Thursday, 25 February 2010

Reflections on "Kabir in Education"

By Jyoti Sahi

What aspects of the Kabir tradition are we especially concerned to introduce to young people? What is it that the Kabir songs invite us to reflect on which is important to education as a whole ?

First of all I like the idea that Kabir is not a special sort of person, but every person is in a way a special sort of Kabir. Kabir is in everybody, and we are all called in some way to participate as far as we can in the Kabir tradition.

So what is this tradition ? Kabir, you have also suggested in the dialogues that are part of the films that you made, was a human being, and his message was a contribution to a very Indian form of humanism. He speaks to the human in all of us.

The idea that God is present in the heart of every person, is an intuition that we find in many of the Bhakti poets. Perhaps to limit the relevance of Kabir just to those songs which have been ascribed to the person ‘Kabir’, may be too narrow.

What is important, I feel, is that the mystical, or spiritual world is made accessible to young people. This spiritual dimension is present in everyone, young or old, and I think that young people are as sensitive to the spiritual in life, as anyone. That I feel is why this tradition is so important. It crosses all boundaries, and brings people of different Faiths together.

Song in relation to work. I know that a person like Gandhi was very drawn to the poems that are ascribed to Kabir. He also in his ‘basic school’ concept, insisted that education is not only concerned with ideas, but also with what some call the ‘wisdom of the hands’ and the heart. The poems of Kabir do come out of the wholeness of Kabir’s life as a man who was not just an intellectual, but also represented workers, craftspeople.

The image of weaving is found in many of Kabir’s poems. Also he uses the image of cloth, and the dying of cloth in different colours—one could even say that for him fabric is a metaphor for Creation, and our participation in creation. This is very important in many stories belonging to what I would call the Primal cultures of India—Adivasi as well as Dalit. The Bengali artist Meera Mukherjee has written a book about stories related to the Divine as a craftsperson—could be a metal worker, potter, or carpenter. This gives a new dignity to people who are workers, karmacharis. Somebody has remarked that those who work with the most elemental, and in a way most essential jobs, are often seen as the lowest in the social order. To be a clay worker is to be an outcaste. I was hearing recently of a radical statement in one of the Shaiva Siddhanta writers, that “untouchability” is related to the sense of touch. But what about taste, sight, hearing ? These are also basic senses with which we encounter the world in which we live. Why is the skin so polluting—and not the nose, the ear, the eye etc ? Why reject the Chamars ?

I have a book written by an anthropologist, whom I personally knew, called Stephen Fuchs. The book is called “The Children of Hari”, and is about the religious practices and beliefs of the Balahis of central India, who are a weaving caste, who also believe that Kabir was from their community. One aspect of their belief system is the cult of Kati-mata, the goddess of cotton.

One of the cultural heroes of this Balahi caste is Ganga, another is Sanga. Both were weavers.

(Ganga) sat down at his weaving loom and wove a cloth five hath (cubits) long. In the cloth he wove the Maharaja’s portrait, his kingdom, place, court, garden, his horses, camels and elephants. When he had finished his wonderful cloth he went to the Maharaja whose name was Vasya, and offered him the cloth as a present. The Maharaja was overjoyed and exclaimed: ‘Wonderful! Whatever you want for this beautiful cloth, I shall give you!’ Ganga replied: ‘Promise me that!’ The Maharaja gave his solemn promise that he would fiulfil any wish of the weaver. Whereupon Ganga said: ‘Maharaja, open your jail and set all Balahis free....’ The Children of Hari pp 237

Anyway, stories like this somehow help me to understand the symbolism behind weaving a cloth, which is also related to the whole world in which the Balahis live—palaces, gardens, etc. The beauty of the cloth woven so fine, so fine, is liberating. It sets people free.

There are other myths and rituals of these Weaver clans, such as the preparation of diyas using flower and water, and a wick made of cotton, which remind me of the Arathi pictures that you made in one of your films. I think that these folk beliefs and symbols somehow underlie the poetry of Kabir, who identified very much with the ordinary life of people who work and offer worship with their hands.

It seems to me that one of the values which we find in the poetic images of these songs of Kabir is the way the poet uses the elemental; fire, water, earth, air. The songs are themselves woven out of an elemental world, which we experience through our senses.

I have been thinking about various symbols which Kabir uses, like that of the bird which flies from one place to another, and is “beyond boundaries”. Even in the story of the brave parrot, the tree which is rooted in the land, suggests that the bird which has wings should fly away, and save itself from the fire. But the bird chooses to stay, out of friendship or love for the tree. There are other symbols available like that of the swan, which is familiar both with the air, and also the water. The swan also goes beyond the boundaries of any one country—it is the migrant soul.

This universality of the spirit of Kabir is very appealing. “Come to my country”—but a country which is beyond the boundaries which we associate with nationality, or particular identity whether religious or political. That is also an important value that I feel the Kabir tradition has to give to young people of today. Perhaps it particularly speaks to a globalized world, but a world which has lost its heart to consumerism.

Yes, I can also see there is a playfulness in the way that Kabir uses images in his words. The upside-down language is not just “funny” –it is also disturbing. Part of what our Karachi wallah called “symbol quake”. I am not quite sure that children necessarily like “funny” upside down language. My experience with children has been to realize that like adults, they do not necessarily enjoy a topsy-turvy world. They also want stability. The upside down language of Kabir is part of his iconoclasm, his need to upset what is considered the respectable norm of religious and social convention.

I liked the idea which was brought out during the festival of Kabir in Bangalore, that ‘Kabir interrogates the world’ in which we live. He asks often very disturbing questions. Jane was pointing out, that these questions would also be disturbing to teachers. Many teachers like to give answers, they do not really like to be asked questions which do not have neat answers. The figure of the Guru in Kabir’s thought is almost a counter-cultural figure. Somewhere Kabir says that the ‘Guru is the root of wisdom’. Who is the Guru? he is constantly asking.

I think that what I am nervous of when we talk about Kabir and education is a domestication of Kabir into the National Curriculum of the government classroom. This is what often happens to prophetic figures like Kabir; they are somehow accommodated within the mainstream agenda of the dominant group, and their critique of society is somehow watered down and made innocuous.

I do not know if these comments are at all relevant to your project of Kabir in Education. All I can do, I am afraid, is to question this effort to make the Kabir tradition part of an educational system . Certainly the government school system seems very inhospitable ground, and the teachers who you will find there, may be the most resistant to what I would think is the most valuable aspect of the Kabir tradition.

Jyoti Sahi,
Art Ashram
Silvepura P.O.
Bangalore North 560090
Karnataka, INDIA
Tel: 91-080-28466274

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