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The Bird that Sings Within

No one tells me about the bird
That sings within the body.
Its colour is a colourless hue,
Its form a formless form.
It lives under the shade of Nam.1

Born into a poor family of weavers near Banaras, Kabir was deprived of a formal education and may have been illiterate. However, as is evident from his compositions, he had a keen intellect, discerning mind, and capacity for mystical understanding.

In this verse, Kabir tells us about our soul. Who can tell us about our soul if not the mystics, the saints of the highest order, who have merged their consciousness into the Nam of God? This is what gives power to their words. They speak to our essence, to what we really are.

Kabir tells us that our soul has no colour and no form. How indeed could it be described, for this soul of ours cannot be found in the physical body! Our senses would have us believe that it doesn’t exist, and yet Kabir tells us that it does. He compares it to a bird hidden behind the coverings of the physical body, living under the shade of Nam, the Shabd, the holy spirit of God.

No one tells me about the bird
That sings within the body.
In the vast tree dwells a bird.
It hops, it pecks, it eats,
And from branch to branch it flies.

Kabir uses the metaphor of a vast tree to illustrate the domain of transmigration, the wheel of 8.4 million species. The bird, our soul, moves within this vast tree and takes birth countless times; it flies from branch to branch, says Kabir.

No one knows where it comes from,
No one knows what makes it sing.

Only the saints, the true Masters, know where our soul comes from and what makes it sing, in other words – what delights her, what fills her with happiness. No one else, not even the most accomplished scientists, can explain the origin of life and death. And those among them whose intuition tells them that there is a primordial energy that sustains life are unable to prove it. Nor can scientists locate an exact spot within the physical body where the soul is to be found.

We do not ourselves know where our soul comes from nor the many different births that it has taken. We are ignorant of our past lives; we have drunk the waters of the River Lethe, the river of forgetfulness. Interestingly, in ancient Greek, the word for truth is a-letheia, which is related to the word Lethe. The a indicates that truth is “un-forgetfulness,” uncovering of forgetfulness, remembrance.

This divine bird within us asks only to be able to sing, to be heard by all, which unfortunately in our present state is not possible, because our attention is greatly scattered into the world. Not only is our attention scattered, but we also have accumulated so much karma throughout our past lives – good and bad – so many actions and their reactions. Like layers of cloth or dirt that make it impossible for a lamp to shed its light, we’re going to have to patiently remove every single one of these layers in order to become aware of our soul’s radiance. The soul remains soul – it is not altered – but its radiance is concealed; the mind holds her captive and she is unable to sing!

When we meet the master, we are given the technique that brings our soul back to life, that makes her sing again. And this happens by her listening to Nam, by being immersed in Nam, her true essence. Nam or Shabd is present in every one of us. It rings within us ceaselessly, and without it our life would be over. It is the very core of our being; it is what we are made of, what we are, but in our present state we are simply unaware of it. Even a “particle” of Nam has the power to wipe away vast amounts of karma. The soul is always alive and a part of Shabd, but the mind has to be purified. And this is the reason why the Masters have no doubt that we can succeed.

No one tells me about the bird
That sings within the body.
Numerous vines entwine the tree,
Throwing shadows dark and dense;
Numerous birds huddle together
To build their nests
In the tree's sunless gloom.

The numerous vines entwining the tree represent our attachments to this world. We are truly entangled, prevented by all those attachments from being in constant remembrance of God. At one time in the past we used our free will; we got attached and now these attachments limit and constrain this free will. Kabir tells us that these attachments throw dark and dense shadows, meaning that they obscure our vision; they obscure the light of our soul and create a thick veil within our mind that makes us unaware of our soul and what it really needs. And Kabir therefore says that this world, this tree, is in deep darkness – sunless gloom – deprived of divine light.

But they fly away in the evening,
Morning they return for the day;
No one understands their strange ways.
No one tells me about the bird
That sings within the body.
Only to taste two fruits comes the bird,
Not for ten, not for twenty,
Nor for countless, nor for many.

Kabir tells us that the birds fly away in the evening and return to the tree in the morning; with this metaphor he is talking about the transmigration of souls. The birds leave the tree at death and return to this world in the morning. They take birth again to taste two fruits only – the fruit of their good and bad actions. And this cycle goes on endlessly until the bird seeks help, realizing that it is in need of a guide. Here is how Soami Ji expresses the soul’s prayer for help:

Take hold of my arm, my Master,
  or I will be swept away by the swift currents
  of this ocean of existence.
How can I possibly get out of this net?
  You are my only hope.
Now I have found a wonderful opportunity,
  but I still face the dreadful vipers of Yama and Kal.
Come and teach me some mantra
  and kindly take me under your protection.2

Kabir tells us now that the bird’s true home is beyond time and space. It is limitless and eternal, and if the bird manages to fly back to where it belongs, it won’t have to visit the tree of this world ever again.

But vast and inaccessible,
Boundless and eternal
Is the bird's true home;
If the bird will only return
To its original home,
It will not be forced
To come and go again.

But for this to happen requires the intervention of a true guide or Master. Soami Ji therefore continues:

In his mercy the Master then said:
  raise your consciousness to the sky within –
  the path is treacherous.
Withdraw your mind and senses, put them to rest,
  surrender your mind, body
  and worldly possessions –
  only then will you find the eternal Shabd.

Kabir concludes his poem by addressing the learned ones (the pundits), those who have thoroughly studied the scriptures, and he asks them whether that kind of knowledge has given them an understanding of where the soul’s true home is.

But no one tells me about this bird
That sings within the body.
Says Kabir: Yes, my friends,
The story I tell you
Is hard to comprehend;
But where, O pundits,
Where, O learned ones,
Is the Home of that bird
That no one is able to see,
That sings within each body?

Only the Saints, the true Masters, know where our soul comes from and what makes her sing: listening to the Name of God, the Shabd. In order to achieve this, they only have one recommendation, which never changes – bhajan and simran – simran, the ceaseless prayer that concentrates the mind at the third eye, and bhajan, which is the practice of listening for or to the sound current. Bhajan and simran will unfailingly develop our soul’s two faculties to her greatest delight, that of hearing and that of seeing. And it is this spiritual practice alone, under the guidance of a true Master, that can free the bird forever. No amount of scriptural knowledge, says Kabir, will ever grant liberation to the soul.

So, let us be thankful to our Master for giving us this teaching, for showing us how to practise this constant prayer and derive full benefit from it, for showing us how to be in touch with the Name of God, the Shabd, the sound current – sound current that will in the end free our soul and make it one again with the divine.

  1. Sant Kabir, Shabd 358; in V.K. Sethi, Kabir, The Weaver of God’s Name, RSSB, 1984, 2020; pp.242–243
  2. Soami Shiv Dayal Singh (Soami Ji Maharaj), Bachan 29, Shabd 2; in Sar Bachan Poetry (Selections), RSSB, 2002; p. 285