Kabir’s Garland

A sandalwood bead necklace that belonged to the 15th century mystic poet Kabir, a gift from his guru Ramananda, was stolen from the Kabir monastery in Varanasi on November 30th. The necklace is considered priceless, but could fetch as much as $200,000 on the underworld market. Three Thai nationals were arrested Saturday in Varanasi. Police also detained a fourth man, a monk, who was a regular at the monastery. The necklace/prayer beads have not been recovered.

Hopefully the item will be found at some point. In the meantime, what a perfect opportunity to say a few words about Kabir and present some of his poetry.

Kabir (1440–1518) is revered as a saint in India. Very little is known about his life, however there are many legends surrounding it. According to these stories, Kabir was born to a Brahman widow who left him abandoned, and later he was adopted by a family of Muslims. Although he is considered somewhat of a holy man, he did not lead a particularly ascetic existence. He lived the life of a householder and made his living as a weaver. Evidently, he was illiterate, with no formal education. According to legend, he learned to write only one word his entire life: Rama. The seventh avatar of the God Vishnu in Hinduism. Rama is also said to be one of the last two words spoken by Gandhi as he lay dying from an assassins bullet.

Kabir believed in traditional Indian concepts such as karma, rebirth, and unfortunately, atman; however, he was not interested in sectarianism, rejecting the dogmas of both Hinduism and Islam. His work was influential on the Bhakti, a medieval movement similar to Sufism.

As I mentioned, Kabir was a mystic poet, and he stands among the great poets of the world. Rather than try to describe how beautiful his poetry is, perhaps it would be better to simple let you read for yourself. Another great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagor, whose phrase “the endless further” I took as the title for this blog, translated Kabir’s poetry into English. Here are some selections:

VI

The moon shines in my body, but my blind eyes cannot see it:
The moon is within me, and so is the sun.
The unstruck drum of Eternity is sounded within me; but my deaf ears cannot hear it.

So long as man clamours for the I and the Mine, his works are as naught:
When all love of the I and the Mine is dead, then the work of the Lord is done.
For work has no other aim than the getting of knowledge:
When that comes, then work is put away.

The flower blooms for the fruit: when the fruit comes, the flower withers.
The musk is in the deer, but it seeks it not within itself: it wanders in quest of grass.

XVI

Between the poles of the conscious and the unconscious, there has the mind made a swing:
Thereon hang all beings and all worlds, and that swing never ceases its sway.
Millions of beings are there: the sun and the moon in their courses are there:
Millions of ages pass, and the swing goes on.
All swing! the sky and the earth and the air and the water; and the Lord Himself taking form:
And the sight of this has made Kabir a servant.

XXIV

More than all else do I cherish at heart that love which makes me to live a limitless life in this world.
It is like the lotus, which lives in the water and blooms in the water: yet the water cannot touch its petals, they open beyond its reach.
It is like a wife, who enters the fire at the bidding of love. She burns and lets others grieve, yet never dishonours love.
This ocean of the world is hard to cross: its waters are very deep.
Kabîr says: “Listen to me, O Sadhu! few there are who have reached its end.”

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When God Moves To Another Star

Tagore in 1925 - note the Buddha statues in the background
Tagore in 1925 – note the Buddha statues in the background

Today is the 152nd anniversary of the birth of Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian poet and philosopher whose phrase “the Endless Further” I borrowed for the title of this blog. Tagore was not a Buddhist per se, but he had great respect for the Buddha and his teachings. In Rabindranath Tagore His Life and Work, historian and translator Edward John Thompson, wrote, “He [Tagore] is almost more Buddhist than he is in sympathy with many forms of Hinduism that are most popular in his native Bengal.”

In The Religion of Man, Tagore wrote of our “constant struggle for a great Further.” This “further” is not mere knowledge, for as Tagore explained, “the further world of freedom awaits us there where we reach truth, not through feeling it by our senses or knowing it by our reason, but through the union of perfect sympathy.” By union, Tagore meant realizing the “eternal” within one’s own life. He called it an “inner inter-relationship.”

Although he often referred to God, Tagore’s God was different from our common conception. In The Religion of Man, he also talked about the “idea of the humanity of our God, or the divinity of Man the Eternal.” For Tagore, God was a “divine principle of unity,” the inner inter-relationship previously mentioned. Within this ideal of unity, we realize the infinite within life and appreciate the boundlessness of human love: “The unity becomes not a mere subjective idea, but an energizing truth. Whatever name may be given to it, and whatever form it symbolizes, the consciousness of this unity is spiritual, and our effort to be true to it is our religion.”

Tagore described his personal faith as “a poet’s religion.” I suspect he intended to mean that whatever one conceived as the Ultimate was ineffable and therefore expressible only through a language resembling poetry. The freedom mentioned above “is for expressing the infinite; it imposes limits in its works, not to keep them in permanence but to break them over and over again, and to reveal the endless in unending surprises.” As well, it is freedom from the bondage of suffering, or experiencing the infinite.

In experiencing the infinite, an individual is only realizing his or her own true nature, for we are already infinite in the sense that we participate in the timelessness of time. Our lives are moments in that time, and the space we occupy is a particle of infinite space. We are a part of the infinite, but we cannot be the whole of it, and whether we call the whole of everything – time, space, life – Ultimate Reality or give it the name of God, our journey to realize it will always remain incomplete.

In a story attributed to Tagore, a man goes searching for God, a search he has been on since the beginning of existence. Once in a while, he sees God on a faraway star, but by the time he reaches the star, God has moved to another star. This symbolizes the futility of searching for God or the Ultimate Reality outside of our lives, and trying to conceive God as a being or even as Being. The infinite is infinite, God is everywhere, as is Buddha, which is just a name for awakening, and the Ultimate is ultimately unknowable. Yet this does not negate the value of the journey, the searching.

In his collection of poetry, Gitanjali, Tagore wrote,

The traveler has to knock at every alien door to come to his own,
and one has to wander through all the outer worlds to reach the innermost shrine at the end.

My eyes strayed far and wide before I shut them and said `Here art thou!’
The question and the cry `Oh, where?’ melt into tears of a thousand
streams and deluge the world with the flood of the assurance `I am!’

Without the search, without wayfaring, we can never know ourselves, and least that much we can know. We search for unity with the infinite within ourselves. We maintain “the search, enjoy the very journey, the pilgrimage” understanding that it too is infinite, and will remain incomplete, never exhausted, and that the union we seek is a continuous coalesce.

The searching is our religion, and you can give it any name, call it God if you wish, but know that God is the Endless Further.

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Sadhana and the Big Fish

I thought that today I would say a few more words about Rabindranath Tagore. I don’t remember how I came to be aware of Tagore. It was probably from some reading on Gandhi, as they were friends, and Tagore was somewhat of a mentor to the Mahatma, even though they had their disagreements. First, I was bowled over by his poetry. Those of you who read last Thursday’s post can understand why. Then I read about his life in Rabindranath Tagore The Myriad-Minded Man by Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson. His multifaceted mind and personality were the products of his intelligence and a certain amount of restlessness. Tagore wore many hats: family man, teacher, poet, playwright, novelist, painter, singer, musician, art and literary critic, businessman, fundraiser, composer of dance and opera, philosopher, political thinker, religious and social reformer.

Rabindranath-TagoreHe first drew the world’s attention as a poet, then as an essayist. In 1913 he published Sadhana – The Realisation of Life, a collection of essays drawn from lectures he gave at Harvard University that same year. The title explains much about Tagore’s philosophy of life. The word sadhana means “realization,” but it also refers to “spiritual practice.” My feeling is that Tagore’s spiritual practice of choice was prayer and the ways he prayed were as myriad as his mind.

In one of his poems, he wrote, “We live in this world when we love it.” Love is a prayer, song is a prayer, life is a prayer. Tagore revered the Upanishads, the collection of texts that form the basis for Indian religion, even as he felt they did not “sufficiently explore the approach to Reality through love and devotion.” Nonetheless, they left a deep impression and helped form the basis of his unique approach to reality. In Sadhana, he wrote,

The attitude of the God-conscious man of the Upanishad towards the universe is one of a deep feeling of adoration. His object of worship is present everywhere. It is the one living truth that makes all realities true. This truth is not only of knowledge but of devotion. ‘Namonamah,’—we bow to him everywhere, and over and over again.

I do not share his faith in a higher being, a “Him” (or “Her”), yet I am envious of Tagore’s sense of devotion, his reverence for life, his awe of nature, and his appreciation for the wondrous beauty to be found in the world. It comes through in nearly every word he wrote, be it poetry or prose. It makes my own feeling for the same seem puny by comparison.

I first read the following in the biography mentioned above. It’s from Sadhana, and is a simple story, beautifully told, that relates a great and profound realization:

One day I was out in a boat on the Ganges. It was a beautiful evening in autumn. The sun had just set; the silence of the sky was full to the brim with ineffable peace and beauty. The vast expanse of water was without a ripple, mirroring all the changing shades of the sunset glow. Miles and miles of a desolate sandbank lay like a huge amphibious reptile of some antediluvian age, with its scales glistening in shining colours. As our boat was silently gliding by the precipitous river-bank, riddled with the nest-holes of a colony of birds, suddenly a big fish leapt up to the surface of the water and then disappeared, displaying on its vanishing figure all the colours of the evening sky. It drew aside for a moment the many-coloured screen behind which there was a silent world full of the joy of life. It came up from the depths of its mysterious dwelling with a beautiful dancing motion and added its own music to the silent symphony of the dying day. I felt as if I had a friendly greeting from an alien world in its own language, and it touched my heart with a flash of gladness. Then suddenly the man at the helm exclaimed with a distinct note of regret, “Ah, what a big fish!” It at once brought before his vision the picture of the fish caught and made ready for his supper. He could only look at the fish through his desire, and thus missed the whole truth of its existence.

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“Love’s gift is shy”

Hot on the heels of Tuesday’s Mardi Gras and yesterday’s Ash Wednesday, it’s Valentine’s, that day of romance, flowers and candy and sweet nothings whispered into hopefully receptive ears. . . and poetry.

RTagore3I’ve posted many poems on this blog during past three years, but too few by the man who inspired the blog’s title, The Endless Further: Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), teacher, philosopher, playwright, and sublime poet. Sadly, his works are almost unknown outside of India. But as the great master of the sitar, Ravi Shankar, wrote in his book, Raga, if Tagore “been born in the West he would now be [as] revered as Shakespeare and Goethe.”

In 1913, Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for Song Offerings, a collection of poems he translated himself from Bengali into English, based on Gitanjali, a collection published in Bengal three years earlier. He became the first non-European awarded a Nobel Prize.

Tagore’s poems are songs, chants. In English, they become prose poems. It is difficult for me, since I do not read or speak Bengali, to tell how much is lost in the translation. Yet, I find that his words are lyrical, and the beauty of his simple imagery, mystical. Many of the poems are songs of a love triangle between the poet, nature, and the divine. Others, however, are of love between two people, a devotional kind of love that transcends mere romance.

To commemorate Valentine’s Day, here are a three selections from Lover’s Gift, published by Macmillan in 1918:

II

Come to my garden walk, my love. Pass by the fervid flowers that press themselves on your sight. Pass them by, stopping at some chance joy, which a sudden wonder of sunset illumines, yet eludes.

For love’s gift is shy, it never tells its name, it flits across the shade, spreading a shiver of joy along the dust. Overtake it or miss it for ever. But a gift that can be grasped is merely a frail flower, or a lamp with a flame that will flicker.

IV

She is near to my heart as the meadow-flower to the earth; she is sweet to me as sleep is to tired limbs. My love for her is my life flowing in its fullness, like a river in autumn flood, running with serene abandonment. My songs are one with my love, like the murmur of a stream, that sings with all its waves and currents.

V

I would ask for still more, if I had the sky with all its stars, and the world with its endless riches; but I would be content with the smallest corner of this earth if only she were mine.

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One Day In Spring

It’s Spring. It’s April. It’s National Poetry Month. Three reasons to stand up and cheer.

I love National Poetry Month because it gives me an opportunity to present some of my favorite poems (not that I really need an excuse), hopefully introducing them to folks to whom they are unknown, or reintroducing them to folks who have met them already.

Today, here’s a fitting poem for the season by Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel winning poet and playwright who coined the phrase that I use as the title of this blog, The Endless Further:

One Day In Spring

One day in spring, a woman came
In my lonely woods,
In the lovely form of the Beloved.
Came, to give to my songs, melodies,
To give to my dreams, sweetness.
Suddenly a wild wave
Broke over my heart’s shores
And drowned all language.
To my lips no name came,
She stood beneath the tree, turned,
Glanced at my face, made sad with pain,
And with quick steps, came and sat by me.
Taking my hands in hers, she said:
‘You do not know me, nor I you—
I wonder how this could be?’
I said:
‘We two shall build, a bridge for ever
Between two beings, each to the other unknown,
This eager wonder is at the heart of things.’

The cry that is in my heart is also the cry of her heart;
The thread with which she binds me binds her too.
Her have I sought everywhere,
Her have I worshipped within me,
Hidden in that worship she has sought me too.
Crossing the wide oceans, she came to steal my heart.
She forgot to return, having lost her own.
Her own charms play traitor to her,
She spreads her net, knowing not
Whether she will catch or be caught.

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