The Upside-Down Language of Kabir
The great saint Kabir lived in the fifteenth century. And though not a Sikh himself, his verses constitute the largest non-Sikh contribution in the Adi Granth. His poems are still sung and recited today throughout North India – by learned pundits, illiterate villagers and classical musicians – as they have been for the past five hundred years.
But he was no gentle mystic. Kabir was an uncompromising iconoclast. Famous for his outspoken and powerful voice, he often set out to oppose the illusions of those who were caught up in rigid orthodoxies and pretentious religious beliefs.
He taught that to gain true spiritual knowledge, one had to find a Guru who could initiate his disciples into the mysteries of the divine Word or Shabd, which is one with the supreme Lord himself – the only way in which one could become one with him.
Like other Bhakti and Sufi poets – among them Tulsi Sahib and Soami Ji – Kabir often used symbolism and the ‘upside-down language’ or ulatbansi. Apparently the reason for this was to make the teachings incomprehensible to the uninitiated listener or reader. Without the practical knowledge of yoga teachings, the symbolism and ‘upside-down language’ seem impenetrable, absurd, paradoxical and even crazy.
Professor Vinod Verma, from the University of Delhi, wrote an article that was published in 2017, in The International Journal of Religious Tourism and Pilgrimage. Entitled “Pilgrimage Upside-Down: Kabir Ulatbansi Pilgrim,” this article explains the tradition of ulatbansi. It belongs to the category of absurd poetry that conveys meaning by nonsense verse questioning conventional structures of devotion, pilgrims and pilgrimages.
Let us take a look at a Kabir poem from the Adi Granth:
Hermit, that yogi is my guru
who can untie this song.
A tree stands without root,
without flowers bears fruit,
praises sung without tongue,
the true teacher reveals.
Seek the bird’s, the fish’s path.
Kabir says, both are hard.
The being beyond boundaries
and beyond beyond.
In these verses Kabir not only questions conventional devotion, but more importantly, he emphasizes the need for a yogi, a Guru who has true understanding of spiritual matters, who has gone beyond the boundaries of this physical world and the ‘beyond beyond,’ and who can initiate seekers into the mystery of the Word. And another bani tells of animals busying themselves with human activities, like playing various instruments, dressing up, dancing, and being occupied with more mundane, everyday activities like preparing meals:
The elephant is the rebeck-player, the bull plays the timbrel,
the crow beats the cymbals.
And, dressed up in skirt, danceth the donkey, and
the he-buffalo stageth the play.
My Lord, the King, hath roasted the balls of Frost, but
only the Wise one can Taste them, yea.
The lion sitting in the den prepares the betel-leaves,
with the lizard bringing in the nuts,
And the mice sing the wedding songs, the tortoise blowing the conch.
The son of the sterile woman is out to marry, and
is welcomed under the tents decked with gold.
Sayeth Kabir: “Hear ye, O Saints, the ant hath eaten up a mountain,
And the tortoise says (besides water) he needs the coals too:
hear ye men, I have uttered the Word Full of mystery.”
Most of us would not be able to make sense of these absurdities. But accompanying this bani, there is this note: “All this verse means is that the impossible becomes possible if we take to the Lord.”
According to Dr Linda Hess, a scholar, writer and lover of Kabir: “Upside-down language should make you feel like a fool: that is part of its function.” This is Kabir’s way of drawing our attention to how absurd we are in our never-ending worldly activities day in and day out. By making animals impersonate humans and do human activities, Kabir makes all our actions seem comical and meaningless.
However, analyzing this language by trying to decode its symbolic meaning will not bring us closer to Kabir’s truth. We know things of this world only from the worldly perspective. Kabir, on the other hand, sees this world from the perspective of a God-realized soul. What seems upside-down to us, with our limited faculties, makes perfect sense to Kabir. Where he stands, in communion with the Lord, the impossible becomes possible.
When reading these verses we laugh like a child lost in a world of make-believe cartoon characters. But in that childlike state of mind we have the opportunity to break free from our habitual thought patterns and reflect on our main objective in life and how easily we get distracted and put our spiritual practice on the backburner.
From Kabir’s point of view all players in this world are lunatics, forgetting what matters most. Kabir on the other had is sane, because his reality is true and permanent. The language makes us stop and think. Baba Ji also keeps telling us that we shouldn’t take life so seriously – it is only meditation that deserves our earnest attention.
Mystics come among us to throw light on our spiritual heritage and the purpose of life. Every single word uttered by a mystic is infused with meaning and wisdom. They do not say things lightly. With this in mind, even the confusing, unintelligible, ‘upside-down language’ spoken by a true Master contains an important and profound message.
Baba Ji is clearly in tune with Kabir. Whenever he contradicts himself, giving different answers to the same question, and someone brings this to his attention, he laughs it off by saying that the Master is here to confuse you – perhaps one day you will shrug your shoulders, give up the questions and surrender to the Lord. Our intellect is ill-equipped to deal with matters of the soul, so Masters encourage us to do our spiritual practice in order to convert all Sant Mat concepts to personal inner experiences.
Whenever we complain to our own Master about our lack of time for meditation, he simply reminds us that we make time for everything else. We work overtime to purchase all the things we want. We make time for leisure, for watching TV, for socializing and playing sports. The problem doesn’t lie in the shortage of time but in our misplaced priorities. In Kabir’s verses he holds up a mirror to all of us with his vivid, visual portrayal of how we waste our precious time and our gift of human birth on trivial pursuits. Kabir’s inner wisdom is the right way up – it is humanity that has chosen an upside-down life.
The “upside” of human life is devotion to the Lord in order to escape the “upside-down” life of endless desires and attachments. Our Master is eager to show us how to loosen our attachments one by one, but we also need to make an effort in meditation to stir up our soul’s desire for liberation. The aim of our meditation is to catch hold of the inner sound of our merciful Lord calling us home.
In answer to a question on how we can receive the Lord’s love, Baba Ji simply said: “We cannot receive it, we must graduate to it.” Our graduation to divine love takes place within us. No invitations are handed out to friends and family. This graduation is an intimate affair of our soul merging with the Lord in divine communion.