Liberating Kabir by Monika Horstmann

Monika Horstmann

Purushottam Agrawal. Akath kahani prem ki: Kabir ki kavita aur unka samay [The ineffable story of love: Kabir’s poetry and his period]. New Delhi (etc.): Rajkamal Prakashan, 2009. 456 pp; Rs 500. ISBN: 978-81-267-1833-7.

Are citizens as individual agents of their destiny being increasingly reduced to a mere function of castes or communities? Current conflicts may nourish such suspicion. While the present is accountable for current affairs, these have to no small extent been prefigured by India’s colonial past with its virulent residues. The colonial West had projected itself as the monopoly of individualism, enlightenment and modernity which it had the vocation to administer in a civilizing mission to a traditional, unchanging, unenlightened people predicated on caste and community. Modernity would be the gift of the West. The knowledge system constructed in that process and passed off as the changeless essential norm of Indian society took recourse to the varnashrama system as the alleged model of society. The agents of this were the British in collaboration with the “official pandits”. From the end of the nineteenth century the essentialization of group identities was spurred by measures as incisive as the Census operations and the fight over political participation in the form of separate electorates. For the alleged perennial Indian norms, these were found in Sanskrit texts of obsolete or at least extremely limited validity and now superimposed on the live discourse of a plural society which had been articulating itself and been asserting its values for many centuries in the vernaculars. The dynamic plurality of individual voices became muffled.

In the process of creating the asymmetry between the superior enlightened modern West and the inferior unenlightened colony, Indian figures not fitting in the rubric were accorded the rank of exceptions in advance of the inert stage of their culture. Kabir was one of them, celebrated by colonial scholarship as the Indian Luther (W. W. Hunter, 1882). By the same scholarship, British and Indian alike, he was de-individualized and essentialized as a member of this or that group – illiterate artisan, Muslim, Nathyogi. If we wish to understand Kabir we need to read him against the scholarship informed by the colonial episteme in order to liberate him to what he was: a self-determined individual, a poet whose poetry expressed the ineffable story of his spiritual quest and his quest for the ontological essence in humans in the process of which he castigated false pretence in the costume of religious and social righteousness. Reading Kabir in that manner may also liberate us from the lingering colonial residues in our minds. Kabir as an early modern exponent of self-determined individuality has been in the focus of Purushottam Agarwal’s scholarship for a long time. The present quintessential volume is the fruit of this. It is a book about retrieving India’s first modernity from the colonial predicament. It is therefore a timely book, conceived in the spirit of the modern India’s humanistic tradition. Earlier exponents of this like R. Tagore and H. P. Dvivedi have not by accident been involved with Kabir.

Agrawal’s approach is informed by the fairly recent shift in perspective taken by historians and historically oriented sociologists. The perspective has moved away from the dichotomy of the centre (West) versus the periphery (the rest of the world) and assumed a comparative dimension, notably with respect to multiple modernities simultaneously occurring and presenting different articulations of modernity.1 From the bunch of criteria of modernity, Agrawal emphasizes the emergence of a public sphere articulating itself in the vernacular, urbanisation, mobility of merchant communities and the critique of the orthodox establishment and aspirations pronounced by them. Agrawal sees Kabir acting within these parameters. His understanding of modernity has also a moralistic thrust in that he sustains the vision that genuine modernity should also provide an increase in humanitas. The modernity thus characterized provided public spheres which were not secular, but operated rather in the form of the satsang. This was the arena of Kabir: the public sphere of bhakti. That vibrant first modernity was suppressed in the process of the Theft of History (the title of Jack Goody’s topical book of 2006), when India’s history was appropiated by the colonial power and replaced by the static neo-ancient image of Indian history. According to this, agency lay with the group rather than with the individual. Kabir was perceived as acting under the regime of group identity and nonetheless credited with a poetic oeuvre cutting across group boundaries. The scholarship on Kabir was dominated by the colonial episteme until long after the end of colonialism. Agrawal reviews this assiduously. He does certainly agree that Kabir had grown up with all those various traditions, but he sees him as seeking, reflecting and making his choices independent of these. In order to retrieve the disciple of Ramanand, the poet, the seeker, the critic Kabir one needs to take recourse to where he is rooted, to his poetry and the vernacular tradition which accrued around him. Especially salient are the voices of kindred spirits, namely two Ramanandi authors of around 1600 who belonged to the Galta (Jaipur) lineage of the Ramanandi sect, Anantdas and Nabhadas. Also the Persian Dabistan-i-mazahib, which has no sectarian agenda, requires the close reading which Agrawal proceeds to proffer. It is from those sources that we see emerge the indomitable seeker of enlightenment, which he wishes to share with his fellow-human beings. This is the Kabir of the vernacular tradition.

How can one penetrate to the core of Kabir’s poetry? Agrawal agrees that his work cannot be reconstructed by going by any one or the combined evidence of several recensions of his works. Almost all reflect a bias, and only the most obvious bias is that of the Kabirpanthi recension, which is purged of all that might contradict the poet’s status of the perfect divine Satguru and which for the Kabirpanth forms a sacred scripture. Agrawal vehemently rejects the Kabir text constituted by Winand Callewaert and representing on the basis oft en manuscripts the attempt to represent the poet’s oeuvre as it was current around 1600.2 The text thus obtained, Agrawal holds, suffers from too narrow, scattered and idiosyncratic a basis and gives us a truncated Kabir. Moreover, manuscripts in a vibrant oral literary culture may represent the reduction of a much broader live tradition. This makes it compelling to take stock of the flux comprising both the written and the oral tradition. Kabir’s ipsissima verba are irretrievably lost, but, Agrawal argues, one cannot miss the mark to far by following the tradition probably closest in spirit to him, that of the first-generation Dadupanth as it has been transmitted in a later manuscript and was published by Shyamsundar Das as the Kabir-granthavali (1st ed. 1930). Dadu venerated Kabir and was seen by his followers as the Kabir of his period, and accordingly Kabir’s oeuvre was given great respect and in that recension canonized by the Dadupanth. As already indicated, Agrawal invites us to examine with him the tradition descending from Ramanand, according to Nabhadas the bridge-builder between the orthodox and the heterodox, between the sagun and the nirgun. From a close reading of the hagiographies composed by Nabhadas (Bhaktamala) and Anantdas (the Parcai-s, the “Lives”, of Kabir and other Sants) Kabir emerges as a Vaishnava of the non-orthodox kind who went beyond ritualism and the trappings of established religion and fulfilled his quest by immersing himself in the name of Ram. This was an entirely personal quest. Agrawal relates the religious profile of the poet to that of the Narada-Bhaktisutras (10th century?) alerted to following up that line by Kabir’s extolling the Naradiya bhakti. While the Ramanandi tradition emphatically relates Kabir to Ramanand, that great bridge-builder speaks to us only through eight compositions. Except for one, which comes from a late source, these extol the Satguru and the Name of Ram. This indeed is also Kabir’s stance: The Name of Ram liberates man to fulfil his destiny as an individual beyond ascribed collective properties. The “ineffable story” is that of the quest for this.

Following the trail of Ramanand as he was constructed variously in the course of modern history, Agrawal with detective acumen traces the origin of the “Sanskrit” Ramanand. He reveals his alleged Sanskrit works to be a product of the early twentieth century when Ramanandis severed the link with Ramanand, hitherto regarded as the religious forebear of Ramanand. In the process, in which a leading role was played by Bhagavadacharya, they felt the need to legitimize him and themselves in the idiom of colonialism: The vernacular tradition needed to be endorsed by superior Sanskrit evidence.

Examining in greater detail the poetic idiom of Kabir, Agrawal also addresses the issue of the creative tension prevailing in him vis-à-vis the female. On the one hand he conceives of the female as the perfect bhakta and assumes the persona of a woman; on the other hand he rejects the female as quintessential maya.

The book, firmly grounded in India’s first modernity but also, and logically compellingly, addressing contemporary concerns, represents a multi-layered wealth of scholarship. Itself passionately engaged, at times trenchantly polemic and provocative, it can sustain the engagement of its readers. A book of that quality written on Kabir, the jijnasu, may fulfill its objective best when by kindling further inquiry. Four lines of inquiry intrigue me especially:

Firstly, for Agrawal India’s modernity hinges on the emergent modernising role of merchants, and, related to these, artisans. To date the actual role of these, specifically in the milieu of Kabir’s Banaras, has not been well explored. Both in Kabir’s ouvre and in Anantdas’s hagiography of him and other Sants (most drastically in the “Life of Pipa”), the merchants join the brahmins in defaming the lowly, subversive heretic Kabir. Baniyas are depicted as greedy and lecherous, though of course also they can make amends and turn bhaktas. And yet, these are notorious stereotypes of Sant literature. Factually, it is true, the baniyas were abundantly represented in the Sant milieu, both in the monkhood and among its lay following and patrons. Copious evidence of this and the social network of the Sants is provided by the hagiographers Jangopal (beginning of the 17th century) and Raghavdas (1660), the epigraphically based socio-historical research carried out by Purohit Hari Narayan Sharma in the early twentieth century in Shekhavati is practically limited to one poet and place (Sundardas and Fatehpur, respectively), but nonetheless exemplary. The profile of the early modern merchants ranges from the member of the military bureaucracy over the intellectual at home in Sanskrit and the vernacular, exemplified in the person of Banarsidas, over the banijara down to the petty trader. Moreover, we need to better understand how merchants interacted with the wider social web, for the public sphere of bhakti had a wide social spectre, artisans, merchants, brahmans, Pathans, yogis, Rajputs, and many more. Because of the regional variables micro-historical research is called for. And as the public sphere forms a middle ground between the private and the official, one would do well to also examine how panchayats addressed conflicts between the established and the “subversive” modern.

The second line of inquiry is partly related to the first, but relates more to the poetic texture of Kabir’s poetry. Agrawal emphasizes the individuality of Kabir as it manifests itself in is poetry. Nonetheless he used an inherited poetical languge, for the vernacular he used was not the spoken regional language, but a literary idiom lined with tropes, stereotypes, and a host of other conventions shared by Sant poets. The afore-mentioned stereotype of the malign baniya would just be one example from among the rather gross ones. How then did Kabir rework that complex legacy?

Thirdly, it is true that Kabir cannot be fathomed by interpreting him as a product of this or that group. Yet one wonders about the function of the Nath tradition in his practice. Are the Nath concepts and terms he uses mere symbols, adopted or rejected by free choice? The religious practice of the divine name is performed in the culturally constructed tantric body. H. P. Dvivedi may have pressed the case too hard to drive home his argument for Kabir’s social origin. And yet we observe in Santism a symbiotic relationship between interior worship and yogic concepts and practice. This is manifest in texts, artefacts, and practice, irrespective of the quite fundamental difference between Sants and Yogis regarding the agency that would bring about liberation.

Fourthly and finally, the hagiography written by the Ramanandi Anantdas and the Ramanandis of Galta, in whose religious stance Agrawal sees reflected Kabir’s and, ultimately, Ramanand’s stance, may not been as homogenous as it seems. At the heart of Kabir’s and Anantdas’s faith and practice is the divine name. Ritual is no business of theirs. But was Ramanand not called the bridge-builder between the sagun and the nirgun, these two so to say forming the bridge-heads? Not only did Nabhadas include representatives of both positions in his hagiography, but also did the first Ramanandi at Galta, Krishnadas Payohari (early 16th century) bring with him the deities Sita-Ram and Narasimha. These became state deities and Ramanandis henceforth involved in the Pancaratra ritual of state-deities, let alone other types of religious manifestations related to the Ram Rasik bhakti. I would therefore hold that the catholicity of Ramanand is reflected in the religious plurality which that lineage had preserved despite its inherent formidable tension. This catholicity ultimately, in the eighteenth century, also made them the target of the restorative reforms of Maharaja Savai Jaisingh which were intended to bring them in line with orthodox norms.

Agrawal has carried forward the scholarly debate on Kabir and India’s first modernity and in the process addressed engagingly issues which are of relevance far beyond the academic arena. His readers are now anxiously awaiting the publication of his promised edition of Kabir’s works which will also do justice to the credible traditional sources preserving the poet’s legacy

1 For a still valid pertinent assession, see Sudipta Kaviraj, “Modernity and Politics in India”. Daedalus 129.1 (200): 137-162.

2 The Millenium Kabir Vani. Ed. by Winand M. Callewaert in collaboration with Swapna Sharma and Dieter Taillieu. New Delhi: Manohar, 2009.

Monika Horstmann (a. k. a. Monika Boehm-Tettelbach) retired in 2006 as Professor of Modern Languages and Literatures of South Asia from the South Asia Institute, The University of Heidelberg, where she had taught since 1994 after having held professorial positions in Bonn, Cologne, and Bamberg.

Her main interest is in the North Indian Sant tradition of religion as expressed in the life of its various sects, their literature and archival sources. Her regional focus is Rajasthan where she also lives part of the year and is senior consultant to a group of researchers studying Old Jaipur. Among her book publications  are the German  translation  of the songs of Dadu (1991), a study on the Jaipur kings’ patronage of the deity Govinddevji (In Favour of Govinddevji , 1999) and another study on the religious policy of Savai Jaisingh (in German: Der Zusammenhalt der Welt, 2009; forthcoming in  Hindi under the title Loksangrah). She has also edited volumes on Bhakti in Current Research (1983 and 2006) and on Images of Kabir (2006).

Her interest in modern Hindi literature has also resulted in a volume of recent Hindi poetry translated into German, co-authored with Vishnu Khare (Felsinschriften [Rock Inscriptions], 2007).

Currently Horstmann  is engaged in a project on the impact of politics on the ceremonies surrounding the death, interregnum and coronation of Maharaja Pratapsingh of Jaipur (end-18th century) and in another project on the archival sources of the Armed Ramanandi Vairagis of Jaipur.

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