KABĪR (fifteenth century ce) was one of the most famous saints and mystics in the Indian tradition. Kabīr is unique in that he is revered by Hindus and Muslims alike, yet his personality and his biography remain shrouded in mystery. The only certain fact about him is that he was born a Julāhā, a low-caste Muslim weaver, in or near the city of Banaras toward the middle of the fifteenth century ce, at a time when North India was under the rule of the Lodi dynasty. The Julāhās were probably recent converts to Islam, and it is not certain that Kabīr himself was circumcised. He refers to the Muslims as "Turks."
The legendary biography of Kabīr includes his alleged persecution by the Muslim ruler Sikander Lodi and his initiation (presumably in the Rāmāite faith) by a rather mysterious Hindu saint known as Rāmānand. The most famous story about Kabīr, however, concerns the saint's death and burial-cremation at Magahar, a small town of ill repute in northeastern Uttar Pradesh, near Gorakhpur. As Kabīr was about to die, two armed parties of his followers allegedly converged on Magahar, ready to fight in order to secure possession of the saint's body. Kabīr retired into a small tent to die, and immediately after his death his body disappeared. Nothing was found but a heap of flowers, which was divided between the two parties: The Muslims buried their share of the flowers on the spot and erected a cenotaph over it; the Hindus cremated their share and later built a samādhi (memorial tomb) over it, although most sectarian devotees of Kabīr believe the flowers were cremated at the important Kabīr Chaurā Maṭh in Banaras itself. In later times, Kabīr's fame continued to grow among Hindus. In an attempt to "Hinduize" the saint, devotees told of his having been born miraculously of a brahman virgin widow; she committed the child to the Ganges, but he was saved and reared by Julāhās.
There is no fully authoritative version of the Kabīrvāṇīs, the "words of Kabīr." The poet was probably illiterate, and it is certain that he himself never committed anything to writing. His utterances took the form of the popular couplets known as dohā s, or the equally popular form of short songs (pada s) set to a refrain. His language was a nondescript form of Old Hindi, which may have served as a sort of lingua franca for the wandering holy men of his time. So great was his eloquence, however, that his "words" spread like fire over a large area of Hindustan, at least from Bihar in the east to the Panjab and Rajasthan in the west. Immensely popular, the Kabīrvāṇīs were largely imitated and interpolated even before they could be written down. The oldest dated written record is found in the Guru Granth of the Sikhs, compiled by Guru Arjun in the Panjab around 1604. In the Granth, Kabīr's utterances are recorded as the words of the foremost among the bhagat s (devotees or saints) who were the predecessors of Guru Nānak, the founder of the Sikh Panth ("path" or "way"). Two more undated recensions of Kabīr's "words" are known: one in Rajasthan, preserved in the Pāñcavāṇīs compiled by the Dādūpanthīs of Rajasthan (c. 1600) and known as Kabīr Granthāvalī, and the other, known as the Bījak, popularized, if not compiled, in Bihar by putative disciples of Kabīr who called themselves Kabīrpanthīs, although Kabīr himself never founded a sect. The Bijak represents the eastern recension of Kabīr's words. A fair idea of Kabīr's teachings, however, can be inferred only from a comparison of the three main recensions.
Some Muslims in the past tended to view Kabīr as a Ṣūfī, because many of his "words" are somewhat similar to those of the most liberal and unorthodox Indian Ṣūfīs. Modern Hindus and Muslims tend to see him as the champion of Hindu-Muslim unity, although Kabīr himself expressed outright rejection of the "two religions" and bitterly castigated their official representatives: pandits and pāṇḍe s on the one side, mulla s and kāzi s on the other. For Kabīr, there could be no revealed religion at all—no Veda, no Qurʾān. All scriptural authority he emphatically denied, and he warned people against searching for truth in "holy books": "Reading, reading, the whole world died—and no one ever became learned!"
There is a tendency in modern times, especially among Hindu scholars with Vaiṣṇava leanings, to view Kabīr as a "liberal" Vaiṣṇava, one opposed—as indeed he was—to caste distinctions as well as to "idol worship," but a Vaiṣṇava all the same, because he made use of several Vaiṣṇava names to speak of God. Actually, Kabīr's notion of God seems to go beyond the notion of a personal god, despite the fact that he may call on Rām or Khudā. If he often mentions Hari, Rām, or the "name of Rām," the context most often suggests that these are just names for the all-pervading Reality—a reality beyond words, "beyond the beyond," that is frequently identified with śūnya ("the void") or the ineffable state that he calls sahaj. In the same way, though Kabīr often speaks of the satguru (the "perfect guru") it is clear that he is not alluding to Rāmānand, his putative guru, nor to any human guru. For Kabīr, the satguru is the One who speaks within the soul itself. Although he often borrows the language of Tantric yoga and its paradoxical style to suggest the "ineffable word," Kabīr held all yogic exercises to be absurd contortions and the yogis' pretention to immortality as utter nonsense.
Kabīr's view of the world is a tragic one. Life is but a fleeting moment between two deaths in the world of transmigration. Family ties are insignificant and rest on self-interest. Woman is "a pit of hell." Death encompasses all: Living beings are compared to "the parched grain of Death, some in his mouth, the rest in his lap." There is no hope, no escape for man but in his own innermost heart. Man must search within himself, get rid of pride and egoism, dive within for the "diamond" that is hidden within his own soul. Then only may the mysterious, ineffable stage be achieved within the body itself—a mystery that Kabīr suggests in terms of fusion:
When I was, Hari was not.
Now Hari is and I am no more.
For one who has found the hidden "diamond," for one who has passed "the unreachable pass," eternity is achieved. Mortal life seems to linger, though in truth nothing remains but a fragile appearance. In Kabīr's own words:
The yogin who was there has disappeared:
Ashes alone keep the posture.
In its rugged, terse, fulgurant brilliance, Kabīr's style is unique. His striking metaphors and powerful rhythms capture the heart of the listener. His scathing attacks on brahmans and the "holy men" of his time have never been forgotten by the downtrodden people of India. Probably no greater voice had been heard on Indian soil since the time of the Buddha, whom Kabīr resembles in more ways than one. His pessimistic view of worldly life, his contempt for holy books and human gurus, his insistent call to inwardness have not been forgotten. His own brand of mysticism may appear godless if one takes "God" as a divine personality. In one sense, Kabīr is not only an iconoclast, he may even be called irreligious—and yet he appears as a master of the "interior religion."
For the Kabīr Granthāvalī, see the editions prepared by Shyam Sundar Das (Banaras, 1928); by Mata Prasad Gupta (Allahabad, 1969), which includes a modern Hindi paraphrase; and by Parasnath Tiwari (Allahabad, 1965), which is a critical edition. The Kabīr Bījak has been edited a number of times. The standard edition is by S. Shastri and M. Prasad (Barabanki, 1950), and has been partially translated into English by Linda Hess and Shukdev Singh as The Bijak of Kabīr (San Francisco, 1983). Kabīr's words in the Guru Granth have been collected and edited by S. K. Varma in Sant Kabīr (Allahabad, 1947); this edition includes a paraphrase in modern Hindi.
For a translation of Kabīr's dohā s in the Western recensions, see my Kabīr (Oxford, 1974) and my Kabīr-vāni; The Words of Kabīr in the Western Tradition (Pondicherry, 1983). See also my "Kabīr and the Interior Religion," History of Religions 3 (1964).
Mehta, Rohit. J. Krishnamurti and Sant Kabir: A Study in Depth. Delhi, 1990.
A Touch of Grace: Songs of Kabir. Translated by Linda Hess and Shukdev Singh. Boston, 1994.
Charlotte Vaudeville (1987)
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.
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.
"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).
KABIR (1440–1518), mystic poet Although tradition states that Kabir was born in 1398 and lived to be 120 years old, he was born in 1440 and lived only until 1518. He is the most quoted poet, apart from Tulsidas (1532–1623), in India. He was a disciple of Ramananda (c. 1400–c. 1470), the Hindu mystic poet. Kabir was an illiterate Muslim weaver of Varanasi (Benares), although some say he was the son of a Brahman widow who was adopted by the childless Muslim julaha (low caste weaver) Niru and his wife. Kabir married Loi, and they had two children. His devotional poems and his devotion led many to follow him (Kabirpanthis), irrespective of their sectarian faith, in his love of God. He contributed to the bhakti tradition, and his conception of devotion to God as suffering may come from the Sufis; his integration of these elements with the nath sampradaya "lord" or "master" tradition, whereby a devotee followed a teacher, produced his distinctive religion.
Kabir preached that a simple union (sahaja-yoga), an emotional integration of the soul with God through personal devotion, could be achieved by all people, whether they were Hindus or Muslims ("I am not a Hindu, nor a Muslim am I"), or whether they were of high or low caste ("Now I have no caste, no creed"). He denounced the mullahs and the Muslim practice of bowing toward Mecca, and he criticized Hindu practices as well, condemning ritualistic and ascetic practices of the Brahmans and yogis. Accordingly, he was condemned by both. He satirized hypocrisy, greed, and violence, especially of the overtly religious. He preached ahimsa (nonviolence), and he believed that women were a hindrance to spiritual progress.
Kabir's simple songs of devotion to God, popularized through the song form, sabda or pada, were written in an unsophisticated Hindi that could be understood by the uneducated and that continues to inspire the masses of Hindus and Muslims in North India and in Pakistan and Bangladesh. He is said to have written thousands of couplets (doha or sakhi), love songs, and mystic poems. He was claimed by both Hindus and Muslims, and legend states that when he died at Maghar near Gorakhpur, his body turned to flowers; his Muslim followers buried half of them, and his Hindu followers cremated the other half. The Sikhs also adopted Kabir's works, and their holy book, the Granth Sahib, contains over five hundred of his verses. He is held by Sikhs in much the same kind of reverance as their ten Gurus. His work was collected in the Granth Sahib by Guru Arjan Dev in 1604, and in two other collections, the Kabir Granthavali and Bijak, the sacred book of the Kabir Panth, the Sikh sect devoted to Kabir's teachings.
Roger D. Long
Keay, F. E. Kabir and His Followers. New Delhi: Aravali Books International, 1997.
Vaudeville, Charlotte. A Weaver Named Kabir: Selected Verses with a Detailed Biographical and Historical Introduction. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1993.
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.
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.
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.