The universal bhakt
A JNU professor uses Kabir’s verses as a springboard to discuss issues of immediate relevance to contemporary readers
Why did Purushottam Agrawal choose to write the book Kabir, Kabir: The Life and Work of the Early Modern Poet-philosopher? Hasn’t enough been written about the 15th century mystic and rebel from Varanasi? Do we really need one more book about a man whose poetry can be found in school textbooks, satsangs, protest marches, literary gatherings, music festivals and documentary films?
These are valid questions but do not let them keep you from reading Agrawal’s book, which is enhanced by Devdutt Pattanaik’s charming illustrations. His writing flows out of a lifelong engagement with the poet and the poetry. Agrawal refuses to curate Kabir to suit Marxist, feminist, Hindu, Muslim or any other affiliations. He is a lover, not defender, of Kabir’s poetry.
The author writes, “Kabir’s constant interrogation of the social structures and prejudices of his time makes him an icon for progressive, secular and liberal voices, but they tend to gloss over or maintain a calculated silence about the spiritual and mystical aspects of his thought and personality.”
Kabir, Kabir, which is written in English, comes 12 years after his book Akath Kahani Prem Ki: Kabir Ki Kavita aur Unka Samay (2009), which was written in Hindi. The new work is not a translation or old wine packaged in a new bottle. It offers more than a biography would. It uses Kabir’s verses as a springboard to discuss issues of immediate relevance to contemporary readers.
Agrawal writes, “It has become commonplace to believe that ‘reason’ dismisses any alternative to itself as pathology…kabir privileges human reason but does not reject intuition, mysticism and the idiom of mythology and miracles.” The author clarifies that Kabir, as a poet of the nirgun tradition — that is, a worshipper of god without form — uses the name “Ram” to refer to his divine beloved who dwells everywhere and in everyone, including his heart.
This point has been made before but it deserves to be repeated as long as there are sinister forces using the name of Ram to spread hatred and create divisions. Kabir is defined by his bhakti or devotion, which is intimately connected to his social critique. He is a bhakt but not in the disparaging sense of the term used to talk about uncritical followers who worship political leaders. Kabir prefers a direct, intimate relationship with God, without any intermediaries — be it a pandit or a maulvi.
The biggest takeaway from this book might be Agrawal’s insights on Kabir as an exemplar of “vernacular modernity” who spoke against unjust social structures and upheld individual dignity. What does Kabir say? This is how Agrawal puts it. “If Ram is everywhere, if he is Jagjivan and can be reached by purity of heart and mind, if he and I are essentially the same, then how are some people ‘untouchable’ for no crime of theirs and some venerated with no achievement to their credit?”
Agrawal, who has served as professor and chairperson at Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Centre of Indian Languages, argues that modernity was not a gift to India from the British; it arose from within thanks to Kabir and other poets of the Bhakti movement. Their contribution is undervalued because colonial scholarship has promoted the damaging idea that “anything sensible and worthwhile that might exist in the Indian traditions could be found only in Sanskrit and Persian texts”.
This prejudice sets up a hierarchy, insinuating that some languages are superior and others inferior. Agrawal reprimands scholars and “proud Hindus” who have internalised the notion that “the Bhakti poets in the ‘medieval’ period were merely rehashing aspects of ancient wisdom in the idiom of love and devotion”. He rejects the “dismissal of deshbhasha sources” as it assumes that Kabir and other Bhakti poets “did not have the capacity to make any intellectual departures or innovations”.
This book will make you think about how, by assigning descriptors such as “medieval” and “modern”, the academic establishment participates in obscuring
This book will make you think about how, by assigning descriptors like “medieval” and “modern”, the academic establishment takes part in obscuring the harms of colonial rule
the harms of colonial rule which extend to knowledge production. Agrawal points out, for instance, that some British scholars in the colonial era have described Kabir as “the Indian Luther”. He proceeds to challenge the comparison because Martin Luther, the theologian who initiated the Protestant Reformation, was anti-semitic.
Agrawal writes, “This man considered Jewish people vile and born liars. Indeed, he authored a book titled On the Jews and Their Lies, in which he calls them ‘vermin’, demands the destruction of their home and claims he and his people are to blame for having left Jewish people alive.” Such cruelty has absolutely no place in Kabir’s poetry. He did not judge people by their caste or religion.
This book will also push you to explore the links between European modernity, the colonial plunder of Asia, Africa and the Americas, the role of Christian missionaries, industrial revolution and intercontinental slave trade. Agrawal is in full form when he questions the basis for Britain’s pride in its rationality, and its patronising attitude towards the rest of the world, by citing its blasphemy law, anti-witchcraft act, and the persecution of gay men — practices that seem far from modern.
Thankfully, Agrawal’s critical gaze is also directed at the misogyny in Kabir’s poetry. The poet adopts “a female persona” to address Ram but condemns women as obstacles to spiritual practice.
Agrawal writes, “How is it that no female Bhakti poet — Mirabai, Andal, Lal Ded, Sahjobai — is found condemning the male as a device to control and reorient their sexual desire? And does it not sound rather peculiar, even amusing, to condemn the other sex as a means to control one’s own sexual desire?” According to him, Kabir should learn that “if you want to control your sexual desire, work on yourself instead of blaming your weakness on the other sex”.
Is Agrawal asking readers to cancel the poet? No. He urges us to move away from total acceptance and total rejection. Wisdom lies in embracing what is beneficial, and discarding the rest.