Kabir: The Great Indian Poet

Kabir  is one of the most loved poets of India. In his couplets, he refers to himself as Kabira . Who knows, he might have earned the name when mocked by the pundits of Benares, who might have called him a poet or KaviRamnaami, which got shortened to Kabira in due course. This is Kabir’s style of answering his critics. Note this couplet:

Aabat gaari ek hai ultat hoye anek

Kahe Kabir nahi ulatiye vahi ek ki ek

Kabir says that when someone abuses you, it is one abuse, but if you answer back in the same coin, it becomes many. The poet further says that if you do not return it, it remains that one only. The gist of it is that misbehaviour of others should be ignored.

2. It needs to be emphasized here that Benares or Varanasi or Kashi used to be the highest seat of Hindu religion, scholarship and holiest of all places. In such a place, any budding poet had to prove his credentials the hard way. Isn’t it the case with Oxford, Cambridge or Harvard? Poets like Kabir or Tulsidas had all faced trauma before successfully crossing that barrier. The nature, characterstics and behaviour patterns, as also their verbal weaponry shot at such budding geniuses, finds vivid description in Kabir and Tulsidas. Reference to Tulsidas is only to highlight the plight of non Sanskrit writers of Benares. Both chose to write in the common man’s language or Bhasha. It is in this context I hazard a guess that the poet, coming from humble background of a weaver, might have been sarcastically called Kavi Ramnaami, which shortened to Kabir. It is supported by repeated references to Lord Ram in the couplets of Kabir. Take this couplet:

Ram naam nij aushadhi kaatai koti vikaar

Bisham vyadhi thi ubrai kaayaa kanchan saar

It means the name of Lord Ram is the best medicine to cure millions of illnesses I got well of a dangerous disease and regained my golden (beautiful) body.

A poet does not need a licence from anybody to chant the name of the Lord the way he chooses. If it is Ram, Kabir was free to meditate on Him as he liked. He was not obliged to observe the rituals, without which no Religious Order –Hindu or another- views the devotees kindly. Kabir was no observer of any kind of rituals. Why should he ?

3. Kabir is a poet of a very high caliber. His poetry ranges from the mundane to the sublime. Had he chosen to write an epic, it would have been one of the best. But he never chose to do so. Why was it so, no scholar critic has attempted to clarify. But it is necessary to understand the circumstances and reasons which made Kabir a different poet. To call him a mystic poet only is injustice to the poet as his range is comprehensive, canvas vast and portrait detailed. Similarly the debate whether he was a Hindu or a Muslim is equally irrelevant- rather irreverent to the genius of the poet. He was perhaps born to a Hindu mother, nurtured by Muslim parents and kept company with all contemporary schools of thought. Since he did not belong to one religion by birth, brought up or schooling, he turned out to be what he was made for by the Almighty- a poet of great sensibilities, having equal respect for all religious denominations , a practicing secularist and missionary for the upliftment of the ordinary human beings. See this one:

Kathani meethi khand si karni vish ki loya

Kathani taj karni karai vish se amrat hoya

Kabir says that people generally speak as sweet as sugar but when it comes to actions, it is extremely unpleasant (so much so that it is like poison). He concludes that if the people gave up the habit of saying things or making promises without meaning to implement them and develop the habit of implementing what they say, they can convert this poison into nectar.

4. Little is known about Kabir’s biological parents or his own wife or children.  He was left by the side of a pond in Benares by his mother or may be, even by his parents. There could be several reasons for that- poverty, superstition, religion. From his sanskars or traits, which are discernible from his poetry, he does not seem to have been born to poor parents. At least his mother was decidedly a pious and learned woman, well versed in the Hindu religious treatises. It is now admitted that a child learns many things while in his mother’s womb, when she talks to him or others talk to him. As the brain starts developing in the womb itself, the child picks up and absorbs a lot of information. Abhimanyu, son of Arjun the warrior of Mahabharat, learnt the technique of breaching into the enemy ranks when the forces are placed in the Chakravyuh formation, in the womb when Arjun was explaining it to his wife. Before Arjun could come to the next part of exiting that formation, his wife fell asleep and so did the baby in the womb and it proved him costly in the real war, when he successfully breached the enemy formation but could not exit and got killed. Kabir is not known to have received any formal education. But his rendering of the gist of the Shastras or religious treatises in the common man’s language, establishes beyond any reasonable doubt that he had a sound knowledge of the saar or essence of the knowledge of the Shastras. Such developments can take place in the womb of the mother or early childhood.

5. It might be logically asked as to why such a mother would abandon her baby like that. It may be due to the sudden death of her husband, spurring her to end her life too in the tradition of yore. As the child could not have been subjected to that ritual, she took care to leave him at a safe place where good citizens were expected in the normal course of daily business and take mercy on him and take him under their loving care. Benares being a holy city,had an abundance of such merciful souls. After all, religion is another name for mercy. It may be of significance to note that death in Benares was considered by the Hindus as a passport to heaven. It was believed that it provided immediate moksha or emancipation. There exist references of some kind of euthanasia practice (karvat Kashi= securing death in Kashi /Benares). The child was picked up by a muslim handloom weaver couple, who showered all their love and affection on Kabir. But they did not try to impose Islam on him. People in society did practice such liberal ideals in the India of those times. That is the reason, India never practiced conversions. India basically is averse to conversions. She believes in complete religious freedom, considering each individual an independent island to learn from all and practice what appeals to him. If Kabir grew in that environment, it was nothing out of the ordinary. What was really extraordinary was his engagement with knowledge, thought and  poetry. In the normal course, he should have devoted himself to the pursuit of passions, but he was oriented towards pursuit of knowledge. What happened to his own pain- the pangs of poverty and pain of being abandoned by his biological mother?  There is no child in the world who is not pained by the fact of his mother having abandoned him. He seeks answer to the reason for that. He cries, he shouts angrily at his mother and complains to her in absentia and to God. Howsoever, loving the foster mother may be, the child misses his biological mother. In her absence and because of the hurt caused by her having abandoned him, the child suddenly grows into an adult. That explains such children turning high thinkers, scientists, philosophers, poets, writers or saints. Actually, it is this childhood trauma that acts as the trigger for them to move out of the usual childhood orbit into the adult world early in life. The others who get stuck into the pain of separation from the mother, turn anti social or disgruntled citizens, who take longer to cope with the loss. Kabir did not cry, to the best of our knowledge. It seems he universalized his personal pain, which is an attribute of great poets. He was not lost in the memory of his mother and the pain of separating from her at such a tender age. Instead he meditated on the mysteries of life and written in a manner universally applicable. He rather chose to thank his biological mother, place of birth, the city of abode, the country, family values, patterns of good activities which admit sadhus or mendicants.

6. Kabir was conscious of the requirements of normal living. He knew what was meant by kaam, krodh, mad, moh or lobh which is the essence of Life on Earth. He happened to rise above the ordinary ways of living and concentrated on finding the meaning of life. He did not marry and set up home. He was living in a butchers’ colony and witnessed cruelty to hapless animals daily. A sensitive person always reacts differently to such experiences. Added to that was the never stopping sight of pyres by the Ganga Ghats of Benares. Those who have had the opportunity to visit Benares would have noticed the stark contrast between the palaces on one side of the river Ganga and burning pyres on the other! A man of Kabir’s sensibilities was bound to react differently to life, death, God and this universe. It was the pain of the ordinary people he witnessed from very close quarters, forgetting his own pain. Many poor people could not afford even the semblance of a proper cremation and simply threw the corpse in the river. Between the pain of the helplessness of his own mother (janani) and those unable to afford a proper burial to their mother, Kabir remembered their pain and forgot his own. Benares’s ghats are famous for the story of King Harishchandra, who gave away in charity everything, became a pauper and had to enter the employment of the Chief of the burial Ghat. It was the duty of the king to charge the cremation tax before the family members of the dead were allowed to lit the pyre. One day his son, bitten by a snake, died. His queen brought him for cremation to the Ghat, but King Harishchandra demanded the tax before the cremation could take place. The queen pleaded that she had no money and it was the dead body of his own son. But Harishchandra insisted on realizing the tax. Ultimately the queen tore half her saree and gave it as tax. While Harishchandra has become a metaphor for honesty and speaking the truth in the Indian lexicon, the scenes of so many pyres all through the day must have put off Kabir. Such accumulated experiences of life, coupled with the knowledge gained from treatises and teacher-preachers, made an indelible mark on Kabir about the futility of all materialistic things. He observed:

Patta tutaa daal se le gayi pavan udaaya

Abke bichude kab milenge door padenge jaaya

Once the leaves fall from the tree, the winds carry them to distant places, nobody knows if they will ever meet again.

Or take this one:  Maati kahe kumhaar ko too kyaa ronde too mohe

Ek din aisaa hoyegaa  mein rundoogi tohe

Using the potter’s clay as a metaphor the poet puts the power of kind treatment of others, especially the weaker segments of people.  Kabir says that the  clay is asking the potter  why he was pounding  it by his feet in this way? Then it also tells him that a day will come when it will pound him. This is the beauty of sublime poetry woven in common man’s language on a complex subject like the cycle of life and death and the treatment they deserve to be given by all of us. Kabir realized the truth which we tend to ignore ordinarily:

Kabira garb naa kijiye unchaa dekh aawaas

Kaal pare bhui letnaa upar jamihe ghaas

Kabir says that one should never feel proud of living in high palaces, for when death comes one has to lie down on the bare ground, which will be soon covered by grass. Who is buried where or who was cremated where is absolutely irrelevant once you lie down on the ground! Here is another gem of Kabir:

Haad jale jyun laakdi kesh jalain jyun ghaas,

Sab tan jalataa dekh kar bhayaa Kabir udaas

The pyre burns the bones as if they are wood and hair like dry grass, seeing the whole body burn Kabir became despondent.  But these experiences inspired him to find out the reality of existence. This natural curiosity of the human mind demands answer even in this age of science and technology, even as man has landed on the Moon and his rovers are moving on the Mars. Whether what we see is an intelligent design or evolution? If it stoked the curiosity of Kabir, it was but normal.

As stated in the beginning of this article, Kabir imbibed the essence of the Vedas, Purans, Smrities, Upnishads and other great treatises and rendered what he learnt in an idiom familiar to the common man. As he worked on his loom, the metaphor of the loom, fabric, thread, cotton etc  occurs frequently in his poetry, containing the meaning of immortality, Creator, body, knowledge, care etc: jhini jhini si beenee re chadariya… yeh cchaadar sur nar muni odhi odh kai mailee keeni chadariyaa, daas kabir jatan se odhee, jyon kee tyon dhar deenee cgadariya. ( I wove a sheet to cover myself with the threads. This kind of sheets gods, humans and saints have also used, but they made it dirty. I was careful not to spoil it, I covered myself carefully and kept it back as it originally was). Here the metaphor refers to the human body and how it is used and should be used. It is the poetic depth in these simple words that has endeared Kabir to everyone. Kabir was familiar with the Karm Marg, Gyan Marg and Bhakti Marg- the three significant ways of exploring Truth. Karm=action; Marg=way or path; gyan=knowledge; bhakti=devotion.

7. Whatever may be the path chosen by a seeker, the object remains the same- Truth. Kabir realized:

Kaam krodh mad lobh ki jab jab lag ghat mein khaan

Kaha moorkh kaha panditaa dono ek samaan

It means that both a knowledgeable person and a fool are equals so long as their minds remain fixed on bodily pleasures or angst at not getting those pleasures or pride of being the possessor of wealth others do not have or greed for more & more. Kabir was a great learner. In informal education two things are of immense value: the capacity to listen as much as possible, to become  the ocean in which several rivers continuously converge; and a good memory. Such a seeker first goes in search of a Guru or teacher.  What kind of a teacher Kabir succeeded in getting?

Sab dharati kaagad karoon lekhani sab banraya

Saat samund kee masi karoon guru gun likhaa naa jaaye

In Kabir’s own words: If I make the whole Earth as writing paper, convert all forests into writing pen, make writing ink of all the seven seas, I cannot describe the qualities of  my Guru! What does the Guru do to the disciple or learner? He makes him aware of  superior consciousness, which alone is capable of Truth realization and God Realization. See these  couplets:

Aatam anubhav gyaan kee jo koi poocchai baat

So goongaa gud khai kai kahe kaun mukh swaad

Sam drishtee sat gurukiyaa diyaa avichal gyaan

Jahain dekhon tahain ek hee doojaa naahee aan

Guru govind dou khade kaake laagon  paanya

Balihaaree guru aapnee govind diyo bataaya

As will be clear from these couplets, the Guru makes the learner aware of his aatmagyaan or self knowledge (who am I?); endows him with an objective perception to view all as equals. We have two eyes and are unlikely to view others as equals. What would happen if God, if you believe there to be one, viewed us differently? With the help of the Guru, we acquire that capability to view everyone as equals, and once acquired this knowledge remains with us. It is the universal truth. Is light different from darkness or pain different from pleasure? For a self realized person, there is little difference between the two, which in reality are complimentary parts of each other. The world is a cycle- like the cycle of birth & death. Another gain from this sense of equality is that we realize that God is only one and there is no other God. Those lacking this realization waste their life in waging religious wars disturbing world peace and destroying valuable lives out of ignorance. They see people differently, not as equals. But who will tell a person whether the Guru is greater or God is greater, when both appear together? Who should be greeted first? Only the Guru can tell, because he directs his pupil to greet God first, because God alone is great. The pupil arrives at the stage when he is to be on his own, be a learner and no more a student or pupil. The short life span of a human being is not enough to explore any further. It suffices that a seeker realizes God with the help of the Guru. Perhaps the path of Gyaan Marg closes here. Limitations of human mind become obvious. There is so much to learn that even a span of 5000 years would be insufficient to explore God. When a volley of questions will flow from the mind and it will stop answering. The Ved calls it “neti neti” or don’t know, don’t know. That is the stage of Bhakti. Bhakti Marg is for everyone, knowledgeable or ignorant. But it has special significance to the gyaanyogee or the knowledgeable. When further exploration is not possible for various reasons like short span of the life of the seeker, it is better to call Him to come to you. Bhakti or devotion is the simplest method of God realization. He is always with us, within us, only if we try to communicate with Him. He is the source of all positive energy, as the Devil represents the source of all negative energy. This polarity sustains the whole creation. Kabir turned to the Bhakti Marg.

8. We must go through some couplets first:

Ekai saadhey sab sadhey sab saadhey sab jaaye

Jo too sebai mool ko phoolai phalai aghaaye

Bhakti gaind chogaan ki bhavai koyee lai jaaye

Kah Kabir kacchu bhed nahi kahaa rank kahaa ray

Aankhadiyaa jhain padee panth nihaar nihaar

Jeebhadiya cchaalaa padyaa Ram pukaari pukaari

Bhagati bhajan Hari naav hai doojaa dukh apaar

Manasaa vaachaa karmanaa Kabir sumiran saar

Jal jyon pyaaraa maaccharee lobhee pyaaraa daam

Maataa pyaaraa baalakaa bhakta piyaraa naam

Jahan kaam tahain Ram nahi jahaan Ram nahi kaam

Dono kabahun naa milein ravi rajani ek thaam

Kabir says that devotion to one is devotion to all, but devotion to all leads to loss of all. The message is that the Creator is One ; different people see Him differently due to defective sight. Had they the samdrishti or equal vision, this problem would not have arisen. Bhakti or devotion is equally available to the king and the pauper. Once God realization happens, the seeker keeps on chanting His name. Kabir says I have fixed my eyes on the way He is expected to come and chanting the the name of Lord Ram. Once God realization happens, such   cravings are normal. Life is an ocean of unhappiness, and the bhakti and bhajan of Lord Hari, another name for God, is a boat to cross this ocean, which is possible only if He is remembered not only in thoughts but speech and deeds also. For the devout taking the name of the Lord is as dear as water for fish, wealth for the greedy and child for the mother. (Look at the magnanimity of the poet, who knows the mother son bond, missed it but feels no rancour for his biological mother). Kabir is clear that the drudgery of daily life leaves little scope for devoting to God. Kaam or whatever we do in the process of the life cycle, including procreation, blocks seeking Lord Ram, and the devotee of Ram has no time for the mundane activities of kaam and concludes that the night and daylight have ever existed at the same time or place? Once on the path of Bhakti, the seeker moves into an altogether different level of consciousness, It’s the sublime world. It brings the moments of God realization. The communion, communication and comfort in those moments is beyond description. Once the mind establishes the supremacy of God and establishes direct communion with Him, all doubts are put to rest. Truth is established. The world does not surprise anymore. A sense of equality or samdrishti is firmly established. Kabir communicates his findings to fellow citizens, urging them to be considerate and kind to others, as God is to us.

9.  Kabir admonishes people not to be harsh to others. The metaphor of the potter’s clay has been explained already. Here is another very powerful metaphor of the hide of a dead animal melting iron:

Durbal ko naa sataaiye jaaki moti haaya

Binaa jiv kee swans se loh bhasam hwai jaaya

The poet says that the weak should not be tortured because his curses are very effective,  the lifeless hide of  bellows  melts a metal as hard as iron. Again:

Jaako raakhe sanyia mari sake naa koi,

Baal naa bankaa kari sake jo jag very hoi

Meaning nobody can harm those who live under the protection of God, even if the whole world were to turn their enemy.

It is this coverage of the ordinary to the extraordinary which has been treated with such felicity by Kabir that leaves a permanent impression on the reader. The success of Kabir lies in rendering the most complex philosophical ideas in the layman’s language or bhasha. As mentioned earlier, nothing less than Sanskrit gave access to scholarship of Benares, because renowned scholars were producing valuable literature in that language in those days. But the language was not the lingua franca. Hence the common people were deprived of the fruits of that knowledge and scholarship. It acted as a barrier and denied access to the ordinary folks. Such an arrangement was bound to cause some kind of a rebellion. It seems, it lead to many revolts, some of them successful. The most popular are Tulsidas and Kabir, though they were not contemporaries. But both accepted the challenge of producing the essence of the treatises in common man’s language and ended up being more popular than the Sanskrit scholars. Knowledge  is pursued equally by the literate and the illiterate. Both have the right to know. Most societies had made it a privilege of the higher social classes. Even today, higher knowledge is kept secret and not shared with others. In the race for superiority, those in possession of such knowledge, refuse to share it. But even the illiterate have a right to listen & learn. India has the rich tradition of oral dissemination of knowledge. It is called Katha vaachan or oral narration. Ramcharitmanas of Tulsidas became so popular that it was on the lips of every one across all segments of society. So was Kabir. Kabir is the darling of everyone, even as some segments try to appropriate him as someone belonging to them only. Scholars would always be drawn to Kabir for his great poetry written on complex subjects of life and God in simple & easy to follow language. Beauty lies in a speech that conveys the most complex thoughts in the simplest most language which leaves no further scope for simplification. Kabir is loved for that quality.


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