The Signs by Which We May Know Them: Sainthood in Kabir’s Poetry

Prof. Satti Khanna
Associate Professor of the Practice in Hindi
Duke University

The lecture is a description of the 15th century poet Kabir, both through the eyes of the lecturer, and through the eyes of those Hindu believers who relate to him as an incarnation of God. The lecturer uses slides to take us on a guided tour of the city of Benares, where Kabir lived. We hear descriptions of the people bathing in the holy waters of the Ganges, and the workers in the weaver’s quarter, where Kabir came from. Then we are taken to the shrine of Kabir, the headquarters of his “true followers”, those who believe in his divinity. Dr. Khanna expresses his distance from these people. To him, Kabir is a master poet who liberates one from the structures of organized religion, whereas these people have taken the figure of Kabir and created around him a religion. Yet, he is very touched to meet the guru, the person whom the true followers believe to be the latest incarnation of Kabir. The guru has a very calming and mystical presence which moves Khanna very deeply. Khanna admits that while he loves Kabir’s poetry, he cannot reach the level of the mystical poems, since the states described in these poems are not part of his experience. To him, Kabir is a brother, not a God or even a superior being of sorts. He is “someone in whose presence I acquire the courage to be direct and independent”. The lecture concludes with a discussion of the role of music, art, or writing poetry in the spiritual life. Joining him for this discussion from the point of view of their own traditions are Aziz Satchedina (Islam) and Steven Goodman (Buddhism).