“Having recognized the Lord within, my thoughts rest only in Him. Now wherever I cast my eyes, I see none else but Him…. Since realization came, here, there, everywhere the Lord alone I see.”
Kabir ranks among the world’s greatest poets. He lived in the Indian city of Benares about a hundred years before Shakespeare, his life spanning most, if not all, of the 15th century.
Like most Indian writers, Kabir is little known in the west. His poetry, often difficult to translate to English because of his use of arcane words and allusions, is nonetheless simple, immediate and deep.
Kabir was more than a poet. He was a philosopher and a man of the spirit. He was wise and humble and close to God. He was a saint.
In India he is perhaps the most quoted of writers, but, at the same time, in his life he criticized all the religious sects of his country. Regardless of this, he is still mentioned with respect and honour by even those most tradition-bound. This paradox can be accounted for by the fact that Kabir spoke the Truth. He, simply, had Wisdom.
It was this wisdom that told Kabir where he could find the truth.
He went to the bank of theRiver Ganges in Benares and he stayed there waiting for a great realized soul called Ramanand who alsio happened to be of the Brahmin caste. When Swami Ramanand came back after his bath, Kabir immediately caught hold of his feet. If somebody catches hold of the feet of any brahmin, especially after bath, that Brahmin would be typically outraged. But Ramanand was a saint. He was not a brahmin.
“He said, ‘My son, what do you want?’
“He said, ‘Sir, give me initiation. I want self realization.’
And Swami Ramanand immediately agreed.
“Ramanand’s followers objected saying, ‘Sir, he is a Muslim. He’s an orphan, brought up in a Muslim family. How can you give realization? He’ll not accept any of the principles from the Hindu religion.’
Ramanand looked at Kabir and he could see a great seeker there. He replied, ‘You don’t know him. I know him.’ And he took him with him and Kabir became a great saint at the feet of the mighty Ramanand
He went to a man who did not belong to his religion, who may not have accepted him, who might have just thrown him in the river in anger but he knew also through his wisdom that Ramanda was the one who will love him because they were both Seekers of Truth.
It is interesting to note that Swami Ramanand in this story fulfilled his own prophesy, for it had been him, years before, who had blessed Kabir’s mother to have an illustrious child. Ramanand accepted his new disciple without knowing his identity.
While Kabir properly honoured and respected his guru, there were differences in their understanding of reality. While Kabir scorned the outward rituals of the established ways, Ramanand still held them in reverence. While a traditionalist of the established order, Ramanand did allow Kabir to grow in his own way — and to the benefit of both men. With time, Ramanand came around to Kabir’s ways. It was the guru who changed.
Swami Ramanand had the habit to perform a daily puja to Lord Ram. He did this not with his hands, but with his attention. Washing, decorating and making offerings, Ramanand’s worship was in his mind. One day in his house, Ramanand performed his puja. Kabir, the disciple, sat outside, separated by a curtain. To his consternation, Ramanand realized he had made a mistake. He had mentally placed the crown on his God before placing the garland. The garland was not large enough in circumference to fit over the crown and the crown could not be removed once placed. What was he to do? Ramanand pondered his predicament. To remove the crown now would be disrespectful. From outside, from behind the curtain, Kabir spoke: “Gurudev, untie the knot of the garland and then tie it around the idol’s neck.” The guru was startled. How could Kabir have known his problem? No words had been spoken. Nothing was there to be seen. The swami called to his senior disciples, “Remove the curtain, for what can one hide from Kabir?” Ramanand stood up and embraced his disciple. He also began to embrace Kabir’s outspoken views. Kabir’s knowledge of the Inner Path would soon gain the guru’s acceptance.
To understand Kabir, we should go back to his roots. Born of a low, but skilled, caste, between the two worlds of Hindus and Muslims, Kabir understood life. “I do not quote from the scriptures,” he wrote. “I simply see what I see.” It is said that he invented his own caste — a caste below all others.
Lord, I weave the cloth of Thy Name
The fruitless toil
Of weaving for the world
Has come to an end;
I have attained
The dazzling state of bliss —
Free from fear, free from pain,
I am the weaver, O Lord, of Thy Name;
I weave and reap the profit
Of inner rapport with Thee.
I am the weaver of the Lord’s Name.
Kabir rejected the outward show of the sadhus, ascetics, all “God men” around him, who he described as “the thugs of Benares.” God is to be found, not in the temple, but inside:
I have met Him in my heart.
When a stream enters the Ganges,
it becomes the Ganges itself.
Kabir is lost in the Ganges.
Kabir knew true knowledge is taught by life:
There is nothing but water in the holy pools.
I know, I have been swimming in them.
All the gods sculpted of wood or ivory can’t say a word
I know, I have been crying out to them.
The sacred Books of the east are nothing but words.
I looked through their covers one day sideways.
What Kabir talks of is only what he has lived through.
If you have not lived through something it is not true.
Kabir stood firm on the Path of the Spirit: “Religion devoid of love is heresy,” he declared. “Yoga and penance, fasting and alms-giving are, without meditation, empty,” he affirmed.
There are many incidents and stories told about Kabir’s life, how he spoke out unhindered, addressing the spiritual confusions that surrounded him. One such dramatic sequence took place in the king’s court.
When a neighbouring sultan visited Benares, the king, an admirer of Kabir, was persuaded to summon the poet for the sultan’s inspection.
To the shock of all present, Kabir, rather than bowing and humbling himself, merely offered a common greeting no different than he would to any man. When asked to explain his behaviour, Kabir noted that there is only one king in the world — God. “Within the Hindu and the Muslim,” he added, “dwells the same God.”
The sultan, although not entirely a noble ruler, saw something in Kabir’s remarks. He was impressed by Kabir’s candor. He knew that it was no ordinary man who stood before him, but a true lover of God. Kabir’s transgressions were dismissed.
It was however the priests, both Hindu and Muslim, who, in alliance, campaigned and organized a case against the poet-saint. Assembling allies and witnesses in a political move against Kabir, who they felt was threatening their authority in the community, they forced him to return to the court to face trial. On his return, Kabir only smiled. “All my life,” he began, “I have tried to impress upon the Hindus and Muslims that God is one, the Father of both. I pleaded with them to join hands in worshipping the Lord of All, but they rejected my plea. They could never stand together in the court of the King of kings, but today it amuses me to see them standing united in the court of a worldly king, a mortal like all others.”
This was too much. The united front of the Muslim and Hindu “holy men” convinced the sultan of Kabir’s guilt as a heretic. Kabir was sentenced to death by drowning, but when thrown to the river his chain broke and Kabir floated away unharmed. The charge of magician was added and Kabir was set out to be trampled by an elephant, but the animal would not cooperate. “In its heart, too,” Kabir explained, “dwells the Lord.” Not to give up in defeat, the conspirators put Kabir to a fire. This time, however, he emerged, it is said, emitting a divine radiance.
Everyone was speechless in awe, including the sultan. To his credit, the sultan ordered Kabir freed of his ties. He approached the poet with remorse and guilt. “I did not realize your greatness,” he said at last. “Please forgive me.” He stood before the saint, eyes downcast, awaiting his judgement.
“You are not at fault,” Kabir said with the graciousness only possible in a saint. “Such was the will of God. Look up, O Sultan. Don’t feel sad. Forget what has happened. The Lord is all love and mercy. In His court true repentance never goes unrewarded.”
As Kabir says, “Forgiveness is a game that only the saints play.”
Like Gnyaneshwara before him and Guru Nanak and Sai Baba of Shirdi, who were to follow, Kabir strove for the One Truth. He described himself as the son of both Ram and Allah:
I am not a Hindu,
Nor a Muslim am I!
I am this body, a play
Of five elements; a drama
Of the spirit dancing
With joy and sorrow
Kabir urged introspection:
You were born on Earth as human,
Why are you in slumber now?
Take care of yourself;
Yourself is what you have to know.
The learned pundit gives discourse,
Not knowing God is near;
He does not know God dwells in him,
So seeks him here and there.
He urged us to get past the maya that surrounds us:
I am looking at you,
You at him,
Kabir asks, how to solve
This puzzle —
You, he and I?
To live for sons and wealth,
For belongings and health,
O Kabir, is to be like the bird
Which during one night’s stay
Starts loving the tree.
One commentator of some insight, V.K. Sethi, sums up Kabir’s character:
“His living on his own honest earnings, his simplicity and purity, had a powerful impact on those who came in contact with him. His spiritual insight and personal charm kept even his opponents spellbound at times. Endowed with great spiritual power, attracting the rich and the poor, the learned and the simple to the circle of his disciples, he was yet humble and unassuming.”
Unlike many saints, Kabir was a writer. He left his words for us in his own hand. There is no doubt about what he said. In English, we are blessed to have had many of Kabir’s poems translated for our understanding by the great Indian novelist and playwright Rabindranath Tagore, also a realized soul.
It is estimated that Kabir wrote approximately two thousand bhajans and fifteen hundred couplets. Since, like many saints, his life has been wrapped in a cloak of legend, of miracles and of stories, it is best to approach a true understanding of Kabir through his own words:
Are you looking for me? I am in the next seat.
My shoulder is against yours.
You will not find me in the stupas, not in Indian shrine rooms, nor synagogues, nor in cathedrals:
not in masses, nor kirtans, not in legs winding around your own neck, nor in eating nothing but vegetables,
When you really look for me, you will see me instantly —
you will find me in the tiniest house of time.
Kabir says: Student, tell me, what is God?
He is the breath inside the breath.
I said to the wanting-creature inside me:
What is this river you want to cross?
There are no travellers on the river-road, and no road.
Do you see anyone moving about on that bank, or nesting?
There is no river at all, and no boat, and no boatman.
There is no tow rope either, and no one to pull it.
There is no ground, no sky, no time, no bank, no ford!
And there is no body, and no mind!
Do you believe there is some place that will make the soul less thirsty?
In that great absence you will find nothing,
Be strong then, and enter into your own body;
there you have a solid place for your feet.
Think about it carefully!
Don’t go off somewhere else!
Kabir says this: just throw away all thoughts of imaginary things,
and stand firm in that which you are.
This word “sahaj” is in many of Kabir’s poems. He describes that state of perfect balance where one is closest to God:
Where there is neither sea nor rains,
Nor sun nor shade;
Where there is neither creation
Where prevails neither life nor death,
Nor pain nor pleasure;
Beyond the states of Sunn and trance;
Beyond words, O friend,
Is that unique state of Sahaj.
It can be neither weighed
Is neither heavy nor light;
It has no upper regions
Nor lower ones;
It knows not the dawn of day
Nor the gloom of night;
Where there is neither wind
Nor water nor fire,
There abides the perfect Master.
It is inaccessible,
It is, and it will ever be;
Attain it through the Master’s grace.
Sayeth Kabir: I surrender myself
At the feet of my Master,
I remain absorbed
In his true company.
This state of oneness with the Divine is Kabir’s state of sahaj, his “verdure of bliss” where there is no separation. He writes:
I am in all
All that is, is I
The different forms in existence
Are my myriad manifestations,
Yet I am apart from all.
Call me Kabir,
Call me Ramrai [God the Emperor],
It is one and the same.
I am not a child,
I am not old,
And the glow of youth
Never can touch me.
I go not at anyone’s bidding
Nor come at anyone’s command.
In my state of Sahaj
I am in the verdure of bliss
Call me Kabir,
Call me Ramrai,
It is one and the same.
My covering is a single sheet
And people sneer at me:
My weaver’s calling inspires no respect;
My dress is tattered,
Patched at ten places —
Yet beyond the three attributes
Beyond the region of the ‘fruit’ [the law of karma]
I dwell in the realm of bliss;
Thus have I acquired the name Ramrai.
I see the entire world,
The world cannot see me;
Such is the unique state
that Kabir has attained.
Call me Kabir,
Call me Ramrai,
It is one and the same.
Kabir described the details of the subtle system. He uses an analogy familiar to a weaver:
O Servant of God, where do the Ida, Pingala and Sushumna nadis go when the thread of life breaks?
One who holds the thread is beyond time, but where does he live?
The thread is neither tied nor breaks.
Who is the master and who is the servant?
Only He knows his secret as He is the Eternal.
What is the warp [lengthwise threads] and what is the weft [cross threads]?
What are the threads from which the chadar [cloth] is woven?
Ida and Pingala are the warp and weft.
Sushumna are the threads from which the chadar is woven.
Eight are the Lotuses and ten are the spinning wheels.
Five are the elements and three the qualities of the chadar.
V.K. Sethi writes, “For over seventy years Kabir had taught the path of God-realization, raising the voice of truth despite slander and criticism. Many Muslims, and Hindus of all castes, had joined the fold of his disciples. His simple exposition of spiritual truth in the language of the masses, his analysis of the existing forms of worship, his message emphasizing self-realization while living, and above all, his personal magnetism drew true seekers to his door. But the orthodox could not be deprived of their hold on the people. Their coin, embossed with orthodoxy on the one side and formalism on the other, had been declared counterfeit by Kabir, a coin that world never gain entry into the Lord’s Treasury.”
Kabir’s death was the last lesson of his life, but his poetry lives on to guide us always.
In India it is believed that if one dies in the holy city of Benares salvation is guaranteed and escape from the cycle of rebirth will follow. Many Hindus journey to Benares with this purpose. Kabir lived his life in Benares, but as death approached he decided to journey to the village of Maghar, a particularly arid and ill-fated settlement. “What difference is there,” he said, “between Benares and barren Maghar if God be in the heart?”
When he died, it is said, Maghur’s usually dry stream was restored to a year-round river of water. The popular stigma attached to the village vanished, but, as is often the pattern with humans, a dispute arose over the body of the poet. The Hindu and Muslim camps among his disciples both wanted his remains. The Muslims wanted to bury the body. The Hindus wanted to cremate it. When the cloth was removed there was no body to be seen— only flowers.
The Muslims buried their half. The Hindus burned theirs.
The lesson was there, but was it heeded?
Kabir is Sahaj:
Self-realization is my saddle;
In the stirrup of Sahaj
I place my foot and ride,
Astride the steed of my mind.
Come, my steed, I’ll take you
On a trip to heaven;
If you balk
I’ll urge you on
With the whip of divine love.
Says Kabir: The adept riders
Remain aloof from both
The Vedas and the Koran.