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Remembering Weaver-Saint Kabir in Varanasi

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By Bhaswati Ghosh

His death in Benares
Won’t save the assassin
From certain hell, Any more than a dip
In the Ganges will send
Frogs — or you — to paradise.
My home, says Kabir,
Is where there’s no day, no night,
And no holy book in sight
To squat on our lives. 

(Kabir, Translation: Arvind Krishna Mehrotra)

It is where people pollute a river to cleanse their sins and cremate the dead to ensure their direct ascendance to heaven. It is where widows spend their exile and new brides go to buy saris to adorn themselves on their wedding night. It is where strains of the shehnai and the sitar glide through the streets even as the lilt of a thumri strikes them mid-air. Currently, it — Varanasi, Benares or Kashi — is also the heart of India’s election battle. In this ancient city, riddled with contradictions of modernity, more than 600 years ago, a weaver-poet spun a timeless tapestry of lived wisdom. As the political debate surrounding the Indian elections becomes increasingly strident, there couldn’t be a better time to summon Kabir to one’s consciousness.

Alakh Elahi ek hai, nam darya do/ Ram Rahim ek hai, naam darya do/ Krishna Karim ek hai, naam darya do/ Kashi Kaba ek hai, ek Ram Rahim. [Alakh (the Invisible) and Elahi (the Lord) are one, with two names/ Ram and Rahim are one, with two names/ Krishna and Karim are one, with two names/ Kashi and Kaaba are but one, with two names.]

Ranked way down on the social ladder and of ambiguous religious background, Kabir had thus resolved the Hindu-Muslim debate. Without mincing words, he declared Kashi — another name for Benares, revered as a holy pilgrimage by Hindus and Kaaba — the Muslim holy shrine — were the same, just known by different names. Like his unifying world view, Kabir himself embodies the synthesis that Benares is — where generations of his own ilk of Muslim weavers and devout Hindus worshipping the Ganga and its mythological creator, Shiva, have lived next to each other without much ado or incident.

National elections in India are invariably a time of “vote-bank” politics, a euphemism for seeking votes along lines of religion, caste or regional identities. From the leader of a right-wing party declaring Pakistan is the place for those opposing that party’s prime ministerial candidate to others meeting with religious leaders to solicit votes, whether in the name of secularism or the need to protect their community’s interests, the campaign pitch is acquiring brazenly communal overtones. Kabir, too, had witnessed the divisive effects of caste, class and religion. Yet, despite absorbing influences from Nath, Tantric, Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim traditions and faiths, he places the greatest emphasis on direct experience when it comes to self-realisation.

Hindu kahe mohi Ram piyara, Turk kahe Rahamana,/ Aapas me dou ladi-ladi muye, maram na kou jaana. [The Hindu calls Ram his beloved, for the Turk (Muslim) it’s Rahman,/ Both fight against each other, neither knows how to heal.]

For someone who did not renounce the worldly life in search of enlightenment, but rather remained in the thick of it, working hard for a living, Kabir, through his defiant and colourful satire, remains a torchbearer for mavericks. He is the wise fellow who stands in the marketplace wishing everyone well, without affirming friendship or enmity with anyone. As Indians find themselves drowning in a deluge of campaigns, marked by media blitz and personality-centric messages, Kabir’s observation — that it is a rare person who truly listens and understands when most are moved by hype — strikes as sharply pertinent.
Aisa koi na mila, samjhe sune sujan/ Dhol damama na sune, surat bihuna ka (Rare are those who listen and discern/ And are not moved by mere song and dance)

Notwithstanding, or rather because of, his steadfast resistance to man-made denominations, Kabir remains a passionate lover. His verses on love, mostly an expression of the relationship between the human and the divine, could well be a touchstone for lovers in the temporal realm. When Kabir breaks free, he does so with total abandon.

Haman hai ishq mastana/ Haman ko hoshiyari kya/ Rahen azad ya jag mein/ Haman duniya se yaari kya [Bursting with love am I,/ Unconcerned and carefree,/ Free am I of this world,/ What do I care about worldly relations?]

Kabir’s tryst with the material world is that of a scale-less, smooth-skinned fish that swims in a muddied river, yet remains unblemished. Today’s market-bound consumers can glean much from his counsel to lead an austere but meaningful life. What makes his poetry accessible to everyone — from the housewife to the trader and the activist — is his use of everyday language and metaphors from the world around him: flintstones and oil, the weaver’s loom and the grinding stone, the potter’s wheel and the ascetic’s rosary. In his verses, Kabir borrowed freely from a number of dialects in circulation (Bhojpuri and Awadhi among them) during his time. Scholar Hazari Prasad Dwivedi, whose work on Kabir is considered path-breaking, called the weaver-poet “a dictator of language”.” Dwivedi based this curious observation on Kabir’s ability to have his language express whatever he wanted to. Unlettered and unschooled as he was, this wise weaver wasn’t shy of taking a dig at the pseudo-intellectual or the phony ascetic. Without striving, he summarized the essence of self-knowledge in one of his best-known couplets. Pothi Padh Padh Kar Jag Mua, Pandit Bhayo Na Koye/ Dhai Aakhar Prem Ke, Jo Padhe so Pandit Hoye (Poring through tomes, the world is beaten tired and none the wiser/ Wise is the one who reads the single syllable of love)

Varanasi will go to the polls soon. The bustling confluence of burning ghats, paan shops, temples, mosques and ritual-draping sadhus shall contend with loud rallies and stage-managed road shows, claims and accusations — many of them possibly laced with Benares-inspired motifs. As the mercury on India’s election thermometer  continues to rise, Kabir, in his inimitable style and tone cautions against pride and overconfidence. Kabira Garv Na Keejiye, Uncha Dekh Aavaas/ Kaal Paron Bhuin Letna, Ooper Jamsi Ghaas (Kabir, don’t be proud, seeing your high mansion/ Death will bring you down to earth, with just grass on top.) Whether those eyeing the highest office by virtue of vainglory are actually brought to their knees remains to be seen. All the same, at a time when hate speeches and banal personal attacks seem to be the order of the day, the message of Kabir, the fearless and arguably subversive word-weaver, remains a trusted talisman of Varanasi’s conscience.


Bhaswati Ghosh writes and translates fiction and non-fiction. Her website:

[This piece was first published in DNA.]

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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Lucknow’s Many Muslims”. Edited by Prof. Nadeem Hasnain & Aseem Hasnain. The rich array of essays explores various facets of Lucknow, a ‘Muslim city par excellence.’

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