Kabir and Niirguna Bhakti

In Kabir’s poems, I find all of what I most cherish about Yoga: a departure from stale assumptions and dogma, a radical egalitarianism, a celebration of art as sacred, and an exquisite poetic expression of mystic experience. In the last year I have given two workshops at conferences in Canada (Renaissance in Toronto last August, and Whistler this past May) in an attempt to share my passion for Kabir and his busting up preconceived ideas about yoga, devotion, medieval poets, and sacredness. But first, an overview: Who is Kabir?

Kabir lived in the middle ages sometime during the 1400s, and was the son of a weaver from a caste that had largely converted to Islam during the Mogul colonization of Northern India. As such he was influenced by and had knowledge of both Hindu and Muslim tradition, and he both criticized the dogmas of both religions while reveling in the ecstatic wisdom of their mystical truths. In the Yoga Tradition, Georg Feuerstein describes Kabir as “a spirited spokesman for simple and direct devotion to the Divine who never failed to point out the inherent limitations of all external or conventional religious forms (p. 390). Kabir rejects idols, or anthropomorphic representations of God, and yet exudes a sweet, ecstatic spirit of Bhaktas who cultivate the devotional relationship with a particular form or representation of divinity. I have called this niirguna bhakti – devotional love of the Divine without attributes. Often in his poems we find Pure Being described as inexpressible, and unknowable – but ironically, the beauty of his metaphors and poetic expression help us to do both.

In the workshops I traced Kabir’s philosophy as I see it, and the group found poetic phrases to match each aspect of thought.

  • Egalitarian and accessible
  • Direct, or Gnostic (without need of priests or intermediaries in spiritual experience)
  • Experiential – simple – holistic (not separate from mundane experience)
  • Non-sectarian

Firstly, Kabir’s poems express his belief in monism – that Divinity is both within and without. As such, it is equally possible for all beings to tap into that essence.

Kabir Says: If I say that He is within me, the universe is ashamed: If I say that He is without me, it is falsehood.” (Songs of Kabir, Tagore, 53)

In keeping with this, it makes sense that teachings would be accessible to all regardless of caste, sex, class etc. Not only would the teachings and experience of Divinity be accessible to all, but the prized position of ‘teacher’ then topples, as each person has within them the very wholeness that is sought.

Kabir Says :”In the word prem (love) there are just two and a half syllables. Whoever knows this can become a pundit.”

Kabir goes further and really pokes at the power disparity between teacher and student that can be exacerbated beyond a normal, healthy respect. The true realized one recognizes the Divinity of the student.

“Thou and I are one!” This trumpet proclaims. The guru comes and bows down before the disciple: This is the greatest of wonders. (Songs of Kabir, Tagore, 76-77)

If we are Divine, and therefore the experience of Oneness is inherent to us, then spirituality need not be separated from worldly life; it need not be difficult, or hard to attain; we need not renounce the world or avoid savouring nature and the arts.

“Kabir says, listen, you saintly men, forget all this vanity. I’ve said it so many times but nobody really listens – you must merge into the simple state simply.” (Kabir: The Weaver’s Songs by Dharwadkar, 63)

“Why put on the robes of the monk and live aloof from the world in lonely pride? Behold my heart dances in the delight of a hundred arts and the Creator is well pleased.” (Songs of Kabir, Tagore, 80)

Kabir is very Tantric in his insistence that the sacred is the mundane: sacredness is not separate from creation. And also that revelling in the Arts is a form of spiritual practice. I find also the insistence on simplicity and nearness so refreshing. Meaning that no specific rituals are required, but that our own created or co-created rituals are equally valuable, our own experience of embodiment, breath.

“Why look for me anywhere else my friend, when I’m here in your possession? Not in temples, not in mosques – not in the Ka’bah, not on Kailash. Not in rites, not in rituals – not in yoga or renunciation. Look for Me and you’ll find Me quickly – all it takes is one moment’s search. Kabir says, listen, O brothers – He’s the very breath of our breaths.” (Kabir: The Weaver’s Songs by Dharwadkar, 195)

Because no specific cultural rituals are required, it is a non-sectarian or non-denominational approach. This is further emphasized by Kabir’s exclusive use of abstract or elemental images to refer to the Divine, which for me harkens back to the shamanic roots of yoga.

Some say that without the evocation of concrete relationship in worship there cannot be devotion. And yet, Kabir’s poetry evokes in me strong devotional and mystical feeling. I’ll leave you with one of my favourite phrases.

“Kabir says: It cannot be told by words of the mouth, it cannot be written on paper: It is like a mute person who tastes a sweet thing – how can it be explained.” (Songs of Kabir, Tagore, 121)

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An Eye for an Eye Makes the Whole World Blind

Tonight American news anchors reported the “jubilance of Washington” at the death of Osama Bin Laden. This causes me to pause, as I cannot relate to this style of discourse. Jubilant is a word I would have expected in conjunction with the Royal Wedding, not the death of a terrorist.

We tell our children not to routinely ‘hit back’ in the school yard, to use words, and to seek mediation. Of course I’m not suggesting that this complex web of international conflict can be easily navigated, especially in the situation of terrorism. But perhaps a more mature and sober reflection on what has gone on would better model our values.

I believe Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye just makes the whole world blind”. Unfortunately tonight I heard reports that before election President Obama said, “We’ll kill Bin Laden”. What about the idea of capture, of trial, if possible? What about the idea of restraining anti-social individuals from society rather than joining in on the violence by exterminating them. I can understand that it might not be possible to capture a terrorist alive, but to set out not to do so is a completely different thing. To rejoice afterwards, even more morally suspect.

Yoga scriptures and the broader Indian wisdom tradition offer us the concept of ahimsa – non-harming. We intend no harm, or the least possible harm. Sutra I:33 offers valuable insight here: “Calmness of mind is achieved by cultivating friendliness towards the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous and dispassion for those who have done wrong”. This last bit is the trickiest for many of us. What is dispassion? Just like Jesus’ “turning the other cheek”, it does not mean letting people get away with things, but rather that peace cannot begin with violence. The surprise caused by an absence of vitriol, the absence of retaliation may open a space for change, a space for dialogue, a space for different responses. Dispassion means letting go of our visceral reactions of anger, condemnation, and retaliation and simply responding to situations as skillfully as we can. I heard recently on the CBC about a woman meeting a man who had been imprisoned for IRA bombings that killed her father. They were able to hear one another’s story; to open themselves to compassion; to understand better the complexities that led to violence, and the fruitlessness of violence.

Post 9/11, I think there was a real inner call for us as a global society to try to reduce discrimination, religious intolerance and economic and power disparity that are the breeding grounds of distrust, hatred and violence. Maybe this type of mandate could have shone a light on what to do about the perpetrators of mass violence, and how to approach justice. Tonight broadcasters are speaking for the American public about gladness and justice. I feel that this discourse shrouds us in the dim. Since when did the death of another person, no matter who, make anyone truly glad. The story of the English woman and the former IRA bomber really touched me, and was an incredible demonstration of what can happen when we open the door to dialogue, and let go of hatred. As in the above sutra, calmness of mind, closure, peace, can only come when we let go of automatic reactions and judgements.

I do not feel death is a vindication. Violence begets more violence.

I put the intention for peace. I put the intention to remind myself in my daily life to act to reduce the illusion of separation.

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