Nearly six centuries have passed since he was born, but Sant Kabir, the 15th-century mystic poet, has remained contemporary. The poet whose life influenced people of all religions he came close to is one of the most interesting personalities in the history of Indian mysticism.
To mark his 500th death anniversary year, the Government of Uttar Pradesh, the state where the poet spent most of his life, is dedicating an institution to Sant Kabir to further his teachings. On 27 June, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will lay the foundation stone for the Sant Kabir Akademi at Maghar where the mystic saint is said to have taken his samadhi five centuries ago.
The Akademi will be undertaking research, survey, publication and exhibition of the life and works of the social reformer. There will also be a state-of-the-art library relating to Kabir’s writings.
Sant Kabir was a unique combination of humanism who could not be confined to the realms of one religion. Kabir’s verses that influenced the Bhakti movement of Hinduism are found in Sikhism’s Guru Granth Sahib too. His spent his early life in a Muslim family, but he was strongly influenced by Ramananda, the Hindu Bhakti leader widely known as Kabir’s teacher.
Born near Benaras, or Varanasi, Kabir had his own definition of God. According to him, “true God” is with the person who is on the path of righteousness, considers all creatures as his own, and one who is passively detached from the worldly affairs.
Here are some lesser known facts about the great mystic poet.
His name and early life
Kabir, the name, comes from Arabic al-Kabīr which means “The Great” – the 37th name of God in Islam. His life story is riddled with contradictory legends emanating from both Hindu and Islamic sources. While Hindus claim him to be a Hindu saint, Muslims call him a Sufi. Undoubtedly, his name is of Islamic ancestry, and he is said to be the actual or adopted child of a Muslim weaver of Varanasi, the city where the chief events of his life took place. Kabir’s early life is not firmly established. As per Indian history, he is believed to have lived for 120 years from 1398 to 1518, which makes him contemporary to other famous historical figures such as Guru Nanak and Sikandar Lodi. Modern scholarship is however uncertain about the exact dates of his birth and death.
Ramananda’s influence on Kabir’s life
Kabir too often refers to Ramananda as his lord in his writings. Ramananda, Kabir’s guru, was a man of wide religious culture, and it is said he dreamt of reconciling this intense and personal Mohammedan mysticism with the traditional theology of Brahmanism and even Christian faith. Kabir’s genius lay in this outstanding characteristic that he writings could fuse these thoughts into one.
Hindu or Muslim?
Hindus called him Kabir Das, but it is impossible to say whether Kabir was a Brahmin or a Sufi, a Vedantist or a Vaishnavite. Kabir hated religious exclusivism. Kabir had been the disciple of Ramananda for years, joining in his teacher’s theological and philosophical arguments with all the great Mullahs and Brahmins of the time. Under Ramananda’s tutelage, he could easily become acquainted with both Hindu and Sufi philosophies.
The life Kabir led
Alongside his life of adoration which expressed artistically in his music and words, Kabir lived the sane life of a craftsman. Kabir, a weaver, was an unlettered simple man who earned his living working on the loom.
Kabir’s composition style was earthy and pithy, interspersed with imagery and surprise. Being illiterate, Kabir expressed his poems orally in Hindi, using dialects such as Avadhi, Braj, and Bhojpuri, which were spoken in the area. His Hindi was straightforward, as were his philosophies. A major part of Kabir’s work was collected by Guru Arjan Dev, the fifth Sikh guru, who incorporated them into the Sikh scripture, Guru Granth Sahib. Kabir’s works consist mostly of two-line couplets, known as ‘Kabir ke Dohe’.
His wonderful songs, beautified by the spontaneous expressions of his vision, make Kabir immortal. They can be read in several dialects now, with varying wordings and spellings as happens in oral tradition.
Kabir’s poetry has been widely used in mainstream Indian film music. The title song of Sufi fusion band Indian Ocean’s album Jhini too is influenced from Kabir’s famous poem, “Jhini jhini beeni chadariya”.
His best work
His greatest work is the Bijak (the ‘Seedling’). This collection of poems explains how Kabir viewed spirituality. His vocabulary may be replete with words such as Brahman, karma and reincarnation, which are Hindu spiritual concepts, Kabir is known for his vehement opposition to dogmas, both in Hinduism and Islam. He would often ask his followers to leave aside the Quran and the Vedas, and simply following the Sahaja path, which he described as the simple or natural way to God. He believed in the Vedantic concept of atman, but rejected the Hindu custom of idol worship, showing clear belief in both Bhakti and Sufi philosophies.
His last days
Kabir was brought before emperor Sikandar Lodi and charged with claiming possession of divine powers. He was banished from Varanasi in 1495. Thereafter, it is believed, he along with his disciples moved about throughout northern India, continuing his life in exile. Kabir died at Maghar near Gorakhpur in 1518.
Kabir’s last rites
Kabir’s influence was so great that after he died, similar to how different communities argued over cremation Lord Buddha upon his death, both Hindus and Muslims fought over his body. While Hindus wanted to cremate his body in Varanasi, Muslims wanted to bury it in Maghar according to their tradition.