Between 1398 and 1527 (at least by all traditional accounts) lived a man who was the bane and terror of the religious establishment both Hindu and Muslim. India has had many reformers who campaigned fearlessly against what they regarded as the abuses of the priestly interpretations of faith but they were either heretics beyond the pale or outright atheists. Kabir alone was a towering spiritual personality, a saint of colossal magnitude in his holiness, who simultaneously gave not a fig for theology and tradition. He was impossible to subvert or co-opt into the mainstream and he was too popular to intimidate into silence. In all India's history of dealing with turbulent challenges to the orthodox faiths, there was never anybody who came even close to Kabir. His verses still retain an astringent pungency that sears the pomposities of the spiritually smug. Were they not protected by the patina of age and familiarity they would be enough to cause rioting. Certainly somebody like Rushdie, for instance, has said far less, and less offensively, than Kabir - but Kabir had the knack of demolishing belief-systems with powerful penetrating couplets called dohas. His skill as a poet may just have ensured his survival (and tolerance) as a controversialist.
His long life is not the only thing about him that strains the limits of credulity. His origin story too is incredible in the true hagiographic manner. He was supposed to be found floating upon the sacred lotus leaf in a tank in Benaras, holy city of the Hindus, by a Muslim weaver, who took the enchanting tot home. When the time came for his naming ceremony it was done in the traditional manner, by opening the Koran and seeking the first name that appeared on the page. To the horror of the priest the name Kabir, which means 'Great' and is a synonym for God kept turning up no matter how many times he opened the book. Instant controversy was created around the child with some people accepting this as god's will and others feeling there must be something diabolical in it. The origin story is sufficiently muddled to enable both Hindus and Muslims to lay claim to him as one of their own, for while nobody in India actually practices what he preached, his prestige and status are worthy things to have ranged alongside your sect.
Kabir was a weaver by trade, an occupation he never deserted all his life. It reminds me of the Jewish Hasidic masters who always had a practical trade or craft to practice alongside their mystical journeying. As a young boy he showed great spiritual abilities but he yearned to make the famous Guru Ramanand his master. For a Muslim to get initiation from a Hindu was out of the question so he took recourse to a trick. He lay down on the steps of the bathing ghat where Ramanand was in the habit of going down for his predawn ritual ablutions. In the dark he stepped on the young boy and aghast that he had trampled underfoot a human being he uttered the Divine Name, " Rama! Rama!" An elated Kabir let the entire city know that the great Ramanand had initiated him. It was a terrific scandal and a bewildered guru called this impossible lad to enquire why he was making their lives difficult. Whereupon Kabir launched the first of his devastatingly unanswerable questions. " Do you teach anything higher than God's name? I have learnt that from you, what else makes a disciple?' Ramanand was not made of ordinary clay either and he was enchanted by this perception of the life spiritual. He began teaching the Muslim boy and so fierce was his erudition and reputation that all protestors against this 'sacrilege' fled from his wrath. The most important theological position that he taught Kabir was the Impersonal Aspect of God (Nirguna), which was Kabir's real objection to idol worship later in life, not because he was a Muslim.
Kabir was one of those people born for the life spiritual and
he was recognized as such by all but the most inveterate reactionaries.
He continued to ply his trade as a weaver and simultaneously with
the shuttling of his loom composing those biting couplets that
that are one of the glories of Indian literature and a perpetual
headache for the defenders of the status quo. For Kabir cared not
for caste prejudices or wealth or pretensions to learning and he
abhorred all forms of display spirituality. He was no reticent
about letting people know what the thought either and the harassed
priestly classes of both religions developed an abiding hatred
for him. What could you do with this man who insisted on applying
common sense to the most ancient, and unthinkingly followed, practices?
"If God is to be found in stones then is not the grinding stone the most holy
For it is the most useful of all"
"If bathing in holy waters ensures salvation,
Then every fish is in heaven."
"The mullah climbs up the minaret to hail God
Has He gone deaf?"
Along with his never ending critique of superstition and unthinking beliefs was a strong strain of devotional poetry that insisted on the direct personal experience of God as the only reality worth talking about. "Pothi parh parh Jag Mua, Pandit hua na koi
Dahi akshar prem ka padhe so Pandit hoi"
" The world passed away while great tomes were being read but that does not make one a pundit. He who understands the two and a half letters which embody love (Rama) is alone a learned man."
He instead on preaching, and practicing, a gospel of social equality.
"Jati pati puchai na koi
Hari ko bhaje so hari ka hoi"
"Let no one ask about caste. He who takes
the name of the Lord will be claimed by the Lord."
This was not any concession to overflowing weepy sentimentality that has so bedeviled poets of devotion in India. Kabir had a tough side that marked the true saint's ability to live undetached from what was happening.
"Kabira khada bazaar mein, maange sab ki khair
Na kissi se dosti na kissi se bair."
"Kabir stands in the marketplace wishing everybody well
He seeks no friend nor wants enemies."
It may seem cold blooded, but it is a sincere acknowledgement of the fact that in spiritual matters every person is indeed on their own with only God's grace to help out. Even the Psalmist says, "No man may deliver his brother, nor make agreement unto God for him." Kabir would have understood and approved.
Naturally there were many attempts to assassinate him. Finally the emperor of Delhi, Sikandar Lodhi was appealed to, incredibly by both Hindus and Muslims, to rid them of this troublesome truth teller. He found Kabir to be a very unusual man indeed but his pragmatic advice to tone down the nature of his social critique was indignantly rejected by an outraged Kabir. He migrated from the area controlled by a king who could not bear to hear the truth told within it. Many places lay claim to his sojourn in exile. At the end of his extraordinarily long life, the wise respected old man proved that his contrarian instincts were still active when he insisted on dying in the town of Maghar, a sort of anti- Benaras, denying you the salvation that was assured if you die in Benaras. He wanted to make a point that salvation is a function of how you have lived not where you die but while he had disciples willing to fall down and adore, not many were willing to put in the hard work necessary to live his principles on a daily basis.
Inevitably they spilt up into Hindu and Muslim lines as to what they were to do with the corpse of the saint, cremate or bury it. As was the case with the later saint Nanak when they removed the shroud all they found was a heap of flowers that they treated as their faith told them to. In this final incident was seen the failure of the Kabir attempt to put religion on a more sensible foundation. The social conditionings were too deep. Today there is a sect called the Kabirpanthis who are supposed to follow his teachings but their social isolation renders them powerless. As a religious reformer he may have failed - as yet, the future is another matter- but as a poet he is immortal.
- Rohit Arya