Kabir was a weaver and mystic poet who lived in Benares for 120 years. He was an important influence on the Hindus and Muslims [then called Mohammedans] of his time and also a profound influence on Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion. Many poems of Kabir can be found in the Guru Granth Sahib, the sacred scriptures that form the book that is the Guru of Sikhism. Kabir was frequently criticised for simply weaving; there are miracles associated with Kabir which illustrate that when one devotes mind, body and spirit in all actions, the Lord will go and complete what his devotee needs to do. There are very few examples of such actions by the Lord on behalf of his devotee – who lives and breathes and labours – for the Lord only.
Kabir [1440- 1518]
Miraculous legends surround the birth of Kabir. His mother was said to be a virgin widow who conceived through a blessing given by the great teacher of South India, Ramanand, on a visit to the spiritual guide. Ramanand, while blessing her, offered her the usual wish that she might conceive a son, not knowing her state of widowhood. The sequel is variously reported. It was impossible to recall the blessing; but, while one version states that the mother abandoned the child to escape disgrace, another relates that Ramanand contrived that the child should be miraculously born from his mother’s hand.
All stories agree that the child was brought up by a weaver named Niru and his wife Nima. The details of Kabir’s life are mixed with legends – some say he married one by name of Loi and brought up two adopted children Kamal and Kamali, and that Emperor Sikandar Lodi, angered by Kabir’s refusal to salute him tried to get him killed by drowning, burning and other means of torture.
Throughout his life Kabir preached and worked as a weaver in the neighbourhood of Benares (modern day Varanasi). Owing to his teachings he was an object of dislike both to Hindus and to Muslims [then called Mohammedans], and it is said that he was denounced to Sikandar Lodi, king of Delhi, as laying claim to divine attributes, but escaped by his ready tongue.
Kabir left his mortal coil at Maghar, near Gorakbpur, and a dispute at once arose as to the disposal of his remains, which were claimed, by Hindus and Mohammedans, the former desiring to cremate and the latter to bury them. While they wrangled, Kabir himself appeared and bade them raise the cloth which covered the corpse. When this was done, it was found that the body had vanished, but a heap of flowers occupied its place. Half of these were burnt after the Hindu custom at a spot now known as Kabir Chaura in Benares (Varanasi), and the rest were buried at Maghar, which became the headquarters of the Mohammedan (Muslim) portion of the sect that still follows Kabir. These peoples (devotees) are named Kabirpanthis. A tomb was built there which was subsequently repaired about 1867 by a Mohammedan officer of the Mughal army.
The basic religious principles Kabir espoused were simple. According to Kabir, all life is an interplay of two spiritual principles. One is the personal soul (Jivatma) and the other is God (Paramatma). It is Kabir’s view that salvation is the process of bringing into union these two divine principles.
Like Gnyaneshwara (Dyaneshwar, or Janadeva) before him, like Guru Nanak and Sai Baba of Shirdi, who were to follow, Kabir strove for the One Truth. He described himself as the son of both Ram and Allah. Kabir promoted introspection and self-inquiry:
You were born on Earth as human, Why are you in slumber now? Take care of yourself; Yourself is what you have to know. The learned pundit gives discourse, Not knowing God is near; He does not know God dwells in him, So seeks him here and there.
Kabir sought awareness of maya, the veil of illusion that surrounds everyone:
I am looking at you, You at him, Kabir asks, how to solve This puzzle — You, he and I?
To live for sons and wealth, For belongings and health, O Kabir, is to be like the bird Which during one night’s stay Starts loving the tree.
The social and practical manifestation of Kabir’s philosophy has run through the ages. It represented a synthesis of Hindu, and Muslim concepts. From Hinduism he accepts the concept of reincarnation and the law of Karma. From Islam he takes the affirmation of the single god and the rejection of caste system and idolatry. Not only has Kabir influenced Muslims and Hindus but he is one of the major inspirations behind Sikhism as well.
Kabir says: No act of devotion can equal truth; no crime is so heinous as falsehood; in the heart where truth abides, there is God’s abode.
Poems of Kabir:
This union with the guru, O Kabir, Sets me free; like salt mingled With flour, I am no more I!
Now I have no caste, no creed, I am no more what I am! O dear brother! By what name would you call me? I do not quote from the scriptures; I simply see what I see. When the bride is one with her lover, who cares about the wedding party?
I am not a Hindu, Nor a Muslim am I! I am this body, a play Of five elements; a drama Of the spirit dancing With joy and sorrow. A drop Melting into the sea, Everyone can see. But the sea Absorbed In a drop-- A rare one can follow! I am looking at you, You at him, Kabir asks, how to solve This puzzle-- You, he, and I? Dying, dying, the world Is dying only. But lo! None knows how to die In such a way That he dies never again. Man, here is your worth: Your meat is of no use! Your bones cannot be sold For making ornaments, And your skin cannot be played On an instrument!
It is estimated that Kabir wrote approximately two thousand songs and fifteen hundred couplets. Since, like many saints, his life has been wrapped in a cloak of legend, of miracles and of stories, it is best to approach a true understanding of Kabir through his own words:
Are you looking for me? I am in the next seat. My shoulder is against yours. You will not find me in the stupas, not in Indian shrine rooms, nor synagogues, nor in cathedrals: not in masses, nor kirtans, not in legs winding around your own neck, nor in eating nothing but vegetables, When you really look for me, you will see me instantly — you will find me in the tiniest house of time. Kabir says: Student, tell me, what is God? He is the breath inside the breath. I said to the wanting-creature inside me: What is this river you want to cross? There are no travellers on the river-road, and no road. Do you see anyone moving about on that bank, or nesting? There is no river at all, and no boat, and no boatman. There is no tow rope either, and no one to pull it. There is no ground, no sky, no time, no bank, no ford! And there is no body, and no mind! Do you believe there is some place that will make the soul less thirsty? In that great absence you will find nothing, Be strong then, and enter into your own body; there you have a solid place for your feet. Think about it carefully! Don't go off somewhere else!! Kabir says this: just throw away all thoughts of imaginary things, and stand firm in that which you are.
This word sahaj is in many of Kabir’s poems. He describes that state of perfect balance where one is closest to God:
Where there is neither sea nor rains, Nor sun nor shade; Where there is neither creation Nor dissolution; Where prevails neither life nor death, Nor pain nor pleasure; Beyond the states of Sunya and trance; Beyond words, O friend, Is that unique state of Sahaj. It can be neither weighed Nor exhausted, Is neither heavy nor light; It has no upper regions Nor lower ones; It knows not the dawn of day Nor the gloom of night; Where there is neither wind Nor water nor fire, There abides the perfect Master. It is inaccessible, It is, and it will ever be; Attain it through the Master's grace. Sayeth Kabir: I surrender myself At the feet of my Master, I remain absorbed In his true company. In his true company.
This state of oneness with the Divine is Kabir’s state of sahaj, his verdure of bliss where there is no separation. He writes:
I am in all All that is, is I The different forms in existence Are my myriad manifestations, Yet I am apart from all. Call me Kabir, Call me Ramrai [God the Emperor], It is one and the same. I am not a child, I am not old, And the glow of youth Never can touch me. I go not at anyone's bidding Nor come at anyone’s command. In my state of Sahaj I am in the verdure of bliss Call me Kabir, Call me Ramrai, It is one and the same. My covering is a single sheet And people sneer at me: My weaver’s calling inspires no respect; My dress is tattered, Patched at ten places — Yet beyond the three attributes Beyond the region of the 'fruit' [the law of karma] I dwell in the realm of bliss; Thus have I acquired the name Ramrai. I see the entire world, The world cannot see me; Such is the unique state that Kabir has attained. Call me Kabir, Call me Ramrai, It is one and the same.
Sathya Sai Baba speaks on Kabir:
Mysterious are the ways of the Divine. It is difficult to comprehend how the Divine grace works. There are innumerable instances of God coming to the rescue of His devotees in times of need. Saint Kabir was a weaver by profession. One day he fell seriously ill and was unable to attend to his duties. The all-merciful Lord, in the form of Kabir, wove yarn and thus came to his rescue. Discourse, 23 Nov 1999
Be attached only to the ideal, that is the sign of the sage. Kabir was weaving a pitambara for the Lord, for his Rama. He had to work the loom alone, by hand. He recited “Rama Rama Rama Rama” and went on weaving ceaselessly. The cloth had become twenty yards long, but Kabir did not stop; his tapas continued unabated; the pitambara was becoming longer. The bliss of his craft, devotion to his Lord, was enough food and drink for his sustenance. When he gave it to the temple priest for clothing the idol of Rama, the pitambara was just the length and breadth, not a finger breadth more! Such men are the mainsprings of the joy that spiritual persons fill themselves with in India. Discourse 8-2-1963
If you are master of your feelings and impulses, you can be anywhere, engaged in any profession. You will have peace. Someone visited Kabir in his home and asked him whether the householder’s life promoted spiritual development. Kabir did not answer. He called out to his wife and asked her to bring a lamp so that he may fix a broken piece of yarn. It was about midday and the room was well lit. The wife did not question or doubt or disobey. She brought the lamp well lit, and held it for Kabir to repair the yarn. Then, he asked her to leave. Kabir then turned his questioner and said, “When you have a wife like this woman, adhering strictly to her Dharma, the householder’s life will be the best training ground for spiritual development.” Discourse, Malleswaram 5-2-1965
Shirdi Sai Baba and Kabir
Sathya Sai Baba is the reincarnation of Sai Baba of Shirdi. There exists a growing body of evidence that Sai Baba of Shirdi indicated that prior to his (then) Shirdi body, his previous body was the Hindu-Muslim poet Kabir of North India.
It was not by any means usual, though certainly not unique, for a mystical teacher to have a substantial number of both Hindu and Muslim pupils. Sai Baba sometimes spoke of him self as a reincarnation of Kabir, the fifteenth century sufi of North India who was an earlier example of the intercultural tendency at work amongst these two major religious traditions of India. … The biographical details concerning Kabir are much more sparse than the data on Sai Baba. The former is best known for his poetry, a feature which sets him apart from the Shirdi Sufi, though in other respects there are similarities discernible. From Persian sources written in the Mughal era, it is evident that Kabir was born a Muslim, but ignored the prohibitions of the orthodox ulama (doctors of the law) in his affinity with the Sufi perspective of wahdat al-wujud, a teaching generally associated with lbn al-Arabi though actually more complex than is commonly detailed. Externalists in the Muslim camp viewed him as having become an infidel (kafir), since he considered Hindus his friends. The liberal Muslim prince Dara Shikoh wrote in the seventeenth century that both Hindus and Muslims considered Kabir as belonging to their own religion, though in reality he was far removed from all of them. It is feasible that Kabir may have expressed something similar to the unorthodox gnostic pronouncements of Sai Baba, who is reported to have said: “I am in Gangapur, Pandharpur, and in all (sacred) places. I am in every part of the globe. All the universe is in me.” Guru’s rediscovered, page 55
Yet Sai Baba’s utterances show a distinct originality. I list here a selection of Sai Baba’s translated statements: “Those who see Baba in Shirdi have not seen him at all.” “I am not this three cubits and a half of the body that is called ‘Sai.'” “My race is that of Parvardigar, my religion is Kabiri, and my profession is to bestow blessings.”Gurus rediscovered, page 45
This work recently appeared on narayanaoracle.com and is © Chris Parnell