By Ramesh Bjonnes
For years I’ve had Robert Bly’s monumental translations of Kabir (Kabir: Ecstatic Poems) by my bed side and my meditation altar as a source of heart-opening inspiration. Kabir is refreshing prana for the soul no matter the time of the day.
Kabir’s heart-centered poetry shakes us up from our spiritual complacency. And in Robert Bly’s fierce, graceful, and transcendental language, the spiritual rebel and lover of God named Kabir leaps off the pages and into our contemporary hearts.
In Andrew Harvey’s book Turn me to Gold, we have a quieter Kabir, perhaps, yet on each page, there is poetic gold to be mined. Harvey says in the introduction that he spent five years traveling the globe with these poems, shaping each one into a mystical gem with the help of Indian friends and other translations, perhaps even some of Bly’s versions.
But these poems are Harvey’s, not Bly’s. When you listen to Harvey speak, he is passionately articulate and fierce in his love of the sacred. He speaks like a poet. He also writes like one. There is song in these lines; there is the soft power of whispered mantras and prayers and the intense focus of a lover who cannot stay sane without a daily drink of the Divine spirit.
Not only are these translations vibrantly alive with Indian spirituality, so are the magical photos by Brett Hurd. Having lived in India for several years, his photos brought me back to the holy rivers, the sadhus, the spices, and the burning ghats in Varanasi, where the Bhakti-poet Kabir once walked the streets.
Bhakti Yoga is the path of yoga from the heart. These minstrels, poets, dancers, or common folks devote their life to the God of love, to a Divine force that is both sweet and fierce. It is said that such love begins with a spark and ends with a big flame. The flame of God-intoxicated love.
Harvey’s translations are very different from Bly’s renditions, but now I have two excellent versions of Kabir, like two nadis curving up my spiritual spine, both deserving to be read aloud to yourself, to a friend, a lover, or to the stars.
Harvey has created yet another masterpiece for us thirsty Bhakti yogis in the modern desert of materialism. But these poems are not for the spiritually faint of heart–they’ll shake you out of your slumber, like a morning bell in the ashram, like the piercing shriek of a bird from your mind’s jungle.
Foreign as the world of Kabir might be, we hunger for it, we thirst for it. These translucent translations by Harvey are the gold nuggets of spiritual wisdom we’ve always been digging for. Kabir, although ancient, is fresh and postmodern in this book.
Beyond dogma and tradition, yet deeply steeped in a path of ecstatic love-worship that is uniquely Indian. Kabir was a sacred activist in his time who was not afraid of exposing dogma and superstition. In Harvey’s beautiful renditions, this medieval poet has become a sacred teacher for a future spirituality of the heart that the world sorely needs.