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. Vaishnava saint Swami Ramananda accepted Kabir as his disciple. When Swami Ramananda died, Kabir was 13 years old.
In his hymns, Kabir does not call himself born as Brahmin, but he refers to himself as born a Julaha many times in his hymns. Bhagat Ravidas, the contemporary of Kabir, also mentioned in his hymn that Kabir was born to Muslims who were cow killers. 
Kabir was initiated by Swami Ramananda- a major exponent of Vishishtadvaita philosophy who considered lord Rama as Iṣṭa-devatā. Kabir too often refers to Rama as his lord. He did not become a sadhu, nor did he entirely abandon worldly life. Kabir chose instead to live the balanced life of a householder and mystic, a tradesman and contemplative. However, there are conflicting views of whether he actually entered into a formal marriage or not.
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. 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.
Kabir calls his God by the name of Rama. However, his Rama is not the Rama of Ayodhya born of Dashratha. His Rama is Niranjan (without taint), Nirakar (formless) and Nyara (omnipresent, extraordinary). Here, his views are in line with the best ideals exposed in the upanishads.
His Hindi was a vernacular, straightforward kind, much like his philosophies. A 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'.
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.
Criticism of Kabir
Kabir has been criticised for his depiction of women.Nikki-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 mysogynist 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 and 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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- Page 328 Adi Granth. Page 524, Line 16, ਓਛੀ ਮਤਿ ਮੇਰੀ ਜਾਤਿ ਜੁਲਾਹਾ ॥ ओछी मति मेरी जाति जुलाहा ॥ Ocẖẖī maṯ merī jāṯ julāhā. My intellect is lowly - I am a weaver by birth
- Adi Granth, Bhagat Ravidas, Page 1293, Line 11 ਜਾ ਕੈ ਈਦਿ ਬਕਰੀਦਿ ਕੁਲ ਗਊ ਰੇ ਬਧੁ ਕਰਹਿ ਮਾਨੀਅਹਿ ਸੇਖ ਸਹੀਦ ਪੀਰਾ ॥ जा कै ईदि बकरीदि कुल गऊ रे बधु करहि मानीअहि सेख सहीद पीरा ॥ Jā kai īḏ bakrīḏ kul ga▫ū re baḏẖ karahi mānī▫ah sekẖ sahīḏ pīrā. And he whose family used to kill cows at the festivals of Eid and Bakareed, who worshipped Shayks, martyrs and spiritual teachers, ਜਾ ਕੈ ਬਾਪ ਵੈਸੀ ਕਰੀ ਪੂਤ ਐਸੀ ਸਰੀ ਤਿਹੂ ਰੇ ਲੋਕ ਪਰਸਿਧ ਕਬੀਰਾ ॥੨॥ जा कै बाप वैसी करी पूत ऐसी सरी तिहू रे लोक परसिध कबीरा ॥२॥ Jā kai bāp vaisī karī pūṯ aisī sarī ṯihū re lok parsiḏẖ kabīrā. ||2|| whose father used to do such things - his son Kabeer became so successful that he is now famous throughout the three worlds. ||2||
- Wendy Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History, Oxford University Press (2010), p. 462
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|Wikisource has original text related to this article:|
- Gutenberg: Songs of Kabir by Rabindranath Tagore
- The Bijak of Kabir – Ahmad Shah Translation of the Entire Text
- The Anurag Sagar of Kabir