It is time to bring back Kabir
In a society that is becoming polarised by the day, we need more people like Kabir who had the courage to scold both Hindus and Muslims for their obsolete practices and irrational actions
The other day I happened to listen to Kabir bhajans on Youtube sung by Shubha Mudgal, Vidya Rao and two folk musicians from Madhya Pradesh — Prahlad Singh Tipanya and Raichand. Then on further meandering, I came across bhajans by a group led by Kaluram Bamania, who is from the Malwa region in Madhya Pradesh. I particularly enjoyed their rendition because Malwa has kept alive the tradition of Kabir baani due to the impact of that unique musician from Belgaum, Kumar Gandharva, who made Dewas in Madhya Pradesh his home and through his gaayaki made Kabir baani (teachings) immortal. He was a great innovator and revived folk and tribal music and musical instruments.
This led me to recall my first introduction to Kabir in the early 1940s through a Hindi movie on him in my small town Basti in eastern Uttar Pradesh. There were two other movies on Sant Tulasidas and Sant Jnaneshwar which we had watched in that period. Though said to be an illiterate person like Akbar the Mughal Emperor, Kabir is respected for his spiritualism and mystic poetry by intellectuals such Rabindranath Tagore and Kshitimohan Sen, who translated Kabir’s poetry into English. Kabir’s works have been translated into almost all the major languages of India and some European languages besides English.
We grew up seeing how the Kabirpanthi (followers of Kabir) sadhus commanded respect of the society on account of their ethical conduct. When we grew up we saw Kabirchaura and the inmates of its establishment who were held in regard by the people of Banaras. In 1965-66, when I was working as the secretary to Malkani Committee on Customary Rights to Scavenging appointed by the government, of the seven MPs in the committee, two were followers of Kabir - Kanhaiya Lal Balmiki and Mahabir Das (of Bhagalpur). In KL Balmiki’s flat, there was a portrait of Kabir.
Kabir has a presence all around this country. I found Kabirchauras (street) in distant Saurashtra and while working at Madras in 1969-73 I came across similar worship places dedicated to Kabir in cities and towns of Tamil Nadu. The Ramcharitamanas of Goswami Tulasidas may have been more popular in North India than Kabir’s baani but the latter had equal, if not greater, mass appeal than the former because of its rootedness in Vedantic philosophy, monotheism, rationalism and egalitarianism. It appealed to masses of all faiths including Islam and Sikhism, which incorporated plenty of Kabir baani in its scriptures, most notably the Guru Granth Sahib.
Kabir was much ahead of his times. His sayings contain the essence of the Upanishads. He had the courage of conviction to scold both Hindus and Muslims for their obsolete practices and irrational actions. He preached strongly against the caste system, rituals and superstitions of Hindus. Though born into a Muslim weaver family, he would point fingers at the illogical practices of his community.
In one he makes fun of Muslims for growing beards like goats. In another famous dohaa he ridicules the muezzin calling the azaan, crowing like a cock as if the Allah is deaf. The iconoclast in Kabir throws the symbolic challenge:
Kabiraa khadaa bajaar men liye luaathee haath
Jo ghar phoonkai aapno chalai hamaare saath
(Kabir is standing in the market place with a burning stick in his hand.
Those who are willing to burn their homes come and join me.)
Some of his baanis are full of mystery and riddles and are known as ulatbaasi but contain deep spiritual meaning. Sufis easily identify themselves with his poetry and there are celebrated qawwals both in India and Pakistan and Bauls in India and Bangladesh who sing Kabir’s baani with gusto.
An interesting anecdote that has stayed in my mind since childhood is about an imagined rivalry between two greatest saints from the same city of Banaras. Like Kabir, the other saint born in a village close to the present Banaras Hindu University was Ravidas, or Raidas. Despite his fame and influence, Kabir did not give up his ancestral occupation of weaving, while Raidas continued to make and repair shoes. Raidas’ fame too spread far and wide. The saint-poet Meerabai treated Raidas as her guru and just outside her favourite temple dedicated to Lord Krishna in Chittaurgarh, she erected a smaller temple with the footprints of her guru Raidas.
The story goes that Raidas started from Kashi (Banaras) and Kabir from Magahar and ran into each other in the middle of the route, where they exchanged philosophical ideas.
Kaasee se chale Raidaasaa Magahar se Kabeeraa
Beech dagar men bhent bhayee hai bachan keenh parabeenaa
Magahar was in the erstwhile Basti district and is now in Sant Kabir Nagar district, with Khalilabad as the district headquarters. It is the next train station from Khalilabad towards Gorakhpur. It has been a big centre of Khadi production for a long time. The legend is that that there was a dispute between Hindus who wanted to cremate Kabir after his demise at Magahar and Muslims who wanted to bury him according to the Islamic tradition. While this dispute was going on, the shroud was lifted, and the mourning people found only flowers there in place of the body. They distributed the flowers between the two groups. The Hindus erected a temple dedicated to Kabir while the Muslims erected a mosque on the other side of the common wall. This unique symbol of Hindu-Muslim unity can be seen even today. As Minister of Railways, Pandit Kamalapati Tripathi got this symbol replicated as the superstructure of Magahar Railway Station.
To resume the imagined story of a dialogue between the two titans of Banaras, it was the Adi Shakti, Durga, whom both the saints chose as the judge to decide who out of the two had realised the truth. After hearing their philosophical debate, she said: “Daar daar Raidas phirat hain, mool Kabiraa paayaa” (Raidas is wandering among the branches but it is Kabir who got to the root.) Of course, this is what Kabirapanthis say from their stored lifestory of Kabir. Yet, there is no doubt that Kabir was much ahead in the line. In a society that is becoming polarised by the day, we need more people like Kabir.
The writer is an anthropologist, socialist and Vice-President of Society for Communal Harmony.