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...
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