Penguin's new translation of Kabir's The Weaver's Songs is among the most meaningful poetry I've read this past year. Kabir writes, "A jar that's upside down doesn't sink in water./ When upright, it fills with water and sinks." A modern yoga studio might print that on a pamphlet, though having a pamphlet (though having a studio) indicates the meaning is lost.
It's inaccurate to say Kabir is a Hindu mystic, as I've heard him described to be. Vinay Dharwadker, the translator, has done an astonishing amount of work, and shows the intersection of Kabir's writing with Islam, Hinduism, Bhakti, and secularist thought. Kabir believes in an ultimate creator, and is very critical of people who dress and act to show religious affiliation. To Kabir, actions aren't necessarily right or wrong, nor are ways of dressing and living; rather, the honesty of a person's heart and mind and behavior are what matter. It's easier to look pure than it is to be pure.
This difference between image and the heart is a constant theme. To modernize an aspect of it: a Muslim or Jehovah's Witness who feels bad dating or questioning their beliefs shouldn't feel bad. What people should feel bad about is following rules, because blindly following rules wastes life. "Water won't keep/ in a jar of unbaked clay./.../ Kabir says:/ My arms ache/ from scaring off the crows./ This tale has reached its end." The jar of unbaked clay is the person. It has to harden. To do so, a person needs to live. The point of life is to feel the right path, in the heart, before life ends. A person can follow rules without feeling substance.
Living and making mistakes does not mean hedonism. Kabir, indeed, is skeptical of the five senses. He's giving a warning by saying "scaring crows"--adhering to dogma-- isn't living. To Kabir, true living is detachment from life. As he says: "I've said it so many times/ but nobody listens--/ you must merge into/ the simple state/ simply." The simple state is one without mental and emotional worry and desire. The process, however--"simply"-- is the emphasis of the poem. The simple state is an individual realization: beads and clothing and church are public expressions, and miss the point.
And it's the point that matters. Life can be broken into hocus pocus and substance. It's easy to chase hocus pocus thinking we're chasing substance. Kabir writes, "This is the house you're in, this is where you search/ and eat what you find--/ don't go visiting/ someone else's house./.../ Kabir says,/ you're very well fed./ Don't devour any more--/ someone might brain you/ with a brick or a stone." Home means home--house and town--but it isn't limited to just those. What is it, Kabir wonders, that's over there that isn't here? Everything a person needs can be found within himself. Chasing artificial substance brings trouble.
Yet, doing so is valued today. What was once called greed today is called ambition.To Kabir, it's important to separate attitude from person. Kabir writes, "...the doer isn't the one/ who has gone and sold himself/ as a slave/ to his deeds." The person hasn't: her mindset has. People get lost--become greedy or ambitious for immaterial reasons, cloud their heart--but that doesn't mean they'll be lost forever. Kabir writes, "only they are pure/ who've completely cleansed/ their thinking." Having clear thought, in other words, is the way to be found.
It's the way to be upside down, in a world full of upright jars.