KABĪR, from his full name Kabīr Dās (kabīr, Arabic for "great", dāsa, Sanskrit for "slave" or "servant"), is widely acknowledged as one of the great names in the literary and religious history of North India. He is one of the medieval Indian saints and Sūfīs whose compositions figure in Sikh Scripture, the Gurū Granth Sāhib. From among all of them, Kabīr 's contribution is the largest, 227 padas in 17 rāgas and 237 ślokas. Under each rāga or musical mode marking a section of the Holy Book, Kabīr's hymns appear at the head of Bhagat Bāṇī, a generic name for the works of contributors other than the Gurūs. The presence of a substantial amount of Kabīr's verse in the Sikh Scripture and chronologically he being the predecessor of Gurū Nānak, founder of the Sikh faith, led some Western scholars to describe him as the forerunner of Sikhism. Some have even called him the preceptor of Gurū Nānak. There is, however, no evidence to prove that Gurū Nānak and Kabīr had ever met : their periods of time in fact do not coincide. There is little to suggest that the former owed anything to the latter's teachings. Kabīr's compositions do figure in what are known as Goindvāl pothīs, anthologies of the hymns of the Gurūs along with those of some of the Bhaktas prepared in the time of Gurū Amar Dās, Nānak III. They were included in the Gurū Granth Sāhib as well. But this happened much later when Gurū Arjan, fifth in spiritual line from the Founder, compiled the Holy Book. Besides his own works and those of his four predecessors, he entered in it hymns of some saints and mystics, both Hindu and Muslim. Kabīr was one of them.
Kabīr lived in the fifteenth century after Christ, which was a time of great political upheaval in India. As is true of many other contemporary religious leaders, very little reliable information concerning Kabīr's life is available, though there is no dearth of legend gathered around him. According to traditional accounts, especially those by Kabīrpanthīs, as the followers of Kabīr are called, he lived for 120 years, from 1398 to 1518. Recent scholarship, however, has come to accept 1398 as the year of his birth but 1448 as the year of his death. Relying especially on the researches of Hazārī Prasād Dvivedī, Charlotte Vaudeville is inclined to lend credence to these dates.
Kabīr's life was centred around Kāshī, modern Banāras (Vārāṇasī). Legend has it that he was actually the son of a Brāhmaṇ widow who abandoned him and that he was found by a Muslim weaver named Nīrū, who adopted the boy and taught him the weaver's trade. It is not clear whether he ever married, but tradition gives him a wife named Loī and two children. His caste was that of julāhā and from his sayings (for instance, GG, 524) it seems clear that he followed (though in a somewhat erratic manner) his caste's hereditary occupation of weaving. Latter-day studies have established a Nāth background for the julāhās as a strong possibility. On the basis of this modern research, it seems probable that Kabīr belonged to a family of non-celibate yogīs converted, not long before and to a considerable degree superficially, to Islam. Though Kabīr's name is most certainly a Muslim one, his knowledge of Islam seems to have been slight. Rather, there is in his poetical utterances (bāṇī) a wealth of Haṭhayoga terminology and a thought structure which bears obvious resemblances to that of the Nāths. This is not to infer, however, that Kabīr was a Nāth yogī. In addition to the yogīc conception that all truth is experimental, i.e. to be realized within the body with the aid of psycho physical-practices, concentration, control of breathing and sexual practices, thus making the body incorruptible and the yogis immortal, two other currents had already been added to the general religious stream of Kabīr's time ----Vaiṣṇava devotion (bhaktī), which had come from the South, and Islamic mysticism (Sūfīsm) which had been gaining influence in northwest India since the influx of Sūfī saints in the thirteenth century. Kabīr's debt to the bhaktas is evident in the primacy given to loving devotion in his sayings. His concept of love as a path of suffering may possibly indicate, in some measure, a debt to the Sūfīs. These and other elements from Nāth tradition, bhaktī and Sūfīsm, Kabīr combined with his own mystical nature and produced the synthesis which is the distinctive religion of Kabīr. A strong tradition designates Svāmī Rāmānand as his gurū, but the numerous references which Kabīr does make to a gurū point unmistakably to the "True Gurū" within (Satgurū), the voice of God within the human soul.
In the fifteenth century, Banāras was, even more than it is today, the fortress of Brāhmaṇic orthodoxy and orthopraxis where the priestly elite held sway as masters. For the erudite Paṇḍits and their holy scriptures, for the priestly paṇḍās and their idols, for the immense mystification and exploitation of the ignorant and credulous masses, Kabīr felt aversion joined with indignation. No less was the satirical wit exercised by him on the superstitions of popular Hinduism. Not only did lie condemn the worship of idols, he also rejected all the proceedings and ceremonies, purificatory bathing, ritual feasts, pilgrimages and all sorts of other practices by which popular Hindu devotion manifested itself.
Because of his open condemnation of established and popular religion, Kabīr became an object of the wrath of both Hindus and Muslims in and around Banāras. Popular with many among the masses but persecuted by the ruling classes of Banāras, it is entirely likely, as maintained in tradition, that Kabīr spent less and less time at his loom and took to an itinerant life-style. Exactly where he went and how long he stayed can only be matters of conjecture. It is unanimously agreed that Kabīr's final days were spent not in Banāras, thought by many to be the most auspicious place for a Hindu to die at since death there leads automatically to heaven, but in the small village of Magahar, 43 km southeast of Bastī. It is said that anyone who died in this unfortunate place would automatically be reborn an ass. Thus, even in death Kabīr demonstrated what he had given his entire life to doing, i.e. overruling popular religious prejudice and practice. He rejected entirely all the external signs of religion. He acknowledged no caste distinctions, saw no virtue in asceticism, fasting and almsgiving, and belittled the six schools of Hindu philosophy. The Hindu theogony was a clear rejection. Belief in a Supreme Being was certainly central to his religious understanding. Although he used the name Rām frequently, it is obvious throughout his utterances that Rāma, the son of Dasaratha and incarnation of Viṣṇu, was not what he meant thereby. In two of the ślokas by Kabīr in the Gurū Granth Sāhib, he clearly says that while uttering Rām, Rām, one must understand the distinction between Rāma (king of Ayodhyā) who was the bearer of a single body and was one of the many of his kind, and Rām (God), the Lord of wonders (GG, 1374). It is within a person's soul that God may, by grace, reveal Himself. The revelation comes, however, only to him who has prepared himself to receive it. The way of preparation is the path of love, a love addressed directly to the supreme Lord, who is both transcendent and immanent, and a love which will inevitably involve long periods in the anguish of separation (viraha) akin to the "dark night of the soul" of which Western mystics speak. God, the True Gurū (Satgurū), discharges the arrow of the Word (śabda ) and man is "slain" that in "death" he may find "true life" (GG, 1374). This is to be found in mystical union, an ineffable experience of dissolution (samādhī) in the Divine.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Kabīr's satire was brought to bear not simply on the vices and weaknesses of men but reached through and beyond them to the very systems themselves, which they defended or pretended to represent. It was the authority of the Vedas and the Qurān more than the authority of the Paṇḍit or the Qāzī which Kabīr attacked. More precisely, he rebelled against the pretension of resolving, by means of books or by way of authority, the mystery of the human conditions and the problem of liberation (mokṣa).
There is inevitably much that must remain obscure in Kabīr 's attempts to describe his experiences, for they are fundamentally mystical in quality, and, as Kabīr himself repeatedly asserted, ultimately inexpressible. Throughout his utterances the emphasis is on interiorization. He constantly stressed that man ought to turn his attention away from the exterior world, from all sensible forms, in order to withdraw into the innermost depth of his soul where it is that God dwells. Monistic concepts, particularly as held and articulated by Nāth yogīs, certainly influenced Kabīr, but it seems clear from what he indicates of his own understanding of the nature of his relationship with God that his thought must be regarded as monotheistic and not monistic.
Kabīr composed no systematic treatise, rather his work consists of many short didactic poems, often expressed in terse vigorous language in the form of padas, dohās and ramainīs. Indeed, in some of his verses there is a tendency to rugged coarseness as fit expression for his unsparing invective. Besides his works recorded in 1604 in the Gurū Granth Sāhib by Gurū Arjan, Nānak V, and preserved inviolate since, two other collections exist ---- the Kabīr Granthāvalī and Bījak. From among these two the latter is not as old as Kabīr's followers, for whom it has a scriptural status, claim it to be. Kabīr is, however, often obscure and his meaning can only be understood through an acquaintance with traditional allegorical images, some of which were standard among the Sant poets and some unique to Kabīr. A further complicating factor is the riddlelike use of paradox (ulṭabāṅsī) so characteristic of much of Kabīr's poetry. At the same time, he was quick to find illustrations of moral and spiritual truth in the incidents of everyday life, and many of his similes and metaphors are very striking.
David C. Scott