined the human body itself as God's handiwork in the form of a fine-spun cotton sheet, in a world where reality is nothing but illusion.

It was an allegorical image of astonishing acuity. Medical science, for example, now tells us that when the fertilized human egg begins to divide and replicate in the womb, it first generates a flat sheet of cells, one cell thick, that rolls itself into a cylinder to form the 'tube' of the spine, around which the embryo then builds itself with layers of tissue. For the Kabir text fixed in the early seventeenth century, the human body is always already a kosha, an envelope, woven on the loom of procreation like a sheet of diaphanous muslin, to be wrapped around mind, consciousness and self. The penetrating quality of such conceptions has repeatedly renewed the poetic power of Kabir's verse, raising it to the level of a perpetually modern classic.

In the course of the twentieth century, Kabir has come to be construed as an 'individual author' in the modern sense of the term, and to occupy a position of primacy in the history of Indian literatures and religions. He is widely regarded as the first major poet in the Hindi language; as the earliest author of the bhakti movement in Hindi literature; and as the ādi sant, the first and predominant figure, in the sant paramparā of north India, a multifaceted tradition of philosophical, theological and social argument that began to dismantle the structures of classical Hinduism around the fifteenth century, and to replace them with a new architecture of ideas. Moreover, Kabir is a primary influence on the early Sikh Gurus, and hence plays an important role in the formation of Sikhism as a distinctive, antithetical religion.

At the same time and for similar reasons, Kabir has also come to occupy a position of prominence in world literature. As a fifteenth-century poet concerned with God, the experience of God, and the quest for an equivalent of salvation, he ranks among the foremost Asian and European mystics of the past millennium. As a social thinker, satirist and strong critic of older, established religions, he stands among the major reformers of the period who help define the multifarious transition from the late middle ages to early modernity around the globe (Dvivedi 2000, 170-75; Dass 1991,1-21; Underhill 1915, 1-43).

My principal goal in The Weaver's Songs is to present readers in the twenty-first century with a fresh, compact yet representative selection of poems attributed to Kabir in reliable English translations, along with a commentary that would enable them to understand the poetry in its historical and cultural contexts. This goal, however, is complicated by the fact that the poems carrying Kabir's signature-line have reached us in an unusually varied and voluminous form. The complexity of the textual transmission implies that we cannot approach the poet as if he were an individual author, and that we cannot interpret his words, or the words ascribed to him, without working our way through a great deal of historical mediation. But if we comprehend the processes in Indian culture that have configured his poetry over the past five or six centuries, we can begin to appreciate the probable nature of his achievement as well as the structure of his imagination.

This book is divided into four main parts. The first consists of an Introduction entitled 'Kabir, His Poetry and His World', which discusses what we know of the poet's life and circumstances, the transmission of his poetry in the written, musical and oral modes since the century after his death, the issues surrounding the authorship of the poems ascribed to him, and the interpretation of the poetry itself. Since the process of selecting and translating the poems proves to be inseparable from the process of decoding their history and authorship, the Introduction also explains my strategies as editor, translator and critical commentator, and thus offers a comprehensive overview of the subject and method of this book.

The second part contains my translations of one hundred poems preserved in Kabir's name. The poems are distributed over five sections, with each section representing material from a particular source or set of sources, and the sequence of sections reflecting the interrelations of chronology, poetic form and mode of textual transmission. My choice of poems draws upon ten major sources and categories, and thus covers the broad range of materials found in the tradition as a whole. This is the first book, in fact, to offer a balanced representation of the multiple facets of Kabir's poetry in English translation.

My translations follow a fairly consistent pattern. For the convenience of readers in English, the translations carry titles (except in the case of the aphorisms), even though the original poems do not. In each rendering, one verse-paragraph in English represents one verse in the original, and therefore constitutes the primary unit of meaning in the process of translation. Since each verse in the original consists of one sentence or one set of interdependent sentences, and the verse-boundary always coincides with a syntactic boundary, my approach to translation differs directly from Walter Benjamin's, who takes 'words rather than sentences to be the primary element of the translator' (Benjamin 1969, 79).

At the end of each translation, I identify the text that I have rendered by citing its first verse or refrain (or both) as well as its source. In the case of my translations from the ādi Granth and the Goindval Pothis, the first verse precedes the refrain in the original, and I specify the poem's position in the Granth by rāga, shabad number under rāga, and page number(s) according to the standard pagination. In the case of poems from the Kabīr Granthāvalī, the refrain comes before the first verse; in the instance of the Bījak, I cite only the first verse of a poem, because the source does not specify any refrains; and in the case of poems from the oral and musical traditions, I cite only the refrain. For all the sources other than the Ādi Granth, I identify particular editions of the sources (which are cited in full in the Bibliography at the end of the book), and furnish the necessary page numbers.

The third part of The Weaver's Songs contains my Notes to the poems. I have provided a separate note for each poem, in which I have listed all the available variants of the original as well as any previous English translations. In addition, each note offers critical comments on the poem itself, as well as explanations of my decisions as a translator, when necessary.

The fourth and final portion of the book consists of a Note on Transliteration, the Glossary and the Bibliography. The Glossary provides a comprehensive list of terms from Indian languages that I have used in the book, together with definitions and explanations. Readers will find it indispensable because I have used a large number of technical and nontechnical Indian words and phrases in the main body of this volume without always pausing to explain them there. The Bibliography contains an alphabetical listing, by author (or by title, in the case of works without specified authors), of the primary and secondary material that I have cited or used in this book, together with annotations on some unusual items.

I have avoided scholarly footnotes or endnotes because the quantity and complexity of the material on Kabir can be quite overwhelming. Instead, I have used the author-date system of citation, mentioning an author's name and the year of publication, as well as the relevant page number(s) when necessary, either in the main body of my commentary or in parentheses. In the case of works without specified authors, I have mentioned only their tides and page numbers. Each parenthetical citation appears at the end of a sentence or a paragraph, with multiple citations separated by semicolons. All these items are keyed to the Bibliography at the end of the book.

Italics, diacritical marks, spelling and capitalization raise complicated issues in a book of this sort, and I have simplified them as much as possible. As terms for canons, 'Veda', 'Purāna' and 'Qurān' are not italicized, but the titles of particular Purānas, such as the Brahmavaivarta Purāna, are. Words from Sanskrit, Hindi and other languages that appear frequently in the book—such as 'bhakti', 'jāti' and 'shabad'—are not italicized, but words that appear infrequently are printed in italics. Modern personal names and the names of places and institutions, such as 'Parasanath Tivari', 'Banaras', 'Rajasthan' and 'Dadu Dayal Panth', do not carry diacritical marks. But other terms, most of which are common nouns, verbs and adjectives, as well as certain proper nouns and the titles of works in Indian and other languages, do contain diacritical marks for the sake of precision and clarity. The system of diacritical marks that I have adopted for the various languages used in this book is explained in the Note on Transliteration. I have also minimized the use of capitals at the beginning of non-English words or phrases, since capitalization is not a feature of the Nagari and Farsi scripts.

My material in this book draws on eleven distinct languages and speech-varieties: Sanskrit, Arabic, Farsi and modern Hindi and Urdu, as well as older forms of Avadhi, Bhojpuri, Braj Bhāshā, Rajasthani, Khadī Bolī and Punjabi. Since all of them, with the sole exception of Bhojpuri, are full-fledged literary languages embedded in distinct written and oral cultures, I have had to adopt three separate systems of transliteration: one for Sanskrit; one for Arabic, Farsi and Urdu together; and one for the other seven languages and speech-varieties as a group. This is especially necessary for the accurate reproduction of the styles of spelling in the older manuscript sources for Kabir. All the non-English words used in the book are listed alphabetically (in the order of the English alphabet) in the Glossary at the end, where I have provided the transliterated spelling in the headword, and have indicated alternative spellings in the accompanying annotation.

The epigraphs for the four sections of my Introduction are taken from Kedarnath Singh's long poem, 'Uttar Kabīr', which appeared in his book, Uttar kabīr aur anya kavitāem, in 1995. Singh, a leading innovator of 'post-modernist' Hindi poetry since the 1960s, conceived of the poem in response to a minor incident during a journey that took him through Magahar, the town in north-eastern Uttar Pradesh where Kabir probably passed away. As his own epigraph to the poem explains:

One morning in December 1989, while the train I was on happened to pass through the vicinity of Magahar, my gaze fell unexpectedly on a fairly large building, in front of which hung a sign bearing the name of Kabirdas. Upon asking about it I learnt that the building was a spinning mill established by the government to commemorate Kabir, but now virtually shut down—it was supposed to ensure that there would be a constant supply of yarn for the looms in that region full of weavers. Hearing about this, I wondered: How would Kabirdas have responded to this information—he who, just a short distance from that spot, has been at rest for centuries in his deep samādhī on the banks of the River Ami? (Singh 1995, 132)

The poem is cast as a dramatic monologue in Kabir's voice, and projects him as though he had come back to life in post-modern times. In the passages I have used for my epigraphs, the poet therefore speaks to us across the centuries, in terms that are at once ours and also unmistakably his own.

I first studied and translated Kabir in 1983-86 at the University of Chicago at the suggestion of A.K. Ramanujan. I presented some of my early work to audiences at the University of Chicago (1987) and Columbia University (1994). Six of these translations appeared in Religions of India in Practice (1995), edited by Donald S. Lopez,Jr.; my thanks to Princeton University Press for permission to use them here. I am also grateful to Namvar Singh for recommending me for this project. At Penguin India, my thanks go to Kamini Mahadevan for her unfailing tact, patience and enthusiasm; and to Kalpana Joshi and her colleagues for their extraordinary care with the editing, design and production. This book, too, is for Aparna Dharwadker, and for our children, Aneesha and Sachin.


Kabir, His Poetry and His World

1. The Life of a Weaver

   And now . . .
it's the same bank of the Ami
where I stand upright again
      with Infinity wrapped
      in a small, poor man's bundle
   slung over my shoulder. . . .

Who has survived
   who hasn't?

And even the one who has survived—
   how much of him is left
      at his own proper location
      in his own proper time? . . .

Kedarnath Singh,'Uttar Kabīr' (1995), pp. 133,137

The historical figure we know as Kabir probably lived in the eastern half of north India in the fifteenth century. For the past 200 years or so, the Kabir Panth, one of the religious organizations associated with his name, has assigned him an extraordinary lifespan from 1398 to 1518. Ever since the British orientalist H. H. Wilson published his pioneering essays on the subject in English in 1828 and 1832, modern scholars have sought to find more plausible dates for Kabir.

In 1950, and then again in 1964, the distinguished Hindi literary historian Parashuram Chaturvedi sifted through several decades of debate and several bodies of evidence to conclude that the poet most probably lived between the late fourteenth and mid-fifteenth centuries (845—70). The American historian of religions David N. Lorenzen reopened the discussion in 1991, when he used Anantadas's Kabīr Parachī, a text composed around 1625 and affiliated with the Ramananda Sampradaya, together with historical accounts of Raja Vir Singh, an early sixteenth-century ruler of Baghelkhand, to argue that Kabir may actually have flourished around the year 1500 (9-18). However, two detailed studies by Gurinder Singh Mann and one by Pashaura Singh, all dealing with the textual history of the Ādi Granth and published between 1996 and 2001, have demonstrated once more that the poet was a predecessor and not a contemporary of Guru Nanak (1469-1539), the founder of Sikhism. The information we now have about the formation of Sikh scripture and Kabir's place in it strongly supports the claim that he was born in or about 1398 and died around 1448, just before the mid-point of the fifteenth century.

The poetry preserved in Kabir's name in the older surviving manuscripts indicates that he spent the greater portion of his life in Banaras. Known by the ancient name of Kashi as well as the modern Sanskritised name of Varanasi, Banaras has long been identified as 'Shiva's city', one of the principal sacred sites on the Hindu map of the subcontinent. While most sources agree that the poet grew up, underwent an apprenticeship, and eventually practised an occupation in Banaras, some suggest that his birth and death may have occurred elsewhere. In all likelihood, Kabir spent a part of his life or passed his final days in the town of Magahar, which now lies in Basti district, approximately 15 miles west of Gorakhpur and 100 miles north of Banaras. A poem with his signature-line that appears as shabad 15 in Rāga Gauī in the Ādi Granth (as compiled in 1604) seems to confirm the story that Banaras and Magahar constituted the two 'ends' of his life:

Now tell me,

Rāma, what's my future trajectory?

I've renounced Banaras:

Like a fish out of water,

stranded on a bank,

I'm left without the austerities

of my previous births.

I've squandered my whole life in Shiva's city:

now that it's time to die,

I've risen and come to Magahar. . . .

Kashi, Magahar: for a thoughtful man,

they're one and the same.

My devotion's depleted:

how will it land me on the other shore?

The connection between Kabir and Magahar, however, is more than poetic. Since at least the late seventeenth century, residents of the town have claimed that the poet was either buried on its outskirts, or entered his samādhī there. One colonial account indicates that a local nawab named Bijli Khan built a mausoleum at that location on the banks of the river Ami in 1450, and that Fidai Khan, a nawab from outside the region, repaired it around 1567 (Keay 1931, 95—97). Whether these two men invested their resources in the monument specifically to commemorate the poet remains uncertain, but as recently as 1985 the Sunni Vaqf Board of Lucknow possessed a deed dated 1698—99, which 'registers the gift of the village Kabirpura Karmua for the upkeep of the Muslim tomb of Shah Kabir' in Magahar (Lorenzen 1991,17). The honorific title 'Shah' mentioned in the document suggests that the building may already have come to be regarded during Aurangzeb s reign as the dargāh of a sufi pīr. This is broadly consistent with the fact documented in Abdul Haq Dehlavi's Akhbāal-Akhyār (composed between 1590 and 1619) and Mohsin Fani's Dahistān-i Mazāhib (mid-seventeenth century), that Indian sufis in the Agra, Delhi and Kashmir regions were reading Kabir's poetry during the reigns of Jahangir and Shah Jahan. The tradition has continued throughout the colonial and post-independence periods, with a family of hereditary Muslim caretakers maintaining the mausoleum as a place of sufi worship and pilgrimage down to the present.

The position of Magahar in the poet's biography, however, is complicated by two disparate factors. On the one hand, descriptions and photographs published by the missionaries G. H. Wescott (1907) and F. E. Keay (1931) and the contemporary Hindi scholar Shukdev Singh (1981), among others, show that the old Muslim tomb in Magahar stands next to a Hindu-style temple, which supposedly memorializes the spot where he entered his samādhī, and is maintained by sādhus belonging to the Kabir Chaurā Math of Banaras. On the other hand, as early as 1598, Abū'l Fazl, the author of the Ā 'īn-i Akbarī, the official chronicle of Akbar's reign, recorded the existence of two other samādhīs for Kabir: one at Ratanpur, now a dozen miles from Bilaspur, in Chattisgarh, and another at Puri-Jagannath, in Orissa, both maintained by the Dharamdasi branch of the Kabir Panth from the seventeenth or eighteenth century onwards (Vaudeville 1974, 33-35).

Whether Kabir was born and died in Banaras, or in Magahar or elsewhere, the poetry attributed to him and the discourse that has accumulated around it consistently claim that he belonged to the community of weavers in the Banaras-Magahar region. Nita Kumar's ethnographic and historical work on Banaras in the 1980s has confirmed afresh that weavers have lived and worked in the city for the greater part of the past 1,000 years. Banaras has been famous for its silk and cotton weaving since early modern times, if not earlier, and remains a centre of international distinction for this craft, alongside such cities as Dhaka and Kanchipuram. Until the early twentieth century, Banarasi weavers produced their high-quality silk and cotton fabrics on hand looms that seem to have undergone little technological change over the previous seven or eight centuries. Even after the introduction of the jacquard machine and the Hattersley domestic loom around 1928, they have continued to practise their craft in ways that may go back to the beginning of the last millennium. Silk weaving, especially for saris, is still done on looms installed in kārakhānās or workshops in weaver's homes, and work-patterns in modern family businesses remain centred around the personalities of their master weavers, whose individual styles combine labour and leisure, technical skill and commercial acumen, and moodiness and imagination in different measures (Kumar 1989,147-52).

One of the Kabir poems in the Ādi Granth—shabad 54 in Rāga Gauī, preserved since the first decade of the seventeenth century—captures the general atmosphere of a Banarasi weavers workshop with great precision, even though its primary theme is more abstract and enigmatic:

The weaver thought,
Let me weave
   a body jot my self—

but he couldn't have his wish,
and left his house
   in great frustration.

Nine yards, ten yards,
twenty-one yards—

   that completes one stretch of cloth.
Sixty threads in the warp,
nine panels interlocked
   seventy-two extra threads
   added to the weft.

He counts its yardage, but can't,
he measures its weight, but can't—
   and yet it needs
   five pounds of sizing.
When he asks for the sizing
and doesn't find it ready at once,
   he kicks up a fuss in the house.

The weaver, master of his craft,
   master of his house,
sits through a daylong session at the loom,
but resigns in the end, despairing,
   Why has this moment come to pass?
He abandons the pots of sizing, the bobbins all wet,
   and walks off in a huff.

No thread emerges
   from the empty shuttle,
no shed stands ready
for picking and beating—
   the yarn in the heddles is tangled.
Kabir says, let go of the mess,
let that poor wish remain

Weaving turns up as an allusion and a figure in a number of poems in the written, oral and musical traditions surrounding Kabir, and its recurrence reinforces his portrayal in commentaries as well as paintings as a skilled artisan, both literally and metaphorically (see, for instance, the seventeenth-century Mughal painting reproduced on the cover of Dass 1991).

During the early modern period in India (approximately, from 1498 to 1757) and the modern period as a whole (from about 1757 to the present), weavers have been a vital force in the economy of Banaras. Between the third quarter of the nineteenth century and the last quarter of the twentieth, for example, they have constituted as much as 25 per cent of the city's population at certain moments, and have supported a cottage-industry and trade employing as many as half a million workers at a time (Kumar 1989, 148—52).

Banaras, however, has been dominated by a Hindu majority for much of the past millennium, with a high proportion of its citizens belonging to the dvija or 'twice-born' caste-groups (brahmins, kshatriyas, and vaishyas), even though its community of weavers has usually been composed of a Muslim majority and a Hindu minority, at least in the modern period. In contrast, Magahar has been a town populated predominantly by Muslim and Hindu weavers (besides Buddhists and ādivāsīs or 'aborigines') for several hundred years, with few upper-caste citizens until the post-independence period.

Moreover, since about the thirteenth century, a Muslim weaver in the Banaras-Magahar region has been known as a julāhā (a term of Farsi origin), whereas a Hindu weaver has been called a korī (a word of Sanskrit origin). Banarasi Hindus of the dvija caste-groups classify the Muslim julāhās as mkchchhas (outsiders, people of a foreign race or faith), and the Hindu korīs as shūdras ('servants'). As the Hindi scholar and writer Hazariprasad Dvivedi first noted in this context in 1941, the upper castes' classification of korīs as shūdras follows the paradigm of the Brahmavaivarta Purāna, which places nine types of artisans—gardeners, ironsmiths, sea-shell artisans, weavers, potters, bronze-workers, carpenters, artists and goldsmiths—in this category (Dvivedi 2000, 15—16).

The consequence of these factors is that the priestly, administrative and mercantile classes of Banarasi society have derided Magahar as a 'dirty' or 'polluted' town for centuries, and its inhabitants as 'low' and 'stupid', much as they have heaped contempt on the julāhās and korīs of their own city (Vaudeville 1974, 45; Kumar 1989, 153). The Kabir poems in the early manuscripts and the later sources respond several times to this provocation, especially in the aphoristic form of the sākhī, as in this instance from 1604 in the Sikh tradition:

Everybody, O Kabir,
   reduces my caste to a laughing stock:

but it devotes itself to the Creator,
   and I martyr myself to its cause.

The older demographic and cultural patterns in the Banaras-Magahar region are part of a wider geographical distribution and a longer historical cycle. Weavers have comprised almost two dozen distinct jātis or social groups in north India since the end of the classical period, and have inhabited towns and villages—usually in ghettos segregated by the upper castes—scattered over a crescent-shaped area stretching from Punjab to Bengal (Dvivedi 2000, 16-17).

In the Banaras-Magahar region itself, the Muslim julāhās have come to dominate the silk-weaving industry in recent decades, which has expanded to an unprecedented degree since the end of the nineteenth century. During this period, the julāhā silk-weavers of Banaras have accumulated capital, achieved upward mobility, and acquired a higher social status. As a part of this collective transformation resembling a class shift, they have adopted the community surname of Ansari, and have distanced themselves from the other julāhās, who, they claim, are socially inferior and do only 'coarse work' (Kumar 1989, 147-56; 1992, 97).

In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, as Muslim armies moved eastwards from Delhi in a concentrated phase of conquest and settlement across the Ganga-Jamuna Doab, all the way to the eastern wetlands of Bengal, shūdra jātis of weavers may have converted en masse to Islam. Hazariprasad Dvivedi used colonial records to speculate on the subject in the 1940s, and in the early 1990s the American historian Richard M. Eaton analysed the phenomenon quite comprehensively for the eastern half of north India between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries, but the precise circumstances and mechanisms of such conversions remain unclear (Dvivedi 2000,15-24; Eaton 2000,113-34). Julāhās themselves seem to date their Islamicization to the thirteenth or fourteenth century, at least in some of their modern oral traditions. The 300 years preceding Mughal rule also appear to be the period when some jātis of weavers—such as the jugis of rural Bengal—began their association with Nath yoga, a system of thought and practice that projects itself outside the sphere of orthodox Hinduism as well as emergent sagunī bhakti (Dvivedi 2000, 19-20).

Around the end of the fourteenth century, Kabir was probably born into a family of weavers in the Banaras-Magahar region, whose clan or community, originally korīs in the Hindu fold, may have converted to Islam and thus become julāhās a few decades earlier. If such was the case, it is likely that the poet grew up in a family or community that still retained pragmatic, quotidian connections with its earlier low-caste way of life.

It is also probable that the julāhā community endured disparagement at this time and in this environment for two divergent reasons: for being shūdras by origin, and for being mkchchhas by religious persuasion. These probabilities would explain the conflicting characteristics of Kabir as he appears in the poetry ascribed to him: his name is Muslim, but he seems to belong to a maligned or stigmatized community, without access to the social equality that Islam promises; he has the social identity of a Muslim, but he does not accept the basic tenets of Islam (such as the prophethood of Muhammad), and does not seem to know the faith with the familiarity of an insider; and his thought reveals an intimate understanding of the philosophical, theological and ritual aspects of Hinduism, but remains consistent with certain general features of sufism (without acceding to its distinctive institutions, such as the silsilāh).

The manuscripts from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries that preserve Kabir's poetry or comment on his life and work explicitly identify him as a weaver. On most occasions, they refer to him as a julāhā, but sometimes they also call him a korī, using the latter word as a generic signifier for someone in that occupation. In the ādi Granth, this vacillation between a 'Muslim' designation and a 'Hindu' one is linked to the larger trope of God as a Master Weaver, where the Sikh Gurus (as editors) seem ideologically to prefer the term korī because it casts the Creator as a shūdra artisan— an idea that must have been virtually unthinkable for orthodox Hindus in seventeenth-century Banaras. As shabad 36 in Rāga āsā says:

You haven't puzzled out
any of the Weaver's secrets:
   it took Him
a mere moment
to stretch out the whole universe
   on His loom.

While you were there,
   to the Vedas and Purānas,
I was here,
spreading out
   the threads for my warp.

He fashioned His loom
   out of earth and sky:
He plied the sun and moon
   as His twin shuttles.

When He worked the pair
of treadles in the pit below
   in tandem,
I acknowledged Him
in my mind
   as a master weaver.

I found His signs,
the signs of a weaver,
   inside my house:
in a flash
I recognised Him
   as Rāma.

Kabir says, I've smashed
   my loom:
only the Weaver
can mesh
   thread with thread.

The edges of the poet's name, however, blur historically and conceptually into all the ambiguities of personal, social and religious identity. 'Kabīr' is a truncation of the Arabic al-Kabīr, which means 'the great [one]', and is one of the ninety-nine epithets of Allāh in the Qur'ān. For modern readers, Kabir has no other name, but the oldest surviving manuscripts in his case—the Goindval Pothis of the Sikhs, prepared in the Gurmukhi script around 1570—72, under the direction of the third Guru, Amardas—refer to him in their colophons and signature-lines in two different ways. For a total of forty-one times they identify him as Kabīru, Kabīr, Kabīrā, Kabīre, Kabaru, or Kabarī, but for a total of forty-eight times they designate him as Kamīr, Kamīru, Kamīrā, or Kīmīr (My counts are from Callewaert 2000).

While the latter series may represent only an accidental inconsistency in transcription, the frequency of its distribution over a set of fifty poems and their colophons, together with the semantics of the alternative name, may indicate something else. 'Kamīr' and its variants appear to be related to the common Hindi-Urdu words kam, kamī, and kamīr, all of which are derived from the Farsi term kam, which characterises its referent as low, deficient, less, mean, base, or despicable. The Kartarpur Pothi of 1604, a canonical manuscript of the earliest portion of the Ādi Granth prepared under the fifth Guru, Arjan, changes the poet's name almost uniformly to 'Kabīr' and its variants, allowing 'Kamīr' and 'Kamīru' to occur only three times between them in the entire text (Callewaert 1996).

Combined with the fact that the Fatehpur manuscript of 1582, inscribed in the Nagari script in northern Rajasthan, contains only 'Kabīr' and its variants, the Goindval and Kartarpur Pothis together suggest four intriguing possibilities: (a) that the scribe(s) of the Goindval Pothis made an innocent but persistent error in transcribing the poet's name with 'Kamīr' and its variants; (b) that Guru Amardas and the scribe(s) of the Goindval Pothis assembled the fifty Kabir poems from at least two distinct lines of transmission, one of which employed 'Kabīr' and its variants, while the other used 'Kamīr' and its variants, or both of which drew ambivalently on both paradigms; (c) that Guru Amardas and his scribe (s) experimented consciously with the 'Kamīr' paradigm as an alternative to 'Kabīr', or vice versa, for ideological reasons; and (d) that, conversely, more than three decades later, Guru Arjan and the scribes of the Kartarpur Pothi experimented deliberately with the 'Kabīr' paradigm as a homogenising alternative to 'Kamīr', but for different ideological reasons.

Two types of transmutation may have been at work here, because the poet's alternative names are opposed to each other on several levels at once. In the Muslim traditions, 'Kabīr' is Arabic and Qur'ānic, and therefore 'primary', whereas 'Kamīr' is Farsi and non-canonical, and hence 'secondary'. At the same time, 'Kabīr' represents something great and defines an attribute of God, whereas 'Kamīr' signifies something mean, base or deficient and refers to low origins in the human world. Furthermore, 'Kabīr' is imaginable as a personal name for a member of the ashrāf, the Muslim elite of the Sultanate period, consisting of wealthy, powerful and cultivated traders, religious officials, soldiers and administrators, mostly immigrants of Arabic, Iranian or • Central Asian lineage (Eaton 2000,97—102). However, 'Kabīr' is not convincing as a name for a julāhā who comes from a community universally mocked for its ethnic origins and its recent (and therefore 'shallow') conversion to Islam, as well as its illiteracy and uncouthness—whereas 'Kamīr' seems entirely plausible as a name for a person from precisely such a background.

The dance of linguistic, ethnic, economic and theological oppositions between the two names is so enticing that the early transmitters of Kabir's poetry in Punjab may well have relished the irony of substituting either 'Kamīr' with 'Kabīr' or 'Kabīr'with 'Kamīr', and thereby transmuting the poet's image at the stroke of a pen. In the first case, a preference for 'Kabīr' would raise a weaver from a socially inferior position to a rhetorically and even spiritually superior position, and thus change the status of his discourse—precisely the effect that has permeated the Kabir phenomenon for the past 500 years. In the second case, the choice of 'Kamīr' would almost iconically mark the poetry with its social origins, and thus underscore its revolutionary potential, but it would lack the indexical power of 'Kabīr' to surround the words with an aura of implied greatness. The remote possibility that Kabīr's name as we have it now may be a textual and ideological invention imposed on him several generations after his death reminds us that he himself seems destined to be nothing more than a shadow in the shadows of history.

Whether his real-life name was Kamir or Kabir, whether he was a Muslim julāhā or a Hindu korī, and whether or not he came from a family of weavers whose community had converted to Islam only in the thirteenth or fourteenth century, this poet seems most likely to have been a cotton weaver—rather than a silk weaver—in fifteenth-century Banaras. The poems in the manuscripts we have inherited do not mention silk, but together with later sources they allude a number of times to raw cotton, cotton yarn, bales of cotton cloth, coarse cotton sheets and finespun cotton fabric. One of the great poems in the tradition, Jhīnījhīnībīnī chadariyā (rendered here under the title 'Sheet')—which has been transmitted primarily in the oral and musical modes, and has been rated in the late twentieth century as the most popular of the Kabir songs—imagines God as a cotton weaver who weaves each human body on His loom as a sheet of sheer muslin, working thread by thread through the period of its gestation in a mother's womb:

He wove the sheet so fine, so fine, He wove the sheet so fine.

What was the warp? What was the weft? What was the thread

with which He wove the sheet?

the warp, the weft, Sushumnā the thread

with which He wove the sheet.

He spins the eight-petalled lotus

as his spinning-wheel, with five elements

and three great qualities

He weaves the sheet.

He weaves the sheet

through ten months in a mother's womb,

beating in the weft,

testing and checking

every, strand, He weaves the sheet.

Saints and humans

wrap themselves in His sheet, but the wrapping soils the sheet

so fine, so fine.

His servant Kabir

wraps himself in the sheet with effort and care,

he keeps it spotlessly clean,

this sheet, so fine, so fine.

If Kabir was a cotton weaver, in all likelihood he belonged to a class of artisans at the bottom of the economic scale. The poetry contains a range of references to his destitution and the life of poverty in general, focusing especially on his unrewarding labour at the handloom, his lack of steady income, his family's financial difficulties, and the arrogance and ostentatiousness of the rich. A poem such as shabad 11 in Rāga Sorathī in the Ādi Granth explores the effects of poverty on the human psyche—loss of self-worth, abjection, humiliation at having to beg for survival—but turns them around to achieve humility before God:

Mādhav, sweet lord, how will I ever be

in your blessèd company? If you're a niggard, I'll have to beg

for your gracious gifts.

Don't starve your devotee: take back this rosary of yours.

I only ask for the dust of the saints' feet: I don't wish to be

an object of someone's charity.

All I want is a couple of pounds of ground wheat,

a quarter pound of ghee, some salt to go with it: that'll suffice

for survival twice a day.

All I need is a cot with four legs,

a pillow, a mattress. I ask for a coarse sheet to cover me:

you'll have my adoration.

I haven't been covetous. I've heaped ostentation

on just one thing: your Name. Kabir says, I've convinced my heart to be content:

for when the heart's content,

it comprehends Hari.

In Kabir's personal life, the social consequences of poverty would have been quite unambiguous: as an artisan in the urban underclass of fifteenth-century Banaras, he would have found it virtually impossible to acquire either literacy or formal education. From the poetry itself it is clear that no Hindu shikshgaru (teacher) or dīkshāguru (spiritual master) would have accepted either a shūdra or a mlechchha as a pupil under such circumstances, and no Muslim maulavī would have educated a julāhā without demanding a prohibitive fee. A number of poems portray Kabir as an illiterate man who reciprocally scorns paper and pen, books and orthodox learning, Veda and Qur'ān, pandit and maulavī (Vaudeville 1974, 49-50).

Add a review

Your email address will not be published *

For privacy concerns, please view our Privacy Policy

Post a Query

For privacy concerns, please view our Privacy Policy

Related Items