Kabir, a 15th century saint and poet from India, wrote poems that rallied against organized religion and called for divine experience rather than dogma. His poems are usually simple but profound, having metaphors that are easy even for lay people to understand, with some exceptions. In a land full of religions and spiritual practices, Kabir exposed the hypocrisy of rituals practiced by those where he lived. His poems are still potent today, and we can still learn from his poetry in our time of jihad, Christian-democratic wars, and battles between religious sects.
I will present the poem first in its entirety and then I will analyze it. The English version was translated from original Hindi by renowned poet Rabindranath Tagore.
There is nothing but water in the holy bathing places
and I know that they are useless, for I have bathed in them.
The images are all lifeless, they cannot speak–
I know, for I have cried aloud to them.
The Purana and the Koran are mere words–
lifting up the curtain, I have seen.
Kabir gives utterance to the words of experience
and he knows very well that all other things are untrue.
We can look at each stanza, deciphering its meaning.
There is a tradition in India to bathe in waters deemed holy. It is believed these waters will cleanse people’s spiritual state and even rectify individuals for their past mistakes. Kabir is saying this belief is mere superstition rather than fact. This is an important message, as people in India generally believe this to be so true, that they bathe in a holy river one time and think they have been released from of all of their karma.
The images he is talking about are the idols people worship, usually in the form of the gods Vishnu, Shiva, Brahma, or Ganesha. Kabir is essentially saying God is formless, and cannot be placed in idols, which are human made. In Hinduism, it is a common practice to place idols in temples, in the home, or in the workplace and worship them as God itself.
This is a controversial stanza, as Muslims regard the Koran as the absolute word of God, untarnished. This is also true for most religious people and the holy books they use. But Kabir believes these holy books are not experiential, and therefore merely words. When he says “lifting up the curtain” he means to say he saw the holy books in person, which were usually only read by high people in society at the time, and not a weaver like Kabir.
This stanza explains why Kabir displayed his animosity towards the holy bathing places, idols, and holy books. He says only experience is the true spirituality and not completing rituals. The mundane activities we do in life cannot connect us to God, but only the experience of God itself can give us salvation.
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