Kabir and Bhakti

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I have been working on Kabir and the wider Bhakti poetry for more than thirty years.

Read the transcript of a talk I delivered in Bangalore in 2011 as part of the Kabir Project

My Personal and Political Kabir

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Watch the following video of a public lecture delivered at the University of Bombay in February 2011:

Contextualizing Kabir

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My book on Kabir, Akath Kahani Prem Ki was released in October 2009 to critical and popular acclaim. Apart from my analysis of Kabir’s poetry, the book contains much material of interest to the cultural historian, as the  issue of  indigenous modernity in 17th-19th century India has been dealt with in some detail. You can read an extract here (Hindi)

Read an extract in English translation (Published in Communalism Combat – January 2010)

Currently I am working on an English book on Kabir, which will not be a translation but a rewrite of Akath Kahani. It will contain new material resulting from ongoing research.

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Francesca Orsini’s Review of Akath Kahani

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.

Continue reading – http://factoffiction.blogspot.in/2012/08/francesca-orsini-on-purushottam.html

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Assessment of Akath Kahani by Javed Anand and Teesta Setalvad, Editors of Communalism Combat

Akath Kahani Prem Ki: Kabir ki Kavita aur Un ka Samay (An Untellable Tale of Love: Kabir’s Poetry and his  Times) has created quite a stir in the Hindi-speaking world. The book deserves to be translated in English, and soon, for it’s sure to raise a similar global storm.

Agrawal has been engaged in a long-standing love affair with the weaver from Kashi. This much is obvious every time he puts pen to paper but there is more. Each time he does so, he shatters some long-standing myths. The myth, for example, that Kabir was an ambassador of inter-communal amity. Not so, argued Agrawal in an essay he wrote for Communalism Combat (July 1999), marking the 600th anniversary of the sant-poet. Contrary to the popular perception of his being an ‘apostle of Hindu–Muslim unity’, Kabir’s notion of the individual challenges both the Varnashrama and the Islamic belief system, Agrawal argued and convincingly so.

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An overview of Akath Kahani

…..This book insists on reading Kabir primarily as a poet seeking an alternative to religion through his idea of spirituality without religion. Rejecting the idea of Kabir being a Dharamguru or founder of a new religious sect, Purushottam Agrawal points out the very term “Dharam” is found quite rarely in Kabir’s poetry. What’s more, Kabir hardly ever uses this term in a positive sense. On the other hand, the term “Bhakti” is scattered all over Kabir’s poetry.

…..The author demonstrates that Kabir does not use the term Bhakti in the feudal sense of “ideology of surrender”. Rather, he seeks to revive the pristine meaning of Bhakti – a sense of participation. Hence, Kabir’s critique of caste ideology is an integral part of his sensibility, not just an ideological stance. In this context, Purushottam Agrawal proposes the thought-provoking idea of KAVYOKTA(poetic) Bhakti conception as opposed to the SHASTROKTA (scriptural) concept of Bhakti.

…..The author reminds us of a scene from the film “Guide”. The envious village priests, eager to convince the villagers that Raju is no holy man, but an ignorant idiot, challenge Raju guide to say something in Sanskrit. Raju retorts by taking recourse to English and proves that actually it is the priests who are ignorant. Using this scene as a metaphor of scholarly indifference to vernacular sources, Prof. Agrawal proves that he has very different notions of Indian tradition, since he has listened to those who speak neither Sanskrit/ Persian, nor English.

…..Purushottam Agrawal forcefully argues for a vernacular modernity of India, and claims that colonial intervention, far from playing the “objectively” progressive role of breaking the stagnation of Indian society, consciously destroyed indigenous vernacular modernity and its structures and expressions. This has led to a dissociation of sensibility in the present Indian cultural thinking. Reading the articulators of vernacular modernity like Kabir and Tukaram with a sense of their location in history can give us a more nuanced understanding of India’s past and present. He sees Kabir and others like him not as marginal voices, but as the voices of powerful social groups like traders and artisans. According to him, Kabir is historically located, not in medieval times but in the early modernity of India. He also gives a comparative perspective of the early modernities of other non-European societies.

…..The author dwells on the poetic skills of Kabir and demonstrates that he, far from being an abstract philosopher, is a poignant poet of forms and experiments. The author’s proposal of reading Kabir’s ULATBANSIS (upside down sayings) as experimentations with the poetry of the absurd, is extremely interesting.

…..Similarly interesting is Purushottam Agrawal’s unprecedented reading of the “feminity of Kabir.”

…..The book also tells the fascinating story of the twentieth century Sanskritisation of the Hindi philosopher, Ramanada, the guru of Kabir.

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In Search of Ramanand: The Guru of Kabir and Others

(This essay was originally written for a collection of essays put together in honour of David Lorenzen. A shorter version of this has appeared in the said collection-’From Ancient to Modern: Essays in honour of David Lorenzen’- Edited by Saurabh Dube and Ishita Banerjee-Dube; and published by the Oxford University Press.)

The story of this essay goes back to the summer of 2000, when I published an article in the Hindi Journal Bahuvachan, analysing the legends of the Kabir-Ramanand relationship. In that article, granting the common assumption that Ramanand was born in 1299 CE and passed away in 1410, I tried to look at the legends surrounding this key figure in the religious history of north India sympathetically. David Lorenzen, while appreciating my treatment of the legends, disagreed vehemently with the dates of Ramanand that I assumed in that article. I continued to work and reflect upon the question of Ramanand’s floruit and his role in the Bhakti sensibility of north India. In this essay, I have demonstrated that Ramanand was indeed a senior contemporary of Kabir [as traditionally held]. His late floruit and his “orthodox” Sanskrit image is actually a very late construct, rooted in the sectarian conflicts of the twentieth century.

Read the full essay on Pratilipi

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Something Will Ring: Translating Kabir and his Life

This is a paper presented in a seminar “Translating India” held in Lausanne, Switzerland in November 2008.

Read the full article on Pratilipi

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One Response to “Kabir and Bhakti”

  1. Boris says:

    The book “Eternal Whispers of A Kriya Yogi Mystic” sounds promising. I have yet to see other book : “Kriya Yoga and Unlocking Mystical Songs of Kabir”.

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