Poetry like music speaks truth in ways that open up the life of one’s inner being as well as the life of human community. Often our prose can dissect so as to leave the spirit dead but a convenient topic for study. The poet takes us deeper into the heartbeat of life. Kabir was such a poetic seer who was embraced as such by people of many religious traditions because he spoke in ways that got to the core.
O servant, where dost thou seek Me?
O servant, where dost thou seek Me?
Lo ! I am beside thee.
I am neither in temple nor in mosque: I am neither in Kaaba nor in Kailash:
Neither am I in rites and ceremonies, nor in Yoga and renunciation.
If thou art a true seeker, thou shalt at once see Me: thou shalt meet Me in a moment of time.
Kabir says, ‘ O Sadhu ! God is the breath of all breath.’
Kabir’s life is shrouded in legend and conflicting stories, so any attempt to construct a coherent account is a bold and presumptuous exercise. Because Kabir has so many fascinating interreligious dimensions to his life and work, however, the effort must be made.
He was born in 1398 or 1440, and died in 1448 or 1518. He lived for more than 50 years or more than 100 years, so the basic facts are confusing to say the least. Whatever the case, we have his poetry — poetry that has spoken powerfully to the hearts of people in a variety of cultures and religious traditions from Hinduism and Islam to Christianity and Buddhism. The Sikhs have incorporated some of his poetry into their Scriptures and revere him as they do their ten Gurus.
According to most accounts Kabir, whose name has Muslim roots, was an orphan adopted by a childless Muslim couple who were weavers. Kabir worked as a weaver all his life, anchoring his mystical life in the realities of a tradesman. He believed that one must lead a balanced life including work and contemplation, so he lived simply and spent much of his life in the ordinary experience of raising a family.
Kabir’s first interfaith action was to become a disciple of a Hindu mystic by the name of Ramananda. Ramananda accepted students of all castes, unusual in his day, and challenged them to devotion to Vishnu as the personal aspect of the Divine. Kabir as a child hid near the river Ganges to catch the Master during his early morning walk. According to tradition, one became a disciple by having a Guru say the name of God over the would-be disciple, so Kabir grabbed Ramananda’s big toe, and the Guru called out the name of God in surprise. When Ramananda saw Kabir’s name written on his hand in Arabic, he knew the child was a Muslim. Yet Ramananda still took him on as a student, provoking some of his Hindu students to leave in protest.
Kabir became associated with a loose group of teachers called the Sant Mat. The Sant Mat lived in north India and taught a form of egalitarianism that in a wide variety of ways challenged the caste system in Hinduism. They sought to transcend the religious differences between Hinduism and Islam. Kabir also was influenced by the teachings of Buddhist Tantrism. Salvation for him involved a process of bringing into union the personal soul with God, and in that quest he utilized many of the Sufi mystical practices. He also embraced the teachings of reincarnation and karma from Hinduism. He saw no separation between the natural and supernatural worlds, rather everything was part of the creative “Play of the Eternal Lover.” Though influenced by so many traditions, he refused to align himself with any one faith. He said he was “at once the child of Allah and of Ram.” He would question and challenge any religious teaching until he could validate it through his own experience.
Officials from all the religions in India criticized Kabir, and one king banished him from his region. At the same time orthodox writers in each of those religious traditions respected Kabir and recited his poetry. He had no patience with hypocrisy in any religion, and could be very critical. He challenged people to develop an internal devotion to God and to spiritual honesty, rather than what he saw as stale rituals and traditions. He called for an inner reformation of all religion. Because the inner relationship with God was accessible to all, God was more accessible to the “washerwoman and carpenter” than to the self-righteous holy man. Such teaching had him branded as a heretic by the orthodox traditions.
Kabir’s poetry was exuberant, spontaneous love poetry toward God. He chose to make his poetry accessible to ordinary people, composing in Hindi, the language of the masses, rather than Sanskrit. He was illiterate, so his poems were composed and handed down orally. Kabir drew extensively from religious images in both Islam and Hinduism in his writings. Many times he put his poems to music, for he was also skilled as a musician.
Even the legend of his death speaks of interreligious reconciliation. The story goes that his Muslim and Hindu followers fought over his body and the burial rights. Muslims bury their dead, while Hindus cremate theirs. When the fighting factions opened the coffin, they found no body. Instead there was a small blank book in which all the Hindus and Muslims together wrote down as many of the sayings of Kabir as they could remember. Another version of the legend says they found flowers inside the coffin. The Muslims buried half the flowers while the Hindus burned the other half. Whatever the version, both sides viewed what happened as a miracle of divine intervention for religious reconciliation.
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This story originally appeared as a chapter in his book, Interfaith Heroes 2.