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 dates of birth and death are 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".:14 Modern scholarship is uncertain about his dates of birth and death. Some scholars favour 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. Vaishnava saint Ramananda accepted Kabir as his disciple. When Ramananda died, Kabir was 13 years old.
It is not known in detail what sort of spiritual training Kabir may have received. He did not become a sadhu, nor did he ever abandon worldly life. Kabir chose instead to live the balanced life of a householder and mystic, a tradesman and contemplative.
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".
His greatest work is the Bijak (the "Seedling"), an idea of the fundamental one. This collection of poems elucidates Kabir's universal view of spirituality. Though his vocabulary is replete with Hindu spiritual concepts, such as Brahman, karma and reincarnation, he vehemently opposed dogmas, both in Hinduism and in Islam. His Hindi was a vernacular, straightforward kind, much like his philosophies. He often advocated leaving aside the Qur'an and Vedas and simply following Sahaja path, or the Simple/Natural Way to oneness in God. He believed in the Vedantic concept of atman, but unlike earlier orthodox Vedantins, he spurned the Hindu societal caste system and Murti-pujan (idol worship), showing clear belief in both bhakti and Sufi ideas. The major part of Kabir's work as a bhagat was collected by the fifth Sikh guru, Guru Arjan Dev, and incorporated into the Sikh scripture, Guru Granth Sahib. The hallmark of Kabir's works consists of his two line couplets, known as the 'Kabir ke Dohe'.
Hence, it is rightful to say that Kabir is the unifying factor across three major religion in India.
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. His verses often began with some strongly worded insult to get the attention of passers-by. Kabir has enjoyed a revival of popularity over the past half century as arguably the most accessible and understandable of the Indian saints, with a special influence over spiritual traditions such as those of Sant Mat, Anant Jan and Radha Soami. Songs of Kabir is a collection of his poems that has been translated to English by Rabindranath Tagore.
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 big 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 it 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.
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.
Pakistani Sufi singer Abida Parveen has sung Kabir in a full album.
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- KavitaKosh.org Compilation of Kabir's dohas in Devanagiri Kabir Page on Kavitakosh
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