(1398 - 1518 CE)
To honour the tradition of the Kabirpanthis, 1518 has been recorded here as the date of death of this mystic poet. According to them, Bhagat Kabir lived for 120 years from 1398-1518. But scholarly research puts his life span from 1398 to 1448.
An interesting story is told, as to how Kabir made Ramanand agree to be his Guru, although the latter took only Brahmins as his disciples. But, it lacks credibility as according to the code of guru-shish relationship in India, it is hypocritical not to tell the name of one’s guru, as Guru Amar Das says:
He who conceals his guru
Will have no place to rest.1
Guru Ramdas also says:
He who conceals the name of his guru
Is not a good person.2
Kabir in his compositions clearly says, that his guru is Satguru, who is omnipresent, and lives deep within one’s heart.
He also says:
I know the One God who is from the beginning.
I do not believe in those whom He created and destroyed.3
Regarding the “Ram” that he often mentioned in padas (and is also mentioned in the Guru Granth Sahib) Kabir had explained:
Make the Lord your companion
And be free of joy and sorrow
He was not born as Dashrath’s son,
Nor did he kill the king of Lanka;
He issued not from Devki’s womb,
Nor was he reared by Yashodha. …
And He is not the one that passed away at Dwarka…
He is the One who is beyond these
And keeps the world going.
(Jodh Singh, Kabir, p 40; cf Dr. Parasnath Tiwari, Ramaini of Kabir, p 74)
Similarly it would be incorrect to say, that Kabir was Guru Nanak’s Guru, just because of similarity in their views. Guru Nanak’s guru also was none other than Satguru. (Sidh Gosht, GGS, p 972)
Had it been otherwise we would not have had Nanak II and Nanak III, we would have had Kabir II and Kabir III or Ramanand III and Ramanand IV. In the Guru Granth Sahib, where the bani of the Gurus is given in each Raga, in chronological order, and then follow compositions of various Bhagats, with Kabir’s bani placed first—and in some cases also at the end. If the lineage of gurus had started from Ramanand, his bani would have been given first position.
In the entire bani of Guru Nanak in the Guru Granth Sahib, Kabir’s name is not mentioned even once. (Jodh Singh, Kabir, p 25, Patiala: Punjabi University.)
In Sidh-Gosht (GGS, p 942) the Sidhs directly ask Nanak, “Who is your guru, and whose disciple are you?” Guru Nanak replies: “The Lord is my Guru, and I am His disciple.”
Kabir’s reputation as a man of God was so high, that his followers said: Kabir was not born of a woman but descended straight from the heavens, into the heart of a lotus flower, and newly married Nima and her husband Niru picked up the celestial baby and raised him. Coincidentally, to give the child a name, when the qazi consulted the Quran, the name he got was Kabir, which in Arabic is an attribute of God.
Kabir went through no schooling, but to earn his living went to Benares, famous for its learned personage. In his compositions he tells us he liked the company of holy persons for exchange of views.4
Not depending on tradition, we can trace his life and understand his philosophy from the voluminous treasure of his compositions that is available.
Guru Nanak during his sojourns visited Benares also. He found echo of his own thoughts in the hymns of Kabir. He collected some of them, and probably sang them accompanied by Mardana’s rebeck (rabab). He handed over his notebooks to Bhai Lehna (Guru Angad Dev), when he passed on the spiritual torch to him in 1539. Guru Angad’s successor, Guru Amar Das, added to that collection, as he had been a regular visitor to Haridwar, which was another center of religious scholars, and mendicants who collected in their repertoire all they found easy to sing. This collection of Guru Amar Das, was used by Guru Arjun Dev in compiling the Adi Granth – sealed, bound and placed in the Harimandar in 1604, as a spiritual beacon for mankind.
All references below are from Guru Granth Sahib.
Kabir tells us: He was a weaver of Benares.(p 970) His Muslim mother did not like Hindu skinhead sadhus frequenting their house, and giving them Hindu nicknames.(p 484) Kabir’s wife and his mother were fed up with that regular inflow of sadhus who ate their bellies full, while Kabir’s own daughter and his two sons were being deprived of their basic needs — because Kabir was spending most of his time in the company of sadhus, neglecting the weaving work, which was source of their livelihood. They complained; they sighed and cried that Kabir did not talk about the loom, the warp, the beam or the shuttle; instead it was the word of God that was all over him. (p 524) But, Kabir himself enjoyed the company of holy men exchanging with them his views, diametrically opposite to those of the Brahmins, who he thought would go to hell. Brahmins tried to drown him in the Ganges (p 1162). Muslims considered him a kafir, and complained against him. The qazi punished him to be trampled by an elephant. But, despite the mahawat’s multiple attempts to goad him to put his foot on Kabir, the elephant did not move forward; instead, he picked him up in his trunk and saluted several times. (pp 870-71)
He says, “I am a weaver of Kashi” (p 970). “People make fun of my caste, but I am proud of it”.(p 1364) But, he is also happy, to ‘lose’ his caste by mingling with sadhus, Brahmins and people of all walks of life.(p 484)
God is purest of the pure (p 727). “I know one God, who is from the beginning! I do not believe in those, whom He created and destroyed”.(p 340) “I am Thy son, Thou art my father; Both of us live in the same place – this body” (p 333). God is found through devotion. “There is no salvation without the name of God.” (p 1157) Salvation means union with the Supreme Reality.
There is one God – the Creator. “The Lord is One O qazi”. (p 483) “The Creator pervades the creation everywhere; the same clay has been moulded into diverse forms.”(p 1349) “In Hindus and Muslims, pervades the same God, Kabir proclaims it aloud”.(p 483) “Let the name [of God] be thy sustenance;…Make righteousness and compassion thy garden.”(p 970) “Destroy lust, anger and pride.”(p 1349)
Kabir condemned forcible conversions. “Says Kabir, what is done by force is tyranny, thou deemest it lawful [O qazi!].”(p 1374) He condemned hypocrisy, superstitions, idol worship, and false beliefs: “They buy idols and worship them, and with an obstinate mind go and bathe in holy places….Missing [the real path] they wander astray. They made a stone into a god, and multitudes worship it. Those who put their faith in it [for salvation] will drown midstream.”(p 1371)
He condemns the caste discrimination:
“How art thou a Brahmin and how am I a Shudra? Does milk flow in thy veins and blood in mine?”(p 324)
Bluntly, Kabir asks the Brahmin:
“If you are a Brahmin, born of a Brahmin woman,
Why did you not take birth from another way”?5
Kabir was not influenced by the common ‘belief’ that one who dies in Kashi goes straight to the heaven. To condemn such a superstition, after living most of his life in Kashi, towards the end of his life he moved to Maghar — a place given a bad reputation, that one who dies in Maghar will be reborn as an ass. He said, “I think Kashi and Maghar to be equal.” (p 326) And, that is where he breathed his last leaving behind thousands of admirers – both Hindus and Muslims. As per tradition, the Hindus wanted to cremate him, but the Muslims wanted to bury him. When they picked up the shroud, instead of his body they found a layer of flowers. “Born from a flower, he returned to flowers.”
[243 verses of Bhagat Kabir are contained in the Guru Granth Sahib.]