Kabir
(c. 15th century)
   medieval Hindi saint-poet
   Kabir, a poor, illiterate man, was one of the great saint-poets of northern India. He is revered by Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs, although his work includes much social and religious criticism of Islam and Hinduism.
   The poet was born in BENARES (Varanasi) into a weaver family who had recently converted to Islam. As with other poet-saints such as RAM-PRASAD and TUKARAM, the actual details of his life are not known for certain; it is not even known which of the poems attributed to him were authentically his. Indian poet-saints, particularly those who relied upon song to communicate, very quickly became legendary figures, the possessions of everyone. More important than the concrete details of these people’s lives or the verses that may be authentically theirs is the collective imagi-nation of them, which makes them part of the cultural consciousness and makes their writings a collective possession.
   It is understood from his verses that Kabir was illiterate, but in India this is less important than in the bibliophilic West. Real Indian tra-dition, the culture that occupied the center of Indian consciousness, was always oral and aural first. Written texts were the abode of scholars and pundits but less important for the transmission of tradition.
   Kabir was the disciple of the GURU Ramananda, a famous c. 15th-century teacher. A story tells how Kabir, a convert to Islam, tricked this ortho-dox Hindu into accepting him as a student. Kabir is said to have lain upon the steps that the guru always took in the morning to do his bathing and ablutions in the river. Tripping in the dark over the supine Kabir, the guru in fear uttered, “Ram! Ram!” This is, in fact, a MANTRA in and of itself, and so the crafty Kabir insisted he must be accepted as a disciple since he had heard the guru’s mantra. (It should be added that Kabir’s understanding of the mantra RAMA is not an orthodox one. For him the word did not designate the AVATA R of VISHNU of that name, but was a divine “name” that leads one to an undifferentiated ADVAITA (non-dual) consciousness.)
   There exists a story, probably apocryphal and invented by Hindus, that Kabir was actually born of a BRAHMIN woman and set afloat in a basket on a pond to be found by a Muslim couple. Both Hindus and Muslims still claim Kabir as their own (while his words are included in the sacred books of the Sikhs, the Guru GRANTH SAHIB.) It is said that when Kabir died, Muslims and Hindus confronted each other, each wanting to take the body for their own rituals. Before they could come to blows, however, they pulled up the shroud only to find there a heap of flowers, which they happily divided in half.
   There is hardly a person who grew up in North India over the last 400 years who has not been able to recite many verses of “Kabir” by heart. His work is deeply ingrained in the culture of North India. This said, his poetry combines highly eso-teric NAT H YOGI symbolism, highly mystical non-dual devotion that envisions a “divinity” beyond any form or description, a deep criticism of the orthodoxy of both Muslims and Hindus, and a strong social critique of the hierarchy of Hindu society. In his poetry he again and again evokes the watchword Ram without any sectarian con-tent. It is a mantric word used to point toward the highest consciousness that sees beyond the veil or M AYA of this world.
   Kabir’s poems are found in the Guru Granth Sahib of the Sikhs (see SIKHISM); in the Panchvani, a compilation of sayings of five northern saints; and in the Bijak, an anthology attributed to Kabir alone. All of these were first published around the 17th century, although the Guru Granth Sahib in its formative stages may have contained these poems earlier.
   Further reading: P. D. Barthwal, The Nirgun School of Hindi Poetry (Benares: The Indian Bookshop, 1936); Linda Hess and Shukdev Singh, trans., The Bijak of Kabir (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1983); David Lorenzen, Kabir Legends and Ananda-Das’s Kabir Parachai (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991); Karine Schomer and W. H. McCleod, eds., The Sant Tradition of India (Berkeley: Berkeley Religious Studies Series and Motilal Banarsidass, 1987); Charlotte Vaudeville, trans., Kabir, 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford Uni-versity Press, 1974).

Encyclopedia of Hinduism. . 2007.

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