Explained: Who was Sant Kabir, the extraordinary poet-saint of the Bhakti movement?

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President Ram Nath Kovind inaugurated the Sant Kabir Swadesh Darshan Yojana Academy and Research Center and paid homage to Saint Bhakti Kabir in Maghar, Uttar Pradesh on Sunday, June 5. According to legends, Kabir left the mortal world in Maghar.

During his speech at Kabir Chaura Dham, Kovind said, “Kabir’s life is an embodiment of human virtue and his teachings are relevant today even after 650 years. Kabir’s life was an ideal example of community solidarity.

“He took the initiative to remove evils, ostentation and discrimination and also lived family life like a saint,” he added.

Kabir and the Bhakti movement

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The Bhakti movement, which began in the 7th century in southern India, had begun to spread to northern India in the 14th and 15th centuries. The movement was characterized by popular poet-saints who sang songs of devotion to God in vernacular languages, with many preaching for the abolition of the Varna system and a kind of Hindu-Muslim unity. They pointed to an intense emotional attachment with God.

A school within the Bhakti movement was the Nirguni tradition and Sant Kabir was a prominent member of it. In this tradition, God was understood as a universal, formless being.

Many saints of the Bhakti movement came from the ranks of the lower to middle artisan classes. Kabir was a ‘low caste’ (Julaha) weaver, Raidas was a leatherworker and Dadu a cotton carder. Their radical dissent against orthodoxy and rejection of caste made these poet-saints extremely popular among the masses and their ideology of egalitarianism spread throughout India.

Kabir’s compositions can be categorized into three literary forms – dohas (two short lines), ramanas (four rhyming lines), sung compositions of varying length, known as padas (verses) and sabdas (words).

Historical and legendary accounts of Kabir

Most historians agree on the following facts about Kabir. He was born in Varanasi and lived between the years 1398 and 1448, or until 1518 according to popular belief. He belonged to a community of “low caste” weavers from the Julaha caste, a group that had recently converted to Islam.

He learned the art of weaving, probably studied meditative and devotional practices under a Hindu guru, and became a prominent teacher and poet-singer. Kabir’s beliefs were deeply radical and he was known for his intense and outspoken voice which he used to attack the dominant religions and entrenched caste systems of the time. He composed his verses orally and is generally assumed to be illiterate.

There are, on the other hand, a myriad of legendary tales, for which there is less factual historical basis. However, they play a more crucial role in shaping the common identity of Kabir followers and their social, moral and religious values.

According to one, Kabir was born to a Brahmin widow, who put him in a basket and floated him on a pond, after which he was rescued and adopted by a Muslim couple. In another myth, he was perfectly designed by his mother and came out of the palm of his hand.

He is also believed to be (although not on solid historical grounds) a disciple of the famous guru Ramananda, a 14th century Vaishnava poet-saint. Kabir knew that the saint would visit a certain ghat in Varanasi before dawn. When Kabir saw him approaching, he lay down on the stairs that led to the river. Ramananda stumbled over him and exclaimed his own mantra, “Ram, Ram!”. Kabir then claimed that the saint’s mantra had been transferred to him and therefore he should accept him as his disciple.

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Kabir’s critique of religion and caste

Kabir is in modern times portrayed as a figure that synthesizes Islam and Hinduism. In many popular bhajans associated with him today, his strong dissent towards religion is somewhat muted, according to religious studies scholar David Lorenzen. While he borrows elements from different traditions, he forcefully proclaims his independence from them.

He not only targeted the rituals and practices of Hinduism and Islam, but also rejected the sacred authority of their religious books, the Vedas and the Quran. Kabir used the name Rama in his poems, but he clarified that he was not referring to the avatar of Vishnu, but to a formless and general Hindu name for the divine. Author Manu S Pillai writes that he even combined Allah and Ram.

“Every man and woman born are forms of you, Kabir said: I am the foolish baby of Ram and Allah, he is my guru and my pir,” he wrote.

Instead of God being an external entity that resided in temples or mosques, Kabir held that God existed within everyone.

“Why seek Me elsewhere, my friend, When I am here, in your possession?… He is the very breath of our breaths.”

Kabir’s revolt against the caste system also aimed to suppress the complex rituals and ceremonies practiced by the Brahmins. He, like other prominent saints of his time, maintained that it was only through bhakti, intense love or devotion to God that one could attain salvation.

In several of his verses, Kabir proclaimed that people of all castes are entitled to salvation through the tradition of bhakti.

He sought to eradicate caste distinctions and attempted to create an egalitarian society, insisting that a Bhakt (devotee) was neither a Brahmin nor an “untouchable”, but just a Bhakt.

Kabir’s Legacy

Kabir’s humble origins and radical message of egalitarianism fostered a community of his followers called Kabir Panth. A sect from northern and central India, many of whose members are from the Dalit community. Historians estimate that he was established in India between 1600 and 1650, a century or two after his death.

Today, the sect exists as a large and distinct community, with various sects under different spiritual leaders. However, all consider Kabir as their guru and treat Bijak as their scripture. The Bijak contains works attributed to Kabir and historians maintain that they were written in the 17th century. Today, most followers continue to reject idol worship and are discouraged from praying in Hindu temples, according to historian David Lorenzen. The main festival of most branches is Kabir Jayanti, Kabir’s birthday which is celebrated every summer with collective math parties.

Of the 5,00,000 indentured laborers who were taken to Trinidad, Mauritius, Fiji and Guyana by the British in the 19th and 20th centuries, many were and continue to be members of the Kabir Panth.

Several verses and songs of Kabir form a vital part of the Guru Granth Sahib. Compiled in 1604, the text is the oldest written collection of Kabir’s work, according to Kabir studies expert Linda Hess.

Kabir’s combative stances and outspoken criticism of established religions did not sit well with the elites of these communities, and Linda Hess suggests there is evidence that Hindus and Muslims were prepared to assault him during his lifetime.

After his death, however, the two communities almost came to blows over the right to claim his body. According to legend, Kabir’s Hindu and Muslim followers prepared for battle, but before they could strike, someone removed the shroud to find a pile of flowers that replaced his corpse. The two communities then shared the flowers and buried or burned them according to their rituals.

Kabir’s teachings continue to shape various religious discourses in India today. In Sikh tradition he is considered to have influenced Guru Nanak, for Hindus he is a Vaishnavite (devotees of Vishnu), and is revered by Muslims as a Sufi saint.

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