Purushottam Agrawal, Akath Kahani Prem ki: Kabir ki kavita aur unka samay (Love is an unspeakable tale: Kabir’s poetry and his times). New Delhi: Rajkamal Prakashan (2009), pp. 456, Rs. 500
Indian and western scholars and students of bhakti study the same texts and authors but often work in separate spheres. They may interact with each other at a personal level or cite each other’s work, but it is not often that they actually engage with each other’s scholarship and arguments. Purushottam Agrawal’s long-awaited book on Kabir, the result of thirty years of study and reflection, engages with both Hindi and western scholarship on Kabir in a fundamental way, contesting many long-held assumptions about the most famous bhakti poet-saint of north India. The book is already making waves in the Hindi world, and it seems important to discuss his work in an English-language journal, so that the dialogue he has initiated may continue.
Let me first summarize his main lines of argument. First, he argues, it is wrong to consider (and champion) Kabir as marginal and subaltern voice, a brave but failed religious reformer. Kabir was not a marginal voice but the most popular poet of trading and artisanal classes, both in his time and in the following centuries, as eighteenth- and nineteenth-century observers like della Tomba and William Crooke noted. Agrawal argues that ‘Kabir’s poetry lends a creative foundation and a spiritual idiom to the social aspirations of traders and artisans. Underpinning these aspirations is an insistence on the individual (vyaktisatta), and the demand that an individual be valued on the basis of his individual qualities, faults and achievements rather than on the basis of his birth’ (p. 49). Nor were these groups were subaltern in early modern north India, and in order to prove this point Agrawal musters a host of historical references to the growth of trade after the first millennium and the growing social importance of trading and merchant classes. The founder of the Kabir panth was a rich trader, and the panth spread among artisans and traders from Chhattisgarh to Bihar and Gujarat, and several prominent sants came from this background. Metaphors of trade, weaving and dyeing abound in Kabir’s poetry, and he sometimes called his Lord a rangrez (dyer) or a baniya. The image of the subaltern sant battling Brahmin hegemony is, Agrawal argues, a historical anachronism, a product of “colonial Brahminical fantasy.” In order to read Kabir correctly, then, a fundamental exercise in deconstruction of the categories of the colonial episteme is needed, and this is what Agrawal’s book offers in a systematic way.
Take the long-debated issue of whether Kabir was born a Muslim weaver or simply raised as one. Through a careful reading of all early modern and modern scholarship on Kabir, Agrawal demonstrates that until the nineteenth century only the Kabir panth had found it necessary to argue that Kabir was not born a weaver: after choosing a radical figure like him as founder, it was then necessary to endow him with a more exalted, indeed divine, origin. But why did British and Indian modern scholar s of Kabir share this belief? Because, Agrawal brilliantly argues, colonial modern epistemology views early modern Indian subjects as mere cyphers of their birth, caste and religion—thus Kabir must have said what he said because of his background, not out of choice. ‘Though brought up in a Muslim household’, Shyamsundar Das stated, ‘the fact that he is steeped in Hindu ideas gestures/hints towards the fact that Brahmin, or at least Hindu, blood flowed in his veins’ (cit. p. 159). For Chandrabali Pandey, instead, Kabir was a Muslim by birth and a radical Sufi by practice. Hazari Prasad Dvivedi set up an elaborate scheme that accounted for the varied strands of his religious idiom. According to Dvivedi there had been a caste of Nathpanthi householders in northern and eastern India at the time who were either weavers or beggars, most of whom did not observe caste rules and worshipped a formless God. With the coming of Islam they had gradually converted, and it was in such a family of neo-converted householder jogis that Kabir was brought up. (The only problem, Agrawal notes, is that Kabir never called himself a jogi but called himself a julaha, a kori, or ‘neither Hindu nor Muslim’, p. 163.) But the problem is a more basic one, a problem of the modern imagination, and it is not limited to Kabir. Why is it so difficult to imagine that the religious ideas of an early modern individual were the result of individual choice? ‘It was not necessary to be born or converted into a religion to be familiar with [e.g.] the Nathpanth—people searched through study and satsang, they used their discrimination, they weighed and accepted or rejected it’ (p. 174). So ‘Kabir’s discourse and ideas (vaicariki) is not bound by genealogy’, Agrawal argues, ‘it is the outcome of the bold quest of a restless individual, it was an individual, rational choice’. Kabir was familiar with current religious idioms (bahushrut, “well-listened”, if not bahu-pathit, “well-read”, p. 312), but used them creatively to give expression to his own spiritual journey.
Similarly, in order to recover a sense of Kabir’s times, it is important to listen to early modern vernacular voices with respect. Thus we learn that Anantdas’s description of Namdev as the initiator of bhakti in the Kali age is an accurate one: Namdev and Ramanand did usher a new kind of socially open bhakti in the North. And Tulsidas’s dystopia, of Shudras talking back at Brahmins, unafraid, of bhagats spreading their knowledge to all, is probably an accurate description of the social mobility of the time, a time when varnashrama dharma was becoming irrelevant in the North, new castes were coming up all the time, and pragmatic Brahmins were accommodating them in the dharmashastras thanks to the “arthshastraisation of dharmashastra” (A. Dayal Mathur).
A major part of Agrawal’s work in recent years has been a reclaiming of Ramanand, and an entire chapter is dedicated to him in this book. Ramanand may have been an elusive figure and contemporary Sanskrit sources are silent about him, but a few utterances and padas of a radical nature are well preserved in Hindi bhakti memory (‘jat-pant puche nahin koi’/ ‘Nobody cares for caste’ and ‘Hari ko bajai so Hari ko hoi’/ ‘Whoever worships Hari is Hari’s.’), just as his being the guru of Kabir and other fifteenth-century lower-caste sants. However, because of the colonial/modern jnankand implicitly trusts Sanskrit sources over vernacular ones, Ramanand became the victim of a clever move by early twentieth-century Ramanandi activists who forged a Sanskrit text that pushed him a century earlier and made it “chronologically impossible” for him to be the guru of Kabir. (English readers can enjoy the brilliant detective work in Agrawal’s article ‘In Search of Ramanand: the Guru of Kabir and others’ in I. Banerjee-Dube and S. Dube (eds), From Ancient to Modern: Religion, Power, and Community in India, OUP Delhi: 2008) But while some contemporary scholars and activists have viewed the early modern lineage of Ramanand and Kabir as an attempt to domesticate Kabir, Agrawal argues quite the opposite: that the ‘traditionally accepted relationship between Ramanand and Kabir, Pipa, Sen, and Dhanna is proof that one can transcend one’s one given social identity for a spiritual practice, a sadhna of human consciousness’ (p. 270). That Ramanand was a Brahmin Vaishnava, a Bairagi who held the spiritual path to be open to all, is confirmed by the seventeenth century Persian survey of religions in India, the Dabistan-i Mazahib, which mentions Kabir immediately after the four Vaishnava sampradayas, as a ‘Bairagi by birth’. According to the Dabistan, Bairagis call themselves Vaishnavas and say that their path is different from both the Vedas and the Quran and they are neither Hindus nor Muslims. It also notes that several Muslims have adopted Bairagi beliefs. In this perspective, Kabir (and before him Ramanand), far from being exceptions, appear as part of a broader trend of “open” Vaishnavism (to be distinguished from the smarta Vaishnavism of Tulsidas) that did not observe caste and viewed itself as “neither Turk nor Hindu”. For Kabir, Agrawal argues, this statement meant propounding an alternative to institutionalized dharma, one that responded to the basic human thirst for spirituality in life. Thus, while Agrawal traces the historical process by which the Kabir panth transformed Kabir into a dharmaguru, he is very critical of those who maintain that he wanted to create a new dharma or a new panth. Again the comparison with Tulsidas is instructive: while dharma is important for Tulsi, it never occurs in Kabir’s poetry in an affirmative sense. Instead, Kabir used the terms bhagati and anabhai, anabhau (experience), for his poetry and his life were his spiritual path; there was no spiritual practice apart from a ‘sahaj life based on love’, and interconnected and mutually dependent “outer”/social and “inner”/spiritual dimensions (p. 318).
Another chapter in the book is devoted to a historical and philosophical deconstruction and reconstruction of the term “bhakti”. While from Panini onwards the term had two basic meanings—affection/devotion and participation—later the first meaning gained prominence and was the only one emphasised in bhakti scholarship, which made bhakti a synonym of devotion and submission to God. Further, critics like Ramchandra Shukla maintained that while Vaishnava Acharyas developed the knowledge content of bhakti, poets from the Alvars onwards only spread love and the feeling of bhakti among the people. Of Nirgun sants he famously argued that they had no knowledge content at all, a position that Agrawal takes strong opposition to. First of all, he argues, Kabir resurrected the older meaning of bhakti as participation, and invoked Narada, the author of the Bhaktisutra, as his forebear. Narada’s Bhaktisutra expound love/bhakti as the best way of crossing the ocean of existence; several bhaktas are named, but it is the gopis who are singled out as the best example of bhakti. Narada also maintains that bhakti needs no shastric proof, it is itself the highest shastra. Narada does not oppose the Vedas but neither does he care for them. Significantly, caste is of no consequence in his bhakti, unlike Shandilya’s. Moreover, his Bhaktisutra contain and value poetry and music. Kabir did not call his bhakti “Naradi bhakti” for no reason, but as a clear sign that he intended to align himself with that tradition of socially open bhakti and of kavyokt bhakti, of bhakti expressed through poetry that seeks to create its own autonomous epistemological and moral departures: ‘Do not think this is a song,’ Kabir sang, ‘this my thinking on brahma.’ (cit. p. 349). The beauty of kavyokt bhakti (as opposed to shastrokt bhakti, bhakti that articulates scriptural, orthodox position on spiritual and social matters), argues Agrawal, is that it brings and holds together things that are usually considered separate, like yoga, enjoyment, song, brahma. The difference between Kabir and Narada is that Narada did not care for polemics, whereas Kabir was of course a great polemicist.
No book on Kabir can avoid discussing the status of the corpus that has come down to us, but again Agrawal turns this discussion into a broad methodological reflection that includes a critique of the assumptions underlying colonial/modern textual criticism and a revaluation of early modern standards and practices. Kabir’s poetry famously circulated orally (and still does so) before it was written down in different circles: among the 593 Kabir padas contained in ten early manuscripts composed between 1570-2 and 1681, Winand Callewaert in his Millennium Kabir Vani (2000) could find only 48 shared by at least three manuscripts! None of these “core padas” express strong social criticism, they are more philosophical reflections and include Kabir’s attempts to explain to his mother why he has joined the Vaishnava Bairagis (mundiyas). The emphasis and the almost complete lack of religious and caste polemic is in accord with the Kabir padas in the very earliest manuscript (Pada Suradasa ji ka), most of which are also found in the later Dadupanthi collections. But fifty years after Kabir’s death, both Hariram Vyas and Anantdas presented a rather different picture, of Kabir as the radical “julaha from Kashi”. While Callewaert’s results do not match Anantdas’s testimony, at the same time they disturb modern scholarly understandings of Kabir with their outspoken Vaishnava traits. Agrawal’s view is that while the findings of historical philology must be acknowledged (and as he argued earlier there is no reason to reject Kabir’s “Vaishnava” padas), one also has to respect orality and the oral tradition more since, as he puts it, ‘Kabir’s compositions exist in the interface between oral and written’ (p. 218), a fact true even today. The diversity of voices and emphasis—of strong criticism, of a woman’s love and longing, ulatbamsis, Vaishnava symbols and stories—found in the 593 padas of Callewaert’s edition need not be rejected. It can be traced back to Kabir’s own poetic bhakti, as well as to the space that his name created for other poets to dedicate his compositions to him (what Agrawal calls up-rachnaen, “sub-compositions”). About early modern textual practices he makes two important points: first, that while some traditions were more restrictive and only included Kabir compositions that accorded with their own views (like the Adigranth and the Bijak), others were more catholic, though they may have been careful about historical anachronisms (e.g. the presence of words like mughal); second, that early modern textual scholarship had its own standards when coming to accept or reject Kabir compositions, derived from the early modern basic understanding of Kabir: (a) that it was not a sin for Kabir to argue with the caste system, (b) that he did not believe in the six philosophical systems, (c) and that he spoke with one voice to all.
This summary does not begin to do justice to the many themes and aspects of this rich and comprehensive book, which in its own way “provincializes Europe” in terms of colonial/modern understandings of caste, religion, the individual, society, and history in India. At the same time, through the familiar figure of Kabir it introduces Hindi readers to many of the important current intellectual and historical debates, carefully arguing in favour or against each position. For all these reasons this book is not just a scholarly study but an important intellectual intervention. But while this is a long and conceptually rich book, one wishes that some basic concepts and arguments had been articulated more fully. For example, given that merchant groups (at least in north India today) are not exactly known for their radicalism or fair-play, how is it that Kabir’s call for “spiritual fair-play” embodied the aspirations of artisanal and trading classes? The point is made strongly and often, but the assumption underlying it (that merchants and artisans everywhere have supported socially egalitarian ideologies) does not in itself make an argument. In a more narrow historical sense, the question remains about what was it in fifteenth-century north India that gave traders and artisans such confidence (the evidence about the prominence of trade comes from a very wide chronological and geographical spectrum). Another question relates to the argument that the “ghar” and “amarpur” of Kabir (i.e. the house as inner space) is a utopia, a place of fantasy. What kind of utopia is it, how can it be articulated more explicitly? Similarly, Agrawal employs the notion of a “Bhakti public sphere”. While entirely sympathetic with this notion, one would have liked him to expound it more and discuss its various discursive and institutional aspects and implications, within the context first of late Sultanate and then of Mughal north India. Kavyokt bhakti is another felicitous formulation, but it would have been good to see it worked through in its technical aspects, just as Ken Bryant did for Surdas’s poems in terms of performance and epiphany. How do Kabir’s dohas, padas and ramainis actually “work” as “thinking about brahma”? Also, while the author’s re-evaluation of Ramanand is utterly convincing, there is only one sentence about the relationship between him and Kabir, that ‘if one bears in mind the Hindi Ramanand, one can hear strong echoes of Ramanand in Kabir’s compositions’ (p. 270). It is true that Ramanand’s Hindi compositions express a Nirgun sensibility and can easily be mistaken as Kabir’s own, as Agrawal found out through an experiment, but it would have been good to see whether there is a direct echo (of terms, metaphors, arguments), and whether and how Kabir goes beyond Ramanand. Finally, while modern understandings of religion are usefully deconstructed, the world of Islam in north India is practically absent from this rich picture of religious and spiritual life of Bhakti. Enough material for another book?
 ‘If colonial power was creating famine, colonial epistemology (jnankand) was creating a famine of memory. If colonial power was destroying trade, colonial epistemology was systematically destroying the memory of the role trade had played in Indian history, and proving instead that Indian society had always run on the basis of caste, the jajmani system and oriental despotism.’ (p. 123)