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I came across this verse of the great Indian poet Saint Kabir:

बिरहा बुरहा जिनि कहौ, बिरहा है सुलतान।
जिस घटि बिरह न संचरै, सो घट सदा मसान॥

birahaa burahaa jini kahau, birahaa hai sulataan
jis ghaTi biraha na sa.ncharai, so ghaT sadaa masaan.

This page gives the English translation of that verse as

Do not consider virah/disconnection as foolish, virah is a sultan; the cremation in which the heart does not break.

but the way the translation is written it is very hard to understand it. So, I moved to someone whose native language is Hindi and here is how he translates it

Bereavement is not studpidity, bereavement is king
Heart without bereavement is like burial site"

I'm unable to understand why a heart which grieves for loved ones is said to be a king (Sultan in the original verse)? And why a heart without bereavement is like a burial site? As far as I can think, king/sultan is used when we have to show someone as powerful or mighty, but this meaning doesn't seem to be suitable to me in this case. If a heart doesn't mourn for loved ones, it is strong, but how is that related to burial sites? I understand that a burial site is where people go when someone dies, it is related to death and mourning and quite ghastly, but I can't see how this is related to a stone heart.

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Here's a translation that I think captures the literal sense better:

Don't call (the pain of) separation bad; it is king. A body that doesn't suffer (the pain of) separation is always a graveyard.

"घट / ghaT" is literally a clay pot. In Kabir, it's a common metaphor for a person's body, in the sense of physical frame (not corpse).

"बिरहा / birahaa" literally means separation but connotes the pain one feels at being parted from a loved one. Kabir says that although we consider being parted from a loved one something bad, undergoing that pain is a sign that our love is alive, and so we should honor that pain the way we honor a king.

If we did not undergo this pain, then the person we are parted from is absent not just physically, but also from our emotions. That makes the absent person effectively dead to us. Since they no longer live in our hearts, our hearts are their graveyard.

This दोहा / dohaa, couplet, of Kabir's exemplifies the tremendous philosophical, psychological, and emotional insight he is celebrated for being able to pack in just two lines:

  • Emotionally, if two lovers are separated, each of them does suffer the pangs of separation. Kabir says this is in fact a sign that their love is true, and that if they did not feel such pangs, their love is dead.
  • Psychologically, this couplet also serves as consolation to those who are bereaved. Kabir points out that a bereaved person's grief honors the dead person, and keeps that person alive. If the survivor didn't feel such grief, then the person would be truly dead, and the survivor would be that person's eternal graveyard.
  • Philosophically, this couplet is about the individual soul's yearning for union with God. Kabir was at once hard-headed and a mystic; his poetry is antiromantic while being deeply spiritual. He says that our awareness of our distance from God is something that should rule over us like a king. If we lose sight of that awareness, then we are eternally dead in every way that matters.

Further, when Kabir says that birahaa is सुलतान / sultaan, a sultan, that characterization is doing double duty. On the one hand, he's acknowledging that grief is often overmastering, and does rule our emotions as a king would. On the other, he's also saying grief should be honored as a king. Our actions should be governed by our sense of separation from God the way subjects are governed by a king. As always in Kabir, there's a didactic or ethical precept underlying his poetry.

So feeling the pangs of separation is what keeps our love, our loved ones, and our relationship to God alive. If we don't feel them, then all those are dead, and our bodies are just graveyards.

Note: transliterations from Hindi in the question and the answer follow iTrans conventions.

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