Tag: bhakti movement

Kabir and Language

Kabir
Image from Wikipedia

Yesterday, I went to a concert of songs belonging to the tradition of a 15th century saint-poet called Kabir, and came across a very interesting song that he is said to have composed.

It went something like this.

The cow was milked

Before the calf was born

But after I sold the curd in the market

and this:

The ant went to its wedding

Carrying a gallon of oil

And an elephant and a camel under its arms

From the perspective of natural language processing and machine learning, the incongruous situations depicted in these poems turn out having an interesting pattern in them, as I will explain below.

I found more examples of Kabir’s “inverted verses” online.

The poems at http://www.sriviliveshere.com/mapping-ulat-bansi.html come with beautiful illustrations as well.

Here are a few more lines from Kabir’s inverted verse:

A tree stands without roots

A tree bears fruit without flowers

Someone dances without feet

Someone plays music without hands

Someone sings without a tongue

Water catches fire

Someone sees with blind eyes

A cow eats a lion

A deer eats a cheetah

A crow pounces on a falcon

A quail pounces on a hawk

A mouse eats a cat

A dog eats a jackal

A frog eats snakes

What’s interesting about all of these is that they’re examples of entity-relationships that are false.

Let me first explain what entities and relationships are.

Entities are the real or conceptual objects that we perceive as existing in the world we live in.  They are usually described using a noun phrase and qualified using an adjective.

Relationships are the functions that apply to an ordered list of entities and return a true or false value.

For example, if you take the sentence “The hunter hunts the fox,” there are two entities (1. the hunter, 2. the fox).  The relationship is “hunts”, it returns true for the two entities presented in that order.

The relationship “hunts” would return false if the entities were inverted (as in 1. the fox and 2. the hunter … as in the sentence “The fox hunts the hunter”).

The relationship and the entity can be stored in a database and hence can be considered as the structured form of an unstructured plain-language utterance.

In fact it is entities and relationships such as these that it was speculated would some day make up the semantic web.

Most of Kabir’s inverted verse seems to be based on examples of false entity relationships of dual arity (involving two entities), and that often, there is a violation of entity order which causes the entity function to return the value false.

In the “cow was milked” song, the relationship that is violated is the temporal relationship: “takes place before”.

In the “ant’s wedding” song, the relationship that is violated is that of capability: “can do”.

In the rest of the examples, relationships like “eats”, “hunts”, “plays”, “dances”, “bears fruit”, etc., are violated.

Other Commentary

In Osho’s “The Revolution”, he talks about Kabir’s interest in and distrust of language, quoting the poet as saying:

I HAVE BEEN THINKING OF THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WATER

AND THE WAVES ON IT. RISING,

WATER’S STILL WATER, FALLING BACK,

IT IS WATER. WILL YOU GIVE ME A HINT

HOW TO TELL THEM APART?

BECAUSE SOMEONE HAS MADE UP THE WORD ‘WAVE’,

DO I HAVE TO DISTINGUISH IT FROM ‘WATER’?

And Osho concludes with:

Kabir is not interested in giving you any answers — because he knows perfectly well there is no answer. The game of question and answers is just a game — not that Kabir was not answering his disciples’ questions; he was answering, but answering playfully. That quality you have to remember. He is not a serious man; no wise man can ever be serious. Seriousness is part of ignorance, seriousness is a shadow of the ego. The wise is always non-serious. There can be no serious answers to questions, not at least with Kabir — because he does not believe that there is any meaning in life, and he does not believe that you have to stand aloof from life to observe and to find the meaning. He believes in participation. He does not want you to become a spectator, a speculator, a philosopher.

Notes

This genre of verse seems to have been a tradition in folk religious movements in North India.  In “The Tenth Rasa: An Anthology of Indian Nonsense” by Michael Heyman, Sumanya Satpathy and Anushka Ravishankar, they talk about Namdev, a 13th century saint-poet as having authored such verses as well.

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