Study Guide

Kabīr

Kabīr Essay - Critical Essays

Kabīr (Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Introduction

Kabīr 1398?-1448?

Indian poet, mystic, and religious reformer.

Although he was an illiterate weaver who did not write down any of his more than seven hundred poems and songs, Kabīr is regarded as one of the foremost classical Indian poets and probably the most quoted author in Hindi. His poetry, in the form of couplets, love poems, and mystic songs, satirized the pretensions of orthodox Hinduism and Islam. His work gave new direction to Indian philosophy and the Bhakti movement, which emphasized faith and devotion to God over ritualism and scriptural learning. Kabīr's poems and sayings were written down by his disciples and appeared in various collections after his death, among them the Sikh holy book the Gurū Granth which includes over five hundred of his verses. The most authoritative collection of his works is the Bījak, which circulated in manuscript form for centuries before being printed for the first time in 1868. Kabīr has an intense and loyal following among many Muslims, who see him as a Sufi mystic; Hindus, who regard him as a saint; and Sikhs, whose religious leader was an admirer of the rebel poet's unorthodox approach. His poetry is characterized by its energy and use of simple language, homespun imagery, and biting satire directed at religious orthodoxy. He was also one of the earliest and most vehement critics of the Hindu caste system. In his poetry Kabīr denounces the hypocrisy of religious leaders and their articles of faith, pointing the way for simple people to forge their own understanding of God and rely on their own, individual experiences to show them true spiritual fulfillment.

Biographical Information

Very little is known for certain about Kabīr's life, although there are a number of legends surrounding his birth and religious career. The most popular story holds that he was born to a widow after she was blessed by the Brahmin teacher and ascetic Ramananda. The woman, a Hindu, left her child floating on a lotus leaf on the lake Lahar Talao, where he was found by poor Muslim weavers. This legend was most likely designed by Hindus to claim for Kabīr “pure” Brahmanical roots and play down his Muslim background. Muslim accounts of his life correspondingly emphasize his Islamic birth.

Kabīr was most likely born around 1398 in the city of Benares, also called Kashi, although some accounts put his birth as late as 1440. His father was probably a Muslim weaver named Niru, who lived with his wife, Nima, in dire poverty, as was typical for his caste. Some modern scholars speculate that Kabīr belonged to a family of non-celibate yogis who had recently converted to Islam, partly because his knowledge of Islam is quite superficial. In any event, because Benares was a Hindu city of pilgrimage, Kabīr grew up influenced by Hinduism, and from a young age showed an interest in Hindu teachings and practice. Early on he became a disciple of Ramananda, causing much protest by orthodox Hindus and Brahmins alike. Kabīr was never formally educated and was almost completely illiterate; according to one legend, the only word that he ever learned how to write was “Rama,” the name of one of the incarnations of God. He earned his living as a weaver, although he also was part of the circle of thinkers associated with his teacher who were engaged in theological and philosophical arguments. Unlike other religiously minded men of his day, Kabīr had a wife and children, with whom he lived in a hut outside of Benares.

Benares, in Kabīr's day, was the center of Brahminic learning, and Brahmins controlled the religious and social life of the city. Kabīr rejected their teachings and made it his work to satirize and criticize their approach to religion. He attracted followers, who would meditate with him and listen to his preaching, which often took the form of poetic couplets or songs. Like Jesus before him, Kabīr was criticized and ridiculed by the priestly class for preaching to prostitutes and other low castes, but he continued to denounce organized religion in general and Brahminism in particular. He repeatedly condemned the Brahmins' ritualism, religious hypocrisy, and teachings on caste. He roamed about the country singing his songs and gaining a large following among commoners, who for the first time began to question Brahmin orthodoxy. Kabīr also attacked the hypocrisy he perceived among Islamic teachers, and thus he became an object of the wrath of both orthodox Hindus and Muslims. He did not merely attack the beliefs of religious teachers, however, but also the ideas set forth in the Vedas and Quaran, their sacred texts. He rejected the idea that books, teachers, or any other authority could tell people about God, since God is inexpressible, beyond understanding, and, yet, to be found in the ordinary objects and circumstances of life.

Another legend has it that the emperor Sikander Lodi learned that Kabīr was leading the people astray by preaching false doctrines. When he was brought before the emperor, Kabīr refused to bow to him, asserting that the only emperor he knew and before whom he would prostrate himself was God. The emperor banished Kabīr from the city. This is said to have taken place when Kabīr was almost sixty years old. Another story says that when Kabīr realized his time of death was near, when he was over a hundred, he moved from Banares to the “cursed” city of Magahar. He did this to show his disapproval of the the Brahminical superstition that any one who died in the city of Banares would go to heaven while anyone who died in Magahar would go to hell. Modern scholars think Kabīr probably died around 1448, when he was fifty years old, but again there is disagreement, and some assert that he died as late as 1518. When he died, Kabīr's body was claimed by both Muslim and Hindu religious leaders, a testament to the following he had and the reputation he had garnered. Each group claimed him to be of its faith and wanted to dispose of his body according to its particular religious rites. Legend says that as the two sides were quarreling, Kabīr's voice came from heaven and said that in life he was neither Hindu nor Muslim, and that to those who see clearly, both religions are the same. Kabīr's corpse then miraculously vanished, and in its place were left flowers. Half were taken by the Hindus, who cremated them and built a temple on the ashes, and the other half by Muslims, who buried them and built a mosque over the grave. After his death Kabīr's supporters formed a religious order. The “Kabīrpanthis,” as his followers are known, exist to this day. They view Kabīr as a saint, preach simplicity and morality, and sing praises of God.

Major Works

Since he was illiterate, Kabīr did not write down any of the poems or songs he composed and recited, nor did he create any systematic treatise of his religious beliefs. Although he himself denounced the authority of the written word, after he died, Kabīr's disciples began to transcribe his verse. The Bījak, the most authoritative collection of Kabīr's work and the sacred text of the Kabīrpanthis, has been in circulation in various forms since shortly after his death. His work has also been preserved by different sects of his followers. The founder of the Sikh religion, Nanak, was greatly influenced by Kabīr, and a number of his poems are recorded in the Sikh religious text, the Gurū Granth. No printed edition of Kabīr's poetry existed until the nineteenth century, when Western scholars, mostly missionaries, began to take an interest in his work. The Italian monk Padre Marco della Tomaba translated some of his verses into Italian in the late 1700s, but this work was not published. The first printed English version of Kabīr's poems appeared in 1877 in The Adi Granth, a translation of the Gurū Granth. The first printed edition of the Bījak, in the original Hindi, appeared in 1868. Translations into other Indian languages followed, notably K. M. Sen's Bengali rendering in 1911. Sen's work was translated into English by the poet Rabindranath Tagore in 1914, and Tagore's versions of Kabīr's works are those most familiar to Western readers. In 1928 another important Hindi collection of Kabīr's work, based on manuscripts dating as early as 1504, was published. The Kabīr-granthāvalī (complete works) is today considered one the authoritative collections of the poet's writings.

There is some dispute among scholars about the authenticity of some of the poems attributed to Kabīr, but for the most part the verses in the Bījak are considered to be canonical. Scholars familiar with the poet's work note that his poems, usually couplets, or dohas, are always written using simple but spirited language with images and metaphors drawn from everyday life. In his poems Kabīr criticizes organized religion and its rituals, rejects notions of caste, and offers moral lessons about true righteousness and oneness with God that do not depend on laws and codes devised by humans. He preaches nonconformity and satirizes the superstitions and traditions of Islam and Hinduism as he saw them practiced by the religious leaders of his day. Because he was not writing to the elite but speaking to other illiterate persons, his images are vivid and taken from contexts that would be familiar to them; he does not use literary allusions but refers to ordinary events and objects of daily living. The many weaving metaphors he uses reflect his humble background as well. The most striking feature of Kabīr's poetry, however, is its biting tone and stinging criticism of religious orthodoxy. Over and over he deflates the superiority of those who divide humans by caste, pretend to be holy, and think they have privileged access to God.

Critical Reception

Although it is difficult to separate mythology from fact in the stories that have been handed down about Kabīr, it seems clear that during his lifetime he gained a loyal following and was known as a rebel poet and preacher. Ironically, Kabīr today has achieved the status of a saint among both Hindus and Muslims, and thus is revered as one whose words and ideas can lead people to the truth about God—an idea he probably would have rejected. He is revered as a Sufi mystic, a Hindu saint, and a religious reformer, although during his life he was more interested in dismantling orthodox belief structures than reforming them.

Kabīr's poetry and songs are part of the consciousness of many ordinary Indians, especially in the north of the country, but it was only in the nineteenth century, after they were collected and printed, that they began to be studied systematically by scholars. Critics writing in English have tended to concentrate their analyses on the biographical details or legends of Kabīr's life, his criticism of orthodoxy, and his nature as a Bhakti poet. Evelyn Underhill's introduction to Tagore's translation was one of the earliest critical introductions of the poet's life to the English-speaking world. Underhill stressed the poet's mysticism and his use of images from everyday life. One of the foremost English-language critics of Kabīr's verse, Charlotte Vaudeville, has attempted a textual history of Kabīr's poetry, tracing the written records of his writing from the years shortly after his death. Other critics have examined Kabīr's energetic style, his emphasis on the interior experience of religion, his standing as a poet and not merely a mystic, and Tagore's translation of his work. Some have noted the irony of his status today as a Hindu or Muslim saint among orthodox believers, when so much of his writing denounces the pretensions and narrow-mindedness and formalism of organized religion and the fiction that some humans have greater access to God than others.

Principal Works

Bījak (poetry) 1868

The Adi-Granth [contributor; translated by E. Trumpp] (religious text) 1877

Bījak [translated by Prem Chand] (poetry) 1911

One Hundred Poems of Kabīr [translated by Rabindranath Tagore with Evelyn Underhill] 1914

The Sayings of Kabīr [translated by Lala Kannoo Mal] (prose) 1923

Kabīr-granthāvalī. 3 vols. [edited by S. S. Das] (poetry and prose) 1928

Kabīr the Great Mystic [translated by Isaac A. Ezekiel] (poetry) 1966

Love Songs of Kabīr [translated by G. N. Das] (poetry) 1992

A Weaver...

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Criticism

Evelyn Underhill (essay date 1914)

SOURCE: Underhill, Evelyn. Introduction to One Hundred Poems of Kabīr, translated by Rabindranath Tagore with Evelyn Underhill, pp. v-xlii. London: Macmillan & Co. Ltd., 1961.

[In the following excerpt, from a work originally published in 1914, Underhill recounts the legends surrounding Kabīr's life and discusses his reputation from his own time to the twentieth century, before examining his mystical poetry, which the critic says never loses its touch with common life.]

The poet Kabīr … is one of the most interesting personalities in the history of Indian mysticism. Born in or near Benares, of Mohammedan parents, and probably about the year 1440, he became in...

(The entire section is 5194 words.)

Charlotte Vaudeville (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: Vaudeville, Charlotte. “Kabīr and Interior Religion.” History of Religions 3 (1964): 191-201.

[In the following essay, Vaudeville emphasizes that Kabīr's religious beliefs were nonconformist and stressed the interiority and mystical nature of the spiritual experience, as he satirized religious orthodoxy and showed contempt for pious sages and prophets.]

Kabīr (1440-1518)—from his true name Kabīr-Dās, “the servant of the Great (God)”—is one of the great names of the literature and religious history of North India. He belongs to that first generation of poets of the “Hindi” language who composed couplets and songs for the people in a language...

(The entire section is 4937 words.)

Isaac Ezekiel (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: Ezekiel, Isaac. “Literary Style.” In Kabir: The Great Mystic, pp. 62-74. Punjab, India: Radha Soami Satsang Beas, 1966.

[In the following essay, Ezekiel explores the daring simplicity of Kabīr's style and the directness and vigor with which he set forth his unorthodox ideas.]

Both Muslims and Hindus will go to hell,
With Qazis and Brahmins leading them there.
Both deserve nothing better.

Kabir

There is probably no Indian author whose verses are more on the lips of North India than those of Kabir, unless it be Tulsidas.

Rev. Keay

No Indian Saint has...

(The entire section is 3319 words.)

Prabhakar Machwe (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: Machwe, Prabhakar. “Poetry.” In Kabir, pp. 35-43. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1968.

[In the following essay, Machwe argues that Kabīr's originality—evident in the language, meter, paradoxes, and ideas in his works—marks him as more than merely a “mystic poet” but a poet in the broadest and deepest sense of the word.]

Search the word and know the word
          Follow the word by word
Word is sky and word is underworld
          Word pervades the core and the cosmos
Word is in speech and in hearing
          Word makes the image and the form
Word is Ved and word is the sound
          Word is the scripture sung variously
Word is the visible and the...

(The entire section is 2785 words.)

Robert Bly (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: Bly, Robert. “Some Rumors about Kabir.” In The Kabir Book: Forty-Four of the Ecstatic Poems of Kabir, adapted by Robert Bly, pp. 61-9. Boston: Beacon Press, 1977.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1971, Bly recounts some stories about Kabīr's life, discusses his status as a Bhakti poet, and offers brief comments on what he regards as the poet's intensely spirtual and controversial verse.]

1

No one knows much about Kabir. A few life details and a few stories are told over and over. He was evidently not a monk or ascetic, but was married, had children, and made his living by weaving cloth at home. Some say he was the...

(The entire section is 2145 words.)

Baidyanath Saraswati (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Saraswati, Baidyanath. “Notes on Kabir: A Non-literate Intellectual.” In Dissent, Protest and Reform in Indian Civilization, edited by S. C. Malik, pp. 167-84. Simla, India: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 1977.

[In the following essay, Saraswati explores Kabīr's poetry and describes the poet as a non-literate genius who criticized institutional religion and religious and intellectual elitism, while making spirituality accessible to common people. The critic goes on to point out the irony of the attempt by scholars and some of Kabīr's followers to make his ideas acceptable and in line with orthodox philosophy and religion.]

The first historical event...

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Ashok Kumar Jha (essay date May-June 1986)

SOURCE: Jha, Ashok Kumar. “Kabir in Tagore's Translation.” Indian Literature 29, no. 3 (May-June 1986): 48-60.

[In the following essay, Jha analyzes the influence of Rabindranath Tagore's own poetry on his translations of Kabīr's verse.]

As if conscious of the limitation of translating a text, Evelyn Underhill, in her introduction to One Hundred Poems of Kabir, points out that Kabir is able to dramatize his symbols, and that he uses all the senses in communicating his experience. To state in advance to the reader what a text appears to lose in taking to the medium of another person, Underhill takes pains to mention Kabir's use of popular Hindi to his...

(The entire section is 4305 words.)

Charlotte Vaudeville (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Vaudeville, Charlotte. “Kabīr's Language and Languages.” In A Weaver Named Kabīr: Selected Verses With a Detailed Biographical and Historical Introduction, pp. 109-30. Delhi, India: Oxford University Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Vaudeville explores the complex subject of the language of Kabīr's poems, discussing the languages in which the verses were written, his own spoken language, the language of the literate versus the non-literate people of his day, and the poet's spontaneous style.]

There is no evidence that Kabīr ever composed a single work or even wrote a single verse—though a large number of works has been attributed to him by the...

(The entire section is 6424 words.)