It is not for nothing that Kabir’s sayings are known as ulat vani. Whatever he says it seems contrary to our common knowledge or perception. This was not only true for his spiritual sayings, but also for his couplets giving worldly wisdom. Take this first stanza of my compilation. Our usual tendency is to keep close to someone who praises us and avoid someone who blames and criticizes us. But Kabir says that the person who criticizes you is your dearest friend and you should make a house for him in your inner courtyard. He wrote thousands of such couplets during his life time. Here are ten of my most favorite couplets:
A true friend
Nindak niyare rakhiye aangan kuti chhawaye;
Bin sabun pani bina nirmal karat subhaye.
Kabir says that one should keep one’s critics close, even making a place for them in our courtyard. Without water or soap they clean up one’s blemishes.
The passionate critic is like bitter medicine. Of course sometimes people may blame us due to their own bias or lack of understanding. In such cases at least they make us aware of our actions and people’s reactions. The bonus advantage of keeping company of such a person is that they stop us from being egoistic, arrogant or developing a casual attitude.
Shun ego and speak
Aisi vani boliye, man ka aapa khoye
Auran ko sheetal kare, aaphu sheetal hoye
Shunning your ego, speak in such a manner that you remain un-agitated at the same time others are pleased.
This second one may seem to contradict the first. It may mean- while you welcome other’s criticism, do not do this favor to others. Others might not have heard of the first stanza of Kabir. There are different kinds of people and everybody may not take your frank opinion kindly. So talk sweet and soothing. Remember the sanskrti saying – ko satru priyavadinah. A person who says what is agreeable cannot make enemies.
What Kabir says here is that when you talk to someone out of your ego, it agitates you and others. So speak thus so that it does not cause mental disturbance neither in others nor in you. For that, one has to be egoless and innocent. Sometimes a child may say things that are not agreeable. Yet, it does not cause disturbance in us because the child is so egoless.
Do not throw pearls before a swine
Hira wahan na kholiye jahan kujdon ki hat
Bandho chup ki potri, laagahu apni bat
This couplet reminds me of the saying in the Bible – Do not throw pearls before the swine. One must speak according to the knowledge level and taste of the audience. Or else it is a waste of time and effort and in some cases may lead to being humiliated and frustration coming from selling mirrors to the blind.
The saint is beyond caste and creed
Jat na puchho sadh ki puchh lijiyo gyan
Mol karo talwar ka, pade rehen do myan
In the times of Kabir, the caste system was at its height of ugliness. Kabir was born to a caste of weavers. Another remarkable thing about the century when Kabir was born, was that many of the saints and proponents of Bhakti were from the lower castes. They were widely accepted. At the same time the higher caste people must have tried to revive the stigma attached to the people of lower castes who became spiritually advanced. Hence, Kabir here urges people to venerate a saint not by his caste but by his knowledge. He compares knowledge to the sword and caste to the scabbard. Even in modern times all over the world, many forms of discriminations are prevalent based on race, religion, region etc. In a wider context, a person should not be subject to bias based on his caste, creed, race, nationality etc.
Take the plunge and be saved
Jin khoja tin paiya, gahare pani paith
Mein Bapura budan Raha, RAha Kinare Baith
It is a beautiful example of Kabir’s specialty in ulatvani. He says – the person who went deep into the water in search, got it and was saved, But I, who sat on the shores, got drowned. Kabir urges us to sun our fears and laziness for the spiritual adventure. The person who is complacent and cares too much for security, in fact, finds that he/she has drowned in the worldly miseries and got deprived of the ultimate gem of spiritual experience. The spiritual journey needs some sort of risk and sacrifice. Those who take the risk get it, like the diver who dives deep and comes back with something.
They do not understand, so they fight
Hindu kahe mohi Ram Piyara, Turk kahe Rehmana
Aapas mein dou ladi ladi mue, maram kou na jaana
This couplet is as appropriate today as it has been since ages. For the Hindu, Ram is the ultimate and for the Muslim, Rehmana is the one and so on. Even though all religions at some level teach the oneness of humanity and the Godhead, the followers become fanatic over their form of worship. Some take to sword and some to evangelism, forcing and urging people to accept that theirs is the only way. But none of these fanatics know the truth in essence. So they fight onto death.
Good times, bad times
Sukh mein sumiran sab kare, dukh mein kare na koy
Jo sukh mein sumiran kare, dukh kahe ko hoy
It is exam time. Time for the ill prepared to go to temple, remember Jesus or Allah. Or, somebody is seriously ill. Even the doctor says (in line with our popular Bollywood dialogue) – Inhe abhi dawa nahin, dua ki jarurat hai. People usually remember God or come to spiritual practices only when in distress. But, Kabir says, if you regularly remember God or do your spiritual practices, there will be no occasion for sorrow to befall on you. Even if it comes, your wisdom will make light of it so that you do not feel distressed.
Kasturi kundal base, mrig dhundhat ban mahi
Jyo ghat ghat ram hai, duniya dekhe nahi
A deer has the fragrance in itself and runs throughout the forest for finding it. Similarly God is everywhere but we miss it and run round and round like the deer. Quite often we miss what is so obvious, what is so omnipresent and what is so close.
When the ocean drops into a drop
Boond samani hai samundar mein, janat hai sab koi
Samundar samana boond mein, bujhe birla koi
This is another beautiful example of ulatvani. When a drop merges into the ocean, everyone understands it, but it is the rare one who understands the essence of the ocean merging into the drop.
Even in spiritual context, it is said that the ultimate aim for the individual consciousness is to merge with the universal consciousness. Even it can be seen this way – the ultimate aim of the devotee is to merge in God. But Kabir says that the phenomenon is just the opposite. When the devotee reaches its zenith, God comes to meet and merge in him. The devotee becomes the universe, the individual conscious becomes the universal consciousness.
The consciousness beyond all dualities
Had mein chale so maanava, behad chale so saadh
Had behad dono taje, taako bata agaadh
A normal human being is confined in limitations. The Sadhu transcends human limitations. But still there is a higher state, that goes beyond limit and limitlessness. The depth and understanding of such a being is unfathomable.
Kabir urges the spiritual aspirant to go beyond all dualities, including the dualities of limit and limitlessness.