Numskull, you missed the point!

And so have we, of course—the writer and readers of this introduction.

Once in India I met someone who seemed to me to be like Kabir. He was a member of the Kabir sect, though an odd one, not like the usual Kabir Panthis who clumped together around their temples, followed the daily rituals, and did what their superiors told them. This man, called Gayabanandji, was more of a wanderer. After joining the sect he had gone off by himself to the mountains, someone said. He wore a round pin with a picture of Kabir the way the sectarians imagine him to look, wearing a pointed mitre like those worn by the heads of the sect. He told me he had three gurus: the teacher in his home branch of the Panth; Satguru Kabir; and the guru within.

We met in 1976 at the Kumbha Mela, that monstrous gathering of pilgrims, monks, yogis, gurus, disciples, devotees in the millions, that takes place every twelve years in Allahabad. For a month beginning in January the broad V of dry sand between the converging Ganga and Jamuna rivers becomes a metropolis of tiny and colossal tents, make-shift shops, strings of light bulbs, lanterns and fires, and innumerable loudspeakers. The Kumbha Mela is like the monarch over hundreds of lesser religious fairs throughout India. It is the sort of place where Kabir might well have sat among the crowds of seekers and sharpies, shouting, "Hey saints! Listen sadhus!"

I was at one of the Kabir Panth camps talking politely with gurus and officials. Gayabanandji came into the small tent and sat down. I had asked for help on an obscure line in a poem, and two pandit-types were going at it—the usual tug-of-war between ignorance and commentaries, punctuated by stabs at Sanskrit etymology and quotations from the Bhagavad Gita. After listening a few minutes he said, "Stop your controversies.Nothing will come of that." Then he explained his own understanding. He talked about the animal symbolism of the poem. There was a bullock who was cast as patwari, a rural accountant who keeps records of land, revenues, harvests, and so on. A bull is a fool, said Gayabanandji, he is stupid. The patwari writes and writes about what other people have harvested, but gets nothing for himself.

At some point I realized he was talking about me. My hand stopped over the notebook. I looked up and saw him looking at me.

"You may write and write, ask and ask, but you will get nothing. He will get something." He touched an old man sitting next to him, who smiled slightly. "From worship, from meditation, you get something."

He spoke of two other problematic words in the poem. Kar, dukar. Good works, bad works. Many people talk about good work, good action. But they don't do it. They talk about holiness, then go home and get drunk."

He outlined a system of four levels of experiences: vikar, sanskar, subhav, swabhav.

Vikar is the level of the gross senses, where we are no more than animals. We sleep, eat, have sex, crave, try to grab things from each other, get angry.

Sanskar is civilization, courtesy, bowing, saluting, saying "sir"—forms which symbolize something. The word for culture (sanskrti) comes from the same root.

Subhav is goodness, kindness, compassion.

Swabhav is samadhi (meditation), beyond talking, literally "own-nature."

From these four everything is made. Through these four, he said, I would understand myself, the world, the poetry of Kabir.

From the moment I got the message that I was a patwari, I was ashamed. Could I ask more question? And take more notes? And carry on with my distracted life? I remembered that earlier someone had tossed off the comment that the motive for doing translations might be to make a name for oneself.

I told Gayabanandji I wanted to ask him a personal question. Should I be trying to do this work. He laughed. "Oh, the work is very good."

"The work is good," I said, "but is the worker?"

He said, "Look, the work is good for you because it makes you sit with saints and sadhus. You may learn something from that. You are not yet developed."

He said, "You know bij?" Yes, that was seed. "You know vriksa?" That was tree. "So to grow from seed to tree is to become developed. You are not fully developed. So—" He pointed to my dress. "Here it's red. Here it's blue. It's not just one color. Both colors shine, don't they? Both colors show." So, he implied, my good works and my bad works, my grossness and fineness, both showed.

I asked him to come to Varanasi and help me. If I was going to do this work, I wanted his help. He said he might stop in Varanasi after leaving the Mela. But I didn't think he would. He had given me his message. Like Kabir, he had managed to show through this very situation the lack of honesty in my life; he had made me reflect on how, in this task, I was moved by confusion and greed, was using Kabir and him for my mixed purposes, was like the bull-patwari who records others' harvest without growing anything himself.

Sometimes he would talk very loud. Sometimes he would be so quiet you could hardly hear him. Sometimes he would sit still and not say anything. Sometimes he would make a sudden noise, clap his hands sharply, sharply. "Kuch bajega!" he would shout, clapping his hands—Something will ring! As if urgently trying to impress on me the difference between my book-learning and some real experience, he would talk about a process leading to samadhi, and suddenly, clapping his hands loud and fast, he would repeat, "Kuch bajega!" "Kuch bajega!"

Something will ring! Something will ring!

— Kabir, The Bijak of Kabir, translated by Linda Hess and Shukdev Singh


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