Jesse Kornbluth on one of the world’s first funny-men.
Did you know there were stand-up comedians in India in the 1400s?
Me neither — until I read Kabir.
Why? Because Kabir was playing the greatest comic role of all — God’s own fool.
Sacrilege! Why, this is one of India’s most beloved poets! A holy man — his name means “God’s grace.” In his home country, he’s studied in school from the earliest grades. But he’s studied even more diligently by scholars and seekers.
Like he’d care! To quote him:
The Yogi comes along in his famous orange.
But if inside he is colorless, then what?
For him, there is only one thing that matters — union with God, by any route that gets you there:
When the bride is one
with her lover,
who cares about
the wedding party?
It goes without saying that the “facts” about Kabir are few. He was born to a virgin mother in 1398 — maybe. He died in 1518 — perhaps. Did he really live for 120 years? Was he married? Did he have a religion? Ah, he was a weaver: one of the few hard facts we know about him. And one more: He wrote about 700 verses.
Well, we know this too: He wasn’t educated. And he doesn’t pretend to be: “I do not quote from the scriptures/I simply see what I see.”
He expresses what he sees in two line bursts of poetry that read like prose — like speech, really. Often, he’s in a dialogue, usually with different parts of himself. Always, he seeks the truth, then writes what he finds. And, more often than any other poet I can think of, he’s blisteringly funny — because when someone delivers the truth without any spin, it’s generally giggle-producing. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]
He’s refreshingly free of doctrine. On one level, he’s pure common sense in his suggestions on Right Conduct:
When you were born in this world
Everyone laughed while you cried
Conduct NOT yourself in manner such
Here are some of Kabir’s punchlines, as interpreted by the poet Robert Bly:
Kabir will tell you the truth:
this is what love is like:
suppose you had to cut your head off
and give it to someone else,
what difference would that make?
Love for the divine is just as physical — indeed, carnal:
If what you feel for the Holy One is not desire,
then what’s the use of dressing with such care
and spending so much time making your eyelids dark?
Kabir is always urging us to wake up and show our love:
Do you have a body? Don’t sit on the porch!
Get out and walk in the rain!
At the same time, Kabir reminds us to look inside:
Kabir says: Student, tell me, what is God?
He is the breath inside the breath.
The clarity! The simplicity! You think you get it on the first reading, then you finding yourself thinking about his lines — and you see how much is underneath them. Like great blues music, like great comedy, there are levels and levels.
But mostly, there is the truth that Kabir can’t share, the truth you must find for yourself. the truth that is ever-changing:
Looking at the grinding stones, Kabir laments
In the duel of wheels, nothing stays intact.
May I disagree? Admiration for Kabir has lasted now for a thousand years. Odds favor that readers will still be devouring him in another thousand.
This article originally appeared on The Head Butler.
Photo credit: Getty Images