Tuesday, May 24, 2011


Kabir begins with an understanding of the body as a field. The task of being aware of our own reality is a recognition of the fact that we have to first of all recognize our bodies.

You didn’t take care

So the deer has eaten up your field.

I’m the owner of this field

Stay awake a thief will steal into your town

You won’t see him come or go

Inside you he will roam around.

Stay alert, the thief will come !

He won’t wreck any fort, raze any castle

He won’t show you any form.

Your wealth, and riches, goods, and treasures

Will be left behind

Says Kabir, this land is deserted.

No one here is yours

You came with your fist clenched

You go with your hands outstretched.

The idea of the relation between the human community to the land, lies at the very basis of a sense of identity. One can say that cultural geography sees that we find our cultural identity not just in the past, or a sense of memory, but also a feeling that we belong to a particular space, which gives us a living home. It is in this context that we can find in the poetic tradition of Kabir’s imagery is an ecological acceptance of the earth as the body of God.


In this body, a vessel of clay

It will shatter, it will not resound.

In this body a string of pearls,

The thread snaps, the pearls scatter.

In this body a market bustles.

Strike a bargain with a good saint.

In this body, a garden of flowers.

In Kabir we find a rich complex of images related to the body. In fact, one could say that his understanding of reality is profoundly embodied. Perhaps one of the most primary images of the body sees it as a vessel made out of clay. Finally this clay body is destined to break, and crumble back into the earth again. Learning with Kabir involves a process of getting students to experience their own bodies, and realise in this way their own physical identity. Making images of the body helps a child, and also an adult, to see the link between the human and the rest of creation. We are all part of a greater body, which is a cosmic whole.


This cloth—fine so fine!

Woven with the flavour of God’s Name,

Resplendent with three qualities,

This cloth—fine so fine !

I gave it to the washerman

He pounded it , and gave it to the dyer.

What a colour he gave it !

Steeped in red !

Wear this cloth, don’t be afraid

It’s yours for a brief two days.

Your servant Kabir wore it with care

He gave it back as he got it.

Kabir the weaver, never separated the spirit from the body. Unfortunately, what some call the “Cartesian classroom” which prevails in our present educational institutions, separates the mind from the body, so that learning is often only about the forming of the intellectual mind. The child, however, has a more holistic understanding of reality, which includes the mental awareness of an outer world, and an inner consciousness of how this outer world touches the body, through the emotions, and intuitive longings of the heart. What a process of “Learning with Kabir” should make the teacher sensitive to, is the link between the physical reality of the body, and the conscious functioning of the mind, which tries to discover the meaning of life.


How do images of the body fuse with the inner meaning of the song ? There song is a primordial expression of a poetic vision of reality, but this song moves into dance. The rhythms of the song, accompanied by the beating of the drum, the striking of the cymbals, and the clapping of hands, suddenly bursts into movement. This movement is the embodiment of song in life. It is the beginning of gesture, word made visible by the body.

During the workshop we reflected on the images of the body that are to be found in the poems of Kabir. This is a very rich source of the visual metaphor, embedded in the very sound and meaning of the words that Kabir uses.

Oh wise ones!

This body is a splendid Tambura.

Tighten the strings, twist the pegs,

And it sings the song of the Lord.

The strings snap, the pegs lie scattered

The sweetness has turned to dust.

Don’t cling in vain to this body.

Its swan has flown away.


This feeling for the material also means a recognition that the physical does not last. No clothes last, no pot can go on being useful for ever, as it is bound to eventually break, because the body itself is impermanent. This leads the poet who has this “material imagination” to look at nature itself as impermanent; the leaf that falls from the tree, cannot again be found. Buds are plucked to make garlands by the gardener, and in that process they too are found to have a beauty that passes away. This sense of impermanence seems to be part of what Kabir is understanding as being struck, or wounded by the word. And this woundedness helps the poet to feel compassion for all other creatures that are embodied, and have to come to terms with the experience of death, or being limited and finite.

Kabir is very conscious of the fact of life being a process of dying.

Just one day, just one moment.

The blink of an eye

Not a single moment can you take for granted.

I fear that day Oh Lord!

Meditate on this moment, friend

You won’t get another chance.


Reflecting on the issue of Kabir being a Dalit, or coming from a marginalized background, two aspects of his vision strike me. First of all there is his use of body symbols, connected with his physical involvement with the world around him. This is what I would understand as the “material imagination” that Gaston Bachelard talks about. He responds to the world, not just with his mind, his rational intelligence, but with his whole body. And this means that his work, that is as a weaver, or his appreciation of the work of others who are actively and directly engaged with the material reality of things, such as the potter, the washer or dyer of clothes,(dhobi) the worker with leather, or skins (chamar) or the person who is looking after plants (mali) and so on, have a deep imaginative engagement with the world which the person who does not work with materials has lost

The Song becomes like a primal cry. There is a deep relation between art and compassion, and this means that the world of the poetic image seems to arise from an encounter with the physical reality of the world, which involves a kind of suffering. It is almost like the baby born into this world has to cry in order to begin the process of breathing. The song seems to come up from the heart like a cry which is both an expression of an existential suffering, but also an affirmation of life.


Learning with Kabir could be understood as reflecting on the role of the Teacher, or Guru. What do we mean by the ‘Sat Guru’ or True Guru ? What is the relationship of Teacher to Student, adult to child in the Indian cultural tradition? This question could lead to a deeper understanding of the “Sat Guru” in the poetic world of Kabir; and also in the thought of other mystics like Ramana Maharishi, or again Tagore or Gandhi. In this context we may reflect on how Kabir’s poetry might help in understanding the learning process rooted in an Indian educational ethos. Kabir said that the Guru gives us the roots of wisdom. In that sense the Guru is not just the external person who has the function or role of being a teacher. The True Guru is wisdom itself which lies in everyone’s heart. It is this inner Guru that is also what the child needs to discover. The external teacher only helps the student to find that inner Wisdom that lies embedded in the heart.

If nine hundred rivers flow in your body,

Can the seven seas be too deep?

The Guru’s pool is full in your body,

Why wander feeling thirsty ?

Here the Guru figure is also the poet. The song itself becomes a teacher, leading us to an inner experience of wisdom.


A theme in the poetry of Kabir that has always meant a great deal to me, is the idea that we are wounded by the Word. Those who are “struck” by the word, can understand the suffering of others, according to Kabir. In that sense Kabir represents an ancient tradition of the poet as a wounded healer.

He’s dug his spear into the ground

It strikes me in my heart !

My Guru has wounded me !

My true Guru pierced through me,

He put his finger on my pulse

And waves surged in my veins.

My heart rocked......

My true Guru is a healing herb in the courtyard,

Let everyone take it.


I have been very much thinking along the line that art forms can contribute to a dialogue between cultures, and faith commitments, which is more inclusive than discussions based on dogmatic beliefs. One can affirm and appreciated what is beautiful, and deeply spiritual in another Faith tradition, in a way that the fundamentalist purist who argues from a standpoint of dogmatic beliefs can’t do. Image and song touches an inner world of symbol, which can be shared by all. Here image and song speak to the heart, and arise from an experience of the Divine in the world.

Kabir and Nature.

The Monsoon from the Unseen realm is rising,

The cloud of love has burst on me.

Frogs, peacocks and cuckoos are calling

The Koel is singing a song.

There are no clouds, no lightening here

And yet it is thundering;

In your navel-lotus is a deep pool

Rivers from the Unseen are flowing....

Kabir’s poetic vision links us to nature. Entering into his poetry, we begin to dream a world where the human and the rest of creation are at one. The outer reality flows into an inner landscape, and an inner eye gazes on the beauty of the world around us. As Kabir said:

There is a drop in the ocean, this everyone knows

There is an ocean in every drop; this is not known to all.


Learning with Kabir workshop between May 18-May 20 2011

There were about thirty teachers from different parts of India, mainly Delhi, Baroda, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Chennai.

A group of folk singers from Rajasthan led by the well known singer Mahesha Ram, were also there to sing in the morning and the evening, in a small open pavilion beside a water garden situated in the centre where we were gathered.

During this workshop we explored ways in which the spirit of Kabir, as expressed in his legacy of song, could inspire the way children are taught.