Songs of the saint

Published : Jan 25, 2024 11:00 IST - 9 MINS READ

A painting from 1733 by Alam Chand Raj showing Kabir (top, left) with Guru Nanak and Mardana.

A painting from 1733 by Alam Chand Raj showing Kabir (top, left) with Guru Nanak and Mardana. | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

In the emended Kabir Granthawali, Purushottam Agrawal provides a scholarly introduction, making it an invaluable companion for researchers.

Of all the collections of Kabir’s verses, both old and new, Kabir Granthawali edited by Babu Shyamsundar Das and published in 1928 by Nagari Pracharini Sabha continues to be the most read and followed by Hindi readers outside Kabirpanth, especially in academic circles. Based on two Rajasthani manuscripts, one purportedly from 1504 and the other from 1824, the Granthawali has 403 pads, 809 sakhis, and seven ramainis. It also has 222 pads and 192 sakhis from the Adi Granth in the appendix. The date of the older manuscript has been disputed and is now placed circa 1620.

Kabir Granthawali: Parimarjit Paath
Edited by Shyamsunder Das, introduction and emendation by Purushottam Agrawal
Rajkamal Prakashan Pvt Ltd
Pages: 480
Price: Rs.499

In the nearly 100 years of its existence, the Granthawali has had numerous editions. However, the errors that occurred in the first edition, mainly due to indifferent proofreading, persisted in the subsequent editions. Generations of readers were faced with a flawed text, which often led to misreading and confusion.

The writer and academic Purushottam Agrawal admits in the introduction to the emended edition under review that as a researcher he had to struggle initially to decipher the verses. But he kept at it, and the result of his labour is the revised Hindi edition with corrected text. He has also written a comprehensive introduction and included in the appendix two pads from the Adi Granth that were left out in the original edition and 15 pads of Kabir found in the Fatehpur manuscript of 1582, the oldest manuscript with Kabir’s verses discovered so far.

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While the corrected Granthawali text is quite close to the texts of verses available in the oldest extant manuscripts, there remains the problem of authenticity since there is no urtext of Kabir, as is often the case with many other early modern saint-poets. They composed their verses orally, and the verses were transmitted orally for several generations before being scripted down, and thereafter they continued to be transmitted in writing as well as orally. The complex interweaving of the oral and the written during the early modern period complicated the very nature of a text since its boundaries and meanings remained fluid, subject to different kinds of creative appropriation and adaptation. The compositions of Kabir and of many other saint-poets exist in the interface between the oral and the written even now. And so, we come across wide variations in manuscripts.

Life and times of Kabir

Winand M. Callewaert consulted 10 manuscripts dating from 1570 to 1681 for his book The Millennium Kabir Vani: A Collection of Pad-s (2000) and could find only 48 pads shared by more than three manuscripts. It is here that one is faced with the limits of textual criticism; there is no way to reach or determine the verses as Kabir had originally composed them. Agrawal acknowledges it in his introduction: “A search can be made of the oldest written version of Kabir’s verses but it is impossible to establish a definitive text... to reconstruct exactly the actual words uttered by him is impossible for us” (17-18). He, therefore, calls for a calibrated and nuanced approach to the oral tradition of Kabir in addition to the manuscript tradition.

In his introduction, Agrawal presents the life and times of Kabir from the perspective of vernacular modernity and deconstructs many long-held assumptions about Kabir in particular and about early modern Indian society in general. He has been passionately championing the cause of vernacular modernity and the Bhakti public sphere for more than a decade now, and once again he makes it the focal point of his discussion.

His contention has been that colonial intervention did not usher in modernity in the so-called moribund Indian society but rather disrupted the process of emergent vernacular modernity. The amnesia caused by colonial intervention has made us oblivious to our precolonial past. As a result, Kabir often appears to us as an exceptional figure seemingly far ahead of his times and closer to us in his modern sensibility and at other times as a subaltern figure. He is neither, Agrawal argues. Rather, he is a representative voice of his times. He was as much a product of contemporary historical forces as a powerful actor shaping those forces.

Early modern Indian society was, according to Agrawal, a vibrant and dynamic society undergoing processes of fundamental transformation and restructuring in all spheres of life—intellectual, social, cultural, political, and economic—resulting in new institutions, practices, beliefs, and values. Leading this transformation was the flourishing mercantile capitalist economy with widening networks of commercial exchange, a robust expansion in manufacturing activity, rising productivity, and rapid urbanisation. The growing economic clout of the ascendant trading classes and numerous artisanal groups, which constituted a substantial section of the population, made them aspire for social recognition and status based on individual accomplishments rather than on the circumstances of one’s birth. Kabir emerged as the voice of these trading and artisanal classes.

“When Kabir challenged caste hierarchy, religious bigotry, dogma and other forms of social evil, he did so by invoking reason. But his reason was not divorced from faith; the two were complementary.”

Agrawal proposes that the newness of this historical phenomenon can be better grasped through the concept of Bhakti ka lokvritt (the Bhakti public sphere). Based on the new realities of social and economic mobility, the Bhakti public sphere became the means of articulation of the newly emergent sensibility with a new conception of a self-critical individuality that was distinct from—rather than merely embedded in—the dominant social structures and varna- and caste-based value system. The idea of individual agency with autonomy to choose rationally was being articulated and reiterated in the public sphere of Bhakti.

Bhakti as participation

Agency and autonomy, Agrawal argues, could be achieved in different ways in different cultural contexts and through diverse forms of rationality. For instance, the inter-subjective notion of individualism constituting of one’s self in the act of experiencing the other that developed in the Bhakti public sphere was different from the possessive, moral, and expressive individualisms of the West. Again, when Kabir challenged caste hierarchy, religious bigotry, dogma and superstition, and other forms of social evil and posited the idea of equality and the inviolability of human dignity, he did so by invoking reason. But his reason was not divorced from faith; the two were complementary.

While the idea of Bhakti was not new, the idiom of its articulation and the social base of its practitioners certainly were new in this era. The term bhakti originally carried the meaning of anurag (affection/love) and bhagidari (participation). Anurag did imply devotion and submission, but bhagidari was the precondition for it.

An early 19th century painting from Jaipur showing Kabir with Namdeva, Raidas, and Pipaji. From National Museum, New Delhi.

An early 19th century painting from Jaipur showing Kabir with Namdeva, Raidas, and Pipaji. From National Museum, New Delhi. | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

From the 5th century onwards, Bhakti got transformed under the influence of organised religion into an ideology of surrender that demanded blind submission not only to god but also to the existing social, political, and religious orders. The original meaning of participation fell into disuse. By initiating and championing socially open Bhakti, the early modern nirgun poets restored the sense of participation to the practice of Bhakti. Kabir invokes Naradi Bhakti to underline the sense of participation.

Voluntary participation entails that it be based on equal terms and reciprocity. That, in turn, requires a shared democratic and egalitarian space. The public sphere of Bhakti serves as this space. One major scholarly intervention of Agrawal in recent times has been in the controversy regarding the guru-disciple relationship between Ramanand and Kabir. Ramanand, it was claimed, citing the authority of a dubious single Sanskrit source to the exclusion of all the vernacular sources, lived from 1299 to 1410 and, therefore, could not have been the guru of Kabir. This claim was readily accepted on the basis of the assumption that in the deeply conservative Indian society of the 15-16th centuries, one’s caste and religion were of paramount significance, and it was inconceivable that Ramanand, a Brahmin, would accept an oppressed caste or Muslim weaver as his disciple.

In his earlier work, Agrawal had established that Ramanand was the guru of Kabir and the so-called Sanskrit source was a spurious text created in the late 19th century. However, some scholars objected to Agrawal’s evidence on the grounds that it was based only on Vaishnava sources. In response, he has now cited many Islamic and Persian sources, the most important of which is Hasanat-ul-Arifin, composed by Dara Shukov (also spelt as Dara Shikoh) between 1651 to 1654 CE. It has biographical accounts of celebrated Sufis along with compilations of their sayings. Shukov concludes his accounts with the lives of Kabir, Baba Lal Das, and Baba Piyare. While describing Kabir as a leading gnostic of his times, Shukov expressly mentions him as the disciple of Ramanand. He further writes that Muslims claim Kabir to be Muslim and Hindus claim him to be Hindu, but he is above both religions and is revered by followers of both. Further, Shukov calls Baba Lal Das mundiya-dar-tarika-e-Kabir (a mundiya like Kabir). Mundiya was a term widely used for Bairagis who called themselves Vaishnava but did not fully subscribe to any particular religion.

They were eclectic in their practices, refusing ascribed social identities of caste and creed, and prized their independence. Their spiritual path was open to all. Ramanand is said to have initiated this spiritual path. Agrawal cites many other Persian sources and Sufi tazkiraas (genealogies and short biographies) like Mubaad Shah’s Dabistaan-e-Mazahib, Sheikh Abdur Rahman Chisti’s Mirat-al-Asraar, Abdul Qadir Badauni’s Muntakhabut-Tawarikh and Mahmud Vali Balkhi’s Bahar-al-Asraar-fe-Marifat-al-Akhyaar, that refer to the Bairagis and mention Kabir as one of them. They show that dialogue and interaction among various creeds, sects, and religions took place regularly, and it was a common practice for a person of one faith to show respect and veneration for other faiths. They also cite many instances of commingling of religious practices.

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My bland summary has touched upon only some aspects of an otherwise rich and comprehensive introduction with carefully sifted details and well laid out arguments. Agrawal aptly describes it as the latest in the series of reflections and observations that he has been making in the course of his scholarly engagement with Kabir for over four and a half decades. The present edition fulfils a long-felt need of readers in academic circles, and Agrawal must be commended for accomplishing this challenging task.

However, the book is not free of blemishes. In an emended edition, corrections and revisions made in the text should have been marked and footnotes given. Further, there is confusion regarding the dating of the 1504 manuscript. Agrawal takes up the issue but leaves it midway. There is also confusion regarding the writer of the manuscript. According to Shyamsundar Das, Malukdas copied the manuscript for one Khemchand, but Agrawal claims that it was the other way round. Only one of these can be true. However, these minor flaws do not diminish the importance of the revised edition, and I am sure Agrawal will address them in the next edition.

Sanjay Kumar is a professor of English at Banaras Hindu University.

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