This is the first part of the Yoga samvad series presented by Ritambhara, in which film maker and singer Shabnam Virmani who explores the poetry of Kabir, explores the evocations of amrit ras or the subtle sublime dimensions of joy or ecstasy as evoked in the poetry of Kabir.
Kabir says, “Bina ras se rasa piya na.”
(Without a tongue to taste that flavour, taste that relish).
One of the foremost questions that face all of us today has to do with sustainability.
“In the 1970s, when I was finishing college, a seminal study, The Club of Rome Report (1972) sounded a warning about the resources of the world getting burnt out are all around the corner. The question was not whether it is going to happen; but when is it going to happen (2030 or 2040). I am hoping I am not going to be alive a that time; but it is possible I might be alive! Hence it’s time we took these questions seriously: what are we doing to each other? Why is there war? Many of these questions have to be taken up not with seriousness but with urgency. I am hoping it’s not too late to deeply engage with these questions,” said Shri Raghu Ananthanarayanan, Co-Founder, Ritambhara.
He thus provided the setting for the Sapta swara as a wholly Indic tradition framework to engage meaningfully with life’s fundamental questions.
“In my understanding, the Yoga Sutras, Mahabharata and the Indic traditions provides a very simple and very elegant way in which we can engage with many of these questions. The Sapta swara model itself has emerged out of a challenge of this kind—can we look at the Bharatiya understanding of life in a simple way because people think it is very complicated. In reality, it has a very simple underlying ground with many layers built upon it. So, it’s a beautiful tapestry but the fundamental motif is very simple.
“There are seven key words we came up with which captures the essence of Indic thought and you’ll find these words in all forms of Indic thought—maitri, karma (not in terms of the distorted theory of karma but as action; what does my action mean and what does it imply). Both of these have to be anchored in dharma. Dharma again to us is a very simple question: Is what I am doing enlivening me, enlivening you, enlivening the context simultaneously. If we ask this question in the so many endeavours we are doing, both peace and sustainability will be quite easy as an outcome. We then explored the word jnana, which is simply, do I understand deeply; do I know deeply; do I have scientific mind to enquire into things and get to the truth of things I use, skills I work with and so on.
“Then there is a very important word and Shabnam’s presence here this week amplifies this—a very important aspect of Bharatiya thought known as ramyam, where the question is: is there delight, is there beauty in what we are doing? We are looking at beauty as a form of enquiry, a very important part of spiritual enquiry. Then there is yoga, wherein we use the word in this context in a focussed way: can I as an individual bring an integration into all my energies?
“There is a lot of work in the mystic traditions, in Kabir’s works, in Dalit poetry, which talk about the sheer beauty of human integration and questioning several things that happened in the context and so on… all of which falls into yoga and abhyasa, which is not for you to sit in one corner and do these things but come to the marketplace and practice them because that is where you can influence change. By sitting in some in some corner and doing something called sadhana, nothing is going to happen.”
Shabnam Virmani is synonymous with the poetry of Kabir. The well-known documentary film maker and curator of the Kabir Project, said that Sapta swara is an evocative framework that signals universes of evocative meanings, experience and enquiry.
“I was drawn to the idea of exploring delight in Kabir’s poetry because Kabir tends to come across as challenging, mocking, tender loving voice. But delight? Where would you find it in Kabir’s poetry? So, it was a fresh lens for me !
“If we look at the idea of rasa, literally it refers to the sap of a tree, the juice of a fruit. But if we go deeper, it refers to the extract or essence, the finest part of something like perfume. If we go a little deeper, it is the taste, the flavour, the relish that we derive from consuming or handling something. And ultimately, rasa is something that delivers a state of heightened delight or ananda to the spirit, to our being. Rasa is evocative when I think of Kabir’s oeuvre and his voice.
“We could enquire into Kabir’s own voice in his poems and songs. We could also ask: where does Kabir signal rasa? Signal delight? In addition, where do receivers of the poems and songs of the Kabir tradition taste rasa?
“My immersion in the last two decades had been primarily in the rural, folk, oral, traditions of the different parts of the country , particularly Malwa, Kutch and Rajasthan. I’d therefore like to share with you my reflections and participation in Kabir’s poetry that I have witnessed and tasted myself. Therefore, these are the dual lenses we’d use to enquire into Kabir’s poems and his reception.”
Singing several dohas of Kabir, soulfully rendered to the accompaniment of the tanpura, Shabnam Virmani explored the several dimensions of amrit ras or the subtle sublime dimensions of joy or ecstasy as evoked in the poetry of Kabir.
There is a famous song of Kabir, hum pardesi pachi baba, where he says mukh bin bhava, pag bin chalna, hum pankhon se ud jaaye—to sing or speak with no mouth at all; to walk with no feet; and with no wings to fly away.
So, Kabir is inviting us to taste a rasa that won’t come upon this tongue. So, he speaks about giving up of the grosser vishay ras that sucks our being and invites us to taste. Two terms come to my mind immediately-ami ras or amrit and ram ras. He uses these terms interchangeably.
He says, “Amrit chod, vishay ras pive, ulti phass phasane… You’ve travelled your life in a noose and you are hanging upside down because of your rapacious desire for vishay ras. And your inability to apprehend or taste the amrit. So, evidently the ami ras is a taste that lies beyond our gross senses. It’s a signal from Kabir to cultivate senses that are subtler; that can be tasted without this tongue and that are possibly inner, opening doors of perception to a different kind of universe.
There is a very direct yogic reference in Kabir’s poetry when he says, “Where is this ami ras showering?” And he will signal it is showering in this Bhawar gufa, this cave; in this sky dome, which the yogi is capable of tasting.
But let us look at what are the more accessible evocations of ami ras for all of us. Irrespective of whether we are yogis who have reversed the flow of energy or made our Kundalini rise and tasted that tapanka or not…. How can you and me as fledgling practitioners of yoga and as people who are struggling on this path of spiritual awareness, how can we relate to these ideas?
A unique feature of amrit is that it is an extract. It is an essence that bubbled up form the ocean through the churning (Manthan) of the ocean. This churning is a very interesting image. It is particularly evocative for Kabir, because there many evocations of circular movements? What are they? In all these circular movements, there is something to be discovered, tasted, reached, attained—in the centre—not on the margins of this circular movement.
What came up for me in the imagery of churning the ocean for the elixir or ambrosia, is amrit or ami ras. I thought of the potter’s wheel and the grinding stone and both feature in Kabir’s poetry.
Hijraa! Kabir hari ras yu piya… mahi nah una chaak… paka kalash kumar ka… bahurina chade chah… I am heady with the taste of Hari… all wines have lost their appeal. The potter’s urn, once fully baked, wont climb back on his wheel.
So, the wheel of the potter is being evoked as some kind of evocation of the cycles of existence of coming and going. However, when you have ripened in your understanding, you do not want to return to that. Then, you are just sliced off from the centre of the potter’s wheel by the potter as a fully shaped , beautiful urn.
In another doha, Kabir says, “The grinding stone turns and whirls, Kabir watches and weeps, caught between two slabs, no one was left whole.”
“Grinding slabs are all they see… no one notices the centre pin. A few grains draw close to it and escape unbroken.”
I wanted to distil this idea of churning, grinding, some kind of a distillation of an essence that happens. Evidently, the ocean can be the ocean of bhavsagar, the ocean of becoming when our atma, our bodies, our selves have churned long enough in the travails and tribulations of being in this bhav sagar, there is some essence, some refinement of our spirit that occurs which is signalled by amiras.
So many songs of Kabir will speak of aas paas khara samudra hai, beech mein ami ras meri. On all sides there is this salty taste of samsara, and what’s tasting in the centre is the sweet taste of ami ras.
Kabir signals this refined sensibility in many many beautiful metaphors. For example, he will speak of sugar cane turning to shakkar and eventually sugar and eventually that refined mishri—cheeni khand as he calls it. He will speak of it as the churning of the milk form which will arise butter, from which will arise ghee and very often he will say, the world is settling for buttermilk but the spirit of Kabir or the sensibility of a sant is one who tastes the butter or the ghee.
(To be continued….)
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