Kabir was a 15th/16th century devotional poet and social critic from northern India. The songs of Kabir are known (and passionately performed) far and wide in India today. Beloved for his rough rhetoric and irony, his bold, blunt language, and fearless attitude, Kabir criticized both Hindus and Muslims, promoting a religion of the heart in which priestly mediations, ritual practices, doctrinal commitments had no significant place. Whether through paradox, playful wit, or cutting satire, Kabir sought to expose the hypocrisy and pretension of so much “organized religion” while emphasizing the preciousness of life, the power of selfless devotion, and the presence of Ram (his favorite name for the inconceivable Divine) within.
The poems below were each written in the style and spirit of Kabir. Some address themes and topics that Kabir himself engaged, while others take on aspects of our modern world and experience from an intentionally “Kabirian” perspective. All of these poems were written by students in Professor Patton Burchett’s “Religions of India” course at New York University.
For some of Kabir’s own poetry, click here.
For a fantastic documentary on modern-day performance of Kabir’s songs and modern-day understandings and appropriations of his message and memory, click here.
The hands of God weave
the webs of creation
As man, the spider,
entangles God in his own image.
Not by moving lips
Not by hearing words
Not by making sacrifices
will you find what you seek.
Kabir says: Throw away your traditions
and find Ram in your heart.
The preachers stagger around and say,
“We know the truth my brothers!”
But gather them around, they can’t even agree!
They argue and argue, shaking fists angrily,
So who knows what is real then?
Why walk a path that has no end?
How can you find the beginning of a circle?
How long will we be,
Sitting beneath the Tree of Knowledge,
Waiting for The Apple to fall?
You have such pride,
Can’t you see
your body, your wealth,
they are nothing but kindling
scorched in death’s fire.
You hold up signs of ink that lie.
Where is your anchor in truth and love?
You quote the Bible, but has it been read?
Show us the book you are reading.
Eyes are looking and ears are hearing.
Your footprint is visible, your words are loud,
but love is lost.
Who are we to judge you though?
Put down the sign. Put down the words.
Live in His love, for action will speak louder than words.
Why have the masses climbed aboard this sinking ship
Where religion and rituals have attached you to its rails
Can’t you see this ship won’t sail towards shore
The brave leap overboard and swim to kiss Ram’s feet.
Those who seek an answer in themselves,
Will only find questions.
Those who seek the questions,
Will find Ram.
You must embrace the story, not open the book.
You must utter devotions, not sing words.
You must live righteously, not act righteously.
There is no “free pass” to Heaven.
Brother, you seem stressed
your mind is a vessel,
overfilled with concerns of others
Empty and refill it with only thoughts of Ram
The mind will be at peace
All will finally be calm.
The journey of He has taken its toll
And history has repeated innumerably
In both scripture and action alike
First came The Bible
to boot the Constitution
and also Harry Potter
with untold world wars in between
about me versus you
Didn’t He account for evolution?
If not for His people, His presumable power?
And if he had a Facebook,
What would follow the title “religious view?”
I looked at my reflection in someone else’s limbs
What’s the difference between God
and believing in myself? I thought
What’s the difference between God
and believing in the similarity of our differences?
If my lens is His lens,
Why does he insist on fighting himself?
The obligatory malice with no obligation but pride
Isn’t there enough room under one sky
for me versus you?
Time spent in the past and future
withers in the wind.
Time spent here and now
blows you to dharma [Truth].
You close your eyes
Looking inside for a clearer view
I open my heart
And see Him everywhere.
The need of things
to satisfy the senses;
look into yourself – the answers lie there.
You’ve made a mistake
Just as every human will at one point make.
Deal with it
What’s done is done
If Ram had wanted you to be perfect
You would have been born that way.
Why walk with an unbuttoned coat?
You’ll catch a cold, or lose your warmth.
Yet your heart was never exposed.
Autumn comes to warn
the leaves on a tree
and each turns pale and flees.
Only the roots
which cannot see
know to stay
and enjoy the warm summer.
God is a treasure,
Not nearly sought by enough
Til one lays his eyes upon this treasure
He will not attain His jewels.
Seldom do works-in-progress
We begin but we become stuck,
lost in the process!
Please, go on about your revulsion with this world;
go on talking about how unfair and twisted it all is,
as you glance at that man and judge him,
as you speak with this woman and belittle her.
I will continue to listen.
Mother cut me once across the throat,
Called me “hate” and “heresy”
Drank my thoughts and spit them out
Squirming, vague, empty
Filled with doubt.
Those thoughts slimy on the floor
Gathered themselves to be concrete
Lips fumbled to aid them, too
Tried to give them shape and seams
But ripped them with every taboo.
Mother took a match
To torch Atma and me
And willed me to floundering faith
To renounce my blasphemy
a pious waste.
I didn’t fight her, even then
Burned to ash among the sod
She asked, leaning on an olive tree,
“How can you hate God?”
She said, “If you can’t even hate me?”
Because, Om, you vibrate in my soul.
And if you won’t repent the methods to your means,
If you won’t repossess these malicious memories,
Then all I have left
is to hate your God
For loving you
For hating me.
he walks into the home with the Bible under his arm
his lips pursed, his walk stiff
his shiny shoes clicking on the wood floor
she speaks at him
their speaking evolves into yelling
they turn to the young girl in the corner
they become silent
watching the tears roll off of her cheeks
they look at her glassy, worried eyes
they see in her tears an answer
they see in her pain a solution
they see in her youth hope
they see that she has reminded them of God
So what if you pray?
If you don’t know the difference between right and wrong
God exists everywhere, within each individual
So why should there be a social order?
Look at your grand temples
With their expert priests
and well-crafted deities.
FOOL! That won’t free your spirit.
Only Ram can show you the way.
If we were intended
to digitize the world
we would have been created as robots.
Worship the formless
While on the ground,
but do as you like.
In the end the formless
Has seen your form,
there is no second chance in life.
God, the magician
Pulls man from his hand,
Who scurries about whilst
the audience of stars laughs giddily with delight.
Graced by protection
but cursed by aesthetic displeasure.
Once the scaffolding is up, we begin to accept the intrusion – a necessary evil.
Once taken down, we are lost but see beauty.
Again – new space.
How many times must we adapt?
Both good and bad will always flee.
Front page image via artoflegendindia.com