Kabir and Niirguna Bhakti

In Kabir’s poems, I find all of what I most cherish about Yoga: a departure from stale assumptions and dogma, a radical egalitarianism, a celebration of art as sacred, and an exquisite poetic expression of mystic experience.  In the last year I have given two workshops at conferences in Canada (Renaissance in Toronto last August, and Whistler this past May) in an attempt to share my passion for Kabir and his busting up preconceived ideas about yoga, devotion, medieval poets, and sacredness.  But first, an overview:  Who is Kabir?

Kabir lived in the middle ages sometime during the 1400s, and was the son of a weaver from a caste that had largely converted to Islam during the Mogul colonization of Northern India.  As such he was influenced by and had knowledge of both Hindu and Muslim tradition, and he both criticized the dogmas of both religions while reveling in the ecstatic wisdom of their mystical truths.  In the Yoga Tradition, Georg Feuerstein describes Kabir as “a spirited spokesman for simple and direct devotion to the Divine who never failed to point out the inherent limitations of all external or conventional religious forms (p. 390).  Kabir rejects idols, or anthropomorphic representations of God, and yet exudes a sweet, ecstatic spirit of Bhaktas who cultivate the devotional relationship with a particular form or representation of divinity.  I have called this niirguna bhakti – devotional love of the Divine without attributes.  Often in his poems we find Pure Being described as inexpressible, and unknowable – but ironically, the beauty of his metaphors and poetic expression help us to do both.

In the workshops I traced Kabir’s philosophy as I see it, and the group found poetic phrases to match each aspect of thought.

  • Egalitarian and accessible
  • Direct, or Gnostic (without need of priests or intermediaries in spiritual experience)
  • Experiential – simple – holistic (not separate from mundane experience)
  • Non-sectarian

Firstly, Kabir’s poems express his belief in monism – that Divinity is both within and without.  As such, it is equally possible for all beings to tap into that essence.

Kabir Says:  If I say that He is within me, the universe is ashamed:  If I say that He is without me, it is falsehood.” (Songs of Kabir, Tagore, 53)

In keeping with this, it makes sense that teachings would be accessible to all regardless of caste, sex, class etc.  Not only would the teachings and experience of Divinity be accessible to all, but the prized position of ‘teacher’ then topples, as each person has within them the very wholeness that is sought.

Kabir Says :”In the word prem (love) there are just two and a half syllables.  Whoever knows this can become a pundit.”

Kabir goes further and really pokes at the power disparity between teacher and student that can be exacerbated beyond a normal, healthy respect.  The true realized one recognizes the Divinity of the student.

“Thou and I are one!”  This trumpet proclaims. The guru comes and bows down before the disciple:  This is the greatest of wonders. (Songs of Kabir, Tagore, 76-77)

If we are Divine, and therefore the experience of Oneness is inherent to us, then spirituality need not be separated from worldly life; it need not be difficult, or hard to attain; we need not renounce the world or avoid savouring nature and the arts.

“Kabir says, listen, you saintly men, forget all this vanity.  I’ve said it so many times but nobody really listens – you must merge into the simple state simply.” (Kabir: The Weaver’s Songs by Dharwadkar, 63)

“Why put on the robes of the monk and live aloof from the world in lonely pride?  Behold my heart dances in the delight of a hundred arts and the Creator is well pleased.” (Songs of Kabir, Tagore, 80)

Kabir is very Tantric in his insistence that the sacred is the mundane: sacredness is not separate from creation.  And also that revelling in the Arts is a form of spiritual practice.  I find also the insistence on simplicity and nearness so refreshing.  Meaning that no specific rituals are required, but that our own created or co-created rituals are equally valuable, our own experience of embodiment, breath.

“Why look for me anywhere else my friend, when I’m here in your possession? Not in temples, not in mosques – not in the Ka’bah, not on Kailash.  Not in rites, not in rituals – not in yoga or renunciation. Look for Me and you’ll find Me quickly – all it takes is one moment’s search.  Kabir says, listen, O brothers – He’s the very breath of our breaths.” (Kabir: The Weaver’s Songs by Dharwadkar, 195)

Because no specific cultural rituals are required, it is a non-sectarian or non-denominational approach. This is further emphasized by Kabir’s exclusive use of abstract or elemental images to refer to the Divine, which for me harkens back to the shamanic roots of yoga.

Some say that without the evocation of concrete relationship in worship there cannot be devotion. And yet, Kabir’s poetry evokes in me strong devotional and mystical feeling.  I’ll leave you with one of my favourite phrases.

“Kabir says: It cannot be told by words of the mouth, it cannot be written on paper: It is like a mute person who tastes a sweet thing – how can it be explained.”  (Songs of Kabir, Tagore, 121)


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Karen McKinnon
    May 30, 2011 @ 17:17:23


    I’m so grateful for your blog entry! It happened to be one of the first things I did this morning, which started the day off in a lovely way. Much of what you have written resonates with me right now. About 6 months ago I began wondering why some of us lose our sense of wonder from childhood. I kept feeling that there was this “magic” in our world that I was trying to know, understand, see, or grasp in someway but couldn’t find. I’ve begun to see that this ‘magic’, wonder, or awe is right in front of us and is in us; it’s just that for some reason, we turn magic into mundane. I’m talking about our everyday experiences by ourselves and with people. A kind word, conversation, gesture, or coincidence that we put in the category of everyday experiences, ie, normal, as we continue to look for that exciting realization or not mundane, spiritual experience. I feel like it is partly from a space gratitude that we can start to find magic in our lives. Kabir mentioning gratitude with art and mundane as a spiritual practice and experience is wonderful to hear. Bhakti meditations has helped to open my heart to this evolving realization, that Divinity is here, and within us; this honest feeling of connection. I also love his emphasis on accessibility and nearness to this experience. “Devotional love of the Divine without attributes.” is a powerful sentence. Freeing. Refreshing. I am becoming more interested with Kabir, which was sparked in your lecture at YFT last year. The sincerity and joy in your teaching this free form concept of yoga devotion stands out for me. This quote comes to mind, “People may forget what you said, people may forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

    I look forward to talking more about Kabir and Niirguna Bhakti with you. I feel it’s important that you are sharing what you’ve learned and what you appreciate about these teachings.

    Love Karen


  2. Lillian D'souza-Muise
    May 30, 2011 @ 21:54:01

    Thank you Chetana for sharing your understanding of Kabir’s work. I also have become interested in Kabir’s work, and love the way you articulate his poems. Thank you for this, I throughly enjoyed it.

    In joy


  3. akhandayoga
    Jun 03, 2011 @ 17:34:03

    Thank you Karen and Lillian!! Yes, I have worked a lot with ritual and symbolism in both yoga/ayurveda, and my work as a language teacher. The elemental and the very vast descriptions of consciousness achieved by poetry have a long lasting appeal to me. I noticed particularly in Whistler also, that elemental and nature imagery in some of the poems and visualizations we did really helped people to get into the sense of witness consciousness as timeless, perennial. Fun!


  4. Nand Narine
    May 02, 2014 @ 17:51:15

    Really nice piece on the wisdom of Kabir’s poetry ! Well written. Like a skillful weaver, Kabir blends the juice of sagun and nirgun fruits for our delight. Sweet!


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