Kabir was a revolutionary saint who moved the people of his age. He had a great following of common people. His birth and origin are uncertain. There is no authentic evidence available regarding his birth and family. Some say he was born a Muslim and some still believe he was born of a high class Brahmin girl who was brought up by a Muslim weaver of low rank. It stands undisputed that he was by profession a weaver. The story current after Kabir's death makes his life legendary. It is said that after his death, both the Hindu and Muslim disciples had arguments over the form of funeral –cremation or burial. When they uncovered the cloth covering his dead body, they discovered only some flowers as leftover. Half of the flowers were cremated and half-buried.
When Kabir appeared on the scene of medieval India, Islam was ruling major parts of India. The majority of Hindus were subjected to various humiliations and even rulers levied Jazzia tax (protection Tax) on them to provide them safety in their own land. The minority of Muslims had made the majority of Hindus a second class citizen. As a result, there was great conversion of Hindus into Islamic fold. The Hindus felt helpless and resorted to ostrich-like situation. They adhered to a form of rigid caste system and conservatism for security and safety in its brotherhood. The priest class was lucky to make added income in form of rituals and ceremonies, customary poojas and fasts. The priest class disdained and boycotted the Muslims and made them settle at the outskirts of the village where they had already thrown out the lower class people of their own society. Now the low class Hindus and the Muslims got a common enemy, the rest of the Hindus. So they combined against them. Conversion became easy for them as they were benefited with the gift of advantages of the rulers. The narrow Hindu vision could not assess the harm in right perceptive, done by them.
In the mean time there emerged amongst Muslims a sect named Sufi. Sufi saints though Muslims were not the product of main stream Islam. They preached the oneness of all religions and stood for mutual love and understanding. The Hindus found some similarity in their teachings with the Vedic thoughts. They welcomed the Sufis and there developed an idea of cooperation between the two religions which hereto had remained denied by the mullahs and the priest class. It was at this juncture that Kabir appeared on the scene. There was a large section of Hindus which had lost faith in the priest dominated rituals and seemed influenced by the Buddhist thoughts and preaching which were against caste system. The poems of Siddha ascetics in the 7th to 9th century were powerful as to find expression in the later period in the composition of Kabir and other poets of Nirgun (Formless God) devotion. Kabir under their influence followed the formless and nameless devotion of the Absolute Pure Awareness. He declared that all castes are equal and God is present in all Hearts of the living being and one can find Him inside himself as there is in no purpose to search Him outside in the temple or elsewhere. Kabir, Nanak Dadu, Haridas, Niranjani and other saints were all under Buddhist influence and opposed the caste system. Kabir preferred Sahajyani sect of Buddhists and opposed rituals and scriptures too along with caste system. Like the Bajrayani tradition of Buddhist, he preached about the fruitlessness of the rituals and customs with literary bend of sweet melody and artistic hues. He did not follow the Sahajyana in its adherence to sensuousness and desire but accepted the word Sahaja Samadhi as a product of Raja Yoga. He says, “Sadho Sahaj Samadhi Barhi”
The Religion of Kabir
For Kabir, religion was a way of life and not at all a bundle of theorized dogmas. He believed that theory and practice has to be inter-related and inter-connected. Religion is widely connected with life and existence. It is the part of our every day activity in this mundane world. He said, "Jahan jahan dolun so paricharya, Jo Jo Karun so pooja." (All our actions performed anywhere are our duties, and work is worship). Kabir stood for Pravrati (activity) as against inactivity of Sanyasa or life of renunciation or aestheticism. He appreciated the value of family life, being a householder himself. Vedas also speak of the seers who were all householders and were even allowed more than one marriage. Vedas also link us with every day business of life as a religious duty to perform. They speak of a proper diet and dress management. They plead for agriculture, animal husbandry and commerce as our religious duty. To help the blind and the lame and to kill the enemy and pray God, they speak, is our binding duty. The life of Janaka, the king, has been depicted as one of integration of both the Pravriti and Nivrati –an ideal life style to follow.
Vedas say that it is not a big dharma to leave home for a forest life as the real test lies in being a householder performing duties unattached, one hand on woman, the other on spiritual altar. Sanyasa is only an exception. Sanyasa means “renouncing one’s individuality and not shaving one’s head and putting on ochre robes. A man may be householder but if he does not think he is the one, he is a Sanyasin. So long as he goes on thinking that he is a Sanyasin, he does not actually become so because the thought of preoccupation with one’s renunciation defeats the very purpose of renouncing.”
The temper of the age favored action and activity to restore the lost nectar of life. Not by Sanyasa but through action and duty alone, the human spirit of life-existence could be activated and re inspired. The Nirguna sadhus put their own example. They led a family life and worked for their daily bread while remained chanting the name of God as Sumiran.
The God of Kabir
The name of Rama came to live with Kabir. He realized that Rama’s name is for the pure in the heart and for those willing to remain righteous in life as against those who are mean and self-indulgent. He got the name of Rama from his Guru Ramanand as a guru-mantra but interpreted it in his own way. He added new dimension to the name. He says, “Dasaratha ke ghar na janmey, yee chal Maya keenha.” To him, his Rama was not the son of Dasharatha, the King of Ajodhya but the Absolute Pure Awareness itself. His devotion was not of Saguna Bhakti as was of his guru but he was a pure Nirguna out and out. He preferred devotion to Pure Absolute Awareness (Satchitananda) as Infinite Existence (Sat) and Consciousness (Chit) and Bliss (Ananda). In this way of devotion, Kabir was influenced by Siddhas and the Buddhas more than the Islamic tradition of monism. He says, “Nirguna Nama japahu rey Bhaiya, Avigati Ki gati Lakhi Na Jaiya (Go on chanting the name of Rama; the Pure Absolute is hard to conceive.)
Kabir preached that Allah and Rama are not different but are the different names of the same and the one Godhead. He tried to promulgate a religion of love and brotherhood in which no class or caste was superior to the other and all creeds unified. It was the path of one-pointed devotion and surrender to God while allowing personal devotion to a personal God.
Kabir accepted Shankara’s Advaita (non-dualism) but stressed on Karma, action and activity in the worldly life. He staunchly believed in monism and kept away from polytheism. His monism was not without an Islamic effect. His understanding of all pervasive nature of the Divine came not through the Vedas but by Quran which quotes, God, there is no God but He is living, the Eternal One. There is one God and no other. The Bible also speaks, ‘Know ye not, that ye are the temple of God and that the spirit of God dwelled in you.’
So much was he absorbed in Rama that he says,
I shut my eyes, I close my ears
I do not mortify my body
I see with my eyes wide open, smile and behold
His beauty all around
I speak of His name and see what reminds me of Him
What so ever I do, it turns into His worship
Kabir well understood Maya, illusion and cautions us against it thus -
Maya is a cruel deceiver
She wields a rope of hangman
In the form of three Gunas - Sattva, Rajas Tamas
And keeps roaring about
By her sweet words she keeps people entangled in her
In the home of Vishnu, She appears in the form of Lakshmi’
In the abode of Siva She presents herself as Parvati
In the stand of Pandas, she is worshipped as Idols
In holy places she becomes Ganga and Yamuna;
In yogi’s rest houses, she is decorated as Yogini
And shines as queens in the palace of power and pelf
(See also: Mystic Songs # 17)
Immediate Islamic influence may possibly be behind his tirade against the irrelevant rites and customs that had crept up in the Hindu society through the ages. For him, the Yogic rites and physical exercises, caste system, brahmanical learning, necked austerity were irrelevant ceremonies H e chose to criticize the wrong notions that had crept in Islam too. He did not spare the pundits and the mullah for their orthodox behavior. He tried to pinpoint the wrong actions for a healthy social order and mutual harmony and understanding for peaceful existence.
Kabir expressed his experience of love with God through Bhajans and mystical songs. His 243 verse are preserved in Adi Granth Sahib of the Sikh religion. His composition was in couplets, and short stories - Doha, Sakhi and slokas (Couplets, quartets and Sakhis). His love intoxication made him a mystic. It is generally believed that he was influenced by the Sufi mystics, but more than the Sufis, he was following the line of Siddhas. In his Ultavasis and in the use of Sandhya Bhasa, the influence of Siddha sadhus is evident. Not only in respect of subject matter but also in prosody the Siddha influence is clearly visible. He said, ‘Rama mera piyu , Maiyan Piyu Ki Bahuria’ This is Dampatya Bhakti, the Devotion of husband and wife. The bliss caused by the Dampatya Bhava is called Brahmananda (The spiritual love) and is compared to Kamananda, the Cupid love. The Sahajyani tradition of Buddha accepted the symbol of Krsna as male and Radha as female and aspired for their union. The devotion of Madhurya Bhava is established as a symbol of love between husband and wife. The Sufi saints were totally different. They accepted male as lovers and female as beloved as per their tradition. It is the male there who expresses the love first. The difference can be easily marked. The physical worldly love (Mazazi Ishka) to spiritual love (Hakiki Ishka).
Kabir introduced a new idea of love; He said that love is in itself an independent identity apart from love of God. This was a new dimension never adopted before in devotional poems. He said, "Dhai Akhar Prem Ka Jo Parhe So Pandit Hoi” (Even a simple awareness of love makes one a wise man.) However he accepted the Sufi concept of reaching the Divine through the physical love, from Mazazi Ishka to Hakiki Ishka (from worldy love to the spiritual love).
Kabir believed that a mystic experience is needed for understanding the mystery of God. His songs on separation and imaginary union with God are very impressive and form part of high level literature. He compares the soul’s anguish in separation with the Lord to a bride in waiting for a meeting. He says,
"Hari (God) is like sugar spilled in sand
that an elephant can not pickup,
Says Kabir , the Guru gave me the hint
become an ant and eat it."
"My heart is dying though it lures
and my longings sing His name
and they are lost in His great beauty;
I wash His feet,
I look upon His face
and lay before Him as an offering my body,
my mind and all that I have
and also my love has touched Him,
my heart is longing for the name that is Truth.’
Thus sings the servant of all servants (as translated by Tagore).
Kabir believed that only the chanting and singing of God’s name (Sumiran) is all that we need in the attainment of the supreme Bliss.
Diamonds are not found in bulk; nor do lions in herds
Nor do the saints have a clan,
Knowledge of Hari (God) is hard to come by,
None perceived it fully
Kabir is burning in sweetness of Rama,
As cotton burns in the storehouse,
How can the name of Rama rest in the heart of a fool?
The Place of Guru
Kabir was essentially a saint. He derived his spiritual awareness from the direct experience of his satguru’ spoken Shabad of Rama which penetrated deep into his soul. His formal Guru was a Vaishnava saint, Swami Ramananda, who heralded the Worship movement in the north. Ramananda had formerly denied to initiate him. So one day, he plotted himself on way to Ganges so that in the dark hours when swami walked for the bath, he may walk over him with his sandals on. It really so happened as planned and the stunned swami at once uttered the word Rama. This very word Rama was taken by Kabir as Guru Mantra, which is generally offered in any initiation process. Thus Ramananada came to be accepted as his Guru. The Guru tradition is very old in India. The idea of a person as channel for spiritual understanding first existed in the Vedas. Kabir says -
“My Satguru is a true warrior
He shoots his arrows
on the voices of his devotees
Says Kabir, that the devotees should bear these blows
and not run away from him.’
The Upanishad says that Satyakama approached his teacher for spiritual knowledge. The Vishnava, Shaiva and Tantra traditions treat Guru as means of passing over traditions through the generations as the Guru line keeps the knowledge authentic all over. In the Bhakti tradition Guru came to be known as Liberator and savior. The Kashmiri Shaivism treats Guru as identical with God. The Siddha saints followed Guru tradition thus—
“Guru upadesh amrit rasa; thayin peyoi jahi
Bahu sastrarthmarursthamin trashit maran tehi
Guru bachne Dararh bhakti kuru, jyon hoya sahaj ullhas ”
Sarahappa praises Guru at the time when the Sufi saints did not at all exist and Islam had no such idea to entertain. Kabir followed the traditional approach. He says, 'Guru Gobind Dou kharhe kakey lagau paun / Balihari Guru Apno Gobind diya dikhaya.' It is the Guru who is our spiritual guide and philosopher and Kabir had a firm belief in this approach.
Kabir is considered as the torch bearer of a new awakening. After Gautama Buddha, with the exception of Adi Shankara, it was Kabir who moved the masses of his age in social and religious spheres. He was at first the founder of the chain of saint reformers of proven guiding force to the helpless generation. No wonder all these saints belonged to lower order of society. Kabir was a weaver, julaha by birth; Ravidas, a cobbler, Shudra in social order; So were Sunderdas and Malukdas; Dadu was a dhunia; Nabhadas, a doma; Sahajobai, a cowherd, - all of them belonged to lower order of society. Dr Rangeya Raghava says that the Nirguna saints came from that section of society which had been exploited, ignored and made unprivileged since centuries. They were deprived of any education and kept subdued, subordinated. Blind faith and ignorance ruled the society but negative thoughts running since centuries gave way and self confidence was exhibited when Kabir appeared on the scene.
Common among these preachers were their love and devotion for God, the absolute Pure Conscious and their simple family life and high thinking. They set the example of work is worship and while eking out a living they kept dedicated to the thought of the Absolute. They preached that the worth of a person is measured not by his birth in a particular caste or by power and pelf in his possession but in the nature of spiritual and mental devotion to the human welfare and dignity and in inculcating the sense of oneness, sympathy and understanding for all mankind as the path shown in Sarve Sukhinah Santu — Kabir’s appeal was wide and all comprehensive. He was inclusive and never left any section of society untouched. He asked us to rise above consideration of caste, creed and religion and rise against all divisive tendencies afflicting the society and creating differences between man and man on the basis of money, power and religion. He asked people to be reasonably sound and introspective, analytical in the comprehension of ego, and superiority and corruption, deep rooted violence and self-interest rampant in the society. He pleaded for the inclusion of the deprived people on equal footing and for the chanting of Ram-Nam for all to beget the Bliss.
Dr Hazari Prasad Dwevedi, an authority on Kabir says, 'By nature, Kabir was head to foot soft hearted, polite and courteous before holy people but hard and kicking to the wicked and the selfish. Pure of heart, sound of mind, soft in heart, but uncompromising in external behavior, untouchable by birth, adorable by duty and action, Kabir was born a revolutionary powerful enough to affect a change in bringing out an era of transition.'
February 14, 2010
Image under license with Gettyimages.com