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Kabir

Kabir

Kabir (c. 1440–c. 1518), thought to be active in India during the first half of the fifteenth century, was a religious mystic who spoke in poetic sayings that were passed down to his followers. It is difficult to say much more about his life with any certainty, for his life is perhaps more encrusted with legend than that of any other religious figure.

Kabir was probably not literate. The sparse information about his life and work that has come down from his own time has been embellished by oral tradition and manipulated by religious groups with their own agenda, to a point where it is impossible to establish even such basic facts as the places and dates of Kabir's birth and death. Yet Kabir has exerted a strong hold on religious and literary imaginations in both India and the West. He certainly existed, and has an establiished body of followers in India who explicitly proclaim devotion to his ideals, and he is admired for his nonsectarian mysticism and the intensity of his poetic language. Features common to many accounts of his life are thought to be accurate aspects of his biography. If Kabir posed insuperable challenges to biographers, he nevertheless continued to be a substantial spiritual presence in modern life.

Rejected All Organized Religions

Accounts of Kabir's life, in both India and the West, offer conflicting information regarding his birth. Indian admirers of Kabir list long life among his remarkable feats. Some have claimed that he lived as long as 300 years, and the lifespan of 120 years is still commonly given, with a birth year of 1398 and a death year of 1518. He spent much of his life in the city of Benares, and the book that introduced Kabir to the West placed his birth there in 1440, with the common date of 1518 given for his death. Many other towns in northern India have been proposed as his birth-place, with Magahar named perhaps more often than any other.

It is somewhat clearer that Kabir was born into the Islamic faith, for Kabir or al-Kabir, meaning the Great One, is a common name in the Islamic world and is one of the 99 names of God given in the Quran. In spite of what appears to have been his steadfast rejection of organized religion in all its forms, both Hindus and Muslims have tried to claim Kabir as one of their own. One common legend holds that Kabir was the child of the widow of a Brahmin, a member of the priestly caste of Hindu India, and that he was given to a Muslim weaver's family to raise. Sources and legends concur that Kabir practiced the weaver's trade, and this may be regarded as one of the few solid facts in his biography.

A story often told about Kabir's early life, and generally ascribed to his own words, sheds some light on his religious orientation. The story concerns Kabir's initiation into the life of a religious mystic. Despite his Muslim background, Kabir hoped to become a disciple of the Hindu mystic Ramananda. Realizing that his chances were slim, he hid on some steps leading down to the Ganges river, steps that Ramananda generally used in the morning while making his way to the river to bathe. The Hindu ascetic accidentally stepped on Kabir, and called out "Ram! Ram!"—roughly, "My Lord! My Lord!" Kabir went on to claim that this mantra spoken by Ramananda initiated him into discipleship of the Hindu mystic. Ramananda's Hindu attendants as well as local Muslim observers were outraged, but Kabir continued to claim discipleship with the Ramananda, and the great saint was impressed with his persistence. Kabir's own poems mention Ramananda as his guru, and the direct, devotional language of the two mystics has many common aspects. Ramananda was at one time thought to have died in the first half of the fifteenth century, but it is now believed that he was born around 1400 and died around 1470. If Kabir was indeed a young religious seeker when he met Ramananda, the date of 1440 emerges as potentially close to his birth date.

Manual Labor Influenced Poetry

It is generally agreed that Kabir was a weaver, and that he never went to school or learned to read and write. This background of manual labor had a strong impact on Kabir's poetry, which uses common imagery of family and natural phenomena to communicate sometimes very subtle riddles and conundrums to point the way to the nature of the divine. Scholars have disagreed, however, as to how vigorously Kabir pursued his trade after he embarked on a life of mysticism. Evelyn Underhill, in the introduction to Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore's well-known English translation of Kabir's poems, opined that "Like Paul the tentmaker, [German mystic Jacob] Boehme the cobbler, [English preacher John] Bunyan the tinker, [and German religious writer] Gerhard Tersteegen, he knew how to combine vision and industry; the work of his hands helped rather than hindered the impassioned meditation of his heart." Other writers, however, have pointed to words ascribed to Kabir in which he appears to recount arguments with his wife, or his mother, over the problems a religious sage experienced in supporting a family. Kabir was married at least once, and had one or more children.

The most striking features of Kabir's poetry are its ecstatic feeling and its rejection of both Hinduism and Islam in favor of a direct relationship with the divine. Kabir's poetry is best known in the West in Tagore's translation, published in 1915; all quotations in this essay are taken from that translation. The authenticity of the 100 "Songs of Kabir" contained in that volume has been questioned, but there is no such thing as an authentic body of Kabir's words. "I have had my Seat on the Self-Poised one," Kabir said. "I have drunk of the Cup of the Ineffable. / I have found the Key of the Mystery. / I have reached the Root of Union. / Traveling by no track, I have come to the Sorrowless Land: very easily has the mercy of the great Lord come upon me…. There the whole sky is filled with sound, and there that music is made without fingers and without strings; / There the game of pleasure and pain does not cease. / Kabir says 'If you merge your life in the Ocean of Life, you will find your life in the Supreme Land of Bliss.'" Kabir used many kinds of imagery to convey ideas of religious ecstasy, but very common among them are images of music (especially "unstruck" or unsounded music) and marital love. He was apparently a musician himself and probably sang his poems rather than speaking them.

Like other great mystics, Kabir pointed to the inward life of the mind as the source of contact with the divine. "Do not go to the garden of flowers!" he said, in Tagore's translation. "O Friend! go not there; / In your body is the garden of flowers. / Take your seat on the thousand petals of the lotus, and there gaze on the Infinite Beauty." Kabir's thoughts on consciousness could express metaphysical subtlety: "Between the poles of the conscious and the unconscious, there has the mind made a swing: / Thereon hang all beings and all worlds, and that swing never ceases its sway…. All swing! The sky and the earth and the air and the water; and the Lord himself taking form: / And the sight of this has made Kabir a servant." For the most part, though, his language was simple and directed toward common people; ordinary Indians responded to his words and formed a Hindu sect devoted to his writing. A count of members of these "Kabirpanthis" in 1900 found about one million of them.

Experienced Religious Persecution

In his own time, however, Kabir seemed to have antagonized religious authorities and to have been persecuted for his beliefs. It is easy to see why; Kabir had no use for religious observances and sometimes ridiculed specifically denominational religious teachers. "O servant, where dost thou seek Me?," he has the divinity ask in one of the best-known poems in the Tagore translation. "Lo! I am beside thee. / I am neither in temple nor in mosque; I am neither in Kaaba nor in Kailash: / Neither am I in rites and ceremonies, nor in Yoga and renunciation. / If thou art a true seeker, thou shalt at once see me; thou shalt meet me in a moment of time." Kabir believed that the divine could be found everywhere, in common substances, and his thought had some aspects in common with the modern doctrine of pantheism. He rejected both Hindu worship of idols and the Islamic sacred text. "The images are all lifeless; they cannot speak: / I know, for I have cried aloud to them. / The Purana and the Koran are mere words: / lifting up the curtain, I have seen."

Late in life, Kabir was apparently charged by the Indian emperor Sikandar Lodi with claiming that he had divine powers. He was forced to leave Benares and wandered from place to place around northern India. In poems thought to date from the end of his life, he lamented that his fingers could no longer make the music to accompany his songs of praise. Venerated soon after his death, which perhaps occurred in 1518, Kabir eventually became the object of a kind of adoration he would probably have discouraged while he was alive. Of the dozens of legends that surround his life and death, an especially poetic one concerns his burial: Hindus and Muslims wrangled over his dead body, with the Hindus wanting to cremate it according to custom, while Muslims argued that he should be buried. In the midst of the argument, Kabir appeared in the air and told the disputants to pull back the cloth that covered him. They did so, and found a pile of flower petals. The petals were divided, with the Muslims burying their half and the Hindus burning theirs.

Some of the esteem in which Kabir is held in India today results from the belief that he succeeded in merging Islamic and Hindu streams of thought. He has influenced Hinduism and also the Islamic mystical tradition of Sufism, and some have found links between Kabir's songs and traditions of Christian mysticism. The Tagore translation of Kabir's poems was followed by other renderings of his work in English, and some of his works have been set anew to music. Kabir enriched the modern Hindi language with many expressions and turns of phrase, and in 1952 a Kabir image (although none is known to have been made while he was alive) appeared on an Indian nine-rupee postage stamp.

Books

Hedayetullah, Muhammad, Kabir: The Apostle of Hindu-Muslim Unity, Motilal Banarsidass (India), 1977.

Tagore, Rabindranath, trans., Songs of Kabir, Macmillan, 1915.

Varman, Ram Kumar, Kabir: Biography and Philosophy, Prints India, 1977.

Vaudeville, Charlotte, Kabir, Oxford, 1974.

Online

"Biography of Kabir," http://www.poetseers.org/the_poetseers/kabir (February 13, 2006).

"Kabir: The Mystic Poet," http://www.boloji.com/kabir/index.html (February 13, 2006).

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Kabīr

Kabīr (d. 1518). An Indian saint-poet. His birth and origins are uncertain. He may have been the son of a high-caste brahman girl who was brought up by a low-caste Muslim weaver (though this story may have been told to show his derivation from diversity). He is said to have been a disciple of the Vaiṣṇava sage, Rāmānanda. Certainly the differences between Hinduism and Islam meant nothing to him: Allāh and Rāma are but different names for the same Godhead. He thus promulgated a religion of love in which all castes and classes would be seen to be wrong, and creeds would be unified. It was a religion of bhakti (personal devotion to a personal God), in which the influence of Sufism is apparent.

Kabīr was a sant (see SANT TRADITION), claiming to derive spiritual awareness from direct experience of the śabad spoken by the Satgurū in the depth of the soul. This alone transcends death.

Sources for Kabīr's life include the Kabīrpanthī literature and Bhakta-mālā of Nābhājī.

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Kabir (ca. 1440-1518)

Kabir (ca. 1440-1518)

One of the most celebrated mystics of fifteenth-to sixteenth-century India, who practiced yoga and attempted to reconcile Hindus and Moslems. After his death he was claimed by both religions. Kabir's inspirational hymns are very moving and are still popular in present-day India. His teachings were a forerunner of Sikhism, which was established by his disciple Guru Nanak.

Sources:

Hedayetullah, Muhammed. Kabir: The Apostle of HinduMuslim Unity. Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass, 1977.

Kabir. One Hundred Poems of Kabir. Translated by Rabinadrath Tagore. London, 1915.

Kay, Frank E. Kabir and His Followers. London, 1931. Lorenzen, David N. Kabir Legendas and Ananta-das's Kabir Parachai. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991.

Westcott, G. H. Kabir and the Kabir Panth. Calcutta: Varanasi Bhartiya Publishing House, 1974.

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Kabir

Kabir (kəbēr´), 1440–1518, Indian mystic and poet. A Muslim by birth, he was a weaver in Benares (Varanasi) and early in life may have become the disciple of the famous Hindu saint Ramananda. Representing the anticlerical, antiauthoritarian Indian bhakti movement, Kabir opposed caste practices, ritual, image-worship, and all forms of religious sectarianism; he taught the brotherhood of Hindu and Muslim under one God. Because of his anti-institutional ideas he was subject to persecution and banished from Benares c.1495. Thereafter he traveled from one N Indian city to another and died at Maghar near Gorakhpur. Originally composed aloud by the illiterate Kabir and after his death written down by his followers, his songs in Hindi show the fusion of Muslim and Hindu devotional traditions.

See Poems of Kabir (tr. by R. Tagore, 1915, often repr.) and Songs of Kabir (tr. by A. K. Mehrota, 2011); I. A. Ezekiel, Kabir, the Great Mystic (1966).

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"Kabir." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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