Moond mundaye Hari mile, toh kar koyi liye mundaye
Baar baar ke moondte bhedh na Baikunth jaaye.
If tonsure were the path to God, how come sheep, sheared so often, don’t obtain the abode of Vishnu.
Only Kabir could, in two crisp lines, 15 everyday words and with a terrific dose of humour and wordplay, lay open the hypocrisy of an entire religious establishment, its rituals and markers of piety. Man na rangaye jogi, kapda rangaye, he said famously laughing at the saffron-sporting sadhu whose mind is not strictly on matters of the spirit.
For fans of Kabir’s irreverent, humanist poetry there could be no greater irony than watching Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, who is known for his inflammatory, polarising speeches, spearhead events to mark the mystic saint’s 500th death anniversary at Maghar in June. In this town where the 15th-century poet is believed to be buried, the foundation of a Kabir Academy was laid by Prime Minister Narendra Modi with a much-publicised rally and political speech.
Kabir, a weaver from the marginalised Julaha community, who laid down the deepest and most abstract of philosophies of existence in the simplest of words, couldn’t be further from the Right-wing worldview. Some of his best-known works tear into the tyranny of caste and bigotry. “Sadho, dekho jag baurana… (Look, the world has gone mad),” he said, fighting over Ram and Rahim. Kabir remained contemptuous of both topi and tilak, the brahmin and the mullah.
“Kabir had no patience for either the religion of the temple or the mosque,” said Kabir scholar Purushottam Agrawal. “He drew from the knowledge base of both Hindu and Islamic traditions but his spirituality went beyond any religion. He was a rationalist who wasn’t afraid to question or criticise anyone.”
As Agrawal pointed out in his Hindi comment for the BBC.com, Kabir could well be declared an “anti-national” for his defiance of the powerful. Why then has he become an icon for the BJP?
“Our politics today is entirely mined from cultural identity and each party is looking for an icon,” said Agrawal. “BJP’s calculation is to woo his following because Kabir is hugely popular among Dalits, the Julahas and the Koris [another weaver community].”
Kabir is nothing if not radically egalitarian in an age when marginalised communities are having to fight to be heard. “The Brahmin is clay/the Baniya clay/the whole creation clay./In this clay, everyone meets,” he had said. He routinely punctured the egos of those who claimed to be wise:
“They all read piles of books/then died. No one got wise./Read four letters: love./Wisdom is yours.”— Translated by Linda Hess
Kabir propagated what is referred to as nirgun bhakti, the idea of a formless and benign divinity, a friend figure. Moko kahan dhoonde re bande, went one of his most loved songs.
“Where are you searching for me, my friend?/I’m right here/Not in sacred rivers, statues or secluded places/not in temple or mosque/holy Kashi or Mount Kailash./I’m not in beads, ascetic acts or fasts,/exercises, rituals, yoga, or renunciation.”— Translated by Linda Hess
Kabir wrote of mortality, love and the search for self, playful and introspective at the same time. His ulat bansi or upside-down poetry was seemingly illogical but hit where it hurts. Wandering minstrels and sadhus carried Kabir’s words far and wide. His poetry acquired local musical forms which were passed on orally across generations. In the folk music of the Malwa region of Madhya Pradesh, for example, Kabir is a living idea.
His appeal transcended religion, he was loved by Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims alike. The poor and repressed owned him. Like the other marginal caste Bhagats such as Ravidas, Ramanand and Namdev – who preached equality, questioned the priestly classes and the authority of vedas and puranas, drawing the ire of the Brahmanical order – the only enemies he made were the Brahmanical orders he ridiculed.
“Kabir’s teachings and philosophy have a following across Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat and Odisha, making him one of the most respected cultural and spiritual figures in early modern India,” said Agrawal, explaining why Kabir followers make for an attractive vote bank.
The earliest known profile of Kabir was written by Sant Nabhadas in Bhaktamal, a poem in the Braja language, between 1600 and 1625. As it says:
“Kabir didn’t care about caste or the rules, on what you should do/when you’re young, middle-aged, and old/or the six philosophical schools./Religion without devotion/was for him no religion at all./Yoga, ritual, fasting and charity/were beneath contempt/without a heartfelt song./To Hindu and Muslim alike, he told his truth/through poems, songs, and couplets.”— Translated by Linda Hess
By the early 17th century, Kabir’s poetry had been documented in Aadi Granth, the sacred book of the Sikhs and by the Dadu Panthis, a sect based in what is now Rajasthan. There are thousands of dohas, or couplets, and shabads, or song poems, attributed to him that most Indians have heard and absorbed in some manner, through school textbooks, music and popular references.
Over the centuries Kabir’s wisdom has not lost its meaning. It is even more valid today, in a world where authoritarian regimes and hate crimes are multiplying, says Linda Hess, an eminent Kabir scholar and author of The Bijak of Kabir and Bodies of Song. A senior lecturer at the Department of Religious Studies at Stanford University, she has been focusing on oral traditions around Kabir’s poetry over the last 15 years. Hess has also documented Kumar Gandharva’s priceless renditions of Kabir in her 2009 book Singing Emptiness.
“Kabir has always been relevant,” said Hess. “There was plenty of intolerance, exploitation, religious hypocrisy and violence in his time, which is why we remember his commentaries on these things. But such problems sometimes come in waves, and we’re having a big wave now in a number of countries, including India and my country, the US. We have leaders, who exploit division, prejudice, hatred, twisted forms of nationalism and nativism, for the sake of their own power. Kabir’s voice can inspire us to see through such power-hungry divisiveness and self-aggrandising cruelty.”
Hess is not surprised that Kabir is being used as a political tool, pointing out that history is full of leaders who appropriated religious texts and spiritual heroes to strengthen their agendas.
“[It is] distasteful, yes. But it is an old story,” she said. “This is samsara, a world of phoney authority and cynical manipulation that Kabir was very familiar with. We need to see through it, call it out, reclaim our beloved poets, rescue them from those who would hijack their power for cruel and self-serving ends. The Bible was used to justify slavery and ongoing racism. Just recently a high-ranking American cabinet member, serving a terrible regime, tried to use the Bible to justify the horrendous policy of taking small children away from their parents as they tried to enter this country. Fortunately, many people called him out.”
Kabir did not believe in the fundamentalist idea of an exclusivist god.
“Whatever this God does is right, and if you don’t agree, I can get you in big trouble – Kabir totally resists this kind of attitude. He constantly says that what we’re looking for – god/guru/truth/the beloved– is right here, in our own bodies. And all bodies are equal – all the same in their nature and dignity.”— Translated by Linda Hess
In recent times, Kabir has enjoyed a surge of popularity across art forms in India. Jhini jhini chadariya, his ode to the delicate fabric of life, is a favourite with the dhrupad duo Gundechas as well as an inspiration for the indie band Indian Ocean. Zara dheere gaadi haanko is as much a part of the repertoire of Malwa folk singer Prahlad Singh Tipaniya as the fusion band Maati Baani or Kabir Cafe. The Kabir Project has been taking the poet’s voice across the country, showcasing it in multiple forms.
There is a reason for this. “The poems and songs open up vast visions, allow us to taste beauty and joy, and remind us of impermanence and death,” said Hess. “These are all important to our humanity.”