Why were Kabir’s detractors “forced” to escalate matters up to the sultan? Mostly because they were smarting from having failed so miserably to check his influence themselves. Kabir’s fame was sky- rocketing, despite his obvious lack of interest in self-publicity. He still got a lot of “good press” as news spread of his willingness to confront the most powerful community leaders, his ability to resist temptation and his refusal to back down in the face of threats to his life. He had an aura, and his opponents’ obvious frustrations only added to its glow.

Anantdas tells us that, “Kabir tried to keep away from his fame, like a demure, young woman hides her baby bump.” But people thronged around him day in and day out. He was left with hardly any moments to himself, hardly any of the privacy and solitude he craved to be able to reflect and to be in “dialogue with his Ram”.

Moments of solitude are necessary for us to assess our words, deeds and their impact on others. Seeking such solitude is neither to discard company nor does it mean feeling discarded. The search for solitude is qualitatively different from the desperation and frustration that leads to loneliness. A lonely person feels slighted and is depressed. They want to be part of the crowd and feel sorrow if they perceive themselves to be shunned. Loneliness is an imposition, by others or even oneself; solitude is a choice.

Kabir’s is the universal dilemma of creative and reflective souls. He spoke and sang about the bliss and agony of finding a way to connect with and touch people and then the ambivalence he felt about the resulting fame, of the mania of those who desired a connection not just with his words but with him.

One night, he comes up with a trick to rid himself of the baggage of fame. He fills a bottle with water, goes to a sex worker first thing in the morning and convinces her to join him on a walk around the crowded avenues of the city.

His detractors crow. The self-appointed guardians of respectability make their sweeping condemnations:

This is how
these disgusting hypocrites from the lowly castes act.
A few days in supposed bhakti,
and now, see, there he goes –
the great bhakta Kabir,
with a prostitute and a bottle of liquor.

Enjoying the spectacle, Kabir wonders if anyone would bother to see through the “scene” and take the trouble to search beneath the surface, or would they easily be satisfied by the constructed perception? Most, if not all, fail Kabir’s test, including his favourite royal disciple Birsingh Baghel.

Kabir makes a point to visit the king, who has already heard about the embarrassing scandal. Seeing Kabir, the king, influenced by the gossip, shows none of his usual respect and warmth, instead turning his face away in contempt.

Unperturbed, Kabir empties his “liquor” bottle on the floor. Asked to explain this strange act, he says that an admirer in Puri, a panda, or priest, at the famous Jagannath temple in faraway Odisha had burnt his foot and cried out in pain and that this water would soothe him. Having said this, Kabir quietly leaves the palace. He is happy with his trick and thankful to the sex worker.

Having shown how easy it is to manipulate perception and earn himself a reputation as a drunkard and lecher, Kabir is finally left alone. He has what he craves – solitude.

But only for a few days.

The king, who wants to believe Kabir, sends his fastest riders to Puri. They return to confirm the veracity of Kabir’s claim that a temple priest had indeed burnt his foot and was soothed at the exact time that Kabir had poured the water on the floor of the palace hundreds of miles away. The king is ashamed of doubting the integrity of his guru.

His wife advises him to go to Kabir and seek forgiveness, but the king is afraid that his guru might curse him. Gathering his courage, Birsingh Baghel heads out to the poet’s home. He is welcomed with Kabir’s usual love and hospitality. “Get rid of your fear and guilt,” he tells the king. “I am not angry. Why would I be? I nurture no particular affection or enmity for anyone; I make no distinction between prince and pauper.”

Kabir’s critics had to resign themselves to waiting for some other opportunity (like Sikandar Lodhi’s visit in the future) to punish the impudent weaver.

Whatever the lessons Kabir’s frustrated critics hoped to teach him, the moral of this parable remains relevant through the ages. An insistence on solitude, for time to think, shows an individual’s refusal to be an unquestioning cog in the collective. Such introspection can lead to interrogations of the nature of self and of social relations and mindsets.

It is dangerous to give people the time and space to think for themselves. This is why authoritarian regimes, whether nominally on the political left or right, work so hard to make whole populations believe that demands for privacy and solitude are a social offence, a moral vice.

The writer Dave Eggers’s novel The Circle (2013) paints a horrifying picture of corporate rule, of giant technology companies that want to exercise total control over both employees and consumers. The “community” (an euphemism for corporate bosses) promotes “transparency” and “sharing” as moral virtues and posits that having access to every moment of everyone’s life is for the greater common good. “Privacy is theft” is the company’s dictum. Nobody is allowed to opt out on pain of death.

The systematic elimination of privacy is no more just dystopian fantasy. We live in a world in which “real” lives are manufactured for the purposes of 24x7 “reality” TV, a world in which all of us willingly participate by “constructing” ourselves on social media, in which our most private moments are compulsively, constantly “shared”. Worst of all, we embrace social media as if enormous resources aren’t being devoted to our manipulation, as if we are vying voluntarily to become lambs for the slaughter.

Kabir’s dramatic insistence on privacy, for time away from his followers and admirers, for solitude in which to reflect and seek dialogue with his inner self may have been important in his time. It is nothing short of an imperative in ours.

Kabir, Kabir: The Life and Work of the Early Modern Poet-Philosopher

Excerpted with permission from Kabir, Kabir: The Life and Work of the Early Modern Poet-Philosopher, Purushottam Agrawal, Westland.