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In quest of Kabir

Stanford University lecturer Linda Hess was recently in the city to talk about her favourite saint-poet Kabir and his universal language of spirituality

Photo: R. Shivaji Rao


Across five centuries Kabir speaks to us through poems that have a sharp immediacy, exhorting us to gaze within. His words carry one beyond the confines of religion, culture and nation; they speak of the search for the Truth in a language that is simple and clear and in imagery that one can instantly relate to.

Linda Hess has responded to that universal voice and her quest has led her to seek the quintessential Kabir. It is a physical and spiritual journey that that has made her connect vast distances, from North America to India. The trail has led her to many cities in the North. It has brought her into contact with fellow seekers such as folk singer Prahlad Tipanya from Malwa, Madya Pradesh, and documentary film maker Shabnam Virmani, engaged in her own search for the many Kabirs to immortalise on celluloid.

Linda was recently in Chennai to give a talk at the “One Billion Eyes” documentary film festival organised by Prakriti Foundation which dealt with the theme “The Demonic and the Divine.” “Journeys with Kabir and Friends” by Virmani was among the films screened at the festival. It depicts the director’s enriching experience in meeting Tipanya and Linda, and the journey the three make to the U.S. where the singer gives concerts of Kabir’s songs at many venues with Linda providing the introduction and translation.

Linda Hess has along with Sukhdeo Singh, Hindi lecturer, co-authored one of the best known translations of Kabir’s poetry into English. Their “Bijak of Kabir” was first published in 1983, the latest edition is from the Oxford University Press 2002. Kabir’s Bijak (seedling) which “is considered his greatest work is a collection of poems that shows his universal view of spirituality.” Linda is a lecturer of Religious Studies at Stanford University and is Co-director of its Center for South Asia, Division of International, Comparative and Area Studies. She has written extensively about the poetry of North India’s 15th and 16th Century saint-poets.

“I visited India a long time ago when I was just 21,” looks back Linda. Her interest in the country was sparked off by her study of Emerson and Thoreau as part of her American literature studies.” I especially became interested in Indian poetry and was on a hunt for insight into Indian religions.” She also lived for some time in Varanasi, home to both Kabir and Tusidas. Kabir is believed to have been brought up by Muslim weavers. “In his words, he is at once the child of Allah and of Ram.”

Linda was deeply attracted by Kabir’s personality. “It suited mine, she says. “He is very direct. His God was Nirgun (without qualities) as contrasted to Sagun (with attributes). He believed that God cannot be bound into a form. He was an iconoclast brilliantly cutting away at people’s hypocrisies and self-delusions.

Still relevant

“He has great relevance today,” believes Linda. “Many claim him for their own. Kabir panths are generally comprised of those thought to belong to the lower castes, the Dalits. Self proclaimed secularists too are looking for a voice from the people. The first name that comes to the mind is Kabir. He attracts both Muslims and Hindus. He is a strong voice for human equality and dignity.”

How much do people in the U.S. understand Kabir?

“I teach only undergrad students,” replies Linda. “My teaching goes pretty lightly over Kabir. But he has great appeal in the West as there are fewer cultural barriers to be faced to read him than the other Bhakti poets. He has a very non-sectarian view of things.”

Among those who have transformed Linda the most in her search for Kabir are the folk singers. Her engagement with Kabir goes on as she is now researching the oral and musical traditions of the saint-poet in North India.

And how difficult was it to learn Hindi, you ask her.

“It was a long, long process,” she confesses. “I learnt mostly independently using a dictionary and sometimes with a tutor.”


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