Society & Lifestyle
Kabir by Birth
Most scholars agree with the Kabirpanthis that Niru, a poor weaver, and his wife Nima found the infant Kabir on a lotus leaf in Lahar Tank in Benares. But it is said that the names of his parents seem to have emerged a century after Kabir’s death, or perhaps even later (Sethi 7). Niru and Nima were Julaha or Muslim weavers who lived in the outskirts of Kashi. Hindus believed that Kabir was the illegitimate son of a Brahmin widow. Muslims believed him to be a child of Muslim parents. The theory of his immaculate birth was rejected by most scholars. Kabir declared, “I am neither a Hindu nor a Musalman” 1
Living on earth simply, touching the sky with enormous spiritual accomplishments and composing poetry and music Kabir remained a legend and mystery in his life time and beyond. Many of the stories of his life and his poetry have been repeated by various authors. A disciple of the great Hindu pundit-preacher and philosopher-reformer Saint Ramananda, he was at the focal point of Bahkti cult; steeped in Hindu philosophy and esoteric practices. “I am the child of Allah and of Ram”, he said. Temple and mosque, idol and holy water, scriptures and priests were usually renounced by him. He cared little whether people knew him a Brahmin or a Mohammedan, a Sufi or a Vedantin, a Vaishnavite or a Ramanandi.
Evelyn Underhill wrote about him, “A great religious reformer, the founder of a sect to which nearly a million northern Hindus still belong. His wonderful songs survive; the spontaneous expressions of his vision and his love; and it is by these, not by the didactic teachings associated with his name, that he makes his immortal appeal to the heart . . . . Though Mohammedan legends speak of the famous Sûfî Pîr, Takkî of Jhansî, as Kabîr’s master in later life, the Hindu saint is the only human teacher to whom in his songs he acknowledges indebtedness . . . the disciple of Râmânanda, joining in the theological and philosophical arguments which his master held with all the great Mullahs and Brâhmans of his day; and to this source we may perhaps trace his acquaintance with the terms of Hindu and Sûfî philosophy.
“Kabir was plainly a heretic; and his frank dislike of all institutional religion, all external observance–which was as thorough and as intense as that of the Quakers themselves–completed, so far as ecclesiastical opinion was concerned, his reputation as a dangerous man.” (Underhill /Songs of Kabir /Introduction)
Swami Sivananda wrote, “Kabir was born in 1440 A.D. The probable date of his death is 1519 A.D. as mentioned in Kabir Ka Santi. A Kazi was called in to give the child a name. The Kazi told Niru that the child was a demon and should be killed immediately. A miracle happened. The knife was plunged into the heart of the child. No drop of blood came out. Kabir uttered a verse which made them understand that he was not ordinary flesh and blood. Then the name ‘Kabir’ was given to the child. The word ‘Kabir’ means ‘great’ in the Arabic language.” (Sivananda /Kabir)
In his book Kabir the Weaver of God’s Name, V.K. Sethi wrote that he was born in 1389 and lived up to 1518.
Here is a very interesting story as to how Kabir established himself as the disciple of the famous Guru Ramananda. A strong will makes the impossible possible.
“Ramanand, a great sage of Banaras at that time, was a staunch devotee of the Vaishnava school of Hindu religion. He was a great saint and philosopher of his time. Ramanand was an orthodox pundit and religious leader. He would not look at the untouchables and would not entertain a low caste. Kabir, a Muslim of no standing so it was almost impossible for him to gain his discipleship. But Kabir was so enamoured of him from his early age. Once in the early pre-dawn twilight when Ramanand used to take bath at the Ganga Kabir lay down at the steps of the river ghat and the sage without knowing or seeing stepped over him, hitting his head with his foot. Startled, he uttered, ‘Ram, Ram!’ At this Kabir silently got up and declared that he was the disciple of great Ramanand. Ramanand’s Hindu disciples were much perturbed at this and questioned why their master had granted such a person a discipleship. The Guru denied and Kabir was brought in. Habitually as to such persons to avoid looking at them, he spoke to Kabir from behind a curtain. He asked why Kabir made such a false claim as to be his disciple. Kabir replied, ‘Sir, I was initiated on the steps of the ghat. You touched my forehead with your foot and gave me the mantra, ‘Ram Ram.’” (Sethi 11)
And his relationship with his Guru became legendary. Here are some taken from his biographer.
“Ramanand used to worship his deity through mental imagination. Once he forgot to place the garland in deity’s neck before putting the crown on his head. His garland wasn’t of a size to go over the crown. He stopped perplexed what to do. Kabir was waiting outside beyond the curtain to pay obeisance to his Guru. He said from outside,
“‘Gurudev, untie the knot of the garland and then tie it around the idol’s neck.’
“Ramanand was startled. How could Kabir know of his predicament? . . . The vulnerable sage called out to one of his disciples, ‘Remove the curtain, for what can one hide from Kabir?’
Ushered into his presence, Kabir respectfully bowed to his Master, but Ramanand stood up and embraced him.” (Sethi 12)
“Once, on the death anniversary of Ramanand’s ancestors, preparations were made to make an offering of rice to the departed souls. Kabir said to his Guru, ‘Sir, this lowly Kabir is perplexed: The crows eat up the rice, how can it reach your ancestors?’” (Sethi 12)
But these were at the initial stage. Kabir was a true seeker and visited many places and met many holy men and in his own way realized the hollowness of rituals and modes of worship. Though Ramanand was upholder of Hindu metaphysics and strictly followed traditions he had the catholicity to accept Kabir’s finding his truth. It has been opined that he even sometimes allowed himself to be guided by Kabir’s intuitive truth and his ideas which changed the Guru in certain matters. “The Guru would hear him more, barriers being removed between them; take his hints of inner path and its ways. “Ahmed Shah, in his impartial introduction to the Bijak, remarks: ‘There is every reason to suppose that Ramanand was largely influenced by Kabir.’” 3
It has been opined that the acceptance of low-caste devotees in his fold like Ravidas, Dhanna, Sadna and some others tell of this fact.
Though Kabir maintained that he was the disciple of the great Ramananda and felt pride in it, it transpired in the course of time that he adapted some other spiritual methods to suit his purpose. After his maturity a realized Kabir taught his disciples a path of God realization based on Shabd Marg; a path of outward pursuits but going inside in search of the God. Ramanand was saint of Shri Sampradaya of the Vaishnav cult worshipping Lord Vishnu and Lakshmi which Ramanand changed to Ram and Sita. He was not a Shabd-margi. Though Kabir was steeped in Hindu philosophy and ideas and followed the path of Ramanand in arguments in different stages of religious debates his following of Shabd-marg was gained from a different source, it has been rightly argued. Going inward is the way of the Yogis. This was the path of some great sadhaks like Jaidev, Namdev, Hazrat Nizamuddin, Khwaja Muinuddin and some others. In whatever way on may reach, finally God realisation happens at the inner level of heart and psyche, the inner chamber of the devotee.
In this context a poem, the only poem by Ramanand which got place in Adi Granth Sahib of the Sikhs, a compilation of poems of devotees and saints in 1604 by Guru Arjan Dev, the fifth Guru in Guru Nanak’s line. The poem suggests his nearness to Kabir than Goswami Tulsi Das, a great devotee of Ram, the incarnation of Vishnu. Though this type of realization might be common with sadhaks of many other paths this definitely points to Shabd-marg. Let us relish the remarkable inner journey and realization of saint Ramanand through his poem.
“Where need I go, for within my home I have been dyed in the divine hue.
My mind has ceased from its wanderings- it has become lame.
One day my mind was overcome with a longing to meet the Lord;
I prepared sandalwood paste and perfumes from saffron,
mask and many a fragrant herb, and proceeded to the temple to worship the Lord.
But that Lord, my Guru revealed to me within my heart.
Wherever I go, I find water and stone, while Thou, O Lord, fillest each particle of the creation.
I delved into Veda and Purana, and I searched; only go there if God is not here.
Oh Satguru, I sacrifice my all to you, you who have cut the chains of my confusion, my delusion.
The Lord pervades all, says Ramanand, and the Guru’s Shabd eradicates a million Karma.” 4
Kabir: A Spiritual Leader
Kabir showed signs of a spiritual inclination from an early age and maintained it and proved a master of it in his mature age. Born with a kin intellect, discerning mind, extraordinary judgment and understanding, he was above the average people of his age and society. During his adolescence he sometimes remained aloof from family matters immersed in spiritual introspection to the dislike of his parents yet he was the cynosure of his family and friends due to his affectionate, compassionate nature and kind disposition. Once during his childhood he was so upset at the prospect of an animal sacrifice on a festive day that his father had to reverse the decision. While going to sell cloths made by them in the market he donated the entire lot to a shivering recluse.
Given to marriage by his parents, Kabir was in favour of a family life rather than forced celibacy; sublimation was the bliss of his natural spiritual experiences. He used to daily work in his loom earning his living, “Like Paul the tentmaker, Boehme the cobbler, Bunyan the tinker, Tersteegen the ribbon-maker, he knew how to combine vision and industry; the work of his hands helped rather than hindered the impassioned meditation of his heart. . . .” wrote Evelyn Underhill (Underhill /Songs of Kabir /Introduction).
He carried a portable loom wherever he went and worked on it. His love for loom and living on his humble labour motivated him to live even on poverty rather than asking for any help from anybody. He was in good sense a precursor to M. K. Gandhi, enamoured with his charkha, almost to the extent of obsessive love for it. For Kabir loom was his basic means of livelihood.
Fifteenth century was the time for the efflorescence of Bhakti Poetry in India by the participating great devotees of God and poets like Vidyapati, Umapati, Mira Bai, Ravidas (also known as Raidas or Ruhidas), Narsi Mehta and the great Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu which began in Tamil Nadu by the sixth century by the Vaishanavite and Saivite saints. Bhakta kabir’s life and work enriched this movement and made a synthesis with the Sufi movement and poetry which was akin to it. He was a Bhakti poet who collaborated with Sufi poetry and movement.
The syncretistic tendencies of Bhakti religion had reached full development. Sufis and Brahmans and later members of the other castes were parts of this Bhakti movement in poetry. They had met in disputation and synthesis. Spiritual members of both creeds frequented the teachings of Saint Ramananda. Kabir was a religious reformer and had his own distinct way of teachings which is called panth. His followers are called Kabirpanthis.
“Kabirpanthis are the followers of Kabir and his teachings . . . . Kabir attempted to transcend the religious boundaries of northern India and to promote harmony between Hinduism, Islam, and other non-Hindu religions. In this he was a forerunner of Ramakrishna and Gandhi. His eclectic faith focused on bhakti, devotion to God. Kabir was a master of the "interior religion," which was loving surrender to God who dwelt in the heart. Names of God tend to be Vaishnava, for Kabir's guru was Ramananda. But though Kabir often mentions Ram, Hari, and the ‘name of Ram,’ he is using these as names for the all-pervading Reality which is beyond words and ‘beyond the beyond,’ being identified with sunya, the void, or what Kabir calls sahaj, the ineffable state . . . . 2
The 1901 Census returned 843,171 Kabirpanthis. Underhill said that their numbers were more than a million. Now it seems to have further swelled, scattered in some other countries where Indians have settled.
Gleanings from the anecdote of Saint Kabir’s life:
Pride and Humility
There was a learned Brahman, versed in Veda and other scriptures who named himself Sarvajit as he defeated many great pundits. His mother once met Kabir and was initiated by him. She asked her proud son to defeat Kabir. With books loaded on a bullock he went to meet Kabir and challenged him to be engaged with him in debate in any aspect of philosophy or scriptures. Kabit admitted his ignorance, admitting his defeat, telling that he had not even seen so many books at a time. Elated, Sarvajit asked him to give it in writing to which Kabir said that he was unlettered but knew only to sign his name. So Sarvjit wrote in paper, “Sarvajit has defeated Kabir” and Kabir signed it. He took it to his mother but when he brought it out before her to read, it read, “Kabir has defeated Sarvajit”. Perplexed, he again went to Kabir and again wrote it and Kabir signed without any dispute. But it became the same as he came to show it to his mother. He repeated this effort for some times getting the same result each time. He said to his mother that Kabir was a magician who changes the words of his certificate as he approached his mother to which the mother replied that due to the impurities of his mind he could not know Kabir.
“Son, In order to argue about what the scriptures say, you had to study them thoroughly. In the same way, to draw Kabir into a debate you should learn from him what his message is . . . .
“See how humble he is, not ashamed to admit his own ignorance. To defeat Kabir, you have to be humble with him, for arrogance can never vanquish humility.” (Sethi 21-22)
Sarvajit again went to Kabir and learnt things at his feet and was initiated as his disciple. Swami Sivananda wrote about this episode that when Sarvajit came to Kashi with his challenges Ramananda deputed Kabir only to face him.
Tatwa and Jiwa, two Brahman brothers were seekers of truth, living on the banks of Narmada or Narbada near Baroach. A banyan tree on an island just opposite their house withered. They washed the feet of the holy men visiting the nearby Shukla Tirth and sprinkled the water at the root of the tree for years without any result. During one of Kabir’s visit to Gujarat the brothers invited him. Traditionally Kabir washed his feet before entering the house and one of the brothers collected few drops of his feet-washed water and sprinkled it to the roots of the tree. In a few days the tree began to be rejuvenated with new leaves. It is said that still now the tree stands covering an area of some four acres which is 12 miles east of the city of Baroach, called ‘Kabir Vat.’
However, the effect of the brothers’ acceptance of the discipleship of the saint proved to be ominous. The whole Brahmin community of the area ostracized them so they could not get appropriate matches for their son and daughter. They went to their Master who advised them to announce that they would get their son and daughter married to each other. At this the whole community was stunned and shocked. After their requests to the brothers to reverse their decision failed there was a meeting of the community and they, as a special case, allowed the punishment to be withdrawn. Brother and sister got married in the usual way without any hassle.
Real and Illusion
A devotee was under the illusion that whenever he closed his eyes Krishna with gopis danced before his eyes. Kabir sat before the devotee and asked him to hold the hands of Krishna as he danced before him. As advised, he caught hold of his hand but Krishna tried to free his hand. At this the man opened his eyes and found that he was holding his own hand. Kabir said that the Krishna he daily saw dancing before his eyes was his mental projection and that it was good that the illusion was broken.
It may here be opined that all were not illusions when people really saw such dances or held conversation with their beloved Godhead like Sri Ramakrishna’s direct contact with Mother Kali. But such happenings are always rare with such saints like Sri Ramakrishna or Sant Kabir. Kabir had the capacity to discern between the actual and the illusory relationship.
Kafir and Momin
Jahan Gasht Shah, a Muslim Dervish met many holy men in India. Hearing about Kabir he wanted to meet him. One day Gasht came and was scandalized to see a pig tied to Kabir’s hut. Incensed, he turned back. Seeing him going back (Knowing his approach Kabir did it deliberately to teach him) Kabir came out and asked why he was going back. He replied, “Kabir, I had heard that you are a pious man, but I have found that you have kept an impure being at your door. I expected you to know the tenets better- your conduct befits a kafir.” (Sethi 27)
Kabir came near and offering a Salaam said, “Friend, I have kept the impure one outside my house; you have given it shelter within your heart. Did not your eyes flash with anger and hatred for me? Are anger and hatred pure and within the tenets of religion?” (Sethi 27)
The Dervish was nonplused. Kabir led him into the house and said that in God’s creation no being should be despised. How could one love God with disdain and hatred in heart? He further said that there was no such thing as kafir or infidel or non-Muslim and momin or faithful to Islam. He further explained that one who injures God’s creature is a kafir and one who loves the God and sees him in all his creatures is a true momin. Jahan Gasht spent a few days in Kabir’s elevating company.
True Devotee and Perfect Master
One Dharam Das, a wealthy businessman, was worshipping some stones at the bank of Ganges with his wife. While passing by that way Kabir stopped and commented that the large stones must be for weighing two seers and the smaller ones for a quarter. Annoyed at this, Dharam Das looked at the speaker who spoke again, “Tell me, have they ever spoken to you, have they ever responded to your prayers?” With this he vanished. (Sethi 28)
Months passed. Dharam Das and his wife were performing a havan, a religious rite, in which clarified butter and incense were burnt profusely. Suddenly Kabir appeared and said, “Dharam Das, you seem to be a great sinner.” (Sethi 28)
Startled, his wife returned the charge on Kabir. Then Kabir pointed out how they were burning large numbers of innocent lives which resided inside the logs being burnt. And he did not wait. With the radiant face of the saint floating before his eyes, the merchant felt deep remorse. The wife gave a wise suggestion to hold yagna ceremony and invite all sadhus for free meals. “I’m sure that he’ll come, for flies always swarm around sugar,” she said. (Sethi 29)
Numbers of yagnas were performed, numbers of sadhus came but not Kabir. Dharam Das lost all money, his business dwindled. Frustrated, he felt like committing suicide and proceeded to a remote place of the river to drown himself. Suddenly that smiling radiant face appeared before him. Dharam Das said, “Day after day, for months I have searched for you, from place to place. I performed dozens of yagnas . . .” (Sethi 29)
The reply was, “It had to be so. Your wife said, ‘Flies always swarm around sugar’. Had I come earlier, you would always have thought devotees can be won over by wealth.” Raising Dharam Das he said, “Arise, Dharam Das, and remember that those who run after wealth like hungry dogs after a piece of bread, are not true devotees. A perfect Master covets nothing from disciples . . . . Satguru is a giver, not a beggar. Material wealth is like the shadow of a tree- it never stays in the same place. Do not worry, I will give you the wealth of Nam . . . .” (Sethi 29-30)
The merchant and his wife, Amna were initiated by Sant Kabir and they settled as his successor.
God Saves a true Devotee
Hindu priests and Muslim Maulvis accused heretic Kabir of blasphemy for disregarding all tenets of established religions. But the true seekers gathered round him. Upholders of so called religions complained against him to Sultan Sikander Lodi (1489 to 1520) who ordered him to be brought to the court.
Brought before the Sultan, Kabir made greeting like to any ordinary man. Kazi charged him for not properly bowing to the Sultan. Kabir replied that he knew only one king and he bowed only to Him. Hindus charged him as low-caste with many other faults and Muslims charged him with heresy, calling him kafir. Kabir said that the indwelling God is neither a Hindu nor a Turk. Impressed by his straightforwardness and personality Sikander Lodi dismissed the charges against him. But the orthodoxy made all cliques to bring Kabir back to the court. Looking at the Hindu and Muslim accusers present he smiled. The Sultan asked what amused him. He said among other things that, “They could never bear to stand together in the court of the King of Kings, but today it amuses me to see them standing united in the court of a worldly king, a mortal like all others.” (Sethi 34-35)
The invectives of the dignitaries convinced the Sultan that Kabir was guilty of blasphemy. In rage he ordered Kabir to be drowned. Kabir said, “Lord, I live and have always lived under Thy shelter. The world looks upon Thy lovers as its enemies. In life and in death, dear Lord, Thou alone art my support, my succor.” (Sethi 35)
Hands and feet bound by heavy chains he was thrown into the river but the waves broke the chains and Kabir was seen floating on the water. They said that it was a trick played by the magician. Kabir said, “O Kabir, no one is mine in this world; in the water and on the earth, my savior is the Lord.” 5 He was then thrown at the feet of the elephant which refused to trample him in spite of the goading by the mahout. “In its heart too dwelt the Lord” 6- said Kabir.
Coming to the point of trampling by the elephant we prefer to pause. Elephants have so far trampled or thrown many with its trunks; animals and humans. Here in spite of goading by the keeper of the elephant the elephant did not abide by his order. The elephant is also Narayan; God dwells in it. It saves the son of the God, Kabir. It is one side of the story but we hear another aspect of elephant attack from Sri Ramakrishna’s often repeated story. Once a mad elephant was running amok and a devotee did not flee from its path in spite of warning by the mahout on the belief that Narayana or God was in its heart too so it mustn’t do any harm. He ignored the warning by the mahout and was thrown by the elephant aside by its trunk. The injured man was told by his Guru that it was fact that Narayana was in the heart of the animal but was not Narayana in the heart of the mahout too? When he believed in the godliness of the elephant why didn’t he abide by the godliness of the mahout?
Here is a reply to a puzzle whether in spite of the indwelling divinity one ill behaves with the others or always well behaves. Perhaps it is a fact that the divine allows a being certain freedom to act according to its condition and reap the fruit of its actions. In two stories as we see here, one elephant disobeys its keeper being influenced by the higher consciousness of the man in danger and the other elephant acts according to its frenzy as surmised by its keeper; it acts according to its mental state. There is no single rule which has to be followed. As the God’s ways are incomprehensible by ordinary mortals so the complexity of the world is so varied that no single solution to its problem may be guessed.
Kabir was then thrown into fire and emerged un-burnt emitting divine radiance.
Ashamed, Sikander Lodi ordered him to be unchained and admitted that he could not realize his greatness. Guilty, he bent his head. And Kabir pardoned the Sultan.
This brings us close to the legend of a great lover of Lord Krishna, Prahlad, who was equally and in the same manner persecuted by his tormentor, king Kangsa, in the Indian epic, Mahabharata and emerged unhurt by God’s grace. The two stories seem to have been weaved in the same thread. Six hundred years old story of Kabir has not certainly remained intact at the legendary state when he was at the peak of his popularity and his disciples at their emotional height.
Staunch Unwavering Faith
Saint Kabir became older than hundred years and he decided to leave Benares to settle at Maghar or Magahar, a small town at a distance of some 175 miles in the north-east of Benares. Belief is that one dying in Benares would not be reborn, going straight to heaven but one dying in Maghar would be reborn as a donkey. He decided to leave the oldest town of the world, most auspicious to Hindus.
Swami Sivananda wrote that though his life was spared, Kabir was banished from the city of Kashi. This took place in 1495 A.D. when Kabir was fifty-six years of age. (Sivananda Kabir) He referred Sikander Lodi who banished him. This was the opinion of some others too.
His disciples were shocked and even enemies never dreamt it. Against all requests Kabir lived to go against tradition and superstition. He said, “A hundred sinner will not escape the fires of hell even if he dies in Banaras; but a saint of God, even if he dies in Magahar, emancipates the entire fold of his disciples.” 7
He said, “I have ascended the divine throne and met the Lord. God and Kabir have become one: no one can distinguish who is who.” 8
This repeats Al-Hallaj, the Sufi poet, declaring anal haq which looks like so’ham for which he was executed. Many great rishis in India realized this at some point of their sadhana; thus Ramakrishna declaring that Rama and Krishna were the same and both of them were in Ramakrishna.
The Saint-Poet wrote in his poem,
What I was once
I am not now,
I have reaped the benefit
Of my precious human birth;
. . . .
Says kabir: Listen friends,
Let no doubts remain:
He who has true faith in the Lord,
For him, holy Kasi and barren Magahar
Are the same. 9
“I have reaped the benefit / Of my precious human birth” reminds us of the lament of another eighteenth century Saint-Poet of Bengal, Ramprasad Sen, the Kali worshipper. He too was a singer. He sang in one of his songs,
‘O mind, you don’t know agriculture:
Such a fertile field
as human being
Gold it would yield
after cultivating . . . 10
Kabir cultivated the human being though in a previous birth and reaped the benefit in his life. Similarity in their thought process is striking.
After Kabir’s coming Magahar’s only dry river Ami started flowing throughout the year and its stigma was removed.
The Last Miracle
One afternoon Saint Kabir was found lying on the floor covered with white sheet, his face radiating peace and bliss without life in it. The river of life merged into the ocean of infinity.
There was a great dispute over the dead body of the saint; Hindus lead by King Vir Singh Baghela and Muslims lead by Nawab Bijli Khan claimed to burn and bury his body with rites. “The shroud was removed. A large quantity of flowers was seen under it. Half of the flowers was taken by the king of Kashi and burnt on the bank of holy Ganga. The ashes were then buried and a temple was built. This temple is known by the name of Kabir Chaura—a great place of pilgrimage for the followers of Kabir. The other half of the flowers was taken by the Mohammedans and buried at Moghar where Kabir died. A mosque was built over the grave. This is a place of pilgrimage for the Mohammedans.” (Sivananda Kabir)
“Whether it was really a miracle or few faithful removed the body substituting it with flowers was not known”, opined V. K. Sethi (Kabir the Weaver of God’s Name). The doubt about this miracle has remained with many of his biographers but some certainly had no doubt for faith is doubtless.