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Linda Hess: Devotion to a Truth Beyond Form

Nuggets From Linda Hess's Call

Last Saturday, we had the privilege of hosting a lively and fascinating Awakin Call with Linda Hess.

Dr. Linda Hess is a scholar, writer, and translator of devotional/mystical poetry from North India – especially of the 15th-century poet Kabir. She taught in various universities, concluding with 21 years in the Department of Religious Studies at Stanford University, from where she retired in 2017. Linda is not only a scholar of Kabir, but a devotee and lover. She writes: “I fell in love with Kabir almost as soon as I met him. He was sharp, funny, vivid and astonishing. What you didn’t want to hear, he would say—over and over, in your face. But you liked it because, really, you did want to hear it.” Her devotion to Kabir informs and is informed by her practice in Buddhism. She began Zen practice in 1974 and has also participated in vipassana retreats in India and the US. Linda has been deeply interested in the study of violence, nonviolence, and nonviolent political struggle as practiced by Gandhi, King, and many others.

Here are some of the nuggets that stood out from the call ...

You’ve had an affinity for poetry since early childhood. How did this manifest? Was it innate, nurtured, or both? “My love for poetry wasn't nurtured; when it came out, it just came out. I wrote my first poem when I was 6 years old – it was a celebration of a new-born baby who was my cousin. It had good rhyme and meter. After that, I considered myself a poet.”

At an early age, you also were seeking a spiritual path. How did you even know what this was, and to what do you attribute that unusual hunger? “Like the Buddha said, [it was] suffering. But I have to amend that as soon as I say it. Definitely one of the things that set off that hunger was the unsatisfactoriness of life as I was experiencing it as a child. There were problems in our family and that gives rise in a child to feelings of unhappiness and anger and helplessness. So that was a root of it. But there were 2 more experiences in childhood that were my sources of mystical inclination – both happened when I was not super young.” Once, “after I learned how babies are made, I was thinking about how babies are made and found out that countless sperm are released, and meet one little egg that comes out. The numbers of sperm were huge – in millions and billions. If circumstances had changed one tiny bit – if a different sperm or no sperm hit the egg, then I wouldn't exist. That stopped me [dead in my tracks] in realizing the mystery of existence.” Another experience occurred “around ages 10-12 – I was walking home from the school bus. I had already been impressed by the unsatisfactoriness of life. The sky was blue and open. My thought was that I was the seeing face of God and God was smiling. This face was just an open blue sky – nothing anthropomorphic at all. That was the experience I had. … That's how I started having mystical tendencies in my childhood.” “The blue sky being the face of God – I never have been comfortable with notion of God, despite the thought. So I always saw a limitlessness in what people called God.”

To what extent did your religious upbringing contribute to these mystical and spiritual thoughts? “I had these experiences despite the religious background of my childhood. I was raised Jewish – I was inclined to be religious, but the kind of religious training and teaching and community and atmosphere I encountered didn't encourage this kind of tendency at all. It ultimately turned out to be very unsatisfactory to me, and that's why I went to India.”

There’s a line of Kabir poetry ‘Many owners share this body…” which seemed to show up at a critical life juncture for you that in many ways defined a lot of the rest of your life. What was going on for you at that time, and what about Kabir’s voice so powerfully grabbed you? This line from Kabir showed up in a documentary that also referenced Linda. She wasn’t sure it was the verse she necessarily would have chosen as the most definitive. But she said that, to her, this verse reflects Kabir’s notion that “what passes for love and human affection is often a thinly disguised form of human exploitation and control and greed. He [Kabir] went through a lot of family relationships in that poem … Some family relationships are like a tiger wanting to eat you up, or a parent wanting to control you and turn you into their fantasy of what they need in your life.” It reflects that “people can try to control in unloving ways – driven by their own needs. The poem was an attempt to face all that, and to find something beyond that.” And there was also “another layer of meaning [as there often is with Kabir] – a simple fact that our body is not just ours. Our body and by extension everything in our world is made up of, comes from, many sources and is created in many ways. So this body not just being ours is also a liberating thing.”

Her affinity for India and Eastern thought: Before that point [of going to India and beginning an academic career there], other things came together. “Other reading and literature continued to inspire whatever my life was striving toward (in high school). But I did decide at that age I wanted to go to India …. Something I read in high school American literature – Emerson and Thoreau – gave me the impression that India had a very different approach to these things [religion and spirituality]. That really attracted me, as very different from Judeo-Christian approaches which is all I knew then. It included the impression (3rd or 4th hand, the way Emerson got his ideas) that there was some nature in our humanness that was not fatally distorted and twisted by all kinds of experiences and influences. But it was available for us to reach. … Something about karma – cause and effect – we had the possibility of connecting to whatever that was (that was not going to be destroyed in us, but remained accessible), and something about action – that we could access/get past the terrifically difficult karmic chains that seemed to bind us. We could find some kind of liberation … That really appealed to me, and didn't come in Judeo or Christian heritages – they were both really exclusive as far as I knew then.”

How she fell for Kabir: “So I was inspired to go to India when I was 16. I kept that in my mind, so then I did it when I was 21. These things were inchoate at the time – I was really uneducated. Just following some attraction.” “I met gurus in the 1960s, before the big international guru movement. I didn't know what I was looking for. Only later did the poetry inside me and the need for poetry come together in this kind of search. I started to read the bhakti poets of Northern India. Then I learned of Kabir through them. Kabir was clearly the one for me, because the other ones – even though they're great poets and I really benefitted from going into the works of Mirabai and Tulsidas and Surdas - they were theistic in a way I couldn't be. They worshipped Krishna and Ram, and there was lots of anthropomorphic storytelling about that. That wasn't for me. When I got to Kabir, oh my god. He was for nirgun – a truth beyond form – and he was really passionate. He had a voice that was Indian but that got beyond certain cultural Indian particularities. So he could call out religious pretentiousness and hypocrisy and injustice – he could call it out in a way that transcended cultural boundaries. So I found my guru. I was lucky to be able to settle down and have an intimate relationship with his language, as a translator.”

“It didn't hit like thunder. I was wishing for that as a child – so I could be rid of my troubles. It was more gradual. But I recognized this poet among the 4 poets that he was the one calling on me. That was clear and undoubted. There wasn't a particular poem or moment. I was a very confused person, right up to today – I'm a pretty confused person.”

“I only wanted to study living languages, not Sanskrit (an elite language). I needed to work with a living language that had poetry and that still had people living in it and being born in it. So by chance I was propped down in a Hindi-speaking region, so I started learning Hindi. I would have started with different poets if I had been based elsewhere. But it was Hindi. There were 4 great and famous ones. When I went to India to start translating Bhakti poetry, I thought I would do all 4 of them. … I was a confused person and also uneducated. So when I read Kabir, after a brief introduction to them all, I thought ‘oh, this is the poetry I need to get into.’ I'm still waiting for a thunderous moment.”

Do you have a favorite poem of Kabir’s that might be an appropriate introduction to his voice and manner for those listening who aren’t familiar with his work? Hess said that there are so many that illustrate his blunt commentary on the dishonest and oppressive ways that people live in society. Some are funny, and some are more direct. She chose to recite her translation of a poem found in a collection of Kabir poetry called the Bijak, revered by the Kabir Panth (sect). According to Hess, though we don’t know exactly when it was finalized, the Bijak is at least a few hundred years old. It illustrates the sometimes sharply critical way in which Kabir exposes delusions, pretentions, and violent behaviors of people who appear to be religious.

The poem starts off with a direct address to listeners, as is typical. This is a very unusual characteristic of Kabir – the Bhakti poets all tend to have a signature line at end, but his is “Kabir says listen” at the start – none of the others say that. He addresses the listener directly – saying “listen”. This brings you into the present moment. And he emphasizes the aural by saying “listen”. At the beginning he addresses you – as “saint” or “truth seeker”.Saints, I see the world is mad.

If I tell the truth they rush to beat me,
if I lie they trust me.
I’ve seen the pious Hindus, rule-followers,
early morning bath-takers—
killing souls, they worship rocks.
They know nothing.
I’ve seen plenty of Muslim teachers, holy men
reading their holy books
and teaching their pupils techniques.
They know just as much.
And posturing yogis, hypocrites,
hearts crammed with pride,
praying to brass, to stones, reeling
with pride in their pilgrimage,
fixing their caps and their prayer-beads,
painting their brow-marks and arm-marks,
braying their hymns and their couplets,
reeling. They never heard of soul.
The Hindu says Ram is the Beloved,
the Turk says Rahim.
Then they kill each other.
No one knows the secret.
They buzz their mantras from house to house,
puffed with pride.
The pupils drown along with their gurus.
In the end they’re sorry.
Kabir says, listen saints:
they’re all deluded!
Whatever I say, nobody gets it.
It’s too simple.

According to Hess, “That’s a strong dose of Kabir pointing out delusion, cruelty, pride, etc. He starts off saying Hindus are like that, then Muslims are like that. It’s about everyone – it’s about us.” While the poem above is about his critique of the outer world, other Kabir poems are about deep inner experience, “and point you toward the world of experience inside your body. They are not just negative; they also turn you inward.”

The word for simple is "sahaj". Hess said “it has tremendous history as an approach to yogic experience. It is a direct simple unmediated experience. This simplicity – to attain it of mind and body – is very difficult. So simple isn't easy. The richness of what's available in Kabir is very appealing to people. … He says things we don't want to hear, but we listen and kind of like it because really we do want to hear it – we do want to have our delusions exposed so we can go deeper and be free of them. Different people latch onto different Kabirs. Secular, social change people will latch onto the critical ones, rather than the inner poems.”

But there is another voice of Kabir’s – “inner mystical poetry,” or “deep, nirgun or formless songs.” Hess said that “many are so deep that they're hard to understand, but they draw you into a place beyond conceptual understanding. He's able to use language in a way that somehow skillfully and through the power of his poetry and insight takes you beyond language in its conceptual forms.”

She shared one these kinds of poems, which described as “well-known” and “brings forth a consistent theme of Kabir – right here, in this body, in every body.” Hess noted later that she heard this sung in different styles, with variations in words, by both folk and classical singers. She learned it orally before she ever saw it in a book. This is the text as sung by folk singer Prahlad Singh Tipanya:

Who can know this? The one who knows!
Without a guru, the world is blind. (refrain)

In this body forests and hamlets, right here mountains and trees
In this body gardens and groves, right here the one who waters them
In this body gold and silver, right here the market spread out
In this body diamonds and pearls, right here the one who tests them
In this body seven oceans, right here rivers and streams
In this body moon and sun, right here a million stars
In this body lightning flashing, right here brilliance bursting
In this body the unstruck sound roaring, streams of nectar pouring
In this body the three worlds, right here the one who made them
Kabir says, listen seekers: right here my own guru

Who can know this? The one who knows!
Without a guru, the world is blind.

Hess noted that “every line begins with ‘In this body.’ And while the poem starts by saying that “without a guru, the world is blind,” it ends with “right here my own guru” in this body. “From the beginning of my work on Kabir, I've loved his emphasis on body. Body is the precious vessel in which everything to be discovered and realized is to be realized.”

At the time of his death, Kabir was claimed by both Hindus and Muslims, though he was harshly critical of the hypocrisy of both. The Nath yogis also claim that his guru was a Nath, and there are many references in his poetry to concepts, techniques and experiences that are mapped inside this yogic lineage. What does the scholarship reveal about his key formative influences, and what is the relationship, if any, to his enduring appeal? Many Kabir poems use technical language of yoga – “not just chakras, but nadis, energy streams, breath, experience in the skull when the space in the head expands to include the cosmic sky... There is a long list of yogic terminology in his poetry that is powerful when combined when his poet's ability to come up with these amazing metaphors and beautiful imagery to describe experience.” So he doesn’t do “a dry technical exposition like in the Nath or other yogic literature. So did he have a guru? And was he trained in yogic practices? We don't know. It was very widely believed that he did have a guru, Ramananda, but almost everything that happens in the so-called biography of Kabir is an accretion of legend that comes up after his death. … Where did he learn this stuff? I have to conjecture it was available in the culture – and that he was able to get to it without reading books [because he was illiterate]. Whether he had a yogi who was his guru or not, I believe he had access to this stuff and he had experiences which brought forward this lore that had been in the culture for centuries.”

Most Buddhists don’t study too far beyond their own traditions, and when they do, it’s usually into another major school of Buddhist tradition. Yet Kabir and your Zen practice seem to have a harmonious and even seamless co-existence for you. Can you describe how these interests intersected and then integrated for you? “In my sequence of things – being upset as child, reading Emerson as teenager, going to India, learning Kabir, then some years later starting Zen practice – these were all things that were occurring in my chaotic life. So there wasn't an inevitable order to this. But there's not an inevitable order to anyone's path. I don't have a belief in inevitability.”

“I started Zen practice in 1974, that was after these other things had happened – after I'd started reading Kabir.... I was urgently looking for something in 1974. I was in big trouble in my life. Various things, including gurus in India, had not worked out for me. They were not right for me. So when I came to the Zen center in 1974, in great distress in my own life, I found something that was absolutely what I was looking for – it was the Mayahana Buddhist emphasis on the inseparability of wisdom and compassion. I had been looking to connect one’s personal liberation with compassion with all beings. I found that in the teaching of the Zen center. I didn't find that anywhere else. Gurus emphasized individual liberation, but they didn't emphasize it the way Buddhism did.”

“Zen and other forms of Buddhist practice is a nirgun bhakti practice – it's a yogic practice. [A colleague of mine at Stanford] taught a course called Buddhist yoga. It's yogic practice. So Kabir is teaching something that fits in the big picture of yogic practice, if you think of something bigger and more profound than a yoga studio.”

“Zen teaches that wisdom and compassion are endlessly and inseparably intertwined – when you practice for your own liberation you practice for the liberation of all beings.”

“It was a no-brainer for me to find Zen and Kabir to not only be compatible, but to be harmonious – to make beautiful music together.”

What sparked your early and lifelong interest in nonviolence, Gandhi, and King and how did that interest manifest? “I did experience violence in my childhood – lots of people did – and whatever my sensitivities were, for my entire life, violence has been an intense focus of mine.” Hess mentioned that there were ways in her early 20s “in which I caused harm to myself – I turned violence inward. … So I’ve always been concerned with the problem of violence (internal and external), personal, social and political. This expressed itself in attempts to get personally liberated – that was very urgent. From an early time, I saw it on a social level. I identified with social movements of non-violence. I did go to Dr. King's March on Washington – and was standing pretty close to the front during the “I Have a Dream” speech. I always identified with struggles of oppressed people.”

“During my time at Stanford, my inner and outer got balanced enough that I was able to really focus on studying nonviolence as a continuum from deepest inner space (addiction) to massive external levels (such as genocide).”

The common criticism of very spiritual people is that they become disinterested in the ordinary mundane issues of the world like systems of power, politics, and justice. Yet your spiritual influence and interest seemed to augment your interest in these things. What were you seeing that amplified interest for you that others were perhaps missing? “There are real tensions between following an internal path of devotion or sadhana, and an external path of seeking social and political justice and an end of suffering in the social and political worlds. Both are full-time jobs. There's no end to either.” Hess expressed that one can and should have real “doubts about navel-gazing or narcissism. We should respect tensions between the two of them and explore deeply about how we can understand and live out the way of making them both real and alive in us.”

“I think there's a strong bias in just focusing on inner spiritual life, and also devotion to a guru – as if that were everything. [The bias is] present in Buddhism as well.”

Hess offered an admittedly “controversial” perspective about the Bhagavad Gita, widely considered a deeply inspirational and spiritual text. Hess said she was “troubled by way in which Krishna justifies killing. The Gita does not have almost a single word emphasizing compassion, or the horrific karma of participating in this killing.”

Reconciling the heart’s love for poetry and the head’s work in academia: “The heart will not be quiet. Those calls were there (the heart).” As for the head, “life circumstances pulled me into the academic world. I think it's comic how many times I tried to get out of it. I even tried to fail to get out of academia. I did fail but then I got pulled back in. Sometimes, it got me sick.”

More Resources on Kabir. After the call, Linda was gracious enough to offer resources and suggestions for further study of Kabir.

Books by Linda Hess:

Bodies of Song: Kabir Oral Traditions and Performative Worlds in North India. 2015. Oxford University Press, New York, and Permanent Black in India, dist. by Orient Blackswan, New Delhi.

Singing Emptiness: Kumar Gandharva Performs the Poetry of Kabir. 2009. Calcutta; Seagull Books (dist in US by U of Chicago Press).

The Bijak of Kabir. Translations by Linda Hess & Shukdev Singh, Essays & Notes by Linda Hess. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002 (orig. published in 1983).

Also recommended books (from Linda Hess):

Section on Kabir in J.S. Hawley, Three Bhakti Voices: Mirabai, Surdas and Kabir in Their Time and Ours. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, translator. Songs of Kabir. New York Review Books Classics, 2011.

Recommended Documentary Films and Videos (from Linda Hess)

Documentary films created by Shabnam Virmani and the Kabir Project team based in Bangalore are wonderful. Each one has its own stories and main questions. Virmani and I started our projects separately but became friends and did a lot of stuff together from 2003 to 2015, and even now.

Chalo Hamara Des/ Come to My Country: Journeys with Kabir and Friends (Dur: 98 min), has me in it, along with famous Kabir folksinger Prahlad TIpanya and a lot of wonderful music.

Had-Anhad/ Bounded-Boundless: Journeys with Ram and Kabir (Dur: 103 min), the most widely viewed of the four, with enthralling music, fascinating Sufi singers in Rajasthan and Pakistan, and some political implications.

Kabira Khada Bazar Mein/ In the Market Stands Kabir: Journeys with Sacred and Secular Kabir (Dur: 94 min), great for the study of religion, history of religion, and social/political questions. How do we understand the development of a Kabir religion with hierarchy, rules and rituals, when his teaching so thoroughly criticized sectarianism, boundaries, and reliance on external forms? A story dramatized in the lives of people in the film, with plenty of music. I told this story with a different set of discussions in chapter 6 of my book Bodies of Song.

Koi Sunta Hai/ Someone is Listening: Journeys with Kumar and Kabir (dur. 96 min), focus on classical singer Kumar Gandharva’s life & renderings of nirgun bhajans, connections between folk & classical, beautiful music.

In addition they have produced two lovely 1-hour videos on Prahlad Tipanya & group’s first U.S. tour in 2003: Part 1 here, and Part 2 here.

The Kabir Project’s last big undertaking is to create an amazing website, soon to be launched after years of work. They’ve been collecting the components on a youtube channel called Ajab Shahar. It has a tremendous wealth of songs, texts, discussions, etc. Click on “About,” read that, then take a look at all the resources under “videos.” You will find a lot of Kabir, but also wonderful songs of other related traditions and poets, such as Baul songs and qawaali.

The films above show singers of Kabir in many of the settings in which they traditionally sing. But for fun, here’s a clip of Prahlad Tipanya and team introduced by one of the High Gods of Bollywood, Shah Rukh Khan. Ta-da!

Two recent concert sessions Shabnam Virmani did in Dehradun when asked to explore the affinities of Buddhism (as seen in Chogyam Trungpa’s writing) and Kabir. Accompanied by Swagath Sivakumar and Anisha Baid. Dec. 1-2, 2018. See here and here.

Lots of gratitude to all the behind-the-scenes volunteers that made this call happen!


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