Friday, March 21, 2014

The Living Dead

Honouring our poetic ancestors

I Said To The Wanting-Creature Inside Me
Kabir (c.1440 — c. 1518)

I said to the wanting-creature inside me:
What is this river you want to cross?
There are no travelers on the river-road, and no road.
Do you see anyone moving about on that bank, or nesting?

There is no river at all, and no boat, and no boatman.
There is no tow rope either, and no one to pull it.
There is no ground, no sky, no time, no bank, no ford!

And there is no body, and no mind!
Do you believe there is some place that will make the
soul less thirsty?
In that great absence you will find nothing.

Be strong then, and enter into your own body;
there you have a solid place for your feet.
Think about it carefully
Don't go off somewhere else!

Kabir says this: just throw away all thoughts of
imaginary things,
and stand firm in that which you are. 

This poet, various online sources tell me, is regarded as an Indian saint. He seems to be regarded so by adherents of various Indian religions, in particular the Sikhs. He himself founded his own religion, or perhaps his followers did, based on his beliefs. It is one of the Sant Mar sects, which is to say it emphasises inner, personal union with the Divine, and is known as Kabir panth, a path of personal devotion or Bhakti. (I hope I have understood correctly and conveyed this accurately, but you may check the links for yourself.)

I didn't know all that when I decide to choose this poem for today's post; I thought he was a Sufi because of the ecstatic way he sometimes writes of that inner union with God. In fact, I learn that he did indeed relate to the Sufi teachings — but he also accepted much of the Hindu and Muslim faiths. It's worth noting that one piece of Hinduism he was opposed to was the caste system. The Wikipedia article (at the link on his name, above) says he tried to reconcile Muslim and Hindu teachings.

I too like the notion of a personal relationship with God, and I like the way it is expressed here. Some of his other poems I find a bit confronting because of religious views that are foreign to me. Kabir's God seems to be firmly and unquestionably male — a widespread viewpoint in many religions, but one I'm not quite comfortable with (a. I think God transcends gender; b. I like to focus on the female aspect). So it is a little odd to me when he writes of God's immanence in Nature with the male pronoun. I'm basically with him on the immanence thing, but I'm used to looking at it from a different (Pagan) perspective. 

Also, in the Western world we perhaps don't think of loving God in quite the same ecstatic terms, where sexual ecstasy becomes the metaphor. (Less often in Kabir, perhaps, than the works of some others, such as Rumi.) It's at odds with the Puritannical background which is part of the heritage many of us come from, whether we are personally religious or not.

This poem, though, is more general and abstract than that, even while being grounded in the physical world. I particularly love that ending! And after all, I am posting to an international community. For some he will be a cultural ancestor, as well as being a spiritual ancestor to all poets. Many readers may feel perfectly at home with Kabir's views. 

They may be his views but are they really his poems? Of course if we are reading them in English they are translations, but even the originals were written down by others, not by Kabir himself. There is some uncertainty as to whether all those ascribed to him actually originated with him. We can't know, but the style and content seem close enough. If some imitations have crept in, they seem to be good imitations, and he was at least the inspiration. (We can't assume this piece was not his. It was not unusual, in some Eastern poetic traditions, to address oneself in the third person in a poem.)

I'm sad to see I no longer have my copy of the little book, Songs of Kabir (translated by Tagore) which my father gave me in my teens. Perhaps it disappeared in one of my many house moves since then. But, how wonderful, I have discovered it available online as a free pdf download! It's on Amazon too, if you prefer reading it in paperback form. And there is also the collection of poems at PoemHunter.

The picture I've used is the commemorative stamp made in India in 1952.

Post Script. Sherry informs us in the comments below that there is a translation by Robert Bly. So there is! And on Goodreads people's opinions are very divided as to the merits of it! But evaluation of art is always subjective, I think. Check it for yourself at the Amazon link.


  1. Wonderful, convincing, uplifting! Thank you.

  2. Thanks for the wonderful post Rosemary...Kabir's devotional songs are still sung and many mystics of India found songs and music as their medium for their personal union with the has been a tremendous cultural gain...their experiences, realization, and feelings are embedded in the wonderful words and tunes they had created...

    1. T hank you for these insights, Sumana. It's lovely to know that his songs are still part of the culture.

  3. Rosemary,
    It's interesting that a poet so devoutly claimed by a culture and tradition half a world away from me expresses ideas and sentiments with which we are all intimately familiar. It is the universal language! Thanks for a very engaging post.
    Steve K.

  4. I thoroughly enjoyed this; thanks for sharing, Rosemary.

  5. Rosemary, it's amazing what you can come up with for our reading pleasure. :)
    if you don't mention the author and when he lived, i would not have guessed it was a 13th century poem.

  6. Nice inspiration, enjoyed each word, thank you, Rosemary!

  7. This poem seemed to speak to me and fits my present mood even though it is from the distant past. Thanks so much for sharing, I shall look out for more by this ancient poet.

  8. I guess it wasn't a prompt, but I wrote anyway.

    The Living Dead
    It happens each day
    As it is supposed to
    Some arrive
    Others leave
    Yet a little bit
    Of their energy
    Remains in our hearts
    Our memory
    We speak their names
    We remember their touch
    The sound of their voice

    It won’t be long
    All traces will be erased
    As they are supposed to be
    Humans don’t
    Have long memories

    Death one of the great mysteries
    Religions have been formed
    Explanations given
    Still if we can accept it all
    It is just life.....and death
    Like the waves
    Which come to shore
    Splash against the beach
    And return to the sea

    I mourn your loss
    The light is not as bright
    My life less
    But like the flowers
    That find their way
    Into my garden in spring
    At the end of the season
    Death makes way for the new

    1. How wonderful! I think that's one of the great things about good poetry — it can inspire us to create our own. I love your poem.

  9. Rosemary, this is wonderful. I love Kabir, Rumi and Hafiz - their effusiveness really speaks to me. Your explanation and context are really interesting and yippee! even a free download. Thank you SO MUCH for this. Made my day.

    And Annell, your poem is simply wonderful. Death as an inevitable part of life, so reassuring and comforting............beautifully done. What a gift this morning, from the two of you. Three, counting Kabir!

  10. How wonderful to go around the unknown territories
    though I am familiar with Kabir ke Dohe often quoted by people...This translation part is news to me.
    Thank you very much for bringing us close to our ancestors!

  11. Hey Rosemary--Kabir is one of my very favorite poets--though I do not read him enough and am very happy to see him here. There is also a wonderful book of translations by Robert Bly. Thanks also for your helpful commentary. K.

    1. Oh, I didn't come across the Bly. Very glad to know of that! I can imagine it would be wonderful, and shall go hunting. :)

  12. Rosemary - I apologize! I did not quite realize who wrote this - thank you for a wonderful essay!


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