Notes on Kabir and Tagore

Songs of Kabir is the name that Rabindranath Tagore gave this collection of poems, which was first published in English in 1915. Tagore was a prolific poet, and was known for his iconoclastic style. He scandalized the stuffy academics and critics of India by putting ancient and sacred poems to music, so that everyday people would sing them. His Gitanjali was widely read in English, and he received the Nobel Prize in Literature. When a trainload of his critics who had reviled him for years showed up to congratulate him on the Prize, he said, “Gentlemen, the fragrant honors you here bestow are incongruously mingled wih the putrid odors of your past contempt. I am still the same poet,” and sent them away. (This is reported by Parmahansa Yogananda in his Autibiography of a Yogi.)

Kabir emerged from a fusion of Sufi, Hindu and Kabbalistic teachings that inspired Southern India beginning in the 12th century. He was a weaver, a father, a musician and a poet.

Robert Bly brought Kabir’s poetry to modern audiences. Working from Tagore’s “Victorian English” translation, Bly electrified the language, sometimes by just changing a few words here and there. Tagore said once that his English was not good enough to do justice to Kabir.

One day in 1996, I set out to simply transcribe some of the Kabir poems that Bly did not use into more modern English, but they captured me and the project of an afternoon carried me away for a week. (I also included several Songs which Bly did versions of, and did better, but my version brings out a different tone.) Just this morning - October 28, 2008, I found them.

May you be captured as well!

Songs of Kabir

translated by Rabindranath Tagore, 1915 edition.
new versions by Lorin Roche

XCVII. II. 90. (p. 142)

The Beloved is in me, and also in you,
as life is in every seed.
You who would serve life,
put away pride and seek Him within you.

A million suns explode with light,
An ocean of blue expands to the farthest horizon,
When I sit in the midst of that world,
The fever of life is quieted,
And the stains from experience are washed away.

I listen to the hum of the unstruck chord
resonating in each moment;
My pulse beats in rhythm to the drums that no fingers touch.
The Eternal One is singing my name as a love song.
Rains pour down without water,
and the rivers are streams of light.

One love permeates the whole world,
few are they that know it fully.

Those who hope to see it by the light of logic
are blind.
The house of reason is very far from the world of Love!

How blessed is Kabir, that in this vast ocean of love
He sings in his little boat.
It is the music of soul meeting soul.
It is the music of forgetting all sorrow.
It is the music that goes beyond all coming in and going forth.