Sant Kabir Das is considered as the most influential and most remarkable poet of the Bhakti and Sufi movement in Northern India. Amongst the several saints that have blessed our country, Kabir Das is a well-known mystic poet, and deserves a major credit for bringing about a social and religious revolution. He was a man of principles and practiced what he preached. People called him by different names like Das, Sant, Bhakta and more. As Das, he was referred to as the servant of humanity and thus a servant of divinity. The Bījak is the sacred book of the Kabir Panth, or sect devoted to Kabir’s teachings.
The name Kabir comes from Arabic Al-Kabīr which means ‘The Great’ – the 37th Name of God in the Qur’an and Das means slave or servant in Sanskrit. He lived during the close of the 14th century and in the beginning of the 15th century. The birth of Kabir remains shrouded in mystery and legend. When he grew up, he became disciple of Ramanand Swami. Kabir’s life was centred round Kashi, also called Banaras (Varanasi).
Kabir cannot be classified as Hindu, Muslim, or yogi. Fiercely independent, he has become an icon of speaking truth to power. He satirized hypocrisy, greed, and violence—especially among the religious. Belonging to a social group widely considered low and unclean, he criticized caste ideology and declared the equality of all human beings.
The Bijak of Kabir
The Bījak is the sacred book of the Kabir Panth, or sect devoted to Kabir’s teachings. Kabir Panthis are a mixed community of ascetics and common householders from humble backgrounds who were ardent Kabir followers and collected his works for documentation. Due to the visibility of the Panth, the Kabir collection best known to westerners in the early twentieth century was the Bijak. The word “Bijak” means an anthology / guide or compilation.
The Bījak includes three main sections called Ramainī, Śabda, and Sākhī, and a fourth section containing miscellaneous folksong forms. Kabir’s words were primarily in two literary genres: rhymed couplets (known as doha, sakhi or shalok) and lyric poems (shabda, shabad, pad or bhajan), in addition to the ramaini and folk song forms. The lyric poems, commonly known as bhajans, vary in meter and are usually six to eighteen lines in length, while the couplets are comprised of four half-lines (Hess 1987: p. 113).
Features of the poet, Kabir:
- He was confrontational
- He goaded, berated and challenged the beliefs of blind faith in religion
- He dismissed the authority of Vedas, Upanishads and Koran, and also of the self-appointed keepers of those dusty documents
- He does not mention deities in his works
- The word ‘Ram’ is used as a general designation to the concept of God or the one who is enlightened
- Sukhdev suggests that even though his earlied dated manuscript is only from 1804, his works are from much earlier. Since his primary audience was the poor low caste, there was no means of documentation
- Hess, in The Bijak of Kabir, makes an insightful comment about how, while other bhakti poets such as Mirabai, Surdas and Tulsidas address most of their poems to God, Kabir addresses his words directly to us. This gives rise to the art of the rhetoric, using language to engage, affect and awaken people.
- Kabir’s verses are filled with verbs and calls to action, tucked into extended metaphors, compelling arguments, dialogues and monologues.
On Brahmin Ideology
Kabir through his couplets not only reformed the mindset of common villagers and low caste people but give them self-confidence to question Brahmins. It was 100 years after him that Tulsidas broke the hegemony of Brahmins by writing Ram Charitra Manas, a poem of Ramayana at Banaras that went against the tradition of Brahmins. Kabir was in fact first person to go against Brahmins and be so successful. Banaras was devastated by an attack by a Muslim invader Tamur Lang or “Tamur the lame” during his time. Kabir also denounced mullahs and their rituals of bowing towards kaba five times a day. Because of open condemnation of established and popular religions, Kabir became an object of the wrath of both Hindus and Muslims in and around Banaras.
There are ever amavas and purnimas,
There are the nine planets in row ever in order,
Tell me, O learned one, why is your heart eclipsed?
If even this you do not know,
Which guru’s words were whispered in your ear?
Pandit, you’ve got it wrong,
There is no creator or creation.
No Hari or Brahma, no Shiva or Shakti,
no pilgrimage and no rituals.
No mother, father or guru there.
Is it two or one?
Kabir says, if you understand now,
you’re guru, I’m disciple.” (p 56)
On Caste Discrimination
Sant Kabir was against the caste system imposed by the Hindu community. He said that there should be no discrimination on the basis of caste, and rejected the authority of both the Veda and the Koran. He laid great emphasis on the equality of men. In Bijak he writes:
Pandit, look in your heart for knowledge.
tell mewhere untouchability
camefrom,sinceyoubelievein it. (p 17)
Who is Brahmin, who is Shudra?
Brahmin Rajas, Shiva tamas, Vishnu Sattva,
Kabir says, plunge into Ram!
There is no Hindu or Turk.
He preached a religion of love that aimed at promoting unity amongst
all castes and creeds.
On Idol Worship and Pilgrimage
He even did not believe in idol worship. On the contrary, he advocated the Vedantic concepts of atman. He was also against the performance of rituals and superstitions or pilgrimage to the so-called holy places. He says,
“They’re morons and mindless fools,
who don’t know Ram in every breath.” (p 69)
“What’s Kashi? Magahar? Barren ground,
when Ram rules in your heart.” (p 76)
Kabir is believed to have lived and worked in the period from 1399 to 1495. This was a period of great upheavals in the Indian subcontinent. The people were already under the influence of various religions such as Nath, Buddhism, Yogi, Shaiva, Shakt, Vaishnav, etc., while Islam and Sufism had also gained ground. Of these, the state power was under the domination of Islam. There was fierce conflict amongst the advocates of various religions and each one was preoccupied with extending the influence of his particular religion over the masses. Each religion was promoting its own specific rituals and this was hindering the unification process. Kabir targeted these rituals and in the process, he did not spare the rituals of any religion. Kabir was full of humility and was the first saint to reconcile Hinduism and Islam. He wrote:
Hindu, Muslim—where did they come from?
Who started this road?
Look in your heart, send out scouts:
Where is heaven? (p 70)
Kabir says, listen O Sants,
Cry Rama, Cry Khuda,
It is one.
He also explains the singularity of the creator and creation itself by stating:
No one knows the secret of the weaver
who spread his warp through the universe.
He dug two ditches, sky and earth,
made two spools, sun and moon,
filled his shuttle with a thousand threads,
and weaves till today; a difficult length!
Kabir says, they are joined by actions.
Good threads and bad,
that fellow weaves both. (p. 84)
It is important to point out that Kabir was not preaching against any religion but against the hypocrisy being committed by people in the name of religion. As Hess explains in The Bijak of Kabir, having converted to Islam in 15th century North India often meant being half Hindu. People often converted to the rulers’ religion without completely forsaking the beliefs and practices of their former faith. Legend has it that Kabir was no stranger to that oppression, as Sikandar Lodi, ruler of the Delhi Sultanate, made multiple attempts to kill the outspoken poet.
He, thus, tried to bridge the gap among various castes and religious sects.
Kabir preached to share with society rather than be selfish and greedy in matters of wealth and material possessions. In The Bijak of Kabir translated by Linda Hess and Sukhdev Singh, it is written:
If there is too much water, the boat gets flooded. The same is true of the home. If you have more than you need, then give with both hands; that is the wise thing to do. Here he talks of social wealth not being merely to fulfill one’s needs; if there is excess, then it should be given back to society. This is the value system of the new society based on serving social needs, not of capitalist society based on individual greed. (Hess and Singh)
They are dumb and mindless.
Their minds cannot understand it’s tasting,
the fake flavour of maya.
It just doesn’t happen.
It never dawns.
Tantras, Mantras, Medicine –
In the end, only Kabir is left behind,
To sing the name of Ram.
The necessity to seek guidance from a guru or “true teacher” is underscored in the poetry of Kabir, an ideology parallel to traditional Hindu thought. Kabir’s stance on the role of the teacher is clear in this popular couplet that begins with guru gobind dou khade / kake lagoon pay? His answer is definitive:
The guru’s word is one,
ideas about it endless.
Sages and pandits exhaust themselves,
the Vedas can’t touch its limit.” (p 104)
One kills with halal, one kills with a strike,
But a fire is kindled in both their houses.
The way of the Hindu and Muslim is one,
This the Sat-guru has shown me.
Hess concludes that Kabir’s poetry reflects the rich interplay of religious traditions of that period in history, including but not limited to Hinduism, Buddhist tantrism and the tradition of the Nath yogis.
Kabir played the role of a teacher and social reformer by the medium of his writings, which mainly consisted of the two line verses called Dohas. Kabir’s poetry reflects a reformist’s zeal to change the society by challenging idolatry, blind rituals, unhealthy customs and the very concept of God. As a true humanist, he rationally proves the futility of all religious rituals and social customs. In his poems compiled in The Bijak of Kabir, he questions the very logic of all senseless rituals practiced by people blindly. He advocates the need of humanist values. He was the first saint to attempt to reconcile Hinduism and Islam. Therefore, Kabir is hailed as a philosopher and social reformer who spread the true message of humanity among Indians.