Kabīr (also: Kabīra, Hindi: कबीर, Urdu:کبير, Gurmukhī: ਕਬੀਰ) (1398-1448) or (1440—1518) was an Indian mystic whose teachings stressed two primary themes: the possibility of spiritual union with the Divine and the utter contingency of all religious and ideological distinctions. Though many details of his life remain shrouded in mystery, certain biographical elements (such as his low caste birth and his occupation as a weaver) are common to all versions of his biography.
Despite his antinomian avoidance of particularistic religious commitments, Kabir was posthumously "claimed" by various religious sects, including the Hindu Sants, the Sikhs, and the Muslim Sufis. The syncretic absorptions of the poet's teachings were facilitated by the fact that he was, himself, illiterate, which meant that his poetic visions were only indirectly recorded. As a result, interpreters from various traditions, each working within their own vernacular tongues, each recorded their own versions of Kabir—a process that generated three discrete textual corpuses, each with their own particular perspectives. Regardless of this proliferation of texts, the mystic sage's general emphasis on the attainment of oneness with the divine is never lost, and continues to resonate throughout all recensions of his poetic genius.
Kabir's importance is considered to transcend national, ethnic, and religious borders. The lyrical beauty of his poetic outpourings of love for the Divine have also helped to make him a figure of inter-religious understanding and harmony.
Only a few concrete facts are available concerning the life of the historical Kabi, and even his dates are uncertain, with some sources suggesting that he lived from 1440 -1518 C.E. and others arguing for a span from 1398-1448 C.E. Further, some more hagiographical sources encompass both dates, postulating that the sage lived to the age of one hundred and twenty (1398-1518 C.E.). It is commonly thought that he was raised by a family of recently converted Muslim weavers, though some traditions suggest that he had been (miraculously?) born to a brahmin widow. His early spiritual awakening, achieved in spite of his lowly status, was generally thought to have been brought about through the patronage of the celebrated Hindu ascetic, Ramananda, who brought to Northern India the religious revival that Ramanuja, the great twelfth-century reformer of Brahmanism had initiated in the South. Additionally, he was apparently a friend, teacher or disciple of Guru Nanak Dev, the founder of Sikhism. Despite these spiritually potent associates, some hagiographies suggest that Kabir's life was disrupted by persecution at the hands of the Muslim aristocracy, which necessitated his frequent exilic wanderings throughout the countryside.
One of the most potent hagiographical tales surrounding the mystic concerns the events surrounding his death, whose significance derives from its complimentarity with Kabir's teachings on religious factionalism. In it, the sage has recently passed away and his devotees, who numbered from both the Hindu and Muslim traditions, were undecided about how to prepare his remains. This immediately bred contention, as the Muslim called for him to be buried, while the Hindus requested that he be cremated. The dispute was aggravated by the fact that neither group could even agree on which faith Kabir had himself been devoted to. However, when they finally returned to the tent that Kabir had expired in, they found the body is missing and that only a pile of flower petals remained. The legend concludes by stating that this occurrence (understandably) resolved the conflict, and that both groups looked upon the event as an instance of divine intervention.
Regardless of the sage's feelings about religious identities, he is most often associated with Sant Mat, a loosely related group of teachers (Sanskrit: gurus) that achieved prominence in the northern part of the Indian sub-continent in the 13th century. Their teachings were revolutionary on two fronts: theologically, they centered on an inward-directed, loving devotion to a divine principle (bhakti); and socially, they stressed egalitarianism, as opposed to the qualitative distinctions of the Hindu caste hierarchy, and of the religious differences between Hindus and Muslims.
The Sants were not homogeneous, as identification with the group was often established retrospectively, based upon the congruence between the exponent's presentation of bhakti (devotion) and the description of the same path (bhakti marga) in the Bhagavad Gita. Sharing as few conventions with each other as with the orthodox versions of the traditions that they challenged, the Sants appear more as a diverse collection of spiritual personalities than a specific religious tradition, although many did acknowledge a common spiritual root. Indeed, this heterogeneity of thought and practice meant that it was common for the Sants to be respected across religious boundaries, as "bhakti became the way of salvation for everyone: women and children, low-castes and outcastes, could become fully recognized members of the bhakti movement. Some of the great bhaktas are saints for Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs alike."
The first generation of teachers reliably characterized as north Indian Sants, a group that included Kabir, appeared in the region of Benares in the fifteenth century C.E. Preceding them were two notable thirteenth and fourteenth century figures, Namdev and Ramananda. The latter, a Vaishnava ascetic, was traditionally thought to have initiated Kabir, Raidas, and other sants. However, Ramanand's story is told differently by his lineage of Ramanandi monks, by other Sants active in the same period, and later by the Sikhs. The little that is known of the guru suggests that he stressed a religion of love, that he accepted students of all castes, a fact that was contested by the orthodox Hindus of that time, and that his students formed the first generation of Sants.
As introduced above, the basic religious principles espoused by Kabir (and other sages characterized as members of the Sant Mat tradition) are simple. Human life, as an enterprise, is fundamentally futile, and the only meaningful activity that is possible is the active search for union with the Divine.
In seeking this union, he saw the Divine as being both the meaning and the end of all existence. As Walker notes, "the philosophy of Kabir is pantheistic, although he was one of the founders of the deistic movement in India. He permitted the adoration of Vishnu, Rama, Hari (a form of Vishnu), Govinda (Krishna), and Allah, which he said were merely names for the One Supreme deity." However, even the doctrine of pantheism is too narrow for the mystic's view of the Lord's ultimacy, as he saw God comprehending all material existence, but simultaneously transcending it:
However, the spiritual seeker could not gain access to the mysteries of Divinity through intellect or personal effort. Instead, one had to be motivated in one's quest by an intense love for God and a potent desire for reunion:
Philosophically and theologically speaking, Kabir's poetically mystical doctrine represented a synthesis of Hindu and Muslim approaches to divinity. His perspective, especially as recorded in the Bijak ("The Seedling"), is indicative of his multivalent and universalistic approach to spirituality. His vocabulary is replete with ideas regarding Brahman and Atman, plus the fundamental Hindu ideas of karma and reincarnation. Simultaneously, he was driven to reject the caste system as a ridiculous contrivance that had no place in the true seeker's path. However, he often advocated leaving aside the Qur'an and Vedas, in order to simply follow Shahaj path (the Simple/Natural Way to oneness in God).
In his own spiritually heterogeneous way, Kabir provided a philosophical and theological approach to divinity that has influenced Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs as well.
Kabir's poetry is at once spiritually profound yet profoundly accessible. His works, written in the vernacular language(s) of the areas of composition, abound in metaphors and images from everyday life, making them immediately relevant and comprehensible to their target audience. Simultaneously, they express profound philosophical and theological sentiments concerning such fundamental quandaries as the ontological relationship between the individual and the Divine, and the teleological purpose of embodied life. It is perhaps a cross-cultural fact that such themes, if addressed through discursive language and theology, would have remained obtuse and unconvincing, while their poetic exposition manages to express the same ideas in a manner that is at once visceral and compelling:
The poetry of mysticism might be defined on the one hand as a temperamental reaction to the vision of Reality: on the other, as a form of prophecy. As it is the special vocation of the mystical consciousness to mediate between two orders, going out in loving adoration towards God and coming home to tell the secrets of Eternity to other men; so the artistic self-expression of this consciousness has also a double character. It is love-poetry, but love-poetry which is often written with a missionary intention. Kabîr's songs are of this kind: out-births at once of rapture and of charity. Written in the popular Hindi, not in the literary tongue, they were deliberately addressed—like the vernacular poetry of Jacopone da Todì and Richard Rolle—to the people rather than to the professionally religious class; and all must be struck by the constant employment in them of imagery drawn from the common life, the universal experience. It is by the simplest metaphors, by constant appeals to needs, passions, relations which all men understand—the bridegroom and bride, the guru and disciple, the pilgrim, the farmer, the migrant bird—that he drives home his intense conviction of the reality of the soul's intercourse with the Transcendent. There are in his universe no fences between the "natural" and "supernatural" worlds; everything is a part of the creative Play of God, and therefore—even in its humblest details—capable of revealing the Player's mind. Cite error: Closing </ref> missing for <ref> tag
As mentioned above, Kabir's poetic style utilizes both metaphors and similes from everyday life, and the paradoxical language of tantra. The passage quoted below provides an instance of this type of paradoxical language in its final stanza (while simultaneously representing the sage's distaste for organized religion):
For an instance of his more "homey" use of metaphor, note the following passage:
In this passage, the clarified butter (ghi) represents the "essence of the milk," which, in this context, provides an allegory for the foolish individual who ignores the omnipresent signs of the Divine and forsakes spirituality.
A final stylistic point that strikes many readers is Kabir's the visceral, at times downright combative, style (his "rough rhetoric," to quote Hess). This authorial choice was likely motivated by two separate factors: first, he was responding to ideas and social institutions (i.e. the caste system and religious factionalism) whose perceived illegitimacy actually made him upset; second, given that his message was both counter-cultural and religiously innovative, it likely served his pedagogical purposes to shock his listeners out of their complacent assumptions. As Hess notes, "there may be unity underlying Kabir's vision, but he does not take the route of the classical poet to reveal it. Unceremoniously, he shows us actual human feeling, surrounds us with the experience of delusion, makes vivid the fragmented nature of ordinary life. What unity there is comes forth in flashes, or in leaps from the disordered surface of the world to momentary recognition." For an example of this type of verse, in this case addressing the theme of life's transience, we turn to the Bijak:
In Kabir's wide and rapturous vision of the universe, he refuses to be bogged down by the inane classifications of believers as Hindu or Muslim, Sufi or Bhakta. Indeed, he was, as he says himself, "at once the child of Allah and of Râm."Cite error: Closing </ref> missing for <ref> tag The constant insistence on simplicity and directness, the hatred of all abstractions and philosophizings, the ruthless criticism of external religion: these are amongst his most marked characteristics. These various creeds merely the different angles from which the soul may approach that simple union with Brahman which is its goal; and are useful only insofar as they contribute to this consummation. So thorough-going is Kabîr's eclecticism, that he seems by turns Vedantin and Vaishnavite, Pantheist and Transcendentalist, Brahmin and Sufi. "For Kabir, there could be no revealed religion at all—no Veda, no Qur'an. All scriptural authority he emphatically denied, and he warned people against searching for truth in "holy books": "Reading, reading, the whole world died—and no one ever became learned!"
Kabir's antinomian attitudes towards religious affiliations are well summarized by Walker:
Despite his avoidance of such religious institutions, Kabir has come to be revered as satguru by a sect of Hindus and Muslims (the Kabirpanthi), headquartered in Maghar.
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