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.
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.
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.
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.