Kabir

Kabir
(fl. ca. 1450)
   Kabir was a northern Indian poet and mystic, one of the most influential poet-saints of the bhakti movement— a spiritual movement that became popular in India between the 12th and 18th centuries. The bhakti focused on a passionate devotion to god, and stressed that this devotion was internal—independent of the traditional, external Hindu rituals or social mores. Kabir, who was raised a Muslim in the low social caste of weavers, condemned both Muslim and Hindu ritual, and opposed the institutionalized caste system as well. Presenting a mysticism that transcends religious sectarianism, Kabir’s poetry has influenced Hindus and Muslims as well as Sikhs in India through the ages.
   Details of Kabir’s life are shrouded in mystery and legend. One tradition claims that he was of virgin birth, his Brahman mother having become pregnant while visiting a Hindu shrine. In any case he may have been illegitimate: Legend says he was adopted as an infant by a Muslim family in the city of Benares (Varanasi), and was raised as a part of a community of weavers recently converted to Islam—his name is a Muslim word meaning “the great,” an epithet of Allah.Another legend says that he became a disciple of the famous Hindu guru Ramananda. While some say he studied Hindu texts, other traditions claim that he had no formal education and was illiterate, having learned only to write the word Rama—a Hindu name for god.His songs, in the Hindi language, were most likely performed before an audience of Muslims and Hindus from all social classes. The poems display an ecumenical fusion of Muslim and Hindu traditions, and present the divine power as an undifferentiated god with whom the human soul seeks to unite.
   Legends of miracles surround Kabir’s life. One tradition says he fed a great crowd of people through a divine miracle.Another legend has him walking on water. But the most famous legend concerns Kabir’s death. He is rumored to have been banished from Benares for his unorthodox teaching, and to have spent many years wandering through the cities of northern India, finally dying at Maghar near Gorakhpur. Yet he is said to have had many disciples from both the Hindu and Muslim traditions, and upon his death the Hindus wanted his body for cremation, while the Muslims wanted it for burial. But before the heated argument could erupt into violence between the factions, it was discovered that a great heap of flowers had replaced Kabir’s body under his shroud. The flowers were divided equally among Kabir’s followers.
   These legends suggest the reverence in which Kabir was held by subsequent generations. The poems of his most important collection, the Bijak (a name that probably means “account book”), reveal a universal mysticism characteristic of a particular branch of the bhakti movement called nirgun (“without qualities”), in which, like many other mystical traditions, god is perceived as unnamable and limitless.Human institutions like orthodox religions that involve external rituals, or the study of sacred texts, or the ascetic discipline associated with yoga, are all meaningless. God must be approached through the devotion of interior spiritual practice that spontaneously and mystically seeks unity with him.
   Of the Hindus, Kabir says:
   I’ve seen the pious Hindus, rule-followers,
   early morning bath-takers
   killing souls, they worship rocks.
   (Hess and Singh 1983, “Saints, I see the world is mad,” ll.4–6)
   The Muslims fare no better:
   I’ve seen plenty of Muslim teachers, holy men
   reading their holy books
   and teaching their pupils techniques.
   They know just as much.
   (Hess and Singh 1983, “Saints, I see the world is mad,” ll.7–10)
   The only real truth involves the disintegration of all such boundaries in the unity of god:
   Kabir says, plunge into Ram!
   There: No Hindu. No Turk.
   (Hess and Singh 1983, “It’s a heavy confusion,” ll.11–12)
   Kabir’s poetry displays a reverential tone toward god, but an ironic and iconoclastic tone toward society. He uses a conversational vernacular that has made his songs accessible to generations of Indians of all classes. Some of his poems, epigrammatic couplets called doha, are so much a part of the popular culture in northern India that even today people will sometimes preface what they say with, “As Kabir says . . .” In recent decades his poems have been translated by American poet Robert Bly and earlier by the Indian Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore.
   Bibliography
   ■ Kabir. The Bijak of Kabir. Translated by Linda Hess and Shuledev Singh. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1989.
   ■ ———. The Kabir Book: Forty-four of the Ecstatic Poems of Kabir. Translated by Robert Bly. Boston: Beacon Press, 1977.
   ■ ———. Songs of Kabir. Translated by Rabindranath Tagore. New York: S.Weiser, 1974.
   ■ Sethi,V. K. Kabir: The Weaver of God’s Name. Punjab, India: Radha Soami Satsang Beas, 1984.
   ■ Vaudeville, Charlotte. A Weaver Named Kabir. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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