Kabir On Work & Death

Posted by Jyoti on Mar 8, 2015
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Kabir, the fifteenth century mystic poet saint from India wrote ...

Maati kahey kumar se, kyon rondhey hai mohey?
​Ek din aisa aavey-ga, main rondungi tohey.

The Earth-Clay asks the Potter, why do you knead-crush me?
There will come a day, I will knead-crush you.

I've translated Maati as Earth-Clay, though the Hindi word implies the humility of something ordinary and plentiful like the ordinary clay from the earth and a reverential connection of this clay to the sacred mother earth.

Potter's in India - to this day - are humble workers who make flower pots, water-containers, and other utilitarian objects for the poor man's kitchen and ornamental objects for the more well-to-do. Years ago, on my daily walk to school (K-12), I would pass by a small group (caste-tribe or large-joint-family?) of them working along the sidewalk. In the mornings, I would see them kneading a large amount of local earth under their feet, preparing for their day's work. By the evening, it used to sun-dried along the road-side into matkas (water-cooling-pots), gamlas (flowerpots), and other utensils. If I was lucky enough to pass by as they worked on the potter's wheel, I simply had to stop to take in the fascinating sight of pots emerging from clay under the magic of their fingers. Even a minor distraction would destroy the perfect symmetry of the emerging vessel, and the potter would take it off the wheel to throw it into the yet to be used pile of clay. 

The potter kneads and crushes the clay with the single minded attention of one whose very survival and lively-hood depends on it and with the devotion of one who creates from it, knowing that improperly prepared clay will not deliver the magic from the fingers on the potter's wheel later. The ordinary and plentiful clay, that is merely annoying dust and dirt for most, is important and central to all that a potter does. He creates objects of utility and beauty, by his skill in treating clay well. The potter is a model of skilled mindfulness in work, reminding us to bring that attitude of sacredness to the most humble tasks of our work.

In the grand scheme of the universe, tables turn as certainly as death that no one has escaped yet. What is ordinary, weak and down today will be precious, strong and up another day. The poet reminds us of what we know for sure already: that one day the potter will be lying buried under the earth, covered and crushed by the same clay that he crushed under his feet all through his working life. With this symbolical reminder in the potter, is there any other way to be? 

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