At the time that the poet and mystic Kabir was born and raised, major political changes were taking in India. Timur (popularly known as Timur-the-lame) invaded the land and, through a series of violent attacks, decimated Delhi and the Slave Dynasty, which had ruled there for two centuries. After destroying Delhi, he returned to central Asia to continue his bloody conquests there. For the next century or so, several smaller kingdoms ruled various parts of India, many of them having originated from the erstwhile governors of the Slave Dynasty.

Bairam Khan’s mother came from the family of Khwaja Ubaiduallah, who was the patron saint of Timurid rulers. His family was held in high esteem in Babur’s court. Bairam Beg joined the services of Babur’s son Humayun. Being highly intelligent and a man of culture, he became a close associate of the emperor and played a vital role in the formation of the early Mughal empire in India. As a reward for one of his conquests, he was awarded the title of Khan-i-Khanan, a title that his son Abdul Rahim was also to be given many years later by Humayun’s son Akbar.

Bairam Beg was a poet himself and composed verses in Persian and Turkish. To build bridges with local Indians, he also acquired proficiency in Hindavi, which served as a link language between the ruling nobles and others. His son Abdul Rahim imbibed a love for culture and poetry from his father.

Tragically, Bairam Beg was killed when Rahim was four years old, and Akbar raised him under his own protection. Brought up in Akbar’s royal court, exposed to the finest poets and artist, he displayed a literary bent of mind, and acquired a proficiency in several languages: Persian, Sanskrit and Hindavi.

The making of a poet

Rahim was exposed to the teachings of Islam as well as that of Bhakti poets and Sufi Saints, all of whom were patronised and respected in Akbar’s court. Akbar’s own efforts at promoting a unified religion, based on the best of practices and teachings in all religions went on to include Rahim’s thoughts and poetry.

As he grew up to be a sharp strategist and a fearless warrior, Rahim grew in stature in Akbar’s court and was assigned higher responsibilities to stabilise and expand the empire. Unlike other Bhakti or Sufi poets, he lived and enjoyed a life of grandeur. He himself patronised many poets and scholars, contributing materially and intellectually to their seminal works.

Rahim was also privy to many North Indian Bhakti poets of his times, such as Surdas. Though he grew in an environment of relative calm and absolute affluence, being a commander of one of the strongest empires of his times brought him face to face with many harsh realities of life. Wounded, arrested and at times, humiliated, he knew that the time is most powerful, and that forbearance is required to face such times:

What affects you, says Rahim, let the body sustain
On the earth only falls, the heat, cold and the rain!

Sidelined by his own men, but always springing back, he brought much uncommon wisdom to the common man:

When time comes the tree fruits, on time the leaves fall
Nothing stays the same Rahim, do not regret at all!

Unlike Baba Farid, he did not have the need to counter elites and kings. Nor, like Namdeo and Kabir, did he need to raise his voice against the hypocrisy of religion or injustice of caste system. Unlike them, the passion of a lover for his personal god was not for him. Like them, however, his spirituality lay in commonplace wisdom, welfare of others and dissolving of one’s ego:

Rahiman the lane is narrow,
For another there is no space
When you’re there, he’s not
When he comes, for you there’s no place!

He wrote prolifically in Hindavi, the language that came into existence to enable communication between the rulers and ruled. He also wrote extensively in Persian and Sanskrit. After his death, many of his writings became extremely popular among households in north India in particular, and, through oral traditions, survived, thrived and passed on between generations.

Also read:

Meet the mystic poets from subcontinental history: Baba Farid, the Sufi face of Islam

Meet the mystic poets from subcontinental history: Namdeo’s search for the formless god