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Kabīr reconstructed

Article in Acta Orientalia · September 2010

DOI: 10.1556/AOrient.63.2010.3.2


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Imre Bangha
University of Oxford


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Kabīr Reconstructed
Submitted to Acta Orientalia (Budapest)

Imre Bangha (Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Oxford, The Oriental

Institute, Pusey Lane, Oxford, OX1 2LE, UK,

Abstract. On the example of some texts attributed to the fifteenth-century poet-

saint Kabīr the paper contests the postmodern claim that each received version is
a poetically beautiful, polished text. In all probability all received versions have
undergone a long phase of oral transmission before being committed to writing
and they are sometimes the outcome of textual corruption resulting in inconsistent
reading or in poetic looseness and redundancy. On the basis of prosody and a
comparison of variant versions reconstruction of some earlier text is possible. It is
argued that the poems may have been composed for a metrically correct recitation
and when they became songs set to musical moods and rhythms they have lost
their strict metrical frame under the licenses used by the singers. Amplification
can also be detected on a higher level, since sometimes entire lines were invented
or borrowed. By detecting instances of amplification a more concise and more
powerful early text can be reconstructed. The reconstruction of the early text in
turn can open up a way to posit the later variants into a relationship with each
other and to see ideological motivating forces behind changes such as

Key words. Kabīr/Kabir, pada/song, received text, written, oral, transmission,

textual corruption, prosody, poetic metre, recitation, amplification

Kabīr Reconstructed
Kabir and philology in a postmodern world

The fifteenth-century poet-saint Kabīr Kabir is one of the most outstanding

authors of Early Hindi literature. His poetry is also the most accessible to a
modern western audience, which made him to be the most widely translated Hindi
poet, who at the beginning of the twentieth century was presented to the world in
English by the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, being the only poet (apart
from himself) whom Tagore ever translated. While westerners often perceive him
as mystic, in India Kabir with his vigorous attacks on the hypocrisy in both
religions is not only the symbol of Hindu-Muslim unity but he is also considered
as one of the earliest representatives of the low-caste dalit literature. His strong
message of a higher devotional consciousness, the advocacy of a direct contact
with an undescribable, nirgu, deity, expressed in powerful poetry with striking
imagery, make him one of the most popular Indian poets both in India and abroad
whose appeal seems to withstand the changing tastes of the past five centuries. In
modern times Kabir has been studied intensively, and one can today fill a small
library with books dedicated to this iconic yet elusive figure.
In this chapter I am going to show on the case of one of the most popular
poets of India that, when adapted to a modern multidisciplinary environment
textual criticism is still a much-needed discipline. I will here make an attempt to
reconstruct earlier versions of some texts attributed to Kabir. After tackling some
questions of prosody I will examine some peculiarities of transmission. While all
of us are aware that a study in our field today cannot be limited to the textual,
being adapted to a modern environment textual criticism is still an important
method, especially if we consider the lack of good critical editions of many early
works in the languages of North India. It is textual criticism that can help us to
unfold so far hidden layers of transmission of even the most widely researched
One of the most recent translators of Kabīr, Vinay Dharwadker (2003),
suggests that the later polished texts as products of "a collaborative textual

refinement" are poetically more beautiful than the early versions. In a postmodern
setting he asserts that,

Each of the 593 padas gathered from the earliest manuscripts in

Callewaert’s The Millennium Kabīr Vāī (2000) is evidently a piece of poetry
polished by several generations of men.
In a text of collaborative authorship, each poem is explicitly a
palimpsest, to be recomposed until all its particular poetic possibilities have
been exhausted.1

One can contest this statement not simply because transmission does not
always polish a text but may also corrupt it to the extent of making passages in
received poems unintelligible. Moreover, the earlier terse versions, although
sometimes less accessible to modern readers, may possess more poetic tension
and a stronger aesthetic appeal — as was the case with Sūrdās's songs examined
by John Stratton Hawley. 2 While there are indeed instances in which later
versions may attain enhanced poetic beauty, tradition rather tends to fill up gaps
and deprive the poems of poetic silences or ambiguities and thus often
parochialises them. Apart from changing the text of a single poem poetic corpora
are often amplified in the course of transmission and the more concise versions
before this amplification are more often than not poetically more powerful. While
the study of the development variants has its own importance, the examination of
earlier layers is also a worthwhile effort.

Prosodic amnesia

There has been a scholarly belief that the uneducated weaver Kabīr was not very
conscious of his metres and one should not expect metrically correct poems by
him. For example, Śyāmsundar Dās and Pārasnāth Tivārī, the editors of the two
most influential Kabīr-granthāvalīs, did not pay much attention to Kabīr’s poetic

Dharmawadker (2003), 63-65.
Hawley (2005), 194-207.

In 1928 Śyāmsundar Dās presented a diplomatic edition of a manuscript
which he thought to date from 1504 with a few variants found in another
manuscript dated from 1824 in a footnote. Śyāmsundar Dās emphasised that he
did not polish the text to present graceful, beautiful poems that abide by the rules
of prosody.
Pārasnāth Tivārī's scholarly edition from 1961, the most outstanding attempt
to restore Kabir’s texts, gives a list of fifteen criteria for his reconstruction but,
surprisingly, prosody is missing from them.3
There are, however, problems with both of these editions. Dās's text is not
from 1504 since the colophon of the manuscript added clearly by a different hand
is inauthentic and the manuscript seems to be of Dādūpanthi origin dated after
1600.4 Tivārī's reconstruction is rather based on later polished/corrupt than on
early material. His earliest manuscript dates from 1684. Others who payed
attention to Kabīr’s prosody, such as ‘Hariaudh’ and ‘Dvijendra’ had no access to
a clearly early textual tradition and their inclusion of more and more corrupt later
texts blurred their investigation.
The scene has altered with the publication of all available early Kabīr-padas
in the Millennium Kabīr Vāī. The editors, just as Śyāmsundar Dās, presented
synoptically the padas of ten sources dated from between 1572 and 1681. The
early material introduced in this edition can give a good guidance to Kabir’s
prosody and in turn, the investigation of these songs can take us a step further
back in time towards Kabir.
It should be argued that basic metrical knowledge was not the privilege of
the literate classes in early modern times since the most commonly used metrical
patterns can be felt after listening to a couple of poems in those metres.
Moreover, if we suppose that most poems in the early Kabīr corpus were
produced among the weavers in Benares, we should also be reminded that
weavers need a mathematical awareness to be able to produce even the simplest
pattern on their textiles which much more exceeds the requirements for a feel or

Tivārī (1989), 222–57.
Callewaert (2000), 13-14.

calculation of a poetic metre.5 In this paper I will argue that discrepancies in the
Kabīr-poems as we have them today are due to the specificities of oral and
written transmission and not to any lack of metrical command on the part of the
composers of the padas.

Metrical reconstruction

I have written in detail about the prosody of the earliest poems elsewhere.6 Let it
suffice here to show some examples based on the text found in the Fatehpur
manuscript copied in 1582.
Here Kabir’s poems are presented in a form that only distantly resembles
those of the padas, under which label these poems figure later. The fifteen or
fourteen poems attributed to Kabir in this manuscript are more closely related to a
poetic form popular already in the 15th century, namely caupāī. Although most of
the Kabir-poems in the Fatehpur manuscript have raga attributions unlike most of
Kabir’s padas in other collections they do not have a marked refrain. Moreover,
taking into consideration syncopation and making minor emendations suggested
by other early manuscripts 12 out of its 15 stanzas can be reconstructed as being
written in one or another variety of caupāī, such as caupāī proper, caupaī and
caubolā. All moraic metres based on the counting of the length of the syllables. A
metric unit is called mora in Latin and mātrā in Sanskrit and other Indic
languages. The caupāī consist of two rhyming halves of sixteen morae called
ardhālī. An ardhālī in its template form can be divided into four units of four
morae with poetic stress, ictus, on the first syllable of each unit. The last two
syllables of a caupāī are always long. The caupaī and the caubolā are fifteen-
mora variants on this with long-short and short-long endings respectively. In a
specific pada any of these variants can alternate with each other.
An examination of the Fatehpur manuscript shows that most of the
unmetrical lines in the manuscript are hypermetical and can be emended by
excision and scanning long syllables as short. There are, however a few instances
of hypometry. An example, the fourth line of F3 (Millennium 64), is quoted

I am indebted to Mrs Cynthia Cort for drawing my attention to the connection between weaving
and mathematics among South Asian weavers.
Bangha ed. Bhakti in curent research.

below (F refers to the Fatehpur manuscript as quoted in Callewaert 2000, W to
the main numbering of Callewaert 2000),

a!"a mahāsidhi nava majhārī7| kahi kabīra8 hūdai dekhi bicārī||

The eight great accomplishments are within the nine.

Kabīr says, find and reflect on (them?) in your heart.

It is again suggested by the 15+18 mora length that we should expect

ardhālīs in both halves. If we overwrite the subsequent unmetrical transmission
and excise the formulaic word kahi, then the second half becomes a correct
ardhālī. The first half is more difficult with its obscure numerical enigma and
there does not seem to be an easy way of lengthening any part. It is not difficult to
translate this line but its meaning remains elusive as it must have been to most
early readers of the manuscript. Here the readings of the Dādūpanthī manuscripts
come to our help. The reading of these manuscripts gives a correct caupāī with a
simple meaning: a"ha sidhi nava nidhi nā&va mãjhārī “the eight accomplishments
and the nine trasures are within the name”. What happened here was a corruption
in written textual transmission. The scribe’s eye skipped from nava to the end of
nā&va omitting the words in between, nidhi nā&va. A later scribe already felt that
the line was hypometrical and tried to emend it by adding the well-known
qualifying prefix mahā- to the word sidhi. The false emendation can show the
limits of how far could scribes feel the rhythm of the poems. The reconstructed
version, therefore is given below. (In the apparatus the siglum Dādū stands
collectively for the shared reading of the Dādūpanthī manuscripts as published in
the Millennium Kabīr Vāī.)

a"ha sidhi9 nava nidhi nā&va10 mãjhārī | kabīra hūdai dekhi bicārī||

The eight accomplishments and the nine treasures are within the Name.

majhārī] (unm.) Fac; mani jhārī] Fpc2.
kabīra] Fpc; bīra (unm.) Fac.
aha sidhi] Dādū; a a mahāsidhi (unm.) F.

Kabīr, find it and reflect on it in your heart.

The received unmetrical reading shows that the Fatehpur manuscript is at

least a third generation written manuscript. The first generation had the reading
that has been reconstructed above. The second generation had the reading that
was the result of the eyeskip and the third generation is that of the false
emendation that we have in the Fatehpur manuscript. Interestingly, the
Dādūpanthī tradition in Rajasthan seems to be close to the first generation.
With a similar technique, apart from the normally four-lined caupāīs one
can reconstruct three longer padas, one (F10) in the 16+11-mora sār metre and
two others (F9, F15) in the 13+12-mora dohrā metre.
The caupāī-based song is one of the most widely used metres in the early
Sant’s compositions. In continuity with earlier Apabhramsha works caupāī has a
long history in Hindi as the most common metre of narratives. Sādharū, Dāūd,
ViTUudās and others used it in the 14th and 15th centuries (see Bangha
If we extend our examination to the poetic forms used in the earliest
documented collections of Kabīr’s padas as published by Callewaert we can find
that the caupāī along with the sār metre account for the overwhelming majority of
the poems. Out the first 500 poems of the Millennium Kabīr Vāī, that are
normally present in more than one manuscript 238 can be reconstructed as
composed in caupāī. The other popular metre is the sār (185 poems). There are
also 25 songs based on dohā and about one tenth of the poems (52) are in other —
often corrupt or mixed — metres. As opposed to the songs of the Vrindaban
devotees that normally carry the same rhyme throughout a pada, Kabīr composed
his padas in couplets. Moreover, the Kabīr songs have a tendency of not having a
shorter refrain. We can suspect that a reliance of a sort of “pre-pada” performance
techniques account for this specificity of the Kabīr songs.
We can also detect something of the performance history of these padas
through an examination of metrical deviances. In India poems can be performed
at least in three different ways: recited (or read aloud) without melody but

nidhi nā!va] Dādū; (omits) (eyeskip) F.

showing the metre, sung to a melody set to the appropriate metre and sung to a
rāga and a tāla (rhythm). Dohā and caupāī easily lend themselves to set melodies
and this may have been the case in early modern times, too. In recitation and in
singing to a set melody the metrical forms are clearly perceptible to anyone who
is used to hearing poetry.
Tāla and rāga patterns are more complicated and also more flexible. The
fact that in the early manuscripts the metre is still perceptible and in the later
Kabīr tradition it is not, one can suspect that the early manuscripts were
somewhat closer to a recited or set melody performance and with the process of
time, rāga singing became more and more prominent and with the loss of a feel
for metre recitation became less current for the padas.

Floating lines
Naturally the reconstruction of a metrically correct poem does not mean that we
have arrived to what Kabīr — or the pseudo-Kabīrs — originally composed. We
can, however, say that a metrical reconstruction is possible for most of the padas.
One step forward from a metrical reconstruction is the recognition that even
if a line can be metrically correct, it may not be present in the earliest layers. In
the second part of this paper I am going to demonstrate on the example of a pada
that not even the earliest received texts are exempt from amplification.
Many padas in the Millennium Kabīr VāUī show variation in the number of
lines. Let us take, for example, the longest caupāī-poem from the Fatehpur
manuscript (F2, W350) and compare its reading with those of another early
group, the three Dādūpanthī texts from Rājasthān. (All four songs are in rāga
sora"hī. Indentation, bracketing and italicisation are mine. In the apparatus the
siglum SSD stands for the text of Dās 1928.)

(Fatehpur Manuscript, 1582)

kārani kauVna savārai dehī|| aVti bhasama jari hvaihai Tehī||
koWi jatana kari daha muWyāī|| agni dahai kai jaVbuka11 Tāha||
dūdha dahī12 ghXta deha13 muWyāī aVta kāli nāWī mai jāī||

jambuka] Dādū SSD; jaṁ[ju/bu]ka F
dahī] Fpc; dahī ka Fac.

bahuta jatana kari yau tana pālyau|| motana deTyau bāhari14 jālyau||
māthai raci raci bāVdhate pāga| tisa sira ciVcu savārī kāga||
kahi kabīra jina pācau cūrī tina sau kahā abhaipadu dūrī15|| F2

Why do you care for your body? In the end it will burn to ashes and become
You fattened the body through millions of efforts. Fire will burn it or a jackal
eat it.
You fattened the body with milk, yoghurt and ghee. At the time of death it
will go into the dust.16
You cared for the body with so much trouble. When death saw it it was burnt
You put an elaborate turban on your head. — A crow’s beak will take care of
Kabīr says, the one who crashed all the five: Is the state of fearlessness far
from him?18

(Pañc-vāUī, 1675)
[tere] kāraVni kauVna savārai dehī|| so tana jari vari hoihai Tehī||
covā caVdana maradana aVgā| so tana java tava kāWha ke saVgā|| cf.
bahuta jatana kari deha muWyāī| agani dahai kai jaVvuka Tāī||
jā siri raci raci bāVdhata pāgā| tā sira caVca saVvārata kāga||
kahi kabīra tana jhuWhā bhāī| kevala rāma rahau lyau lāī|| 290

(Gopāldās: Sarvā]gī, 1627)

[re] kāraVni kauVna saVvārai dehī|| yahu tana jari bari hvaihai Tehī|| Weka||

deha] Fpc; dehe Fac
bāhari] Fpc; [ba/bā]hari Fac.
dūri] conj; [ha/dū]ri F.
The word nāṭī is obviously a corruption and here the conjectured reading māṭī has been translated.
ṭāṭī ‘place shaded with bamboo, latrine; excrement’ would also be a possible conjecture had it not
sound to anachronistic.
The line is obscure. Another possible interpretation is 'you did not see the pearl but were burnt
A different translation can also be found in Hawley (2005), 286-87.

covā caVdana caracata aVgā| so tana jarata kāWha ke saVgā|| cf. W102,3
bahuta jatana kari deha suWiyāī| agani jarai kai jaVbuka Tāī||
jā sira raci raci bāVdhata pāgā| tā siri caVca saVvārata kāgā||
kahaiV kabīra sunahuV mana mere| eī havāla hū&hige tere|| 109,42

(Śyāmsundar Dās, 1928)

kāraVni kauVna saVvārai dehā|| yahu tani jari bari hvaihai Tehā|| Weka||
covā caVdana caracata aVgā| so tana jarai kāWha ke saVgā|| cf. W102,3
bahuta jatana kari deha muWyāī| agani dahai kai jaVbuka Tāī||
jā siri raci raci bāVdhata pāgā| tā siru caVca saVvārata kāgā||
kahaiV kabīra taba jhuWhā bhāī| kevala rāVma rahyau lyau lāī|| 290

One can see that the first three non-indented lines of the poems are virtually
identical, while the indented lines differ in the two groups. The fact that 9 out of
the 12 caupāī-poems in the manuscript (as well as the overwhelming majority of
the Dādūpanthī tradition) have only four lines, suggests that in this case we might
need to excise not words but lines (the ones that are indented) in order to arrive to
a pre-amplification state. It does not seem to be difficult then to reconstruct the
first three lines of the poems by getting rid of the non-matching lines. One can
even notice, that the excised lines in the Fatehpur manuscript are nothing but
variations on the second line and the one in the Dādūpanthī versions is a guest
line borrowed from another early poem (Millennium 102),

Rāga gau+ī (PañcvāUī, 1614)

jhūWha tana kūV kā grabaiye| mūVvāV pala bhari rahaUa na paīye|| Weka||
Tīra TāV^a ghrita piV^a savārā| prāUa gayeV le bāhari jārā||
covā caVdana caracata aVgā| so tana jarai kāWha ke saVgā||
dāsa kabīra yahu kīnha bicārā| ika dina hvaigā hāla hamārā||

Why do you pride yourself falsely in your body? When dead, it does not
remain for a moment.

You nourished your flesh with khīr, jaggery, and ghee; when the life-breath
leaves it, it will be taken out to burn.
You cared for your limbs with fragrance and sandalwood; that body will burn
together with the funeral wood.
The devotee Kabīr has thought it over; this will be or condition one day.

For the reconstruction of the last line we do not have a similar method since
we have three different readings in our four poems. While the Dādūpanthī
versions seem relatively simple and do not add much to the meaning of the poems
apart from their didactic admonition, the Fatehpur version has a slightly more
difficult reading making use of a numeral enigma and of a tantric or yogic term,
the abhayapada ‘state of fearlessness’.19 As lectio difficilior, it is tempting to
reconstruct the poem with this line,

kārani kauVna savārai dehī | aVti bhasama jari hvaihai Tehī ||

koWi jatana kari deha muWyāī | agni dahai kai jaVbuka Tāī ||
māthai raci raci bāVdhata pāgā | tisa sira ciVcu savārī kāgā ||
kahi kabīra jina p_cau cūrī | tina sau kahā abhaipadu dūrī ||

Why do you care for your body? In the end it will burn to ashes and become
You fattened the body with millions of efforts. Fire will burn it or a jackal eat
You put an elaborate turban on your head. — A crow’s beak will take care of
Kabīr says, the one who crashed all the five: Is the state of fearlessness far
from him?

The text that we arrived at is a more concise and more powerful text. If our
reconstruction is correct then we can discover another interesting phenomenon,

The word is hardly attested in Sanskrit. It is only found in the Matsyapurāṇa (134.33c) and in the
Ahirbudhyasaṁhitā (1.35.38d). Its yogic meaning, however, is clear. On the yogic path the individual

what I would call the ‘bhaktification’ of early texts. I have shown it elsewhere
that a similar process happened in the case of the Hindi epics of the fifteenth-
century court poet ViTUudās.20

The life of a poem in later transmission

But let us have a further look at the later life of this Kabīr-poem about mortality.
The text of the quatrain from which the line was borrowed is present in the
Rajasthani tradition with negligible variants. An interesting variant, is however,
present in the Ādī Granth of the Sikhs (1604). Two out of its three lines are
present in the Rajasthani versions of this poem, but its first line is taken from the
poem discussed previously.

(Ādī Granth Rāg gau+ī 35)

jihi siri raci raci bāVdhata pāga| so siru cuVca savārahi kāga|| 2 || cf. W350,5
isu tana dhana ko kiā garabaīā| rāma nāmu kāhe na driaīā|| 1 || rahāu || cf.
kahata kabīra sunahu mana mere| ihī havāla hohige tere|| 3 || cf. W102,4

Let us go a bit further. There is yet another poem on mortality in the Ādī
Granth (GoU^,2), a line of which can also be found in one of Kabīr’s couplets,
showing clearly that lines were travelling between poems,

(Ādī Granth Rāg go+ 2)

narū marai naru kāmi na āvai || pasū marai dasa kāja savārai || 2 ||
apane karama kī gati mai kiā jānaü || mai kiā jānaü bābā re || 1 || rahāu ||
hā^a jale jaise lakarī kā tūlā || kesa jale jaise ghāsa kā pūlā || 3 ||
kaha kabīra taba hī naru jāgai || jama kā ^aV^u mūV^a mahi lāgai || 3 ||
goV^a 2 ||

is besieged with temptations. The abhayapada is the state when one has left the fear of these
temptations behind.
Bangha (forthcoming2).

The following dohā is also present in the Ādī Granth (ĀG, 1366,36) and in
the Bījak (Bi 174). The version reconstructed by Tivārī (Ti Sākhī 15/7) follows
the one published by Śyāmsundar Dās (SSD 12/16). Tivārī's version is given

hā^a jarai21 jyauV lākaaī kesa jarai jyauV ghāsa | cf. ĀG, GoU^,2,2
saba jaga jaratā dekhi kari bhayā kabīra udāsa ||22

What happened to these poems later? The sacred book of the Kabīrpanthī
tradition, the Bījak (Bi 99), presents an interesting composite text based on three
different earlier padas. It is also amplified by three more lines not found in the
early corpus. (In the apparatus the siglum BiBH stands for the text Bhagtāhī
recension of the Bījak as opposed to the reference to Śukdev SiVh’s edition based
on the Dānāpur recension marked by Bi)

(Bījak, 1805)
aba kah_ calehu akele mītā | uWhahu na karahu gharahu kā ciVtā ||
khīra kh_aa ghXta piV^a saVvārā | so tana lai bāhara kara ^ārā | cf. W102,2
jo sira raci raci b_dhyo pāgā | so sira ratana bi^ārata kāgā || cf. W350,5
hāaa jarai jasa jaVgala kī lakaaī | kesa jaraiV jasa ghāsa kī pūlī ||23 cf. ĀG,
māyā ke rasa lei na pāyā | aVtara jama bilāri hoe dhāyā ||
kahaiV kabīra ajahũ na jāgā | jama kā mugadara sira bica lāgā || 99 || cf. ĀG,
GoU^,2, 3

The reconstruction by Pārasnāth Tivārī (Ti 62) is a purged version of the

Bījak poem with a different refrain. His lines are mixed together from the same
three early sources,

(Pārasnāth Tivārī, 1961)

In SSD the r-s of the root jar- are put as l.
saba... udāsa] SSD, ĀG; kabīrā jarai rāma rasa | jasa kāṭhina jarai kapāsa Bi.
hāṛa... pūlī] Bi; hāṛa jarai jaise lakaṛī jhūrī | kesa jare jaise trīna ke kūrī | BiBH.

jhūWhe tana kauV kyā garabāvai| marai tau pala bhari rahana na pāvai || Weka||
cf. W102,1
khīra khāV^a ghXta piV^a saVvārā| prāVUa gaeV lai bāhari jārā|| 2 || cf.
jihiV siri raci raci bāVdhata pāgā| so siru caVcu savārahi kāgā|| 3 || cf.
hāaa jarai jaisai lakaaī jhūrī| kesa jarai jaisai trina kai kūrī || 4 || cf. ĀG,
kahai kabīra nara ajahuV na jāgai | jama kā ^aV^ mūV^ mahiV lāgai || 5 ||
cf. ĀG, GoU^, 2, 3

A study of the poetic forms of the songs attributed to Kabīr can not only
open up some new perspectives for the study towards the reconstruction of an
ever earlier layer of the Kabīr-songs but can also shed light on the dynamics of
performance and textual transmission in the North India of the 16th-17th centuries.


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Continuities in the Rāmāyan of Vishnudas. In: F. Orsini ed. After Timur
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