The bhakti path makes more than salvation available to the masses of disenfranchised and socially ostracized in Indian society: by producing vernacular literature, sants such as Kabir “served as a conduit of Hindu ideas to those beyond the pale of organized Hinduism” (Heehs 358).
Kabir himself may have been illiterate, his songs transmitted orally until they were finally recorded in the vernacular tongue—consequently, in diction that may be “rough, sometimes even crude, but always infused with frankness and vitality” (Heehs 359).
None of this fervency and frankness is lost in translation: “my body and my mind are in depression because you are not with me,” he writes; “I don’t really care about food, I don’t really care about sleep, I am restless indoors and outdoors.”
These verses project heartfelt emotion that sounds strikingly modern—the loss of appetite, insomnia, and restless frustration known to any person in love cross spatial, temporal, and cultural lines.
In keeping with a tendency toward universality—such as in his unmistakable description of love and its vicissitudes, throughout the poem Kabir refers to the object of his devotion as “the Guest,” an ambiguous title equally applicable to Allah, any one of the Hindu pantheon of gods, or other contemporary deities.
His loose definition of God highlights, again, the inclusiveness of the bhakti path: no person is to be excluded based on social class, gender, or in this case, religious disposition.
And once more, inclusiveness and accessibility produce a direct challenge to religious orthodoxy and institutionalized priesthoods.
After all, by Kabir’s time, bhakti no longer referred to the theistic devotion it originally described in the Bhagavad Gita—bhaktas who worshipped some form of Shiva, Vishnu or one of his incarnations, or a mother goddess. Ramanand and his disciples devoted themselves to a nameless God without form or articulable characteristics—called, for this, nirgun, or “attributeless.”
It at first appears paradoxical that deep personal love and devotion can be felt for an impersonal God, a divinity with no form or attributes—this seeming contradiction can be resolved, however, by noting that theistic faiths do not have a monopoly on love.
As one modern scholar speculates:
“When was bhakti born? The answer shall depend on… when did the human heart come into being? Bhakti is as old as human being. It is not meant that highly developed concept of bhakti was present in the primitive past of humanity… [but] that the basic element is quite old” (Singh 78).
Love, in other words, pulses through every human heart as surely as blood.
In his poetry, Kabir hints at such sentiments—“When I hear people describe me as your bride I look sideways ashamed, because I know that far inside us we have never met,” he writes; nevertheless, as though his deep-set devotion is an inherent part of his nature, Kabir cries out: “Then what is this love of mine?”
In this view, an ambiguous definition of God among the sants, while challenging the religious establishment, only serves to reinforce the innate capacity human beings have to experience love and intense emotion.
This is an excerpt from a paper written for an Asian Civ class at the University of Alabama. References for my citations can be found at the end of part 3. And please remember: if you’re going to use any of this, cite your/my sources, because I’m quite fond of my long sentences and careful citing, and I’d hate for it to be abused.
The Internet will avenge me.