Sikh Bhagats : Bhagat Kabir Ji
"From the One Light, the entire universe welled up. So who is good, and who is bad?"
Bhagat Kabir Ji was a revolutionary saint-poet of the Bhakti Movement. He emphasized the equality and fraternity of all mankind. Once Bhagat Kabir Ji was going to sell cloth he had made himself. He met some Sadhus (a renunciate spiritual devotee) on the way whom he gave the entire cloth free of cost.
Saint Kabir Das (kabir, Arabic for "great", dasa, Sanskrit for "slave" or "servant"), is widely acknowledged as one of the great personality of the Bhakti movement in North India. He was as is widely acknowledged born in Year 1398 A.D.(71 years before Guru Nanak). Kabirpanthis (followers of Kabir) say that he lived upto the age of 120 years and give date of his death as 1518, but relying on the research of Hazari Prasad Trivedi, a British Scholar Charlotte Vaudenville is inclined to lend credence to these dates and has proven that 1448 is probably the correct date of Saint Kabir’s demise.
He is one of the medieval Indian saints of Bhakti and Sufi movement whose compositions figure in Sikh Scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib. From among all of them, Kabir’s contribution is the largest, 227 Padas in 17 ragas and 237 shlokas. Under each raga or musical mode marking a section of the Holy Book, Kabir’s hymns appear at the head of Bhagat Bani, a generic name for the works of contributors other than the Gurus. The presence of a substantial amount of Kabir’s verse in the Sikh Scripture and chronologically he being the predecessor of Guru Nanak, founder of the Sikh faith, led some Western scholars to describe him as the forerunner of Sikhism. Some have even called him the preceptor of Guru Nanak There is, however, ample evidence to prove that Guru Nanak and Kabir had ever met their periods of time in fact do not coincide. Kabir’s compositions do figure in what are known as Goindval Pothis, anthologies of the hymns of the Gurus along with those of some of the Bhaktas prepared in the time of Guru AmarDas, Nanak III. They were inclucled in the Guru Granth Sahib as well But this happened much later when Guru Arjan, fifth in spiritual line from the Founder, compiled the Holy Book Besides his own works and those of his four predecessors, he entered in it hymns of some saints and mystics, both Hindu and Muslim, Kabir was one of them.
Kabir lived in the fifteenth Century after Christ, which was a time of great political upheaval in India. As is true of many contemporary religious teachers, very little reliable information concerning Kabir’s life is available, though there is no dearth of legend gathering around him. Kabir’s life was centred around Kashi, also called Banaras (Varanasi) Legend has it that he was actually the son of a Brahmin widow who abandoned him and that he was found by a Muslim weaver named Niru, who adopted the boy and taught him the weaver’s trade. It is not clear whether he ever married, but tradition gives him a wife named Loi and two children. His caste was that of Julaha and from his sayings his caste’s heriditary occupation of weaving. On the basis of modern research, it seems probable that Kabir belonged to a family of non-celibate yogis converted, not long before and to a considerable degree superficially to Islam. From the writings of Kabir it seems that his knowledge of Islam was slight, rather in his poetical utterances (Bani) a wealth of Hathayoga terminology and a thought structure which bears obvious resemblance to Nath Yogis. Nath Yogis in addition to the yogic conception that all truth is experimental, i.e. to be realized within the body with the aid of psycho-physical practices, concentration, control of breathing and thus making the body incorruptible and the yogis immortal.
Bhakti movement was started by hindu saints while Sufi mysticism by Muslim saints in medieval India (1200-1700). Kabir immensely contributed to the Bhakti Movement and is considered a pioneer of Bhakti along with Ravidas, Farid, and Namdev. His concept of love as a path of suffering may possibly indicate, in some measure, a debt to the Sufis. These and other elements from Nath tradition, bhakti and sufism, kabir combined with his own mystical nature and produced synthesis which is the distinctive religion of Kabir. Tradition tells us that Swami Ramanand was his Guru (a teacher).
In fifteenth century, Benaras was the seat of Brahmin orthodoxy and their learning center. Brahmins had strong hold on all the spheres of life in this city. Thus Kabir belonging to a low caste of Julaha had to go through immense tough time of preaching his idealogy. Kabir and his followers would gather at one place in the city and meditate. Brahmins ridiculed him for preaching to prostitutes and other low castes. Kabir satirically denounced Brahmins and thus won hearts of people around him. There is no doubt that single most famous important person from the city of Benaras today is none other than Saint Kabir.
Kabir through his couplets not only reformed the mindset of common villagers and low caste people but give them self confidence to question Brahmins. It was 100 years after him that Tulsidas broke the hegemony of Brahmins by writing Ram Charitra Manas, a poem of Ramayana at Benaras which went against the tradition of Brahmins. Kabir was in fact first person to go against Brahmins and be so successfull. Benaras was devasted by an attack by a Muslim invader Tamur Lang or "Tamur the lame" during his time. Kabir also denounced mullahs and their rituals of bowing towards kaba five times a day. Because of open condemnation of established and popular religoins, Kabir became an object of the wrath of both Hindus and Muslims in and around Benaras. Kabir travelled in and around Benaras to preach his beliefs.
Kabir believed in sell-surrender and God’s bhakti. The Kabirpanthis follow a lite of singing the praises of God, prayers and a simple and pure life of devotion. Kabir recommends ceaseless singing of God’s praises. He virtually suggests withdrawal from the world. He is against al1 ritualistic and ascetic methods as means to salvation. It is true that Kabir refers to some yogic terms in describing the meditational and mystic methods of the yogis. But, there is no ground to suggest that he himself recommends the yogic path. In fact, far from recommending yoga, he is quite strong in condemning ascetic or yogic methods, and says that yogis, in their meditations, become prey to maya. The point will, however be considered further while comparing Radical bhakti with Nathism.
The moral tone is quite strong in Kabir’s hymns. "Kabir deck thyself with garments of love. Love them is given honour whose body and soul speak the truth." "The ruby of goodness is greater than all thc mines of rubies, all the wealth of three worlds resides in the goodness of heart. When thc wealth of contentment is won, all other wealth is as dust." "Where there is mercy, there is strength, where there is forgivenesss there is He." "The man who is kind and practises righteousness, who remains passive in the aftairs of the world, who considers creatures of the world as his own self, he attains the immortal Being; the true God is ever with him. Kabir suggests inward worship and remembrance of God. For him, true worship is only inwards. Put on the rosary inward. By counting beads, the world will be full of light. He clearly suggests moral discrimination betwecn good and bad deeds. What can the helpless road do, when the traveller does not walk understandingly. "What can one do, if, with lamp in hand, one falls in the well." "Or goes astray with open eyes. Discern ye now between good and evil."
It is not surprising that Kabir’s satire was brought to bear not simply on the vices and weaknesses of men but reached through and beyond them to the very system themselves. It was the authority of Vedas and Quran that more then the authority of Brahmin or Qazi which Kabir attacked. He rebelled against the pretension of resolving by the means of books or by way of authority, the mystery of human conditions and the problem of liberation (Moksha). He spent his last 40 days living in a place where it was believed that if you die you will born as a Donkey in next life.
Kabir is a firm advocate of ahimsa. His doctrine extends even to the nondestruction of flowers. " The life of the living you strike dead and you say your slaughter makes it dedicated. It is blood haunting you and those who taught you." "They fast all day, and at night they slaughter the cow; here murder, there devotion; how can this please God? O’ Kazi, by whose order doth thou use thy knife." "When you declare the sacrifice of an animal as your religion, what else is sin. If you regard yourself a saint, whom will you call a butcher ?" "The goat eats grass and is skinned, what will happen to those who eat (goat’s) meat? "Do not kill poor jiva, murder will not be forgiven even if you hear a million Puranas. Among the fifty commandments laid down for the followers of Kabir, vegetarianism is one of them. For Kabir, moral life involves adherence to ahimsa.
Kabir composed no systematic treatise, rather his work consists of many short didactic poems, often expressed in terse vigorous language in the form of Padas, Dohas, and Ramainis (forms of poetry in Indian languages). Besides his work recorded in 1604 A.D. in Guru Granth Sahib by Guru Arjan Dev, Nanak V, and preserved inviolate since, two other collections exist – Kabir Granthavali, and Bijak. In his poems, he was quick to tell the illustrations of moral and spiritual truth in the incidents of everyday life , and many of his similes and metaphors are very striking.
Bhagat Kabir ji is ranked 5th as regards the volume of Bani contributed to SGGS ji, and from the 15 bhagats, he contributed the maximum number of hymns. His total contribution is 541 hymns set to 18 different musical measures (Ragas). Kabir has been accepted as the most revolutionary of all the saints of the Bhagati movement. He was the prominent disciple of Ramanand, and din’t hesitate to strike blows at futile religious observances & formalism. Ramanand once advised him to get up early in the morning & remember the Lord. This advice impressed him so much that he propogated this throughout is life, awakening masses from their daily slumber of ignorance and uniting them with the Lord.
The Brahmin lobby claim Kabir was born in Banaras to a Brahmin & was later brought up by a weaver couple-Ali Neeru and Neema- of Uttar Pradesh, who found the baby abandoned on the bank of Lahar Talan in the forest. This story seems to have been conocted by Pandits who often generally claim that scholars are born in their so-called high caste only. SGGS ji does not support these claims. SGGS ji on Panna 67, 328, 970 and 1364 amply clarify and leave no doubt whatsoever whom Kabir was.
As he came of age, he was married to a God-fearing maiden named Loi. She was the daughter of Neti, a noble-hearted weaver. Kabir and Loi had one son; Kamala and one daughter; Kamali. Kabir was attracted to Hinduism in his younger days. His couplets and slokas impress upon man to become a good human being and treat all other as his equal. They are very effective in leading a person on the path of righteousness. According to Kabir, all human beings are Divine in essence. Thus, they are all equal. None of them is either good or bad. The same Divine spirit is manifested in all of them, and all that happens here is under His will.
Whoever dies, let him die such a death, that he does not have to die again. ||1||
Besides loving devotion which is the main and dominant theme of Kabir’s Bani as included in SGGS ji, his aim was to free a man from the evil tendencies of ego, deceit, etc. based as they are on superstitions and futility. He criticises casteism, idolatary and empty ritualism. He had an undying urge to transform a person into a being who is noble and pious spiritually, socially and morally. To achieve his mission, Kabir openly denounced the false superstitions, rituals and practtices, in all religions, that had no relevance with the upliftment of human soul with the help of convincing examples. In a hymn included at Aang 324 of SGGS ji, he ridicules the idea that mundan (ritual shaving off a Hindu child’s hair) can lead to God-realisation. He says that had it been so, the sheep would have attained liberation several times in its life, since it undergoes the same ritual so often. Similiarly, he counteracts the Brahmin’s boast of high caste.
If you are indeed a Brahmin, by thy birth from a Brahmin mother,
then why didn’t you come by some other way? ||2||
With the help of another example, he refused to accept the superior status of Brahmins:
How is it that you are a Brahmin, and I am of a low social status?
How is it that I am formed of blood, and you are made of milk? ||3||
Says Kabeer, one who contemplates God,
is said to be a Brahmin among us. ||4||7||
According to Bhagat Kabir, high family, high caste or high status are of no consequences on the path to God-realisation, rather they become hindrances. In a couplet, Kabir teaches mankind the vital message of reaching God, with the example from everyday life:
From this simple, but vital example, we learn that God-realisation requires 3 constituents:
· Discarding of egotistical beastlty temperament of an elephant
· Inculcating the humility of an ant
Bhagat Kabir has been equally straightforward while criticising some rtuals of the Muslims. In a hymn he states; If a Muslim becomes deserving of heaven because of the sunnat (circumcision): what about their women folk?
According to a reference in S.L. Sondhi’s book, Sant Kabir, Kabir relates an anecdote to make us aware of the purity of the water of the Ganges. Considering the Brahmin’s claim that the water of the Ganga washes off all sins, Kabir hands over a bowl of such water to the Brahmins, but they refuse on the excuse that the bowl had become impure through the touch of a low caste man like Kabir. On this, Kabir satirises the Brahmins and says that if the water of the Ganga fails to keep the bowl pure, how can it purify our souls from all evils? The Brahmins have no answer to it.
Kabir ji was a dauntless mouthpiece of truth. His straight forwardness and truthful frankness resulted in both the Hindu Pandits & Muslim Quazis (priests of both religions) holding grudges against him. Consequently at the time when Sikander Lodhi arrived in his town, Kabir had to suffer many a humliation at his hands because of the instigations given to him against Kabir, by the heads of both sects. But Kabir did not waiver, and bore all tortures and humiliations with calmness, accepting all these as His will. However, Kabir remained firm in his views. He has referred to this incident in his hymn included in the Scripture under Gaund measure.
Many attempts were made to torture Kabir to the point of submisson, but Kabir ji was headstrong and took these tortures as His will. Ultimately, Sikander Lodhi was impressed by his personality, and out of respect to his wisdom and old age, acquitted him. Referring to Kabir’s love for the Divine, deep faith and reverence for Him, Bhai Gurdas had said: "Brother! There is no difference between Lord Rama & Kabir (who has a oneness with Him, though his bodily vesture gives him a separate entity)".
The followers of Kabir have come to be known as Kabir panthis. They have their principle centre at Kashi. Two of his disciples, Dharam Das and Surat Gopal have completed his compositions under the title ‘Kabir Bijak’. However, 541 slokas of Kabir that find a place in SGGS ji are considered important because of their genuineness. Since the entire text of the Scripture has ever been inviolable, the text of Kabir’s hymns therein has also remained intact and unaltered.
Kabir ever strived to cultivate in mankind the feelings of love, compassion and co-operation with others. Like many other great beings, he stressed the importance of a householder’s life because this teaches mankind to live together and unites man intimately. Therefore, he has no hesitation in submitting to the Lord the ‘memorandum of demands’ for a happy household life. i
Giani Gian Singh, Sikh chronicler, writes that Kabir ji & Guru Nanak Dev ji met in 1506AD in village Pusa; this may have occurred during the latter years of his life, but there is no apparent proof for this.
The hymns composed by Kabir ji, even during the last years of his life when he was well over 100 years old, reflect his revolutionary spirit. According to him, the place where God’s name is recited is pious, and there is no other basis of piety. Before discarding his bodily vesture, Kabir ji shifted his residence to Maghar. At the time, people believed that he who dies at Maghar suffer hell, and those that die in Kashi, enter heaven. Kabir ji braved this revolutionary and courageous deed to prove he futility of such notions. Guru Amar Das ji has strongly supported Kabir ji’s stand in a hymn on Aang 491 of SGGS ji, making it clear that visiting pilgrimages or breathing our last in any certain place carries no meaning as God resides in the mind.