President Ram Nath Kovind inaugurated the Sant Kabir Academy and Research Centre Swadesh Darshan Yojana and paid tribute to the Bhakti saint, Kabir at Maghar (Uttar Pradesh) Sunday, June 5. According to legends, Kabir is said to have departed from the mortal world in Maghar.
During his address at the Kabir Chaura Dham, Kovind said, “The life of Kabir is an epitome of human virtue and his teachings are relevant today even after 650 years. Kabir’s life was an ideal example of communal solidarity.”
“He took the initiative to remove the evils, ostentation and discrimination and also lived the household life like a saint,” he added.
Kabir and the Bhakti movement
The Bhakti movement, which began in the 7th century in South India, had begun to spread across north India in the 14th and the 15th centuries. The movement was characterized by popular poet-saints who sang devotional songs to God in vernacular languages, with many preaching for the abolishing the Varna system and some kind of Hindu-Muslim unity. They emphasized an intense emotional attachment with God.
One school within the Bhakti movement was the Nirguni tradition and Sant Kabir was a prominent member of it. In this tradition, God was understood to be a universal and formless being.
Many of the saints of the Bhakti movement came from the ranks of the lower to middle artisanal classes. Kabir was a ‘low caste’ weaver (Julaha), Raidas was a leather worker and Dadu a cotton carder. Their radical dissent against orthodoxy and rejection of caste made these poet-saints extremely popular among the masses and their ideology of egalitarianism spread across India.
Kabir’s compositions can be classified into three literary forms – dohas (short two liners), ramanas (rhymed 4 liners), sung compositions of varying length, known as padas (verses) and sabdas (words).
Historical and legendary accounts of Kabir
Most historians agree on the following facts about Kabir. He was born in Varanasi and lived between the years 1398 and 1448, or till the year 1518 according to popular belief. He was from a community of ‘lower caste’ weavers of the Julaha caste, a group that had recently converted to Islam.
He learned the art of weaving, likely studied meditative and devotional practices under the guidance of a Hindu guru and grew to become an eminent teacher and poet-singer. Kabir’s beliefs were deeply radical, and he was known for his intense and outspoken voice which he used to attack the dominant religions and entrenched caste systems of the time. He composed his verses orally and is generally assumed to be illiterate.
There are myriad legendary accounts on the other hand, for which there exists less of a factual historical basis. However, they play a more crucial role in forming the shared identity of Kabir’s followers and their social, moral and religious values.
According to one, Kabir was born to a Brahmin widow, who placed him in a basket and set him afloat on a pond, after which he was rescued and adopted by a Muslim couple. In another myth, he was immaculately conceived by his mother and emerged from the palm of her hand.
He is also believed to be (but not on strong historical grounds) a disciple of the famous guru Ramananda, a 14th century Vaishnava poet-saint. Kabir knew that the saint would visit a certain ghat in Varanasi before the break of dawn. When Kabir saw him approaching, he lay down on the stairs which led to the river. Ramananda tripped over him and exclaimed his own mantra, ‘Ram, Ram!’. Kabir then claimed that the saint’s mantra had been transferred to him and therefore he must accept him as his disciple.
Kabir’s critique of religion and caste
Kabir is in modern times portrayed as a figure that synthesized Islam and Hinduism. In many of the popular bhajans associated with him today, his strong dissent towards religion is somewhat muted, according to religious studies scholar David Lorenzen. While he did borrow elements from different traditions, he very forcefully proclaimed his independence from them.
He did not only target the rituals and practices of both Hinduism and Islam, but also dismissed the sacred authority of their religious books, the Vedas and the Quran. Kabir did use the name Rama in his poems, but he clarified that he was not referring to the avatar of Vishnu, but a formless and general Hindu name for the divine. Author Manu S Pillai writes that he even combined Allah and Ram.
“Every man and woman born are forms of you, so says Kabir: I’m Ram and Allah’s foolish baby, he’s my guru and my pir,” he wrote.
Instead of God being an external entity that resided in temples or mosques, Kabir argued that God existed inside everyone.
“Why look for Me anywhere else, my friend, When I’m here, in your possession?…He is the very breath of our breaths.”
Kabir’s revolt against the caste system also sought to do away with the complex rituals and ceremonies performed by the Brahmins. He, like the other prominent saints of his time, argued that it was only through bhakti, intense love or devotion to God could one attain salvation.
In many of his verses, Kabir proclaimed that people of all castes have the right to salvation through the bhakti tradition.
He sought to eradicate caste distinctions and attempted to create an egalitarian society, by stressing the notion that a Bhakt (devotee) was neither a Brahmin nor an ‘untouchable’ but just a Bhakt.
Kabir’s legacy
Kabir’s own humble origins and his radical message of egalitarianism fostered a community of his followers called the Kabir Panth. A sect in northern and central India, many of their members are from the Dalit community. Historians estimate that it was established in India between 1600 and 1650, one or two centuries after his death.
Today, the sect exists as a large and distinct community, with various sects under different spiritual leaders. However, all regard Kabir as their guru and treat the Bijak as their holy scripture. The Bijak contains works attributed to Kabir and is argued by historians to have been written in the 17th century. Today, most of the followers continue to reject idol worship and are discouraged from praying at Hindu temples, according to the historian David Lorenzen. The main festival of most branches is Kabir Jayanti, the birthday of Kabir which is celebrated every summer with collective feasts at the maths.
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Among the 5,00,000 indentured labourers that were taken to Trinidad, Mauritius, Fiji and Guyana by the British in the 19th to 20th centuries, many were and continue to be members of the Kabir Panth.
Several of Kabir’s verses and songs form a vital part of the Guru Granth Sahib. Compiled in 1604, the text is the oldest written collection of Kabir’s work, according to Linda Hess, expert on Kabir studies.
Kabir’s combative positions and vehement critiques of established religions did not sit well with the elites of those communities, and Linda Hess suggests that there is evidence that both Hindus and Muslims were ready to assault him during his lifetime.
After his death, however, both communities almost came to blows over the right to claim his body. According to legend, Kabir’s Hindu and Muslim followers got ready to battle, but before they could strike someone removed the shroud to find a stack of flowers that replaced his corpse. The two communities then divided the flowers and buried or burned them according to their rituals.
Kabir’s teachings continue to shape various religious discourses in India today. In the Sikh tradition he is seen to have influenced Guru Nanak, for Hindus he is a Vaishnavite (devotees of Vishnu), and is revered by Muslims as a Sufi saint.
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