Speaker: Linda Hess

Devotion to a Truth Beyond Form

Dr. Linda Hess is a scholar, a writer, a translator and a lover of devotional/mystical poetry from North India – especially of the 15th-century poet Kabir, who remains a popular and influential figure in India and Pakistan. 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 was brought up Jewish in California in the 1950’s. She was writing poems as a six-year-old and inclined to be religious. “At 14, I realized that I hadn’t found what I was looking for,” she said. “When I was in the 11th grade, I started reading Emerson and Thoreau. Both of them were profoundly influenced by India, and both had read the first translation of the Bhagavadgita. Walt Whitman’s poem Passage to India, Emerson’s essays and his poem called 'Brahma,' and Thoreau’s writings attracted me to India. I was looking for a good spiritual path in 1958… this was much before the fads of the 60s – hippies, Beatles etc.”

Linda remembered her wish to go to India throughout her years as an English major at Stanford. Immediately after graduating in 1964, she went as a Fulbright Scholar to India, where she taught English at Patna Women's College. Indian poetry fascinated her, and she traveled to different parts of the country. During this time, she became acquainted with the Bhakti poets, “Among Surdas, Mirabai, Tulsidas and Kabir, I realized I was extremely attracted to Kabir,” she explained.   

Linda's graduate studies were in Comparative Literature at the University of California at Berkeley (M.A., 1972, Ph.D., 1980).  Despite the challenges of learning Hindi, she did her Ph.D. dissertation on Kabir, and “After a few years, I went to live in Benaras, and with [collaboration] I translated Kabir. I realized that I was a Nirgun kind of person, and I would just do Kabir.” Since then and with only a few interruptions, she has dedicated her life to the 15th century poet, saying that meeting Kabir via her dissertation work pretty much “sealed” her fate.

Linda is not only a scholar and translator of Kabir, but a devotee and lover. Of Kabir, 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 first book, The Bijak of Kabir,” (New York, Oxford University Press, 2002 - with Shukdev Singh, orig. 1983), is considered by many to be one of the best translations of Kabir into English. Thereafter, Hess changed her approach to Kabir’s poetry and began focusing on oral traditions rather than printed texts. Her work changed from being purely text-based to asking how texts live in people beyond books. Hess explains, “Suddenly all the Kabir that I knew that was fixed in lines on a page became currents in a big river. And they were singing it and taking me along with it.” Her more recent work, Singing Emptiness: Kumar Gandharva Performs the Poetry of Kabir (Calcutta, Seagull Books, 2009) includes a substantial introductory essay, bilingual texts of 30 songs, a CD with selected songs by Kumar Gandharva and contributions by two renowned Indian writers, U.R. Ananthamurthy and Ashok Vajpeyi.

At the end of her first year of fieldwork on Kabir's oral and musical traditions, in 2002, she met Shabnam Virmani, a Bangalore-based filmmaker who was beginning a documentary film project on Kabir's oral and musical traditions in their various real-life contexts. So far, they have produced four feature-length documentary films, including Chalo Hamara Des (Come to My Country: Journeys with Kabir and Friends), ten audio CDs, a DVD documenting performances of a Kabir singer in the U.S., and six accompanying books. Linda is also an advisor to The Kabir Project,

Linda retired in 2017 after 21 years of teaching in Stanford's Department of Religious Studies. Her courses at Stanford included Introduction to Hinduism; Hindus and Muslims in South Asia; Gandhi and Nonviolence; and Yoga Ancient and Modern. Among her awards are a Guggenheim Fellowship for a pioneering study of Kabir's living oral traditions, published as a book called Bodies of Song: Kabir Oral Traditions and Performative Worlds in North India (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

Linda's devotion to Kabir informs and is informed by her practice in Buddhism. “Hinduism, Buddhism, and yogic meditation all emerged from ancient India,” Linda writes. “In the Buddha’s time, these streams intermingled. Over millennia and across cultures, traditions evolved and were defined in different ways. Their common roots include a conviction that liberation from ignorance and suffering is possible through self-knowledge, discipline, right understanding and practice.”

Linda began Zen practice in 1974 at San Francisco Zen Center and she currently practices at Berkeley Zen Center. She has also practiced with Joko Beck and Diane Rizetto and has participated in vipassana retreats in India and the US. She says, “Psychologically I wasn’t fit to do the kind of guru-bhakti (devotion) that was the norm in the (Indian) culture. I wasn’t fit for all the really overtly personal God-centered bhakti. All the talk about God as somebody, just didn’t suit me. So, nirgun (Truth beyond form) was suited to me…The kind of Buddhism I was doing is very ‘nirgun’ meaning that it aims at an experience rather than an idea of the ultimate deity.

In 1977, Linda met Sensei Kaz Tanahashi at San Francisco Zen Center and in 1980, they were married there. “We have known each other for 41 years and have been married for 38 years. From the beginning we shared a deep affinity with Buddhism and with Zen practice. Along with raising our two kids, we’ve both been busy writing, teaching, traveling.”

Linda has been deeply interested in the study of violence, nonviolence, and nonviolent political struggle as practiced by Gandhi, King, and many others. She has written essays and taught courses on these subjects. This interest arises from her personal experience, her observation of the world, and her meditation practice. “Why would anyone think about non-violence?” she asks, and then answers, “Because they feel connected by a warm bond to all other people or all living beings, or it may be that they think there is something karmically negative about doing violence and therefore doing themselves damage.”

Is Kabir related to concern with violence and nonviolence? "Here is one way of answering," she says. "He looked outward as well as inward, commenting sharply on hypocrisy, arrogance, and injustices like caste discrimination in society. In inner practice, he emphasized devotion to and experience of a nirgun truth—that is, a truth beyond form. But surprisingly, that brought him (and us) right into the body and into all forms. He often said that the experience of ultimate reality isn’t in any special place—not temple or mosque, not Veda or Quran, not holy river or mountain, and so on. Then where is it? Right here, in this body, and in every body equally, and in everything. He spoke of a great light, a boundless sound, which has the power to dissolve the sense of separation. Such an experience can heal violence."

It is clear from her work, her practice and in her ongoing involvement in social issues that Linda Hess has not stopped working on Kabir nor Kabir on her. Like him, she is sharp, funny, vivid and astonishing. And very much like him, what you didn’t want to hear, she will say—over and over, in your face. But you will like it, because really, you do want to hear it.

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