Apr 13 2009

Kabir – Between the conscious and the unconscious

Published by at 8:07 am under Poetry

Between the conscious and the unconscious, the mind has put up a swing:
by Kabir

English version by Robert Bly

Between the conscious and the unconscious, the mind has put up a swing:
all earth creatures, even the supernovas, sway between these two trees,
and it never winds down.

Angels, animals, humans, insects by the million, also the wheeling sun and moon;
ages go by, and it goes on.

Everything is swinging: heaven, earth, water, fire,
and the secret one slowly growing a body.
Kabir saw that for fifteen seconds, and it made him a servant for life.

— from The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry, by Stephen Mitchell

/ Photo by Johnny Jet /

This is a rather loose translation, but I like it.

Everything is swinging: heaven, earth, water, fire,
and the secret one slowly growing a body.

There is a continuous flowing between the subtle and the manifest, between spirit and matter. Spirit pours through matter, giving it life and awareness. Matter, in turn, gives form to spirit, striving to embody the limitless amidst limitation.

And so the swing goes back and forth, patiently, playfully, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes frightening.

It isn’t a process where we find that perfect spot and then it all stops. “It never winds down.” It is an interplay that continues, and we find our rightful place by seeing the entire dance…

Kabir saw that for fifteen seconds, and it made him a servant for life.

Kabir, Kabir poetry, Muslim / Sufi poetry Kabir

India (15th Century) Timeline
Muslim / Sufi
Yoga / Hindu

Kabir is not easily categorized as a Sufi or a Yogi — he is all of these. He is revered by Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs. He stands as a unique, saintly, yet very human, bridge between the great traditions that live in India. Kabir says of himself that he is, “at once the child of Allah and Ram.”

He was born in Varanasi (Benares), India, probably around the year 1440 (though other accounts place his birth as early as 1398), to Muslim parents. But early in his life Kabir became a disciple of the Hindu bhakti saint Ramananda. It was unusual for a Hindu teacher to accept a Muslim student, but tradition says the young Kabir found a creative way to overcome all objections.

The story is told that on one particular day of the year, anyone can become a disciple by having a master speak the name of God over him. It is common for those who live near the Ganges to take their morning bath there in the sacred waters. The bhakti saint Ramananda took his bath as he did every day, by arising before dawn. On this special day, Ramananda awoke before dawn and found his customary way down to the steps of the Ganges. As he was walking down the steps to the waters, a little hand reached out in the predawn morning and grabbed the saint’s big toe. Ramananda taken by surprise and he expressed his shock by calling out the name of God. Looking down he saw in the early morning light the hand of the young Kabir. After his bath in the early light he noticed that on the back of the little one’s hand was written in Arabic the name Kabir. He adopted him as son and disciple and brought him back to his ashrama, much to the disturbance of his Hindu students, some of whom left in righteous protest.

It is said that what really made this meeting the most special is that in this case it, was only after Kabir’s enlightenment that Ramananda, his teacher, became enlightened.

Not much is known about what sort of spiritual training Kabir may have received. He did not become a sadhu or rununciate. Kabir never abandoned worldly life, choosing instead to live the balanced life of a householder and mystic, tradesman and contemplative. Kabir was married, had children, and lived the simple life of a weaver.

Although Kabir labored to bring the often clashing religious cultures of Islam and Hinduism together, he was equally disdainful of professional piety in any form. This earned him the hatred and persecution of the religious authorities in Varanasi. Nearing age 60, he was denounced before the king but, because of his Muslim birth, he was spared execution and, instead, banished from the region.

He subsequently lived a life of exile, traveling through northern India with a group of disciples. In 1518, he died at Maghar near Gorakhpur.

One of the most loved legends associated with Kabir is told of his funeral. Kabir’s disciples disputed over his body, the Muslims wanting to claim the body for burial, the Hindus wanting to cremate the body. Kabir appeared to the arguing disciples and told them to lift the burial shroud. When they did so, they found fragrant flowers where the body had rested. The flowers were divided, and the Muslims buried the flowers while the Hindus reverently committed them to fire.

More poetry by Kabir

10 responses so far

10 Responses to “Kabir – Between the conscious and the unconscious”

  1. Dylison 13 Apr 2009 at 10:26 am

    I love this poem, thank you

    ’emptiness is form, form is emptiness’

  2. Jim Atwellon 13 Apr 2009 at 12:30 pm

    My, you have changed!
    The last time I saw you
    You were as big as a galaxy.
    Actually you were a galaxy.
    I think you have lost a little weight.
    But then again, how much does Love weigh?

    Much Love
    Jim Atwell

  3. Nancion 13 Apr 2009 at 6:33 pm

    I have always liked the concept of the circle in describing Life, but a swing! I think I do like that–it sort of encompasses the opposite poles while still allowing for continuity. A year or so ago the idea of a spiral appealed to me.
    Of course, there is no real framework to Life. If there is, it is beyond our knowing. Still, I reject the idea of a birth to death linear Life. All evidence disputes it. My heart disputes it.
    Obviously, the wonderful Kabir disputes it as well.

  4. Sayed Amrullahon 13 Apr 2009 at 9:13 pm

    Thanks for sending your mail i really appreciate that i read that and i really enjoy it I hope you wiil send me a few more whihc i will really enjoy i am sure about it it was a really good topic of discusion which you raised and I like it too much it was really interesting i hope you will send me you r other posts which you write and i am wiating for that i will be really glad to recieve it from you and I will really appreciate it.

  5. Christineon 13 Apr 2009 at 9:54 pm

    Interesting timing of this poem today. I recently experienced this “continuous flow” that you speak of in your commentary during meditation as “The Rhythm.” Like an ebb and flow movement, or the rising and falling of a wave – a “back and forth” movement of the Vastness Itself pulsing through time and space. As you say “a dance.” And the recognition, the seeing, that we ARE the dance…


  6. Katherineon 14 Apr 2009 at 5:37 am

    Great post! And I love love LOVE this, Jim:

    “The last time I saw you
    You were as big as a galaxy.
    Actually you were a galaxy.”

    Wow. And you are still….

    Joyful open shining blessings to all today…this is such a great site, Ivan. Thanks for the great start to the day. 🙂

    Smiles, Katherine

  7. akeem akinniyion 14 Apr 2009 at 6:03 am

    The unending imbalance of life that only contentment can conquer.

  8. BAKon 17 Apr 2009 at 11:22 am

    Thank you Ivan…
    Often your poems have sparked smiles and warmth in these mortal strands..I thank you again.

    Here is it to you..
    “To tame myself and be with the center,
    I spend my life from summer through winter,
    And once in there I woke up from this dream,
    Though summer lost in ignorance but winter came with a truthful beam!

  9. Gauravon 13 Feb 2013 at 7:27 pm

    I am sure Kabir did not write this poem in English. Rabindra Nath Tagore translated the original poem in English and the same poem is all over the internet copied word to word. Do you know where is this original poem (if published at all)? Also, there are no sources cited for this poem or life history of Kabir. Where did you get this information?

  10. Kiyoshi Suzakion 14 Oct 2014 at 7:16 pm

    I found Kabir years ago. Then, I found Daisetz Suzuki (DT Suzuki) mentioning Kabir in his book (Vol 30 p479), including this phrase (in Japanese). What a pleasure!

    http://www.suzakijpn.has.it (sorry, these are in Japanese)

    https://www.facebook.com/kiyoshi.suzaki.7 (my facebook)

    By the way, Kabir’s poem, #17, is my favorite.
    http://www.geocities.jp/suzakicojp/kabir17.html (here, I translated 17 into Japanese)

    Good journey!
    Kio (Kiyoshi Suzaki)

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