Myth and Mystery in the Mystic Life of Bhakta Kabir

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by Aju Mukhopadhyay


Niru, a poor Muslim weaver, and his wife Nima found the infant Kabir on a lotus leaf in Lahar Tank in Varanasi or Benares. Hindus believed that Kabir was the illegitimate son of a Brahmin widow. Muslims believed him to be a child of Muslim parents. Theory of his immaculate birth was rejected by most scholars. Kabir himself declared, “I am neither a Hindu nor a Musalman” (Kabir Sakhi Sangrah. p.75:4. Sethi 7) He was at the focal point of Bahkti cult, being steeped in Hindu philosophy and esoteric practices. A Bhakti poet, he made a synthesis with the Sufi movement and poetry. He cared little whether people knew him a Brahmin or a Mohammedan, a Sufi or a Vedantin, a Vaishnavite or a Ramanandi. Living on earth simply, touching the sky with enormous spiritual accomplishments in addition to excellence in poetry and music, Kabir remained a legend and mystery in his life time and beyond.

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) But V.K. Sethi (Kabir) wrote that he was born in 1389 and lived up to 1518.

During his adolescence he sometimes remained aloof from family matters immersed in spiritual introspection. He had an 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.

Kabir was in favour of a family life as his parents married him. Contentment in his face was not due to suppression but for sublimation; spiritual experiences. He used to daily work in his loom and sell the products in weekly markets to earn his living. He worked on a portable loom wherever he went. His love for loom and living on his humble labour made him a precursor to M. K. Gandhi, enamoured of his charkha in excessive love for it.

Evelyn Underhill wrote of 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 . . . .

“A skilled musician as well as a poet–he lived the sane and diligent life of the Oriental craftsman . . . . 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. . . .

“Kabîr 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)

Guru-Shishya Samparka

Ramanand, a great sage and philosopher of Banaras was a staunch devotee of the Vaishnava school of Hindu religion. Ramanand was an orthodox pundit and religious leader and Kabir was a low-caste, Muslim weaver’s son but he was enamoured of him. 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. The Guru felt disturbed at his claim and questions by other Hindu disciples. On asking 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.’” The noble and truthful Guru accepted him as his disciple.

Ramanand was saint of Shri Sampradaya of the Vaishnav cult worshipping Lord Vishnu and Lakshmi which he changed to Ram and Sita but Kabir later became a Shabd-margi, a path of silent inner realization. Guru accepted Kabir’s independence in spiritual matters. Kabir was immensely grateful to his Guru. There grew a relationship of interdependence. Kabir exhibited in action that very principle of religious synthesis which Ramananda had sought to establish in thought.

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 of 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 around 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.” (Adi Granth, Bhairau, Kabirji. p.1162; as reproduced in Sethi 36) 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”- said Kabir (Adi Granth, Gond, Kabirji. p.871; as reproduced in Sethi 36). He 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.” (Adi Granth. Asa. Kabirji. p. 484. Sethi 39) 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.” (Adi Granth. Ramkali. Kabirji. p.969. Sethi 39). This repeats Al-Hallaj, the Sufi poet, declaring anal haq which looks like so’ham. 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.
(Kabir Granthabali 167:402; as referred in Sethi 40)

“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
remains fallow.
Gold it would yield
after cultivating . . . [1]

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 miracle has remained with every biographer.


[1]. Bandhon Sengupta. Ramprasad o tanr samagra rachanabali. Calcutta: M. C. Sarkar and Sons P. Ltd. Song No.238, p.300.

Works Cited

1. Sethi V. K. Kabir the Weaver of God’s Name. Dera Baba Jaimal Singh, Punjab: Radha Soami Satsang Beas. Third Ed. 1998. Hard Bound.

2. Swami Sivananda. Kabir. (Life Divine Society at Tehri Garwal, Uttarakhand, India.) in the Net.

3. Evelyn Underhill, introducer of Songs of Kabir translated by Rabindranath Tagore and published by The Macmillan Company, New York. 1915 – and also introducer of One Hundred Poems of Kabir published by Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi. 2004

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