By Ashok Bhargava
VANCOUVER: Two luminous personalities like Tagore and Kabir have exerted enormous influence on arts, music, religion and ordinary lives in a very extra ordinary way.
By dint of their vision, mission and action they became Universal Men holding high up the banner of human values: truth, love, beauty, forbearance, harmony and search for God. As prophets of humanism, Kabir and Tagore are the shining stars of Mother India.
My aim here is to understand Kabir and Tagore by viewing their poetry in the light of spiritual self-affirmation. I have attempted to discover the common points between them and to get a glimpse of how Tagore’s philosophy of humanism was influenced by Kabir’s synthesis of truth, beauty, harmony and religion.
In order to show the similarities of their spiritual messages, I have to refer to a typical Canadian metaphor. Except lower mainland of Vancouver and Vancouver Island, the Canadian winter is very harsh and most of the lakes and rivers freeze during winter in the sub zero temperature. The water surfaces of these rivers and lakes become so solid that you can walk and drive on them. As spring approaches, earth and water warm up and thaw. What then happens to the hardness of the ice? Water is soft and fluid, ice hard and sharp, so we cannot say that they are identical, but neither can be say they are different, because ice is only solidified water and water is only melted ice. The metaphor of ice and water can be applied to the spiritual messages of Kabir and Tagore.
Kabir was born in or near Benares probably about the year 1440. His birth itself is shrouded in mystery, some say he was the son of a Brahman widow, others that he was of virgin birth, what is known though is that he was brought up in a family of Muslim weavers. He was never formally educated and was almost completely illiterate. He is a dynamic mystic, a religious poet, a social reformer and a spiritual leader. A weaver by trade and a mystic by nature, his spiritual vision accepted no division between Life and Creator, man and God, as explained by him:
I laugh when I hear that the fish in the water is thirsty
You do not see that the Real is in and all around you
and you wander…listlessly, seeking him!
Here is the truth! Kabir says
if you do not find God within
you will find Him outside either.
About four hundred and twenty years after Kabir, Rabindranath Tagore was born in 1861into a high caste Brahmin family and began writing from an early age. He was educated in Bengal, and later England, where he attended public schools and University
Tagore was a poet, novelist, musician, painter and playwright who reshaped Bengali literature and music. At the same time he was a social reformer, educator, the humanist and a spiritual leader. It is interesting to note that an educated Tagore from a privileged family sought wisdom from the writings of an illiterate weaver who as a child was adopted by a Muslim family.
Tagore’s poetry reflect Kabir’s mysticism, vision and thought abundantly. He loved Kabir so much that he translated some of his songs and published them under a title “One Hundred Poems of Kabir” which shows a convergence of his spiritual powers and poetic imagination to that of Kabir.
Here are some of the areas that highlight commonality of their thoughts:
Confluence of cultures
Kabir and Tagore’s writings inspired harmony and brought different cultures together. Kabir is a very important figure in Indian history. He is unusual in the sense that he is spiritually significant to Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims alike. He openly criticized rituals and dogma of all religions and gave a new direction to the Indian philosophy. He touched the soul, the conscience, sense of awareness and the vitality of existence in a manner that is unequalled in both simplicity and style. Kabir said to Hindus if God cannot be found by worshipping stone idols in a temple, it is better to worship the stone-grinder (chakki) at home because it makes flour from wheat. He challenged Muslims by saying that the priest climbs up to the top of a mosque and shouts that “Allah is Great” as if God is deaf. God isn’t deaf and you can pray to him without shouting.
He was a man of wide religious culture, and full of missionary enthusiasm. He attempted to reconcile the intense mysticism of Islam with Hindu traditions. It is one of the outstanding characteristics of Kabir’s genius that he was able in his poems to fuse them into one.
Kabir says God is the breath of all breath
The infinite dwelling of the Infinite Being is everywhere
in earth, water, sky, and air
He who is within is without
I see Him and none else.
Tagore is a towering figure of Bengali culture. Although Tagore was from a Hindu family he is very popular amongst the Muslim citizens of Bangladesh who have a deep sense of identity with him and his ideas. The people of Bangladesh showed their affection for Tagore by choosing one of Tagore’s songs—the “Amar Sonar Bangla” which means “my golden Bengal”—as its national anthem in 1972. India had adopted Tagore’s song “Jana Gana Mana” as her national anthem earlier in 1947. This must be very confusing to those who see the contemporary world as a “clash of civilizations”—with the Muslim civilization, the Hindu civilization, and the Western civilization, each forcefully confronting the others. They would also be confused by Tagore’s own description of his Bengali family as the product of a confluence of three cultures: Hindu, Mohammedan, and British. Tagore says –
Whom are you worshipping quietly?
Open your eyes and see
Your god is not there.
He is where the farmer is tilling the earth.
He is where stones are being hewn
To make a path.
Revealers of Reality
Kabir was revealers of Reality. His wonderful songs are spontaneous expressions of his vision and his love for humanity. His impassioned poetry and deep philosophy has been extremely popular and has exercised a powerful influence on the religious thought of India. It attempts to reconcile Islamic mysticism with the traditional theology of Brahmanism.
It represented a synthesis of Hindu, and Muslim concepts. From Hinduism he accepts the concept of reincarnation and the law of Karma. From Islam he takes the affirmation of the single god and the rejection of caste system and idolatry.
Tagore is also revealer of reality in his own right. In his poems a wide range of mystical emotion is brought into play: from the loftiest abstractions, the most otherworldly passion for the Infinite, to the most intimate and personal realization of God, expressed in homely metaphors and religious symbols.
Tagore’s expressions in the poem “Do not go to temple” have strong resemblance to that of Kabir to reveal reality.
Go not to the temple to put flowers upon the feet of God, First fill your own house with the Fragrance of love…. Go not to the temple to light candles before the alter of God, First remove the darkness of sin from your heart….. Go not to the temple to bow down your head in prayer, First learn to bow in humility before your fellowmen…. Go not to the temple to pray on bended knees, First bend down to lift someone who is down-trodden…… Go not to the temple to ask for forgiveness for your sins, First forgive from your heart those who have sinned against you.
To Kabit the “simple union” with Divine Reality was independent both of ritual and of bodily austerities; the God whom he proclaimed was “neither in Kaaba nor in Kailash.” Those who sought Him needed not to go far; for He awaited discovery everywhere, more accessible to “the washerwoman and the carpenter” than to the self–righteous holy man.
Therefore the whole apparatus of piety, Hindu and Moslem alike–the temple and mosque, idol and holy water, scriptures and priests–were denounced by Kabir.
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.
Tagore endorses Kabir by saying:
Leave this chanting and singing and telling of beads! Whom dost thou worship in this lonely dark corner of a temple with doors all shut? Open thine eyes and see thy God is not before thee! He is there where the tiller is tilling the hard ground and where the pathmaker is breaking stones. He is with them in sun and in shower, and his garment is covered with dust. Put off thy holy mantle and like him come down on the dusty soil!
In their poetry both show a wide range of mystical emotion: from the loftiest abstractions, the most otherworldly passion for the Infinite, to the most intimate and personal realization of God, expressed in homely metaphors and religious symbols drawn indifferently from Hindu and Mohammedan belief.
Kabir’s finest poems have as their subjects the commonplaces of Hindu philosophy and religion: the Lila or Sport of God, the Ocean of Bliss and the Bird of the Soul etc. Tagore’s poems in Gitanjali focus on mysticism of the music of Krishna’s flute and monsoon.
In 1518, an old man, broken in health, and with hands so feeble that he could no longer make the music which he loved, Kabir died at Maghar near Gorakhpur.
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, 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 Mohammedans 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.
Tagore was a global phenomenon and his death was mourned by every Bengali and the whole world in August 1941. In the end the precious messages of both Tagore and Kabir can be summarized as follows:
O Men, where dost thou seek Me?
Lo! I am beside thee.
I am neither in temple nor in mosque:
I am neither in Kaaba nor in Kailash:
Neither am I in rites and ceremonies,
nor in Yoga and renunciation.
If thou art a true seeker,
thou shalt at once see Me:
thou shalt meet Me in a moment of time.
Where is this deliverance to be found? Our master himself has joyfully taken upon him the bonds of creation; he is bound with us all for ever. Come out of thy meditations and leave aside thy flowers and incense! What harm is there if thy clothes become tattered and stained? Meet him and stand by him in toil and in sweat of thy brow.
(Ashok Bhargava is president of Writers International Network or WIN, Canada)