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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 dohās, or the equally popular form of short songs (padas) 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 bhagats (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 pāṇḍes on the one side, mullas and kāzis 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 dohās 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).