Review: Songs of Kabir by Rabindranath Tagore

Title: Songs of Kabir

Author Kabir

Genre: Poetry, Religion. Mysticism, Sufism, Spirituality

First Published in 1518

Year of Publication of this Edition: 2012

Publisher: Start Publishing LLC

Translator: Rabindranath Tagore

Introduction by Evelyn Underhill

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

For today’s second post, I’m going to review a poetry collection entitled Songs of Kabir, which is written by the Indian saint and mystic poet Kabir and it is translated into English by another famous Indian poet, Rabindranath Tagore.

What I understood from Evelyn Underhill’s presentation of Kabir’s life and poems is that Kabir was the Muslim disciple of the Hindu ascetic Râmânanda, who wanted to reconcile the Islamic mysticism of the Persian poets Attar, Saadi, Jalaladin Rumi and Hafez with traditional Hinduism. Many aspects of Kabir’s life are unclear and contradictory, but what you need to know is that he is recognised as a saint, both by the Sufis and the Hindus, the two beliefs that strongly influence his poetic work. However, some scholars say that Kabir’s poems also have traces of Jewish and Hellenistic Christian thought, but not everyone agrees with this theory, even though there are poems which reminded me of the Biblical Song of Solomon, with its famous metaphor of the bride and the Bridegroom.

According to both Hindu and Islamic ecclesiastical authorities, “Kabir was plainly a heretic, and his frank dislikes of all institutional religion, all external observance (…) completed, so far as ecclesiastical opinion was concerned, his reputation as a dangerous man” (Loc.66-67). Perhaps Kabir was seen as a heretic because he thought that between the soul and God intermediaries like priests, rituals or temples were unnecessary substitutes for the real faith. Therefore, the religion he believed in was more accessible to the poor than to the sages who were educated in the spirit of Islam or Hinduism.

Because of this type of direct bond with God, Kabir was constantly persecuted by religious authorities. Legend has it that Brahmans sent a courtesan to tempt Kabir, but she ended up a convert like Mary Magdalene “by her sudden encounter with the initiate of a higher love”. (Loc. 78). In another episode of his life, Kabir was banished from his hometown by Emperor Sikandar Lodi, in order to maintain the peace in Benares.

Kabir’s poems are truly fascinating because they form an interesting combination between Sufism and Hinduism. In this poetry collection you will find the well-known  mystic metaphors depicting the transcendental bond between the mystic and God (the guru and the disciple, the Bridegroom and the bride, the Lord and the slave), the ecstasy or the longing for the presence of the Divine Teacher, Comrade or Fakir to whose feet the lover bows obediently.

But here the Lord is Brahma, who reveals Himself through Unstruck Music of the Universe, which can be heard only by illuminated mystics like Kabir, who detached himself from his ego, in order to let Love fill his heart. He found the Truth and realised that both material and spiritual world are as one because God is within everything and everything is within God. Therefore, Kabir’s Union with the Supreme Spirit is made through Love and not through Knowledge. As well as in Rumi’s poems, we find the recurrent theme of the ecstatic dance, but here, instead of the Whirling Dervishes, we have the Eternal Swing of the Universe which is “held by the cords of love” (Loc.161).

The poems are written in vernacular Hindi rather than in the literary tongue of the ecclesiastical class, they contain simple metaphors and symbols drawn from everyday life (e.g. the bird, the pilgrim, the weaver). As in the Persian poets’ mystic works, we find that Kabir’s name is placed towards the end of the poems, which symbolises a kind of signature of the poet in Medieval Middle-Eastern poetry, a period when copyright laws weren’t invented yet.

I found a few editing mistakes here and there, but they don’t alter the reading and comprehension of the text very much. I hope that you enjoyed my review for the Songs of Kabir. For more book reviews and other literary and non-literary topics, don’t forget to like my facebook page or subscribe to the newsletter. Until next time!

Leave a Reply