“The Kabir Book: Forty-Four of the Ecstatic Poems of Kabir” (1977) – versions by Robert Bly, based on Rabindranath Tagore’s “The Songs of Kabir” (1915).
“The Songs of Kabir” (published in 1915) translated by Rabindranath Tagore, assisted by Evelyn Underhill, from Bengali versions of the original Kabir Hindi-language poems.
In the selection that follows, Bly’s versions of Kabir are first, followed by Tagore’s. The first-verse quotations – which appear between the Bly and the Tagore – and each with a Roman numeral then a number, refer to Tagore’s source for his Kabir poems – that is, Santiniketana: Kabir by Sri Kshitimohan Sen, in 4 parts, Brahmacharyasrama, Bolpur, published in 1910-1911.
. . .
Friend, hope for the Guest while you are alive.
Jump into experience while you are alive.
Think…and think…while you are alive.
What you call “salvation” belongs to the time before death.
If you don’t break your ropes while you’re alive,
do you think
ghosts will do it after?
The idea that the soul will join with the ecstatic
just because the body is rotten –
that is all fantasy.
What is found now is found then.
If you find nothing now,
you will simply end up with an apartment in the City of Death.
If you make love with the divine now, in the next life
you will have the face of satisfied desire.
So plunge into the truth, find out who the Teacher is,
believe in the Great Sound!
Kabir says this:
When the Guest is being searched for,
it is the intensity of the longing for the Guest that
does all the work.
Look at me, and you will see a slave of that intensity.
I. 57. sâdho bhâî, jîval hî karo âs’â
O Friend! hope for Him whilst you live, know whilst you live,
understand whilst you live: for in life deliverance abides.
If your bonds be not broken whilst living, what hope of deliverance in death?
It is but an empty dream, that the soul shall have union with Him
because it has passed from the body:
If He is found now, He is found then,
If not, we do but go to dwell in the City of Death.
If you have union now, you shall have it hereafter.
Bathe in the truth, know the true Guru, have faith in the true Name!
Kabîr says: “It is the Spirit of the quest which helps;
I am the slave of this Spirit of the quest.”
. . .
Friend, please tell me what I can do about this world I hold to,
and keep spinning out!
I gave up sewn clothes, and wore a robe,
but I noticed one day the cloth was well woven.
So I bought some burlap, but I still
throw it elegantly over my shoulder.
I pulled back my sexual longings,
and now I discover that I’m angry a lot.
I gave up rage, and now I notice
that I am greedy all day.
I worked hard at dissolving my greed,
and now I am proud of myself.
When the mind wants to break its link with the world
it still holds on to one thing.
Listen, my friend,
there are very few that find the path!
I. 63. avadhû, mâyâ tajî na jây
Tell me, Brother, how can I renounce Maya?
When I gave up the tying of ribbons, still I tied my garment about me:
When I gave up tying my garment, still I covered my body in its folds.
So, when I give up passion, I see that anger remains;
And when I renounce anger, greed is with me still;
And when greed is vanquished, pride and vainglory remain;
When the mind is detached and casts Maya away, still it clings to the letter.
“Listen to me, dear Sadhu! the true path is rarely found.”
. . .
I played for ten years with the girls my own age,
but now I am suddenly in fear.
I am on the way up some stairs – they are high.
Yet I have to give up my fears
if I want to take part in this love.
I have to let go the protective clothes
and meet him with the whole length of my body.
My eyes will have to be the love-candles this time.
Men and women in love will understand this poem.
If what you feel for the Holy One is not desire,
then what’s the use of dressing with such care,
and spending so much time making your eyelids dark?
I. 131. nis’ din khelat rahî sakhiyân sang
I played day and night with my comrades, and now I am greatly afraid.
So high is my Lord’s palace, my heart trembles to mount its stairs:
yet I must not be shy, if I would enjoy His love.
My heart must cleave to my Lover; I must withdraw my veil,
and meet Him with all my body:
Mine eyes must perform the ceremony of the lamps of love.
“Listen to me, friend: he understands who loves.
If you feel not love’s longing for your Beloved One,
it is vain to adorn your body, vain to put unguent on your eyelids.”
. . .
I have been thinking of the difference
and the waves on it.
Rising, water’s still water, falling back,
it is water, will you give me a hint
how to tell them apart?
Because someone has made up the word
“wave”, do I have to distinguish it
There is a Secret One inside us;
the planets in all the galaxies
pass through his hands like beads.
That is a string of beads one should look at with
II. 56. dariyâ kî lahar dariyâo hai jî
The river and its waves are one
surf: where is the difference between the river and its waves?
When the wave rises, it is the water; and when it falls, it is the same water again.
Tell me, Sir, where is the distinction?
Because it has been named as wave, shall it no longer be considered as water?
Within the Supreme Brahma, the worlds are being told like beads:
Look upon that rosary with the eyes of wisdom.
. . .
What has death and a thick body dances before
what has no thick body and no death.
The trumpet says: “I am you.”
The spiritual master arrives and bows down to the
Try to live to see this!
II. 85. nirgun âge sargun nâcai
Before the Unconditioned, the Conditioned dances:
“Thou and I are one!” this trumpet proclaims.
The Guru comes, and bows down before the disciple:
This is the greatest of wonders.
. . .
Why should I flail about with words, when love
has made the space inside me full of light?
I know the diamond is wrapped in this cloth, so why
should I open it all the time and look?
When the pan was empty, it flew up; now that it’s
full, why bother weighing it?
The swan has flown to the mountain lake!
Why bother with ditches and holes anymore?
The Holy One lives inside you –
why open your other eyes at all?
Kabir will tell you the truth: Listen, brother!
The Guest, who makes my eyes so bright,
has made love with me.
II. 105. man mast huâ tab kyon bole
Where is the need of words, when love has made drunken the heart?
I have wrapped the diamond in my cloak; why open it again and again?
When its load was light, the pan of the balance went up: now it is full,
where is the need for weighing?
The swan has taken its flight to the lake beyond the mountains;
why should it search for the pools and ditches anymore?
Your Lord dwells within you: why need your outward eyes be opened?
Kabîr says: “Listen, my brother! my Lord, who ravishes my eyes,
has united Himself with me.”
Friend, wake up!
Why do you go on sleeping?
The night is over – do you want to lose the day the same way?
Other women who managed to get up early have
already found an elephant or a jewel…
So much was lost already while you slept…
And that was so unnecessary!
The one who loves you understood, but you did not.
You forgot to make a place in your bed next to you.
Instead you spent your life playing.
In your twenties you did not grow
because you did not know who your Lord was.
Wake up! Wake up!
There’s no-one in your bed –
He left you during the long night.
Kabir says: The only woman awake is the woman who has heard the flute!
II. 126. jâg piyârî, ab kân sowai
O Friend, awake, and sleep no more!
The night is over and gone, would you lose your day also?
Others, who have wakened, have received jewels;
O foolish woman! you have lost all whilst you slept.
Your lover is wise, and you are foolish, O woman!
You never prepared the bed of your husband:
O mad one! you passed your time in silly play.
Your youth was passed in vain, for you did not know your Lord;
Wake, wake! See! your bed is empty: He left you in the night.
“Only she wakes, whose heart is pierced with the arrow of His music.”
. . .
Knowing nothing shuts the iron gates; the new love opens them.
The sound of the gates opening wakes the beautiful woman asleep.
Fantastic! Don’t let a chance like this go by!
I. 50. bhram kâ tâlâ lagâ mahal re
The lock of error shuts the gate, open it with the key of love:
Thus, by opening the door, thou shalt wake the Belovéd.
“O brother! do not pass by such good fortune as this.”
. . .
There is nothing but water in the holy pools.
I know – I have been swimming in them.
All the gods sculpted of wood or ivory can’t say a word.
I know – I have been crying out to them.
The Sacred Books of the East are nothing but words.
I looked through their covers one day sideways.
What Kabir talks of is only what he has lived through.
If you have not lived through something – it is not true.
I. 79. tîrath men to sab pânî hai
There is nothing but water at the holy bathing places;
and I know that they are useless,
for I have bathed in them.
The images are all lifeless, they cannot speak; I know,
for I have cried aloud to them.
The Purana and the Koran are mere words;
lifting up the curtain, I have seen.
Kabîr gives utterance to the words of experience;
and he knows very well that all other things are untrue.
. . .
When my friend is away from me, I am depressed;
nothing in the daylight delights me,
sleep at night gives no rest –
who can I tell about this?
The night is dark, and long…hours go by…
because I am alone, I sit up suddenly,
fear goes through me…
Listen, my friend,
there is one thing in the world that satisfies,
and that is a meeting with the Guest.
I. 130. sâîn vin dard kareje hoy
When I am parted from my Belovéd, my heart is full of misery:
I have no comfort in the day, I have no sleep in the night.
To whom shall I tell my sorrow?
The night is dark; the hours slip by.
Because my Lord is absent, I start up and tremble with fear.
Kabîr says: “Listen, my friend! there is no other satisfaction,
save in the encounter with the Belovéd.”
. . .
The spiritual athlete often changes the colour of his clothes,
and his mind remains grey and loveless.
He sits inside a shrine room all day,
so that the Guest has to go outdoors and praise the rocks.
Or he drills holes in his ears, his beard grows enormous and matted –
people mistake him for a goat…
He goes out into wilderness areas, strangles his impulses,
and makes himself neither male nor female…
He shaves his skull, puts his robe in an orange vat,
reads the Bhagavad-Gita –
and becomes a terrific talker.
Actually, you are going in a hearse to the country of death –
bound hand and foot!
I. 20. man na rangâye
The Yogi dyes his garments, instead of dyeing his mind in the colours of love:
He sits within the temple of the Lord, leaving Brahma to worship a stone.
He pierces holes in his ears, he has a great beard and matted locks, he looks like a goat:
He goes forth into the wilderness, killing all his desires, and turns himself into an eunuch:
He shaves his head and dyes his garments; he reads the Gîtâ and becomes a mighty talker.
Kabîr says: “You are going to the doors of death, bound hand and foot!”
. . .
I don’t know what sort of a God we have been talking about.
The caller calls in a loud voice to the Holy One at dusk.
Why? Surely the Holy One is not deaf.
He hears the delicate anklets that ring on the feet of
an insect as it walks.
Go over and over your beads, paint weird designs on your forehead,
wear your hair matted, long, and ostentatious,
but when deep inside you there is a loaded gun,
how can you have God?
I. 9. nâ jâne sâhab kaisâ hai
I do not know what manner of God is mine.
The Mullah cries aloud to Him: and why? Is your Lord deaf? The
subtle anklets that ring on the feet of an insect when it moves
are heard of Him.
Tell your beads, paint your forehead with the mark of your God,
and wear matted locks long and showy: but a deadly weapon is in
your heart, and how shall you have God?
. . .
The Holy One disguised as an old person in a cheap hotel
goes out to ask for carfare.
But I never seem to catch sight of him.
If I did, what would I ask him for?
He has already experienced what is missing in my life.
I belong to this old person.
Now let the events about to come – come!
III. 89. mor phakîrwâ mângi jây
The Beggar goes a-begging, but
I could not even catch sight of Him:
And what shall I beg of the Beggar He gives without my asking.
Kabîr says: “I am His own: now let that befall which may befall!”
. . .
The Guest is inside you, and also inside me;
you know the sprout is hidden inside the seed.
We are all struggling; none of us has gone far.
Let your arrogance go, and look around inside.
The blue sky opens out farther and farther,
the daily sense of failure goes away,
the damage I have done to myself fades,
a million suns come forward with light,
when I sit firmly in that world.
I hear bells ringing that no-one has shaken,
inside “love” there is more joy than we know of,
rain pours down, although the sky is clear of clouds,
there are whole rivers of light.
The universe is shot through in all parts by a single sort of love.
how hard it is to feel that joy in all our four bodies!
Those who hope to be reasonable about it fail.
The arrogance of reason has separated us from that love.
With the word “reason” you already feel miles away.
How lucky Kabir is, that surrounded by all this joy
he sings inside his own little boat.
His poems amount to one soul meeting another.
These songs are about forgetting dying and loss.
They rise above both coming in and going out.
II. 90. sâhab ham men, sâhab tum men
The Lord is in me, the Lord is in you, as life is in every seed.
O servant! put false pride away, and seek for Him within you.
A million suns are ablaze with light,
The sea of blue spreads in the sky,
The fever of life is stilled, and all stains are washed away;
when I sit in the midst of that world.
Hark to the unstruck bells and drums! Take your delight in love!
Rains pour down without water, and the rivers are streams of light.
One Love it is that pervades the whole world, few there are who
know it fully:
They are blind who hope to see it by the light of reason, that
reason which is the cause of separation–
The House of Reason is very far away!
How blessed is Kabîr, that amidst this great joy he sings within
his own vessel.
It is the music of the meeting of soul with soul;
It is the music of the forgetting of sorrows;
It is the music that transcends all coming in and all going
. . .
The small ruby everyone wants has fallen out on the road.
Some think it is east of us, others – west of us.
Some say, “among primitive earth rocks:, others – “in the deep waters.”
Kabir’s instinct told him it was inside, and what it was worth,
And he wrapped it up carefully in his heart cloth.
III. 26. tor hîrâ hirâilwâ kîcad men
The jewel is lost in the mud, and all are seeking for it;
Some look for it in the east, and some in the west;
some in the water and some amongst stones.
But the servant Kabîr has appraised it at its true value,
and has wrapped it with care in the end of the mantle of his heart.
. . . . . . . . . .
Of the Musk Deer
Musk lies in the musk deer’s own nave,
But roam in the forest he does – it to seek;
Alike, God pervades heart to heart,
But men of the world this don’t conceive.
In man himself the Master dwells,
But man, deluded, knows not this,
So similar to the musk deer who
Again and again the grass sniffs.
The seeker of Ram*, says Kabir,
To the Singhal Island** did march;
When in himself he was convinced,
He found that Ram pervaded his heart.
God exists, profuse, in each place,
So don’t think He’s less here and more there,
Those who say He’s far – He is far,
Those who know Him near – He’s near.
I knew God to be far away,
But He is ubiquitous – here and there;
Thou didst know Him to be far off,
He’s far off though very near.
* Ram, one of the incarnations of Vishnu, and
the central character of the Ramayana epic
** Today known as Sri Lanka
Of the Virtueless
It drizzled in graceful drizzles,
On the stone fell showers of rain,
Soil melted when it got watered,
But the stone showed no mark of change.
Who utters as wells forth the tongue
Without thinking what he doth say,
Holding the sword of his tongue in hand
The souls of others he doth slay.
Cow-rich, elephant-rich, horse-rich,
And rich treasures of precious stones,
All those riches are like the dust
Until to man contentment comes.
Of the Middle
If I say I’m Hindu, I’m not,
Nor as well a Muslim I’m,
An effigy of five elements
– in me plays the spark divine.
It’s not good in excess to speak,
Nor good in excess to keep mum,
To rain in excess is not good,
Nor good an excess of sun.
Pardon suits the magnanimous,
One who is low mischiefs befit;
Speak! In what way did Vishnu lose
When Bhrigu a kick did Him hit?
Where there’s mercy there’s religion;
Where there’s avarice there’s sin;
Where there is anger there is Death,
Where there’s pardon there God dwells in.
Kabir was born in 1440 in Lahartara (modern-day Varanasi), on the sacred Ganges River of India.
His mother, a Brahmin widow, had given birth to him long past the death of her husband – hence she
was socially disgraced. She left her new-born in some shrubs where he was discovered and adopted by
Neema and Neeru, a Muslim couple who were weavers.
Kabir became a disciple of Ramananda, who revered Vishnu as one of the Forms of God.
But as his devotion to poetry grew hand in hand with the breadth of his religious education,
Kabir worked out his own distinctive spirituality, drawing upon both Hinduism and Islam,
and bringing together what is essential in each faith.
Biographer Evelyn Underhill wrote that upon Kabir’s death in 1518 ” his Muslim and Hindu disciples disputed the possession of his body; which the Muslims wished to bury, the Hindus to burn. As they argued together, Kabir 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 Muslims at Maghar, and half carried by the Hindus to the holy city of Benares to be burned – fitting conclusion to a life which had made fragrant the most beautiful doctrines of two great creeds. ”
Poems translated from Hindi into English by Mohan Singh Karki