The Poetry of Mysticism: Or, Mrs Underhill’s Foray into Universalist Mysticism

The Poetry of Mysticism: Or, Mrs Underhill’s Foray into Universalist Mysticism August 29, 2019

 

 

 

The Poetry of Mysticism: Or, Mrs Underhill’s Foray into Universalist Mysticism

Evelyn Underhill

(Being the second part of her Introduction to Rabindranath Tagore’s translation, with her assistance, of the poetry of Kabir, very slightly edited.)

The poetry of mysticism might be defined on the one hand as a temperamental reaction to the vision of Reality: on the other, as a form of prophecy. As it is the special vocation of the mystical consciousness to mediate between two orders, going out in loving adoration towards God and coming home to tell the secrets of Eternity to other men; so the artistic self-expression of this consciousness has also a double character. It is love-poetry, but love-poetry which is often written with a missionary intention.

Kabîr’s songs are of this kind: out-births at once of rapture and of charity. Written in the popular Hindi, not in the literary tongue, they were deliberately addressed—like the vernacular poetry of Jacopone da Todì and Richard Rolle—to the people rather than to the professionally religious class; and all must be struck by the constant employment in them of imagery drawn from the common life, the universal experience. It is by the simplest metaphors, by constant appeals to needs, passions, relations which all men understand—the bridegroom and bride, the guru and disciple, the pilgrim, the farmer, the migrant bird— that he drives home his intense conviction of the reality of the soul’s intercourse with the Transcendent. There are in his universe no fences between the “natural” and “supernatural” worlds; everything is a part of the creative Play of God, and therefore—even in its humblest details—capable of revealing the Player’s mind.

This willing acceptance of the here-and-now as a means of representing supernal realities is a trait common to the greatest mystics. For them, when they have achieved at last the true theopathetic state, all aspects of the universe possess equal authority as sacramental declarations of the Presence of God; and their fearless employment of homely and physical symbols—often startling and even revolting to the unaccustomed taste—is in direct proportion to the exaltation of their spiritual life. The works of the great Sûfîs, and amongst the Christians of Jacopone da Todì, Ruysbroeck, Boehme, abound in illustrations of this law. Therefore we must not be surprised to find in Kabîr’s songs—his desperate attempts to communicate his ecstasy and persuade other men to share it—a constant juxtaposition of concrete and metaphysical language; swift alternations between the most intensely anthropomorphic, the most subtly philosophical, ways of apprehending man’s communion with the Divine. The need for this alternation, and its entire naturalness for the mind which employs it, is rooted in his concept, or vision, of the Nature of God; and unless we make some attempt to grasp this, we shall not go far in our understanding of his poems.

Kabîr belongs to that small group of supreme mystics—amongst whom St. Augustine, Ruysbroeck, and the Sûfî poet Jalâlu’ddîn Rûmî are perhaps the chief—who have achieved that which we might call the synthetic vision of God. These have resolved the perpetual opposition between the personal and impersonal, the transcendent and immanent, static and dynamic aspects of the Divine Nature; between the Absolute of philosophy and the “sure true Friend” of devotional religion. They have done this, not by taking these apparently incompatible concepts one after the other; but by ascending to a height of spiritual intuition at which they are, as Ruysbroeck said, “melted and merged in the Unity,” and perceived as the completing opposites of a perfect Whole. This proceeding entails for them—and both Kabîr and Ruysbroeck expressly acknowledge it—a universe of three orders: Becoming, Being, and that which is “More than Being,” i.e., God.

God is here felt to be not the final abstraction, but the one actuality. He inspires, supports, indeed inhabits, both the durational, conditioned, finite world of Becoming and the unconditioned, non-successional, infinite world of Being; yet utterly transcends them both. He is the omnipresent Reality, the “All-pervading” within Whom “the worlds are being told like beads.” In His personal aspect He is the “beloved Fakir,” teaching and companioning each soul. Considered as Immanent Spirit, He is “the Mind within the mind.” But all these are at best partial aspects of His nature, mutually corrective: as the Persons in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity—to which this theological diagram bears a striking resemblance—represent different and compensating experiences of the Divine Unity within which they are resumed. As Ruysbroeck discerned a plane of reality upon which “we can speak no more of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but only of One Being, the very substance of the Divine Persons”; so Kabîr says that “beyond both the limited and the limitless is He, the Pure Being.”

Brahma, then, is the Ineffable Fact compared with which “the distinction of the Conditioned from the Unconditioned is but a word”: at once the utterly transcendent One of Absolutist philosophy, and the personal Lover of the individual soul—”common to all and special to each,” as one Christian mystic has it. The need felt by Kabîr for both these ways of describing Reality is a proof of the richness and balance of his spiritual experience; which neither cosmic nor anthropomorphic symbols, taken alone, could express. More absolute than the Absolute, more personal than the human mind, Brahma therefore exceeds whilst He includes all the concepts of philosophy, all the passionate intuitions of the heart. He is the Great Affirmation, the font of energy, the source of life and love, the unique satisfaction of desire. His creative word is the Om or “Everlasting Yea.” The negative philosophy which strips from the Divine Nature all Its attributes and defining Him only by that which He is not—reduces Him to an “Emptiness,” is abhorrent to this most vital of poets.—Brahma, he says, “may never be found in abstractions.” He is the One Love who Pervades the world., discerned in His fullness only by the eyes of love; and those who know Him thus share, though they may never tell, the joyous and ineffable secret of the universe.

Now Kabîr, achieving this synthesis between the personal and cosmic aspects of the Divine Nature, eludes the three great dangers which threaten mystical religion.

First, he escapes the excessive emotionalism, the tendency to an exclusively anthropomorphic devotion, which results from an unrestricted cult of Divine Personality, especially under an incarnational form; seen in India in the exaggerations of Krishna worship, in Europe in the sentimental extravagances of certain Christian saints.

Next, he is protected from the soul-destroying conclusions of pure monism, inevitable if its logical implications are pressed home: that is, the identity of substance between God and the soul, with its corollary of the total absorption of that soul in the Being of God as the goal of the spiritual life. For the thorough-going monist the soul, in so far as it is real, is substantially identical with God; and the true object of existence is the making patent of this latent identity, the realization which finds expression in the Vedântist formula “That art thou.” But Kabîr says that Brahma and the creature are “ever distinct, yet ever united”; that the wise man knows the spiritual as well as the material world to “be no more than His footstool.”

The soul’s union with Him is a love union, a mutual inhabitation; that essentially dualistic relation which all mystical religion expresses, not a self-mergence which leaves no place for personality. This eternal distinction, the mysterious union-in-separateness of God and the soul, is a necessary doctrine of all sane mysticism; for no scheme which fails to find a place for it can represent more than a fragment of that soul’s intercourse with the spiritual world. Its affirmation was one of the distinguishing features of the Vaishnavite reformation preached by Râmânuja; the principle of which had descended through Râmânanda to Kabîr.

Last, the warmly human and direct apprehension of God as the supreme Object of love, the soul’s comrade, teacher, and bridegroom, which is so passionately and frequently expressed in Kabîr’s poems, balances and controls those abstract tendencies which are inherent in the metaphysical side of his vision of Reality: and prevents it from degenerating into that sterile worship of intellectual formulæ which became the curse of the Vedântist school. For the mere intellectualist, as for the mere pietist, he has little approbation.

Love is throughout his “absolute sole Lord”: the unique source of the more abundant life which he enjoys, and the common factor which unites the finite and infinite worlds. All is soaked in love: that love which he described in almost Johannine language as the “Form of God.” The whole of creation is the Play of the Eternal Lover; the living, changing, growing expression of Brahma’s love and joy. As these twin passions preside over the generation of human life, so “beyond the mists of pleasure and pain” Kabîr finds them governing the creative acts of God. His manifestation is love; His activity is joy. Creation springs from one glad act of affirmation: the Everlasting Yea, perpetually uttered within the depths of the Divine Nature.

In accordance with this concept of the universe as a Love-Game which eternally goes forward, a progressive manifestation of Brahma—one of the many notions which he adopted from the common stock of Hindu religious ideas, and illuminated by his poetic genius—movement, rhythm, perpetual change, forms an integral part of Kabîr’s vision of Reality. Though the Eternal and Absolute is ever present to his consciousness, yet his concept of the Divine Nature is essentially dynamic. It is by the symbols of motion that he most often tries to convey it to us: as in his constant reference to dancing, or the strangely modern picture of that Eternal Swing of the Universe which is “held by the cords of love.”

It is a marked characteristic of mystical literature that the great contemplatives, in their effort to convey to us the nature of their communion with the supersensuous, are inevitably driven to employ some form of sensuous imagery: coarse and inaccurate as they know such imagery to be, even at the best. Our normal human consciousness is so completely committed to dependence on the senses, that the fruits of intuition itself are instinctively referred to them. In that intuition it seems to the mystics that all the dim cravings and partial apprehensions of sense find perfect fulfilment. Hence their constant declaration that they see the uncreated light, theyhear the celestial melody, they taste the sweetness of the Lord, they know an ineffable fragrance, they feel the very contact of love. “Him verily seeing and fully feeling, Him spiritually hearing and Him delectably smelling and sweetly swallowing,” as Julian of Norwich has it.

In those amongst them who develop psycho-sensorial automatisms, these parallels between sense and spirit may present themselves to consciousness in the form of hallucinations: as the light seen by Suso, the music heard by Rolle, the celestial perfumes which filled St. Catherine of Siena’s cell, the physical wounds felt by St. Francis and St. Teresa. These are excessive dramatizations of the symbolism under which the mystic tends instinctively to represent his spiritual intuition to the surface consciousness. Here, in the special sense-perception which he feels to be most expressive of Reality, his peculiar idiosyncrasies come out.

Now Kabîr, as we might expect in one whose reactions to the spiritual order were so wide and various, uses by turn all the symbols of sense. He tells us that he has “seen without sight” the effulgence of Brahma, tasted the divine nectar, felt the ecstatic contact of Reality, smelt the fragrance of the heavenly flowers. But he was essentially a poet and musician: rhythm and harmony were to him the garments of beauty and truth. Hence in his lyrics he shows himself to be, like Richard Rolle, above all things a musical mystic. Creation, he says again and again, is full of music: it is music.

At the heart of the Universe “white music is blossoming”: love weaves the melody, whilst renunciation beats the time. It can be heard in the home as well as in the heavens; discerned by the ears of common men as well as by the trained senses of the ascetic. Moreover, the body of every man is a lyre on which Brahma, “the source of all music,” plays. Everywhere Kabîr discerns the “Unstruck Music of the Infinite”—that celestial melody which the angel played to St. Francis, that ghostly symphony which filled the soul of Rolle with ecstatic joy.

The one figure which he adopts from the Hindu Pantheon and constantly uses, is that of Krishna the Divine Flute Player. He sees the supernal music, too, in its visual embodiment, as rhythmical movement: that mysterious dance of the universe before the face of Brahma, which is at once an act of worship and an expression of the infinite rapture of the Immanent God.’

Yet in this wide and rapturous vision of the universe Kabîr never loses touch with diurnal existence, never forgets the common life. His feet are firmly planted upon earth; his lofty and passionate apprehensions are perpetually controlled by the activity of a sane and vigorous intellect, by the alert commonsense so often found in persons of real mystical genius. The constant insistence on simplicity and directness, the hatred of all abstractions and philosophizings, the ruthless criticism of external religion: these are amongst his most marked characteristics. God is the Root whence all manifestations, “material” and “spiritual,” alike proceed; and God is the only need of man—”happiness shall be yours when you come to the Root.”

Hence to those who keep their eye on the “one thing needful,” denominations, creeds, ceremonies, the conclusions of philosophy, the disciplines of asceticism, are matters of comparative indifference. They represent merely the different angles from which the soul may approach that simple union with Brahma which is its goal; and are useful only in so faras they contribute to this consummation. So thorough-going is Kabîr’s eclecticism, that he seems by turns Vedântist and Vaishnavite, Pantheist and Transcendentalist, Brâhman and Sûfî.

In the effort to tell the truth about that ineffable apprehension, so vast and yet so near, which controls his life, he seizes and twines together—as he might have woven together contrasting threads upon his loom—symbols and ideas drawn from the most violent and conflicting philosophies and faiths. All are needed, if he is ever to suggest the character of that One whom the Upanishad called “the Sun-coloured Being who is beyond this Darkness”: as all the colours of the spectrum are needed if we would demonstrate the simple richness of white light.

In thus adapting traditional materials to his own use he follows a method common amongst the mystics; who seldom exhibit any special love for originality of form. They will pour their wine into almost any vessel that comes to hand: generally using by preference—and lifting to new levels of beauty and significance—the religious or philosophic formulæ current in their own day. Thus we find that some of Kabîr’s finest poems have as their subjects the commonplaces of Hindu philosophy and religion: the Lîlâ or Sport of God, the Ocean of Bliss, the Bird of the Soul, Mâyâ, the Hundred-petalled Lotus, and the “Formless Form.”

Many, again, are soaked in Sûfî imagery and feeling. Others use as their material the ordinary surroundings and incidents of Indian life: the temple bells, the ceremony of the lamps, marriage, suttee, pilgrimage, the characters of the seasons; all felt by him in their mystical aspect, as sacraments of the soul’s relation with Brahma. In many of these a particularly beautiful and intimate feeling for Nature is shown.

In the collection of songs here translated there will be found examples which illustrate nearly every aspect of Kabîr’s thought, and all the fluctuations of the mystic’s emotion: the ecstasy, the despair, the still beatitude, the eager self-devotion, the flashes of wide illumination, the moments of intimate love. His wide and deep vision of the universe, the “Eternal Sport” of creation, the worlds being “told like beads” within the Being of God, is here seen balanced by his lovely and delicate sense of intimate communion with the Divine Friend, Lover, Teacher of the soul.

As these apparently paradoxical views of Reality are resolved in Brâhma, so all other opposites are reconciled in Him: bondage and liberty, love and renunciation, pleasure and pain. Union with Him is the one thing that matters to the soul, its destiny and its need; and this union, this discovery of God, is the simplest and most natural of all things, if we would but grasp it. The union, however, is brought about by love, not by knowledge or ceremonial observances; and the apprehension which that union confers is ineffable—”neither This nor That,” as Ruysbroeck has it.

Real worship and communion is in Spirit and in Truth, therefore idolatry is an insult to the Divine Lover and the devices of professional sanctity are useless apart from charity and purity of soul. Since all things, and especially the heart of man, are God-inhabited, God-possessed, He may best be found in the here-and-now: in the normal. human, bodily existence, the “mud” of material life.

“We can reach the goal without crossing the road”—not the cloister but the home is the proper theatre of man’s efforts: and if he cannot find God there, he need not hope for success by going farther afield. “In the home is reality.” There love and detachment, bondage and freedom, joy and pain play by turns upon the soul; and it is from their conflict that the Unstruck Music of the Infinite proceeds. Kabîr says: “None but Brahma can evoke its melodies.”


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