Benares, located on the banks of the river Ganges, was a seat of religious and spiritual learning in the fifteenth century. Leaders of various faiths would go there to learn, preach, debate and meditate. Vaishnavas, Saivas, Sufis, Jains and Buddhists, all of them set up monasteries, temples, mosques and hermitages here.

One of the ascetics from the Vaishnava tradition, Ramananda, set up a monastery on the banks of the Ganges, where he preached love for the one, sans rituals and caste hierarchies. He is considered the first sant of the Bhakti tradition in North India.

It is possible that on their visit to Benares, Sant Jnaneshwar and Sant Namdeo had met Ramananda and influenced one another’s thoughts and teachings. Ramananda was also deeply influenced by a Bhakti poet from Southern India, Ramanujan, who also went to Benares to drink from its fountains.

Ignoring religions

As Islam reached much of North India, many of the weavers who were considered to belong to the so-called lower castes, and who believed and worshipped a formless god, converted to Islam. Kabir (the quranic title of Allah, meaning great) was reared in one such family of weavers in Benares in the early 15th century. It is believed that he was a seeker from early childhood. Dismayed by the hypocrisies of practised religion, both Hinduism and Islam, he was attracted to the teachings of the Bhakti Sants and Sufis of his time.

He not only beautifully blended their teachings, but transcended them by combining direct and passionate communion with the formless one, fearlessly calling out the deceit of fundamentalist Hindus and Muslims, promoting love and harmony amongst the humankind, and showering pearls of wisdom for a happy and fulfilling life.

Kabir continued to weave fabric, songs and wisdom though his life. It was through his life and songs that he sought communion with god, not through sterile places of worship. He found his god in commonplace things:

Your lord is in your home
Outside why do your eyes stray?

Kabir says, listen oh sadho
In sesame have I found the lord, pray!

Kabir was always on side of the oppressed, whether the oppression was on account of caste, poverty or religion. He warned the oppressors to mend their ways, else justice would be wrought in ways unknown:

Oppress not the weak, their curse slashes
A pair of bellows though lifeless, turns iron into ashes!

For Kabir, love was the ultimate preceptor, the seat of wisdom and way to attain the one god. Reading scriptures was inessential:

Never becomes wise, reading scriptures one may die
A word of love one reads, and becomes a wise guy!

Tirelessly and in myriad ways, he sang of of the oneness of god and the oneness of mankind, though manifested differently:

Kashi and Kaba are one, one are Ram and Rahim,
Dough is one, delicacies many; binges on Kabir!

In death as in life

When he fell terminally ill, Kabir decided to shift from Benares to Maghiyar, against the wishes of his followers. It was believed in those days (and even now) that if one dies in Benares, one goes straight to heaven, whereas death in Maghiyar leads straight to hell! Kabir’s disdain for religious hypocrisy and religious beliefs was so deep that even in death he proved a point.

Divisions of caste and religion were (and are) so deep that after his death, both Hindus and Muslims laid claim on Kabir. The former wanted to cremate him, and the latter, to inter him. In death as in life, Kabir sought to bring harmony: it is said that when they lifted the sheet covering his body, they only found flowers. Hindus and Muslims shared the flowers among themselves and performed the last rites according to their respective doctrines.

Kabir was fortunate to be in Benares at a times when considerable churning was going on in the society, and when followers and practitioners of different faiths and counter-faiths frequented the city. He drew from each of these faiths and its precepts, but never following any of them in entirety.

After meeting several faqirs whom he found spiritually evolved, Kabir was drawn to Sheikh Taqi, a Sufi Sant of the Chisti lineage who had settled in Kada-Manikpur, twin villages on either side of the Ganges, about 250 kms from Benares. It was from Sheikh Taqi that he discovered intense love for and romance with a personal god, one of the hallmarks of Sufism. Kabir was thus fortunate to find himself at a confluence of two rivers of love and wisdom, coming from different sources but watering the same lands.

The Bhakti tradition that started with Ramananda in North India and was propagated by Kabir, one of his most illustrious disciples, continued to grow in the area. Kabir’s contemporaries, such as Ravidas, often came from the “lower castes” and burned with the same desire to have direct communion with the one god, and dreamt of an egalitarian society, sans caste and class discrimination. And Sufism continued to thrive as well, continuing to challenge the mainstream, rigid, exclusive and aggressive forms of Islam which were propagated by the rulers of the Slave Dynasty.

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

Meet the mystic poets from subcontinental history: How Rahim combined war with poetry