Like most Indian school children, I studied about Kabir the Saint; like all school children, I banished him from my brain post-exams. If prodded (at knife-point), I might have remembered him as the one who said it didn’t matter whether you were Hindu or Muslim, and cited the legend about mourners squabbling over religious dibs at his funeral (cremate or inter?) only to find that Kabir’s body had been magically replaced by easy-to-apportion flowers.
So really, I didn’t know anything about Kabir, until the folks at Tulika Books asked if I’d be interested in this book review. Jaya Madhavan’s Kabir the Weaver-Poet has now rooted Kabir in my mind as a gadfly who delighted in offending fundamentalists of all stripes, a religious poet whose work showcases an earthy, entertaining wit, a mystic as much as a logician, and a non-conformist who really didn’t give a damn about public opinion. He might be a saint, but he was quite the dude.
So, who was Kabir? Born circa the fourteenth century, he is generally regarded as “the first Indian saint to have harmonised Hinduism and Islam by preaching a universal path which both Hindus and Muslims could tread together.” Of unknown parentage, he was brought up in a Muslim household, and was a weaver by profession, which of course seems peculiarly apt given his predilection for amalgamating contradictory religious dogmas. His poetry exhorts people to discover God through simplicity and goodness while shunning the accoutrements of organized religion; the latter earned him powerful enemies amongst the establishment, with nasty consequences. This story could unfold today, and not much would be different. Gulp.
Kabir… is aimed at the 12 years plus group, and Madhavan uses several interesting devices to hold her readers’ attention, such as a story paced over twenty-four hours, an abundance of weaving metaphors, and multiple narrators including anthropomorphic weaving equipment–a thread, loom, spindle etc. chat with each other about Kabir. And thankfully, the author’s account of this saint’s life is no hagiography. Madhavan offers inventive factual explanations for miracles attributed to Kabir without diminishing his persona, and her rueful, animated narrative makes you wonder why Kabir courts trouble as he does (he advocates for vegetarianism at a market meat-stall), even as you admire his steadfastness. And Kabir’s poetry adds further zing to the story. “Take ten cows, differently colored, yet the milk is the same,” he says, thus offending Pundits and Mullahs in equal measure.
I felt a sense of impending doom along the narrative (the first chapter warns that Kabir might be in for a sticky end), and the last section, which features a vicious outbreak of communal violence, will disturb younger readers. But the essential truth of Kabir’s arguments shines forth for readers of all ages, as does the joy this man found in his eschewal of all that was narrow-minded and ugly. Madhavan’s portrayal ultimately had me remarking on Kabir’s sanity rather than his saintliness, and that’s perhaps the best compliment I could pay this beautifully-imagined account of one’s man campaign to change the world. And you know what? He did.*
*According to Wiki, Kabir’s “…writings have greatly influenced the Bhakti movement…Apart from having an important influence on Sikhism, Kabir’s legacy is today carried forward by the Kabir Panth (“Path of Kabir”), a religious community [whose] members, known as Kabir panthis, are estimated to be around 9,600,000.”
Kabir’s influence is felt in popular culture even today. Check out The Kabir Project, which describes contemporary film and music themed around Kabir’s philosophy. The films look absolutely fascinating; won’t someone send me a Region 1 DVD?
This review is part of the Kabir blogfest, organized by Tulika in association with the Kabir Project. “You can also blog about Kabir, write about how you have been touched by his poetry or the stories around his life or write about how you have responded to him.” Please, do.