An 1825 CE painting depicts Kabir with a disciple
Lahartara near Kashi (present-day Varanasi)
|Known for||influencing the Bhakti movement, Sikhism, Sant Mat and Kabir Panth|
Kabīr (also Kabīra) (Hindi: कबीर, Punjabi: ਕਬੀਰ, Urdu: کبير) (c. 1440 – c. 1518) was a mystic poet and saint of India, whose writings have greatly influenced the Bhakti movement. The name Kabir comes from Arabic al-Kabīr which means "The Great" – the 37th name of God in Islam.
Kabir's legacy is today carried forward by the Kabir panth ("Path of Kabir"), a religious community that recognises him as its founder and is one of the Sant Mat sects. Its members, known as Kabir panthis, are estimated to be around 9.6 million. They are spread over north and central India, as well as dispersed with the Indian diaspora across the world, up from 843,171 in the 1901 census. His writings include Bijak, Sakhi Granth, Kabir Granthawali and Anurag Sagar.
Early life and background
Kabir's early life is not firmly established.:14 In Indian tradition, he is commonly supposed to have lived for 120 years from 1398 to 1518, which "permits him to be associated with other famous figures such as Guru Nanak and Sikander Lodi", however most historians state this to be highly unlikely.:14 Historians are uncertain about his dates of birth and death. Some state 1398 as a date of birth,:5 whereas others favour later dates, such as 1440. Some assign his death date to the middle of the 15th century – for example, 1440:5 or 1448:15 – whereas others place it in 1518.:106 Lifespans commonly suggested by scholars include from 1398 to 1448,:5 and from 1440 to 1518.:27–28
According to one traditional version of his parentage, Kabir was born to a Brahmin widow at Lahartara near Kashi (modern day Varanasi). The widow abandoned Kabir to escape dishonour associated with births outside marriage. He was brought up in a family of poor Muslim weavers Niru and Nima. They could not afford formal education for Kabir and initiated him into their trade of weaving. Vaishnava saint Swami Ramananda accepted Kabir as his disciple. When Swami Ramananda died, Kabir was 13 years old.
Kabir's family is believed to have lived in the locality of Kabir Chaura in Varanasi. Kabīr maṭha (कबीरमठ), a maṭha located in the back alleys of Kabir Chaura, celebrates his life and times. Accompanying the property is a house named Nīrūṭīlā (नीरू टीला) which houses Niru and Nima's graves. The house also accommodates students and scholars who live there and study Kabir's work.
Kabir's legends describe his victory in trials by sultan, a Brahmin, a Qazi, a merchant and God. The ideological messages in Kabir's legends appealed to the poor and oppressed. David Lorenzen describes primary purpose of his legends as a "protest against social discrimination and economic exploitation".
Kabir composed in a pithy and earthy style, replete with surprise and inventive imagery. His poems resonate with praise for the true guru who reveals the divine through direct experience, and denounce more usual ways of attempting god-union such as chanting, austerities, etc. Kabir, being illiterate, expressed his poems orally in vernacular Hindi, borrowing from various dialects including Avadhi, Braj, and Bhojpuri.
A considerable body of poetical work has been attributed to Saint Kabir. And while two of his disciples, Bhāgodās and Dharmadās, did write much of it down, "...there is also much that must have passed, with expected changes and distortions, from mouth to mouth, as part of a well-established oral tradition."
Poems and songs ascribed to Kabir are available today in several dialects, with varying wordings and spellings as befits an oral tradition. Opinions vary on establishing any given poem's authenticity. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the spirit of this mystic comes alive through a "unique forcefulness... vigor of thought and rugged terseness of style."
Kabir and his followers named his poetic output as "bāņīs" (utterances). These include songs, as above, and couplets, called variously dohe, śalokā (Sanskrit: ślokā), or sākhī (Sanskrit: sākşī). The latter term, meaning "witness", best indicates the use that Kabir and his followers envisioned for these poems: "As direct evidence of the Truth, a sākhī is... meant to be memorized... A sākhī is... meant to evoke the highest Truth." As such, memorising, reciting, and thus pondering over these utterances constitutes, for Kabir and his followers, a path to spiritual awakening.
Kabir's influence was so great that, similar to how different communities argued to cremate the Buddha upon his death, after Kabir died, both the Hindus and Muslims argued to cremate his body in Varanasi or bury it in Maghahar them according to their tradition.
Kabir's poetry today
There are several allusions to Kabir's poetry in mainstream Indian film music. The title song of the Sufi fusion band Indian Ocean's album Jhini is an energetic rendering of Kabir's famous poem "The intricately woven blanket", with influences from Indian folk, Sufi traditions and progressive rock.
Noted classical singer, late Kumar Gandharva, is widely recognized for his wonderful rendering of Kabir's poetry.
Documentary filmmaker Shabnam Virmani, from the Kabir Project, has produced a series of documentaries and books tracing Kabir's philosophy, music and poetry in present day India and Pakistan. The documentaries feature Indian folk singers such as Prahlad Tipanya, Mukhtiyar Ali and the Pakistani Qawwal Fareed Ayaz.
The album No Stranger Here by Shubha Mudgal, Ursula Rucker draws heavily from Kabir's poetry. Kabir's poetry has appeared prominently in filmmaker Anand Gandhi's films Right Here Right Now (2003) and Continuum. Pakistani Sufi singer Abida Parveen has sung Kabir in a full album.
A music band from Mumbai known as Neeraj Arya's Kabir Cafe produces and performs the poetry of Kabir.
Criticism of Kabir
Kabir has been criticised for his depiction of women. Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh states "Kabirs opinion of women is contemptuous and derogatory. Women historians of religion, such as Karine Schomer and Wendy O'Flaherty, are familiar with Kabir's misogynist bias. Schomer has pointed out some blatant examples of Kabir's deprecatory attitude. For Kabir woman is "Kali nagini" (a black cobra), "kunda naraka ka" (the pit of hell), "juthani jagata ki" (the refuse of the world). She is an impediment to spiritual progress." 
Furthermore, Kabir states:
Woman ruins everything when she comes near man;
Devotion, liberation, and divine knowledge no longer enter his soul.
— Bhagat Kabir
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Kabir.|
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|Wikisource has original text related to this article:|
- Works by Kabir at Project Gutenberg
- Works by or about Kabir at Internet Archive
- Works by Kabir at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
- The Bijak of Kabir – Ahmad Shah Translation of the Entire Text
- The Anurag Sagar of Kabir