Kabir: A hard hitting poet and a social reformer

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Kabir is considered the most influential and most remarkable poet of the Bhakti movement in Northern India. While his writings are a scathing comment on the socio-religious-ideological inconsistencies of that period, they also contain a vision for a new society. A vision of a human centered society which remains till today, a source of inspiration not only for the people of North India but for people all over the world, who are fighting against injustice and inequality. Undoubtedly, Kabir was a product of the historical times in which he lived; but he left an indelible imprint on that history and gave it a new direction, in resonance with the aspirations of the people. He upheld that every idea must be tested in terms of the ground reality of the concrete necessities of life. The direction he showed served to transform ideas from the realm of imagination to the practical reality on the ground. This process shook the very foundations of the religious ideas that held sway over the masses at that time and began to lay the foundations of a new humanist philosophy of life, a process which continues even today.

Criticising various religions, Kabir said: “They say - how can you and I unite? I am speaking of what I see while you are speaking of what is in the books. I wish to solve the problems while you make them even more complex. I call upon people to wake up, while you ask them to sleep.”

Kabir is believed to have lived and worked in the period from 1399 to 1495. This was a period of great upheavals in the Indian subcontinent. The people were already under the influence of various religions such as Nath, Buddhism, Yogi, Shaiva, Shakt, Vaishnav, etc., while Islam and Sufism had also gained ground.
Of these, the state power was under the domination of Islam. There was fierce conflict amongst the advocates of various religions and each one was preoccupied with extending the influence of his particular religion over the masses. This conflict was giving rise to a process of unification on the one hand, while leading to the development of a purist and ritualistic process of religion on the other. Each religion was promoting its own specific rituals and this was hindering the unification process. Kabir targeted these rituals and in the process, he did not spare the rituals of any religion.

According to him: The Hindu says Ram is my beloved, the Turk says mine is Rahim. Kabir says that you both will keep on fighting with each other but neither of you have understood the essence of either (Ram or Rahim).

The masses were confused by these conflicts and no religious community could provide the answers to their questions. It was at such a time that Kabir struck at the very root of these imaginary ideological conflicts.

If performing circumcision makes you a Turk, what about the women? If circumcision is considered the sign of becoming a ‘Turk’, then half your society, the women, still remains Hindu. If wearing the sacred thread makes a person Brahmin, then what about the women? They do not have the right to wear the sacred thread. They are shudras from birth. Then why do you eat the food served by them?

In his critical analysis, Kabir also brings out a new thought: No one becomes learned simply by reading volumes of books. Truly learned is the one who has understood the meaning of love (dhai akshar prem ke). I have one divine spirit who is neither Hindu nor Turk. I neither fast nor celebrate Muharram, I neither perform puja nor read the namaaz. I salute Him who is without form, who resides in my heart. I neither go for Haj, nor for Teerath Puja, because if you say one is backward, then what is the other? Kabir says dispel all these illusions and focus your mind on the one divine.

A big section of Kabir’s works are included in the ‘Guru Granth Sahib’. 243 saakhis are included in this. One research deals with the important contribution of Kabir’s teachings towards the development of Sikhism.

Another feature of Kabir is worth noting, that he laid great emphasis on earning by one’s own labour. Throughout his life, he never gave up his work as a weaver. He was staunchly partisan towards the working people and he remained the saint of the masses all his life. A significant feature of the Bhakti movement is that most of its activists were from the toiling sections of society, especially the craftsmen. Most of the saints were from the untouchables and dalit castes. In a sense, this may be understood as an ideological-philosophical protest by the toiling masses of India of the Middle Ages, against the old ideas and the old power structure.

The toiling masses had an entirely different outlook on life from the upper classes of society. They spoke of the oneness of the soul and god, of unity and equality of human beings. They spoke of harmonious co-existence and sharing of weal and woe. Pretence, demonstrativeness, ritualism, all this had no meaning for them. Kabir never spoke of running away from the struggle of life and becoming a  mendicant (sanyasi).

He spoke of devotion to god while leading a domestic life and working for one’s living. O Lord, give me as much as is needed to fulfill the needs of my family, that I may not go hungry and the saint who comes to my door does not go hungry. If there is too much water, the boat gets flooded. The same is true of the home. If you have more than you need, then give with both hands; that is the wise thing to do. Here he talks of social wealth not being merely to fulfill one’s needs; if there is excess, then it should be given back to society. This is the value system of the new society based on serving social needs, not of capitalist society based on individual greed. Kabir’s partisanship for the poor comes out very powerfully in the following words: Brave is he who fights for the rights of the weak and poor, who gives up everything but loyally carries on the struggle.

For Kabir, the need for food comes first, then the need for spirituality. He says: On a hungry stomach one cannot worship the Lord, so take away your rosary.

Kabir was a weaver by profession and his work place was Kashi. He lived his life in Kashi but died in Maghar. His knowledge was entirely linked with the life of the people. He made the joys and sorrows of the people his own. He elaborated his understanding of the issues facing people boldly, in the language of the people. This greatly assisted in raising the consciousness of the people.

His thought process can be linked to the thought processes of that time. It is true that he was influenced by the various trends of that time, yet he worked to maintain harmony among all of them. In fact, he contributed to the development of a new trend. The values of this new trend are becoming more and more relevant with time. It would not be correct to view Kabir as an advocate of communal harmony or secularism concepts that emerged several centuries after his time. Rather, he was a fighter against every form of religious fanaticism, superstition and ritualism.

The struggle of Kabir is indeed amazing, considering the period in which he waged that struggle. He spoke of ending the divine rule and nurtured dreams of establishing the rule of the people. This movement continues even today. Despite many obstacles and defeats, the work to establish the rule of the people is steadily and decisively advancing towards its goal. When viewed in this light, the followers of Kabir are today active all over the world.

Ram Krishna is a well known political activist from Lucknow. He is associated with Mazdoor Parishad.