Tagore’s Legacy of Kabir:  Did the medieval mystic help shape Rabindranath’s Gitanjoli?

By: Mozid Mahmud

Kabir’s life still holds importance in a society in pursuit of the one true Lord, steeped in religiosity and caste. He was born at a time when the Hindu-Muslim strife was raging across the subcontinent. Divided into various sects, Hindu society was already engaged in conflict and the arrival of the Muslims and the expansion of Islam only intensified the conflict of the time. The two camps – followers of foreign and indigenous religions – could not find a way to come together. Arbitrary rituals and sacrifices were damaging their dignity and short-selling God’s glory. In such a time, Kabir was the most significant of intellectual sages who were able to bridge the gap through his clarity of thought, unwavering devotion to the Lord, and humanist reading of all belief systems. In simple, clear and logical language he pointed out the irrationalities of men, without outright attacking any faith. His teachings were not only effective to his devotees but were helpful to adherents of other doctrines as well. One did not have to be part of his sect to receive his teachings and capture the meaning behind his words. Anyone free from the shackles of self-interest were able to accept it.

Though there is little to deny in Kabir’s words, there is much debate among the experts regarding the period of his birth and death. The historical facts contain many contradictory components as well. Evidently, one sees that there are two versions of Kabir’s life visible. One had been constructed through analyzing historical data, the other through the beliefs and commentary provided over the ages by his followers and devotees, though all such projection by his disciples cannot be understood in the same light. Yet it should be noted that the accuracies regarding some of Kabir’s facts of his life do not pose any doubt to his teachings and appreciation for beauty. Still, in light of the contemporary commentary a brief biography of the poet is outlined here.

According to Kshitimohan Sen, Kabir was born on 1398 in Varanasi and died on 1518 in Maghar village. While specifics are understandably hard to gather, most experts of him agree that he was of the time when Sikander Lodi ruled over Delhi’s throne. Kabir had met the man, too. Lodi had arrived at Varanasi in 1498. Rabindranath had talked of this in his translation of Kabir’s One Hundred Poems, which had come out from Macmillan. There he is said to have been born in 1440. Though Kabir’s Hindu devotees liken him as a devotee of the Vaishnava poet-saint Ramananda, it is still a matter of debate, for Ramananda was born in 1298 and most texts that refer to their connection can only be traced a hundred years after Kabir.  

In his writings, mentions of the poets Jaidev and Namdev are found. Though one was active in the 12th century and the other on the 14th. Moreover, one can find references to Kabir in the works of Raydas, Garib Das, Dharma Das, Pipa and Tukaram. In the Sikh religious text Guru Granth Sahib, there are some of Kabir’s verses present. After Kshitimohan Sen, others who had worked on Kabir include Irfan Habib, Saiyid Athar Abbas, Hazari Prasad Dwivedi and Prabhakar Machwe, among others. But their achievements of breaking any headway is nothing new, and most emphasis had been put on the conventional narrative.

Much like his year of birth and place, there is much debacle over his parents and religion.  However, it is taken as fact today that he was born in a Muslim family or was raised in one. It is hypothesized that he had come from a family of Muslim weavers, who had a trade in cloth. Another legend had him as the virgin son of a Brahmin woman, born through seedless conception and then abandoned him to be found floating in a basket. The fact that he was born in a Muslim family is mostly evidenced by the fact that he had an Arabic name, which meant “Great.” There is further doubt on his race and caste. According to Hazari Prasad Dwivedi, Kabir belonged to a Yogi community, for he would refer to his father as Gosai, meaning Guru. They were principally disciples of Nath-Panthis – worshippers of Shiva. While they had accepted Islam as their religion, they continued in their old ways like before. But Kabir did not proclaim himself as either a Hindu or a Muslim. As a result, many surmised that he probably wanted to be known as someone from the lower caste, who remained out of these two binaries. The issue of caste might have irked him as well. It might have had no importance to him. This reticence had led to most communities intending to co-opt him for them, constructing all sorts of imaginary relationships. A Muslim guru of the time, Sheikh Taqi, had complained to Lodi that Kabir saw himself as a deity. His low-born caste led him to a path of constant discrimination. There are accounts of this discrimination in texts. He had been humiliated for proposing the idea of a formless God. Many a time he had been tied behind his back and beaten up. Let me account some of the accounts of his torture here.

The Emperor of Delhi, Sikander Lodi, had demanded Kabir be arrested and brought to his court. When he was somehow brought over, he stood there in silence. The Emperor grew angry and asked, “Why don’t your curse at the Emperor, Kaffir?”
Kabir answered, “Those who understand the other’s torment are called Pir, and those who don’t are termed Kaffirs.

When the Emperor asked him why it took him so while to get to his court, he replied that he had seen such a scene on the way that he could not being late. A line of camels was entering a gully as narrow as a needle’s eye. The Emperor thought he was being ridiculed and grew angrier. But Kabir said, “Oh Emperor! Can you feel the distance between the heavens and the Earth? The distance between the Sun and the Moon can be filled with innumerable elephants and camels, yet we can see these stars through a drop in our eyes. The Emperor was so moved by the statement that he let him go.

Once the Emperor ordered him dead by tying him up to a stone and throwing him off a boat, after a few Brahmin priests had complained. But while the boat itself had drowned, Kabir was said to have been found unharmed and floating. When they tried to burn him, the fire wouldn’t take to his skin. They even accused him of being a witch and tried getting a mad elephant to stampede on him. But the animal got scared seeing Kabir and ran away – there are numerous myths of these nature surrounding Kabir.

Kabir did not receive a formal education. He did not know how to read and write. There is no evidence of him attending a school to learn of language and philosophy. Moreover, he had barely any experience with his weaving. Many are of the opinion that the “guru” he talks about in his texts refer to God or the Creator and that he did not have any mentors. However, researchers at times hold the opinion that he was a devotee of the Sufi mystic Sheikh Taqi. That he was massively influenced by Sufism isn’t of any doubt.  He had similarities with the Persian poets Attar, Hafez, Khayyam and Rumi. Besides, he was considered a key disciple of the Hindu Monotheist mystic Ramananda. Kabir hadn’t mentioned anyone directly in his texts. But through his songs, various interpretations are made by the public. Kabir’s principle teacher were the realizations of life. The hypocrisy, short-sightedness, superiority regarding one’s beliefs and inconsistencies of men and society around him angered him, it made him anxious. This torment had put him to the path of sage hood. Kabir characteristically expressed his perceptions through simple and irrefutable arguments devoid of any personal animosity toward anyone.

Kabir was not an ascetic who abandoned family to attain higher forms of consciousness. He lived with his wife and son and daughter. In his writings, he showed contempt against the sages who left their families. His wife was called Loi and his son and daughter were Kamal and Kamali. His second wife was Ramjania. According to Dr Ramkumar Verma, the second wife was possibly a prostitute. However, Kabir was not quite happy in his marriage. His family did not take lightly to this aversion toward them. Even though he earned his living by weaving, his poetry and philosophy never let him be much attentive in his day work.  Some days they would themselves be short of food after having to feed the devotees who came by to see him. He was thin, meditative and enthusiastic, hating to beg for alms to live.

We know from his works that he had visited many places. There’s news that he had gone to pilgrimage to Mecca as well. But it isn’t clear if he really physically visited the place or had a transcendental experience. Similarly, there isn’t any evidence of his visiting Baghdad, Bukhara and Samarkand. But it has been proved that he had visited many of the local pilgrimage sites around him.

Like his birth, his death has had a lot of opinion as well. Some say he lived till the age of eighty. Others maintain that he was alive when he was 120. There’re broadly four dates that could refer to his passing. 1447, 1511, 1517, and 1518 AD. There is doubt, too, about his resting place. Some say it’s in Ajodhya, some claim it to be in Puri. The Latter is mentioned in the Mughal Emperor Akbar’s book Ain-i-Akbari.

Kabir’s literature and philosophy

The divisions and discriminations of religion had a profound effect on him. The communal conflict and the blatant ownership of God deeply tormented him. He had a realization that God did not exist for any particular religion or people. He wasn’t a single entity either, but omnipresent. However, the reasons for his realizations were not due the irrationalities of the devotees but because of the overarching philosophical conflicts of his time. The clash and assimilation of various societies with the Indian way of living had given birth to a myriad of philosophies and religions in the region. Among them, the radical ones, which professed to one sect’s superiority over the other were beginning to widen separatism in society. The first of these great conflicts were between the Aryans and Non-Aryans. It took many years for the two to assimilate.

Kabir and Rabindranath

Rabindranath had a prominent role in spreading Kabir’s words in Bengal. About a hundred years ago in 1910, he had written a preface to a book of translations of Kabir’s poetry. Kabir was among the few poets whose works were preserved at Santiniketon. Of course, Kabir’s fame was not unknown before in our country, but people knew of him from the verses that were common and thought of as mediocre and sectarian. Kshitimohan Sen had grown up in Varanasi, among the saints there, nursing a love for Kabir from a young age. A few months before his translations had come out from Shantinekton’s press, Rabindranath had published Gitanjoli. It was not possible to avoid drawing comparisons, with some claiming Rabindranath was inspired by the sage’s poetry. In Prasanta Kumar Pal’s biography of Tagore, the matter is discussed at length. He had written that in the original manuscript of Gitanjoli, there were poetry of various poets of such ages written over. Dr. Ramesshor Mishra thought they were written by Rabindranath, but Prasanta could not agree with him. He had maintained that Kabir had been well-known as a poet over the years. Even before Kshitimohan’s translation, it would not have been unlikely for the young poet to have been aware of Kabir. Kshitimohan himself had dwelled on the matter saying that he had introduced Kabir’s poetry to Rabindranath after reading Gitanjoli and finding the similarities in the balance of tone.

Whatever the case was, the fact that Rabindranath and Kabir wrote in a similar spirit cannot be denied. Rabindranath was heavily influenced by the Persian Sufis. One could clearly see the presence of both Sufism and Vaishnavism in Gitanjoli. Rabindranath’s father was a devotee of the Persian poet Hafez, an influence his son had inherited from him. He had talked about this when visiting Iran at the end of his life. “My father was an admirer of Hafez,” he had said, “I have listened to his recitations and translations many a time. It is that beauty of Iran that has entered my heart during my travels here.” Around this time, he was studying Sufi theory as well. Therefore, one cannot claim it was solely Kabir who had an influence on Tagore’s Gitanjoli. But Kabir did have an effect on Rabindranath, if for a little while. This is what I intend to discuss here.

Rabindranath began to work on Gitanjoli in the early 1900s. He had written to Kshitimohan around then, saying, “I have been expecting Kabir. Do not delay. The next year he wrote back to say, “Give my respects to him.” From these letters we can see that Rabindranath had a good deal of interest on Kabir. In one of those letters he had maintained, “I have told you. One should not deviate from the principle aspect. If there is ambiguity regarding the literalness, then be it. Some of it is needed, or else the poetry loses some of its meaning.

“It is better to use the next most literal word when there is no direct translation possible. Kabir uses “word” to express his songs and it seems that particular word does not work in all instances. There is a historicity to “word” – one thinks of a child’s first cry, the first chants of creation. It is quite simpler and more complex than a song.”

Published as part of Shantiniketon’s book series, Kshitimohan wrote in the preface of his translation that without the encouragement and help of Rabindranath he could not have been able to publish a work like this, that he was quite grateful to him. Rabindranath had a hands-on approach to Kabir’s translated poetry. That this happened around the time the poet was writing Gitanjoli was a thing of co-incidence. Kshitimohan himself had talked of how he had brought Kabir to the poet’s attention after hearing about Gitanjoli.

However, the matter has refused to die down. In books of Kabir, there has often been calls for Rabindranath to recognize the debt of Kabir in his texts, that Tagore’s mysticism had arrived solely from Kabir, which was merely given an occidental polish to accommodate the Poet’s international audience. That Rabindranath’s fame came from a decoration of mysticism for the pleasure of Europeans. Even as one notices the ludicrousness of such claims, it is understandable that much of Rabindranath’s spiritualism is a product of Sufi mysticism. Moreover, there was always a strain of India’s old traditions that included Kalidasa and the worship of beauty. He had discovered the bauls when looking for folk literature in his youth. He was fascinated with Lalon. However, Kshitimohan Sen had claimed that Rabindranath was not one to be heavily influences by these mystics. “The era of Gitanjoli came head to head with the revival of these mystics. No one is indebted to anyone here.”

But how much of Kabir was on Rabindranath’s mind? Many would go ahead and say a great deal. That he had devoted to Kabir more so than Gitanjoli in this period. Perhaps the indulgence toward both texts was a united effort in the pursuit of true worship. Two events around this time are noteworthy. One is Ajit Kumar Chakravarty’s translation of Kabir under Rabindranath’s guidance and the other is his own translations of Kabir. This was when Ezra Pound, too, was interested in Kabir’s poetry. There is no doubt that it was Tagore who had got Pound into it during their discussions on mysticism. Helped by his encouragement, Pound, who had little knowledge of Hindi or Kabir, made ten translations of Kabir’s poetry with the help of Kalimohan Ghosh. They were published in the 1913 January issue of Modern Review under the title, “Certain Poems of Kabir/ Translated by Kali Mohan Ghosh and Ezra Pound/ From the edition of Mr. Kshitimohan Sen.”

Rabindranath could have had the biggest scandal in his life regarding Kabir due to Ajit Kumar’s English translation. Ajit Kumar had decided to translate about 114 poems from the 4-volume work of Kshitimohan Sen while enjoying his summer vacation in Orissa. He was helped by Pearson. Rabindranath had to face quite a lot of criticism after winning the novel, both at home and abroad. In his travels to America and Britain, he had to explain the mysticism apparent in Gitanjoli. Moreover, when the text was published there, many Christian preachers had taken to saying that Christ had said it way before already. That Rabindranath had written these inspired by Christ’s sayings. This was a reason why Rabindranath felt it was important for the West to be acquainted with medieval poets and mystics such as Kabir, so that the long Indian tradition of spiritualism wasn’t co-opted by the West as one of their own. He even wanted to take Kshitimohan there and get to translating some of this poetry himself. He wished to show that the sages in India were preaching these truths long before the Europeans had arrived in their shores. If there is a sliver of debt that Rabindranath should recognize it is in this context. Gitanjoli is not a deviation from Indian poetry; rather it is part of the land’s grand tradition. However, Rabindranath’s own translations did not seem to have gone far enough. He relied on Ajit Kumar’s.

Before leaving for America, Rabindranath was introduced to Evelyn Underhill, a catholic writer and pacifist. She was a great admirer of both Jesus and Indian mysticism, authoring a book on the subject in 1911 called Mysticism. Rabindranath had referred to her as quite highly educated and influential in his letters. Tagore had even told Kshitimohan that with her help it would be possible to publish Kabir’s biography and poetry from Harvard University, urging him to take all necessary equipment with him. He had told Ajit Kumar that with the help of Ms. Underhill they would polish their translations and make it worth publishing. A review of the correspondence is enough to see that this translation project would come out under Ajit Kumar’s name. But that did not happen in the end. It came out as One Hundred Poems of Kabir, as translated by Rabindranath Tagore with a preface by Underhill. Both Ajit Kumar and Kshitimohan were left upset at this. How this had happened no one could know clearly. Whether it was Underhill’s doing or of Rabindranath himself, one could not know. From reading Rabindranath’s letters, it was quite evident that he had also thought the manuscript would come out under Ajit Kumar‘s name. He had assured him as such in more than one letters. That Underhill might cut him out was on the mind of Ajit and Rabindranath had written to him saying, “You have misunderstood. Evelyn does not wish to take your name off the Kabir Manuscript. Secondly, it is not my wish to leave you and Kshitimohan out financially.” In another letter he had said, “I don’t know how your book would do financially. Of course, there won’t be any lack of trying, but it is better to not hope much. Be content with what they give you.” What had happened, really, for Ajit Kumar’s name to be cut off then. All we have in this case are conjecture. No concrete facts. Underhill in her preface had merely thanked Ajit and Kshitimohan and nothing more.

This had sparked a bit of controversy then and Rabindranath was accused of depriving Ajit Kumar his credit. Rabindranath’s explanations regarding this matter was that it wasn’t intentional. That he did not even know this had happened until it was too late. It was Macmillan house that did this to bring more sales to the book. Rabindranath claimed to have sent in Ajit’s name under the title, but the publishers had disregarded it. It was the West’s commercialism at play, he said.

“Getting into the literary scene here is quite difficult. One is hard-pressed to enter if they don’t possess any reputation beforehand,” he said. But whatever Tagore’s excuse was, many did not see it sympathetically. Referring to his letters to Ajit, many pointed out his growing fascination with the manuscript. In one of the letters Rabindranath had said, “I finished the Kabir book after all this while. It seems that if I had done these translations it would’ve taken me far less an effort to read them through. I’ve had to write many poems but yours does make one clap. There is no doubt that Rabindranath got most of the credit for the Kabir book that Macmillan had published. But many found the omission of Ajit had left a bad taste. Many felt his name should have at least been part of the conversation.

Categories: Essay, LiteraryArt

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