The poet Kabîr is one of the most interesting personalities in the history of Indian mysticism. A great religious reformer, the founder of a sect to which nearly a million northern Hindus still belong, it is yet supremely as a mystical poet that Kabîr lives for us. A beautiful legend tells us that after his death his Mohammedan and Hindu disciples disputed the possession of his body; which the Mohammedans wished to bury, the Hindus to burn. As they argued together, Kabîr appeared before them, and told them to lift the shroud and look at that which lay beneath. They did so, and found in the place of the corpse a heap of flowers; half of which were buried by the Mohammedans at Maghar, and half carried by the Hindus to the holy city of Benares to be burned.
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As I became fascinated with Evelyn Underhill’s erudite and detailed introduction to this edition, translated by the Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, I realised I’d stumbled on a gem. The introduction is essential to gaining a deeper understanding of the lyrical, mystical poems that follow. Reading it again after one has read the SONGS OF KABIR deepens both the enjoyment of the introduction itself and the songs. But it’s in the ecstasy of Kabir’s spiritual experiences as he struggles to share his transcendent experience of the Divine that make this book so excellent. As do the Psalms of King David, Kabir’s works range across human emotions, from the depths of despair to the heights of an overwhelming love. Kabir’s faith and love of a Divine Being he experienced personally, in his ordinary life as a weaver, could not be boxed by traditional religions, and his impatience with rituals and rules that increase the distance between man and the Divine is clear (“…The Kazi is searching the words of the Koran, and instructing others: but if his heart be not steeped in that love, what does it avail, though he be a teacher of men? The Yogi dyes his garments with red: but if he knows naught of that colour of love, what does it avail though his garments be tinted?...” [Poem LIV] The real heart of these poems – what speaks most clearly to the reader across the centuries – is Kabir’s passion and adoration of the Divine Presence in his daily life. Not for this mystic the lonely mountaintop and isolation from the real world. The SONGS OF KABIR clearly reflect the inspiration and joy of a man who had discovered an essential Truth and who carried his God within his heart: “Living in bondage, I have set myself free: I have broken away from the clutch of all narrowness. Kabir says: I have attained the unattainable, and my heart is coloured with the colour of love.” [Poem XLVIII] Kabir was, indeed, a free spirit who had discovered the meaning of Love.