Kabir and the question of modernity
Kabir, Kabir: The life and work of the poet-philosopher of modern times by Purushottam Agrawal, Chennai: Westland Publications, 2021; pages 284, `499.
Kabir, the famous religious poet from Varanasi, lived from around 1440 CE to 1518 CE. He first rose to fame outside India in 1915 when Rabindranath Tagore published an English translation of 100 songs, or bhajans, attributed to Kabir. Tagore’s translation was based on a collection prepared by scholar Kshitimohan Sen from various sources. More recent scholarly studies of Kabir essentially begin with the analysis of his religious ideas by PD Barthwal and Hazari Prasad Dwivedi in the 1930s and 1940s. These studies initiated a search for old manuscripts containing collections of Kabir songs (buffer or shabda) and couplets (sakhi) in early Hindi, with the idea that these texts were more likely to be compositions of historical Kabir, or at least gave a better idea of the ideas associated with Kabir. The main early collections were the Kabir Granthavali of the Dadu Panth of Rajasthan, the Adi Granth of the Sikhs, and the Kabir Bijak of the Kabir Panth. All of these texts now have scholarly editions in Hindi and (for all but parts of the Granthavali) English translations.
Since the 1960s, numerous studies of Kabir and his followers have been published in Hindi, English, and other languages. Most of these studies were written for an academic audience or for educated followers of the Kabir Panth and Sikh Panth. Purushottam Agrawal broke with this tradition by writing a book on Kabir in English aimed at an audience that includes not only academics but also a wider educated audience. Agrawal’s academic credentials are beyond doubt. He has published scholarly essays on Kabir in Hindi and English and an essential Hindi book titled Akath Kahani Prem ki: Kabir ki Kavita aur Unka Samay (2009).