Kabir was a weaver poet who lived sometime in the late 15th early 16th century. This was the time of Bhakti movement in India. Politically the Islamic rulers were gaining ground across the country and Hindus were getting subjected to many atrocities. It led to the Bhakti movement when they all turned to God, singing his praises and seeking solace in him.
Debate on whether Kabir was a Hindu or a Muslim will probably never get settled. Muslim couple Neeru & Neema who are buried in the Kabir Math at Banaras brought him up and Swami Ramanand was his Guru. His works show a deep knowledge of many disciplines including Vedic literature, anatomy, flora, fauna, philosophy and of course weaving.
Kabir’s poetry comes in various formats – Saakhis, Shabads, Ramainis, Ulat Bhashis, and Basant. Origin of the world Saakhi is Sakshi that means ‘as seen’. These are couplets that Kabir probably uttered when he saw something that sparked a thought in him. In most of these Saakhis, we see a visual and a thought or a pearl of wisdom combined together.
Since most of the works passed on in oral tradition, in various versions we find some her-pher of words. For example in poem Paani mein meen pyaasi – some people sing Mohe sun sun aave haasi and some people sing mohe dekhat aave haasi. Though the meaning and intention of the poem have not changed but the words sometimes change. While referring to himself Kabir often calls himself Das Kabir, but when he is sung now, Sant sometimes replaces Das.
When you hear the same poem being sung by Malwa and Rajasthani singers, common words are replaced by the local words and the same is true for urban singers who replace words by Sanskritized Hindi.
He is a Dhara or a flowing river– not a single person today. He started a thought process and many other streams have come and joined him. We would never know what he said and what was added to his poetry later, and that does not matter as long as the thought process is the same. His poetry is profound – but still folk and not classic.
Boond jo padi samudra mein, so jaane sab koi
Samudra samana boond mein, boojhe birla koi
Kabir – A Fakir
To me, first of all, Kabir is a Fakir. Now colloquially we understand Fakir as a beggar but the meaning of Fakir is really someone who is independent of anything he has or not has. Fakir is someone who in his capacity can have much but chooses to live with the bare minimum. He is not influenced by any societal pressures and hence is totally free in his thoughts.
Chah Gayi Chinta miti, Manuwa beparvah
Jinko kuchh na chahiye, wo shahan ke shah
Man Laagyo mera yaar Fakiri Mein…
What distinguishes Kabir from the rest of the poets is his Bhakti was Nirguna. All other poets were saguna poets, that means they saw God in some form or the other. Meera Bai and Surdas imagined God in the form of Krishna while for Tulsidas it was Sri Ramchandra. Kabir was potentially the only one who did not follow a form, his calling was without a form, but omnipresent in every human being.
Kabir constantly asked people around him to look inside them. He tries to introduce them to their inner divinity while they are always searching for it outside. This is nothing but the Advaita philosophy that says the Brahman is within you or you are Brahman. Do not go looking after the ultimate reality outside you.
Throughout his poetry, Kabir directly addresses the people around him, unlike other poets who talk to others through God. Kabir addresses the man straight and direct. He calls him Saadho – or a good person, Bande – or man, a friend, a brother – every time he established a relation between two human beings. He never addresses others as someone above him or below him except when he refers his Guru. He subtly through his address communicates the equality of everyone and it also comes across in many of his works.
He even looks at mundane things and establishes an equal relationship with them like when he says: Maati Kahe Kumhar se…he is saying it is just a cycle, today you trample the soil, tomorrow it will trample you and the cycle will go on. Today we may think we are powerful over others while it is just a matter of time that tables can turn and we may be on opposite sides. Equality of everyone and almost everything in the universe is a continuous theme in Kabir’s poetry. He also believes in the cyclic nature of relationships that keep changing hands but not many are able to see the cycle.
Maati kahe kumhar se, tu kya ronde mohe,
Ik din aisa aayega, mein rondungi tohe
Kabir garv na kijiye, ooncha dekh niwas
Kal paron punya letna, upar jamegi ghaas
Tinka kabhi na nindiye, jo paanv tale hoye
Kabhun ud aankh pade, peed gehri hoye
God is Inside Us
The biggest message that I could find in his poetry is that each one of us had God within us, and for every problem, the solution lies within us. He constantly and persistently pushes you to look inside you. He sometimes negates everything you do to reach that so-called God and then tells you that he is right inside you if you have faith in him.
Jaise til mein tel hain, jyun chakmak mein aag,
tera sayeen tujhme hai, jaag sake to jaag.
Bura to dekhan main chala. bura na miliya koi
jo man khoja aapna. mujhse bura na koi
Kasturi kundal base, mrig dhundat ban maahi,
Jyon ghat ghat raam hai, duniya dekhe naahi
Moko kahan dhoonde re bande, Main to tere paas mein….
Paani mein meen pyaasi…
As a corollary, he says to get Him clean yourself as Ganga cleans itself
Kabir Mann nirmal bhaya, Jaise Ganga Neer
Pacchhe Paachhe sab fire, kehat Kabir Kabir
Kabir’s poetry comes from his direct experience. Though he refers to Ved, Puran what he says is his own experience. He gives example from everyday life of his times. He lived as a worldly man, he worked and earned his living and he was a seeker. He did not live on the alms given by others so he understands the joys and pains of earning your own living. This indeed gives him complete freedom to say what he wants to say. He lives within the society so he can see it from within but at the same time, he is detached from it so he can be an observer also.
Tu Kehta Kaagaz ki lekhi, mein kehta hun aankhon dekhi…
Kabira khada bazaar mein, maange sabki khair
Na kahu se Dosti, Na kahu se Vair
Sai itna dijiye, Jaame kutumb Samaye
Main bhi bhookha na rahun, Sadhu na Bhookha jaye
Chalti Chaaki dekh Kar, Diya Kabira Roye
Do Paatan ke beech mein, Saabut bacha na Koye
Kabira teri jhompadi, galkatiyan ke paas
jo karega so bharega, to kyun bhaya udaas
kabiraa khadaa bazaar men, liye lakutiyaa haath
je ghar phookyaa aapno, chale hamaare saath.
Kabir on Guru
In a lot of his Sakhis and Shabads he asks you to go by your direct experience, to test what others are telling and not blindly believe what you are told, including the Guru – who he believes is the must get the Gyan.
Guru Gobind dono khade, kake laagoon Paon
Balihari Guru Aapne, Gobind diyo Dikhaye
Satguru mila to sab mile, na to mila na koye
Mata, pita, sut, bandhava, yeh to sab ghar hoye
Kabira te nar andh hain, Guru ko kehte aur
Hari roothe guru thaur hai, guru roothe nahi thaur
Bhes dekh na poojiye, Poochh lijiye gyaan,
Bina kasuati hot naahi, Kanchan ki pehchaan
Jaat na poochho Sadhu ki, Poochh lijiye gyaan
Mol karo talwar ka, padi rehen do myan
Efforless exploration of Self
He tells us to live effortlessly. Since he believes everything is within us, every force, every possible energy source, we need not make an effort to look for it. Sahajata – or effortlessness is another theme that repeats throughout his works. It shows that people were making the unnecessary effort even during the days of Kabir, but this is very relevant today as we are engaged in making an effort that we do not even understand why we are making. We are running even to stand in the same place. What we need is this sahajata in our attitude that would make our minds and hence our lives simpler.
Pothi Padh Padh jag mua, Pandit bhaya na koye
Dhai Aakhar prem ke , Padhe so pandit hoye
Mala kahe kaath ki, tu kyun fere mohe
Man ka manka fer de, turat mila dun tohe
Prem gali ati saankri, isme dau na samaaye
jab mein tha tab hari nahi, ab hari hai to main naahi
Challenging the Organized Religion
He denounces organized religion of any kind – he had the courage to speak against or question Islam when they were ruling the place and Hindus in their very Garh in Banaras. Sometimes he tells like a doting parent taking simple analogies and sometimes he hits you hard with his questions. He is always teasing the Pandits, Maulavis and all those who claim to be wise or gyaanis. His tone gets challenging most of the times as if inviting to prove him wrong.
Kaashi kaaba ek hain, ek hain raam rahim
Maida ik pakwaan bahu, baith kabira jeev
Sadhu bhookha bhav ka, dhan ka bhookha naahi
Dhan ka jo bhookha fire, wo to saadho nahi
Pani piyaway kya firo, ghar ghar mein hai vyari
Trishnavant to hoyega, aayega jhakh maari
paththar pooje hari mile, to main poojun pahad,
isse to chakki bhali, pees khaye sansar
kankar pathad jodi ke masjid leyi banaye,
ta chadhi mulla baang de kya bahra hua khudaye
Kabir refers to the human body as ghat or a clay pot again and again. It can be interpreted at multiple levels. Physically, it is made of earth and goes back and merges with earth. Metaphorically it is an empty pot and it is up to the human what he fills it with. What is a human is defined by what we will fill this pot with? He finally says for a human being everything is within this human body – the good, the bad, the ugly and even the God.
Jogi gorakh gorakh Karen, hindu naam uchharen
Musalman kahen ek khudai, kabir ko swami ghat ghat basai
Kabir soi peer hai, jo jaane par peed
Jo par peed na jaane, so kafir bepeer
Chanda jhalke yahi ghat maahi…
Kabir & Maya
Maya – is something Kabir calls the root of all evils, a dakini that can create illusions in which not only humans but even Gods get lost. He says this world is nothing but the illusion created by Maya and to see the reality you need to get yourself out of the net of Maya or Mayajaal. While he talks about Maya, he also talks about each of us being all-alone and the need to understand this.
Avadhu, Maya taji na jaaye…
Ud Jaayega Hans Akela…
Finally, death is another theme in his poetry, but not as an end but as the only reality of human life. In fact, Banaras is called the city of death and a city that celebrates the death and we see the same thought process in Kabir’s work as well. He time and again talks about the momentary-ness of life like the water on an upturned pot…and hence no point in getting attached to it. He speaks of human nature with the perspective of death in place, of the futility of a lot of things that we do thinking we are going to live forever. He wants us to remember that ultimately it is the death that we have to embrace – like it or not and live our live keeping death in view.
Maali aavat dekh kar kaliyan kahe pukar
Phule phule chun liye, kaal hamari baar
Sadho ye murdon ka Gaon…
Come with me for an exploration of Kabir – a thought that is as simple as it can be and as profound as it gets.