Kabir, Kabir by Purushottam Agrawal: book review

The life and work of the early modern poet-philosopher

My discovery of Kabir started not with his dohas but from the history textbook of class 6th or 7th along with other bhakti religious gurus. He never stood out to me beyond some 8 or 10 lines of the book. Kabir in my life has been very different, unappealing because I never learned to see him beyond another topic that I need to study. I missed the very fact that he belongs to a very humble background, such as him taking pride in saying that he belongs from the weaver community of Varanasi, yet he dared to raise questions against social hierarchy, gender roles. He spearheaded a revolution without picking up any arms.


The author delicately peeled layer by layer as he unravels the mysterious life of 15th-century Bhakti Poet Philosopher Kabir exploring his works and diving into the metaphorical meaning of Dohas written by him. The author didn’t restrict his views about Kabir only up to spirituality, he went on narrating the political scenarios of 15th century India. Even then he kept it factual rather than provoking any such conflicts.


He didn’t restrict himself just with Kabir’s teachings but also talked about the contemporary saints and time period. He shared the social structure of Medieval India and how it impacted one’s spiritual and religious beliefs. It's often taken that he is the epitome of Hindu Muslim unity, but he focused on the ritualistic nature, toxic Brahmanical society, and the fact that spirituality is beyond religion.


He pointed out how saints weren’t free from vices either. The poetic battle between Tulsidas and Kabir found its place in the book. The two saints have two different perspectives about achieving moksha and how each of them saw God differently.


In subsequent chapters as he compares the writings and interpretations of Kabir’s teaching across different sub-sects, he also pointed out the flat binary interpretation of European scholars. Not getting into deeper meanings of spirituality but rather taking is as “discarding” his Muslim identity or stressing of the “constant tensions” between two religions. It's almost an irony that the bhakti saint always stressed spirituality but he was weighted by the historians mostly as one of the leaders of the religious movement. The book focuses on the self-evolution of Kabir. From a disciple to master, from sakta to Vaishnava, and how with time his teachings were modified into other sects including Sikhism.

ABOUT THE BOOK

As the right-wing tries to claim Kabir for itself, while other conservatives disown him and yet others portray him as a secular idol beyond religion, the poet has never been so misunderstood. Coming from the Nirgun bhakti tradition, the words of this fifteenth-century poet have the power to reach beyond time and speak to us today. Was he a Hindu or Muslim or was he beyond religion? Did he try to cultivate a new faith or did he eschew organized religion altogether? Was his modernity an exception or a reflection of the times he lived in? What do Kabir’s life and poetry tell us about this nation’s past and present? In this rare appraisal of Kabir’s writings and his life, Purushottam Agarwal approaches this timeless poet-revolutionary with little preconceptions, presenting him the way the poet wanted to be seen, rather than what his followers and fans want to see in him.

Kabir, Kabir: the life and work of the early modern poet-philosopher by Purushottam Agrawal is published by Westland Publications, and to order your copy buy here.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Purushottam Agrawal (Hindi:हिंदी पुरुषोत्तम अग्रवाल, born 25 June, 1955) is an Indian writer and academic.

He was born and brought up in the city of Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh. He has an MA (Political Science, 1977) from Jiwaji University, Gwalior and one in Hindi Literature, 1979 from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He was awarded a Ph.D degree by Jawaharlal Nehru University in 1985 on the topic of '‘The Social Meaning of Kabir’s Bhakti’' under the supervision of Namwar Singh. His academic interests include Bhakti poetry and its social context (especially that of Kabir), indigenous (“vernacular”) modernity, non-violence and cultural & literary criticism. He has written many books including Kabir: Sakhi aur Sabad (A collection of Kabir’s poetry with an analytical introduction), Shivdan Singh Chauhan (A monograph in “Makers of Indian Literature” series published by Sahitya Akademi, Delhi), Majbooti Ka Naam Mahtma Gandhi (published version of annual Gandhi Lecture, organized by Gandhi Peace Foundation, Delhi), ‘Nij Brahma Vichhar: Dharma, Samaj aur Dharmetar Adhyatma’ (Essays on religion, spirituality and philosophy), Vichaar ka Ananta (a collection of theoretical and cultural essays), Teesra Rukh (A collection of literary and cultural essays), Sanskriti: Varchswa aur Pratiroadh (a collection of cultural and political essays) Hindi Nai chaal mein Dhali ( edited proceedings of the international symposium organized in Patna, India on the evolution of modern Hindi), Akath Kahani Prem Ki : Kabir ki Kavita aur Unka Samay (2009) and Hindi Saray: Astrakhan via Yerevan( 2012). He is also a poet and story writer. His short story Cheng Chui published in Pragatishil Vashudha (2012). His another short story is Chaurahe Par Putala published in Naya Gyanodaya (a Bharteey Gyanpeet Magazine). ""pan Patte ki Goth"" (appeared in ""Pakhi"") is a story about a renowned scientist and academician which is fighting upper-casteist professors and other stakeholder in an Indian university system. ""Pair Ghanti"" is a story about feudal minded polity and casteist bureaucracy. ""Nacohus"" (appeared in ""Pakhi"") is a short story by Agrawal which talks about mindless communal sentimentalism and irrational approach towards art and culture.