The praises to a formless god that this book illustrates and discusses are those composed by low-caste saint-poets of the nirguni or sant movement of Hindu and Sikh devotion in North India. Most of the sects that make up this movement were founded in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. Many of these sects are still active today, but, with the exception of the Sikhs, they are being increasingly marginalized by the march of modern civilization and popular mass culture. Nonetheless, the words and ideas of the best of the nirguni poets such as Kabir, Dadu, and Guru Nanak continue to provide pleasure, inspiration, and solace to many millions of persons well beyond the bounds of their immediate devotees.
Only a few works of nirguni literature have received translations that really work well as poetry in English: Linda Hess and Shukdeo Singh's selection of songs from Kabir's Bijak; John Hawley and Mark Juergensmeyer's anthology that includes songs by Raidas, Kabir and Guru Nanak; and Rabindranath Tagore's now somewhat dated translation of one-hundred songs attributed to Kabir. Also important are Winand Callewaert and Peter Friedlander's translations of Raidas, Charlotte Vaudeville's and V. K. Sethi's translations of Kabir, and Monika Thiel-Horstmann's (now Boehm-Tettelbach) translations of selections of Dadu Panthi material. Nonetheless, major poet-singers such as Guru Nanak, Guru Amar Das, Dadu, Palatu, and Sundaradas have yet to find translators to put the major part of their compositions into an English that is accurate and readable at the same time. Perhaps the task is impossible. The words of songs are meant to be sung. Separated from their original language and from musical performance, how can we expect them to survive intact.
The texts that are translated, edited and discussed here in this book are not all great works of art. They are presented as historical documents rather than as literary texts. Nonetheless most are texts that I have found aesthetically pleasing, and I have tried to translate them in a way that gives at least some suggestion of their style and art.
In the case of the songs, I have usually attempted to give the translations a regular rhythm based on set numbers of feet per line and suing mostly iambs and anapests. This is not quite the way the original Hindi meters work, but it does seem to me to give a better idea of the style of the original texts than rendering them in modern free verse with irregular line lengths as is often done. The original Hindi texts also are rhymed, but no attempt has been made to rhyme the translations. The struggle to find rhymes makes it impossible to closely follow the original text, and the results usually sound ludicrous in any case. The refrains of the songs are italicized. In performance they are repeated after each verse.
Two longer works presented in this book been translated into prose. Jan Gopal's Prahilad Charitra tells the famous story of the pious demon Prahlad, son of the evil Hiranyakasipu. It is written in a solid narrative verse that makes few claims to a true poetic style, except for a few songs or hymns that are included in it and have been translated in metrical form. Although Jan Gopal's text was once quite popular, it is difficult to know exactly how it was originally performed. Probably it was recited rather than sung and also given an improvised commentary in spoken prose.
The second longer composition is Sain's Kabir-Raidas ka samvad. It is cast in the form of a religious debate between Kabir and Raidas about the relative merits of nirgun and sagun conceptions of the Divine. Its basic style is didactic verse rather than poetry. Like the Prahilad charitra probably it was originally recited together with a spoken commentary.
Chapter 5 and 6 of this book are based in part on Spanish language articles earlier published in Estudios de Asia y Africa, a journal of the Center of Asian and African Studies of El Colegio de Mexico. None of the other material has preciously appeared anywhere.
Two colleagues actively participated in the preparation of this book: Shukdeo Singh of Banaras Hindu University and Uma Thukral of El Colegio de Mexico. The translation of Jan Gopal's Prahlad charitra was done with Shukdeo Singh during his visit to Mexico in June and July of 1991 and my visits to India in January and February of 1992 and 1994. The translation of Sain's Kabir-Raidas ka samvad was done with Uma Thukral in Mexico, mostly in 1991. She also gave constant help and advice during the preparation of the rest of the book, particularly chapters 1 and 3. Dr. Narayan Das, a former student of Shukdeo Singh, helped with many of the translations found in chapter 6.
Other colleagues who from time to time offered valuable comments on earlier drafts of parts of the book include John S. Hawley of Barnard College, Linda Hess of the University of California, Harjot Obeoi of the University of British Columbia, David Swain of the University of Chicago, and Thomas Trautmann of the University of Michigan. Thanks are also owed to my wife, Barbara Martiny, and my children, Matthew and Rebecca, for putting up with time spent in my books when I should have been doing chores or helping with homework.
Economic support for research and writing was provided by El Colegio de Mexico where I work and by three short-term fellowships from the American Institute of Indian Studies that enabled me to visit India in 1990, 1992, and 1994.
From the Jacket:
Nirgun bhakti - devotion to a formless God - has been called a logical absurdity, yet the songs, verses, and narratives of the nirguni poets of North India have played a vital role in both Hinduism an Sikhism since the late fifteenth century. The compositions of famous nirguni poets such as Kabir, Raidas, Guru Nanak, an Dadu Dayal also form an essential part of the vernacular literatures of North India.
Other nirguni poets have made major religious and literary contributions to Indian culture but have been little studied by modern scholars. This book discusses, translates, and edits various important compositions by these poets. The texts include songs and narratives about the pious demon Prahlad, hagiographic songs about historical saints, the popular bhajans attributed to Kabir, and the song sung during the rites of the Kabir Panth. Two longer texts presented here are Jan Gopal's narrative poem, the Prahilad charita, and Sain's religious debate, the Kabir-Raidas ka samvad.
About The Author:
David N. Lorenzen is a Professor at El Colegio de Mexico in Mexico City. He is the author of Kabir Legends and Ananta-Das;s Kabir Paranchai: With a Translation of the Kabir Paranchai Prepared in Collaboration with Jagdish Kumar and Uma Thukral and with an Edition of the Niranjani Panthi Recension of this Work and the editor of Bhakti Religion in North India: Community Identity and Political Action, both published by SUNY Press.
Excerpts from Review:
"Finally a scholar of proven erudition in Hindi texts has brought to the English-speaking world a powerful and pleasing introduction to the radical spirituality of medieval Hinduism. With fresh and interesting translations, Lorenzen has breathed new life into that acerbic and striking Saint, Kabir, and shown why his nirguna school of popular Hinduism continues to be appealing to the great masses of Hindus today - its message of spiritual awakening and social justice moving especially those from the lowest strata of Hindu society."
-Mark Juergensmeyer, University of California, Sonta Barbara
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