WHEN THE 15TH CENTURY saint-poet Kabir died, the legend goes, his disciples fought over his body. Hindus insisted on cremating it while Muslims argued for a burial. A scuffle ensued, the shroud was torn away, and the rival claimants discovered that nothing remained of the master except a heap of flowers. The parable is absurd, tragic and illuminating. Absurd, because the disciples chose to wrangle over what the master had always dismissed as a leaky pitcher. Tragic, because the revolutionary who had railed against organised religion all his life fell victim to its enduring reflexes in death. And yet, finally, illuminating, because Kabir’s dramatic exit from the straitjacket of hypocritical bigotry leaves us with an elusive fragrance rather than a relic to be fetishised.
Kabir’s times were as turbulent as our own. In the presumed year of his birth, 1398, the Central Asian conqueror Timur drew a trail of slaughter across northern India. Decades of strife and instability followed, during which the capital swayed between regal caprice and ministerial conspiracy. In the provinces, popular unrest rallied under the banners of sectarian movements. Any contemporary government could usefully mull over his question: “Who will be sheriff/in a town littered with meat/where the watchman is a vulture?” Reflective of this society, Kabir’s poems are inhabited by a picaresque concourse of rogues and pilgrims, warlords, con artists, unkempt mendicants and venal officials. In response to their intrigues, Kabir posed the salutary insight that high-born and low-born were united by their mortality, their citizenship of a world that he described as a City of the Dead, murdon ka gaon.
Only by acknowledging death as life’s central reality, Kabir taught, can we achieve a radical clarity about the present and cultivate a communion with our fellow worldlings, sharers in our predicament. His theory of social being and moral agency rests on the principle of reciprocal altruism: “Don’t murder a poor creature,/he’ll pay you back the same./Make pilgrimage, give a million/jewels to the gods,/but you won’t be saved.”
Kabir’s biography is a tapestry of meagre fact and elaborate fiction. All that can be said with certainty is that he was born to a family of weavers recently converted to Islam. He very probably studied yogic meditational practices with a guru, perhaps with the renowned Vaishnava teacher Ramananda. The religious identity of newly converted Muslims in 15th century India was fluid, mediated through many systems of belief. In their consciousness, as the scholar-translator Linda Hess remarks, ‘Old Brahmanic Hinduism, Hindu and Buddhist Tantrism, the individualist tantric teaching of the Nath yogis, and the personal devotionalism coming up from the South mingled with the… imageless Godhead promulgated by Islam.’
Kabir’s surreal, paradoxical verses are descended from the sandhya-bhasha, the ‘twilight language’ employed to guard their illuminations by the 9th century masters of Tantric Buddhism in eastern India, the Siddhas. In these dethronements of logic, fish fly, cows intone hymns at a carnival, goats chase lions. An exponent of the oral tradition, Kabir described enlightenment as the sabda, the Word unheard, as akath katha, the untellable tale. Enlightenment, to him, meant communion with nirguna Brahman, the impersonal Divine. The written character fails, and the Divine must be apprehended through the spoken Name, the naama: “I don’t touch ink or paper,/this hand never grasped a pen./The greatness of four ages/Kabir tells with his mouth alone.”
Kabir’s elliptical, often abrasive utterances are preserved in padas and ramainis that learned and unlettered, peasants and courtiers, householders and ascetics have recited and quoted for six centuries. He confronts, even affronts, his listeners. “Fools!” he begins; or “Listen, O saints!”; or “Hey seeker!” The words carry a provocative irony. While implying that we possess true knowledge, Kabir berates us for our follies, frees us from chains of our own making, slaps us awake.
Those who project Kabir as an icon of Hindu-Muslim unity miss the point that although he drew metaphors from Hinduism and Islam, he was trenchantly subversive of both frameworks
Kabir’s assertion of the primacy of the coarse popular idiom over the scholar’s refined tongue embodied his stance in the key social conflict of his time and place: the conflict between Brahmin-dominated Varanasi and the lower-caste settlement of Maghar across the Ganga. Shuttling across the river, Kabir poured scorn on the orthodox polarity between pure and impure, sanctified and contaminated. A cross between Siddha and Sufi, he spoke of himself as “standing in the marketplace”—“Kabira khada baazar mein.”
Kabir’s works have come down to us through three traditional compilations, each associated with a particular sect and region. The oldest of these is the Guru Granth Sahib, the sacred book of the Sikhs, which was edited into its present form by 1603. It contains hymns and poems by Sikh gurus and by the mystics they revered, including Kabir, Ravidas, Namdev and Baba Farid. The other compilations, which achieved their final shape later in the 17th century, were the Panchvani and the Bijak. The Panchvani (‘The Words of the Five’) was put together in Rajasthan by the followers of the Dadu Panth and brought together songs by five saints they venerated, among them Kabir. The Panchvani represents the western Kabirian corpus. The Bijak, which contains poems attributed to Kabir alone and is the scripture of the Kabir Panth, arose in territories that are today part of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
The Kabir of the Bijak is an iconoclast, a revolutionary given to dramatic and violent pronouncements. The Kabir of the Guru Granth Sahib and the Panchvani is a softer personality, coloured by the ecstatic devotionalism of Vaishnava Bhakti, conceiving of God as the Beloved. This Kabir is the adoring lover in the sneha mode, or in the viraha mode, separated from the Beloved.
The Kabir of the Panchvani was long the most pervasive version, after Shyam Sundar Das published a selection from it in the 1920s as the Kabir Granthavali. Since Das was associated with influential Hindu revivalist circles in Varanasi, his Granthavali, with its image of Kabir as a Bhakti saint, acquired canonical status. Meanwhile, the Bijak, not as amenable to the requirements of Hindu revivalism, was dismissed as a sectarian work or a text marred by later interpolations. It was not until 1972 that the first critical edition of the Bijak appeared, through the determination of Shukdev Singh. It provided the basis for the celebrated 1983 translation by Linda Hess. In their respective translations and critical exegeses of the saint-poet, Charlotte Vaudeville and Vinay Dharwadker draw on all the traditional sources.
Already cast as Kabir Shah the pir, Kabirdas the Vaishnava bhakta and Kabir the bhagat of Sikh tradition, the saint-poet attracted further interpretations in the 20th century. Tagore regarded him as a proponent of the Universal Religion. Gandhi saw him as an early Hindu reformer. The linguist George Grierson claimed him as among the first Indian beneficiaries of Christian gnosis. These interpretations reveal more about their authors and intended audiences than they do about their subject.
What kind of Kabir can we construct for ourselves today? Those who project him as an icon of Hindu-Muslim unity miss the point that although he drew metaphors from Hinduism and Islam, Kabir was trenchantly subversive of both frameworks. He attacked both kazi and pandit with equal vigour: “If circumcision makes you a Muslim,/what do you call your women?/If putting on the thread makes you a Brahmin,/ what does your wife put on?” Kabir rejected every system that abandoned epiphany and compassion and enshrined dogma and anathema. There was no place, in his egalitarian perspective, for the caste system, the practice of untouchability and the stranglehold that custodians of scriptures exercise over their herd. Above all, Kabir’s was a doctrine of personal responsibility. He taught that the seeker ought to trust in himself or herself, in the emancipatory power of the Name. This teaching inspires us to resist the structures and narratives of control under which we consent to liv