Vipul Rikhi explores how Kabir transcends religious boundaries, inviting people of diverse faith to find solace and connection in his poetry

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“Kabir is a name that throbs powerfully through the very veins of India. Almost everyone has at least heard of him, if not actually heard his poetry, especially in north, west and central India,” writes Vipul Rikhi in his book Drunk on Love: The Life, Vision and Songs of Kabir.

How did Kabir, the weaver-poet, come to be a darling of the resolutely secular, the proudly religious and the quietly spiritual — all at once? What enables people of Marxist, humanist, Vaishnavite, and Sufi leanings to lean on him for validation and a sense of belonging? Does he welcome all, or is he merely a convenient container to hold their disparate projections?

Stay with these questions as you immerse yourself in Rikhi’s book, published by HarperCollins India. You may not find neat answers but certainly begin to appreciate the curatorial imagination at play in the hearts and minds of people who turn to him for solace and courage. This might clarify why he is regarded as a saint, mystic, philosopher, social reformer, anti-caste revolutionary, or even an avatar, depending on whom you speak with.

Beyond the binaries

Rikhi writes, “The nature of the human mind is to get caught up in dualistic ways of thinking. This is more than ever the case in our ideologically fractured times. What if we try to transcend the limiting dualities tying us to our decided positions and dividing us from others?” He invites the reader to think beyond left versus right, Hindu versus Muslim, liberal versus conservative, male versus female, local versus outsider, rich versus poor, and other binaries. Ironically then, Rikhi sets up other binaries such as scholar versus practitioner.

The book points out that Kabir “was scornful of scholars”, while also drawing on books written by scholars like Hazari Prasad Dwivedi, Purushottam Agrawal, Linda Hess, David N. Lorenzen, Apoorvanand, Vinay Dharwadker, and W. M. Callewaert, among others. These contradictions are inescapable. The quest for purity and authenticity is decidedly futile.

How else can one make peace with the fact that Kabir dismissed gatekeepers of knowledge but also sought a guru; advocated direct experience but also employed obscure vocabulary? How else can one come to terms with the fact that a man who was critical of organized religion finds a place in the Guru Granth Sahib and is revered as a guru by Kabir Panthis?

Vipul Rikhi is a poet, fiction writer, translator and singer who has been immersed in the oral traditions of Kabir and other Bhakti and Sufi poets for over a decade

The author of this book, like others before him, constructs his personal Kabir. He relies on encounters with poems, songs, legends, wisdom traditions, and a long association with the Kabir Project at the Srishti Manipal Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Bengaluru. Those who come to this book looking for a concise biography of a historical figure might go away disappointed or open themselves to connecting with Kabir in a more expansive way.

An idea preserved as a living tradition

Rikhi argues that “Kabir is not just a person but an idea that belongs to the people of India, who have preserved and nurtured it as a living tradition over an incredible span of time”. Notions of individual authorship and copyright are challenged in the context of oral traditions because several poems attributed to Kabir are likely to have been composed by his admirers.

In this volume, Rikhi brings forth his many talents as writer, singer, storyteller and translator. The tone is friendly and conversational. This owes perhaps to the fact that he has been performing a show called “Ishq Mastana” since 2018, which requires interaction with a live audience. He seems to be at ease, regardless of whether he is being serious or playful; explaining a concept, narrating a story, or reflecting on capitalism and communal violence.

The book is a pleasure to read because Rikhi is transparent about his curatorial choices. When he interprets and retells legends associated with Kabir’s life, he dips into “different versions with different emphases or slants” and picks what seems “most entertaining and instructive”. When he offers translations of Kabir’s poems, sung by folk and classical singers, he takes the liberty to settle on a “text” that is a combination of versions and appeals most to him.

This is not an anything-goes approach, though it might seem at first. He is aware of “being very much part of a broad and deep tradition”. At the same time, he recognizes that trying to understand Kabir, without attempting to understand oneself, would be a foolish enterprise.

A framework to engage with Kabir

If this approach seems woolly-headed, the book does offer structure and labels to serve as a roadmap. It teases out recurrent themes, concerns and metaphors in Kabir’s poetry, calling them “root-ideas” (such as ‘Jheeni’, ‘Guru’, ‘Sahaj’, ‘Ulat’, ‘Hans’, ‘Shoonya’, ‘Akath-Katha’, ‘Surat-Shabad’), and provides explanations that serve as accessible entry points.

Rikhi writes, “Kabir displays limited knowledge of or interest in Islamic theology or even Sufi doctrines, but his deployment and knowledge of the vocabulary of Hatha Yoga is extensive.” The author also refers to the influence of Shaktas and Nathpanthis on Kabir. To what extent did such classifications and identities really matter to Kabir? His poems refer to Allah and Ram, Keshav and Rahim. While people today try hard to situate him, one wonders if this obsession is merely a distraction from the inner journeys that he is pointing towards.

Thankfully, this book does not claim to be an authoritative work on Kabir. It merely offers a humble framework to engage with Kabir. He is spoken of affectionately and intimately, but never put on a pedestal to be worshipped. Rikhi puts him in conversation with other wise ones such as Rabia Basri, J. Krishnamurti, Jean Paul-Sartre, Sachal Sarmast, and Jalaluddin Muḥammad Rumi. This is an invitation for the reader to jive with their own unique, heartfelt resonances.

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