The Idea of India
The Art of Blasphemy: The Poetry of Kabir

The Kabir Project has a new film by Shabnam Virmani, on the meaning of Ram and the dreams of Kabir


His early life is a mystery, with some arguing that he may never even have existed.

He is said to have been raised by a Muslim family, in a Muslim neighborhood of the holy city of Benares (today’s Varanasi). But his studied under a Hindu sage he tricked into initiating him.

Some say he was an illiterate, but his words were repeated by millions across Northern India and his spiritual message had a profound impact on Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs alike.  The scholar J.N.Farquhar once said that his words are amongst ‘…the loftiest works in Hindi language and hundreds of his couplets have laid hold of the common heart of Hindustan”.

Today he would be called a blasphemer and in a nation like Pakistan probably put to death. But during his life he had a following of people of all faiths.

His words challenged orthodoxy.  Mocked the clergy.  Denigrated religious ritual. But when he died his followers fought amongst himself to bury him according to their own rituals.  They could only be allayed because of a miracle.

In the 15th century when the Inquisition was burning heretics across the lands of Europe, the famous 15th century poet Kabir was teaching his followers the true path to the divine, and that it was not through the mosque, temple or any other sacred space, but through the individual him/herself.

O servant, where dost thou seek Me?
Lo! I am beside thee

I am neither in temple nor in mosque: I a neither
in Kaaba nor in Kailash

Neither am I in rites and ceremonies, nor in Yoga
and renunciation

It thou art a true seeker, thou shall at once see Me:
thou shalt meet Me in a moment of time

Kabir says, ‘O Sadhu! God is the breath of all breath.

The Indian Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, was deeply influenced by Kabir’s words.  Tagore repeated stated the deep influence Kabir’s ideas and language had on his own works.

Legend has it that in order to be initiated into the guru Ramanand’s order, a young Kabir hid on the steps the guru used to walk down for his morning ablutions in the Ganges in the city of Benares, present day Varanasi.  The legend says that this was on the Pancaganga (Panjganga) ghat.  When the guru accidentally stepped on the hiding boy, he called out ‘Ram, Ram!’, the sacred mantra that was needed to receive the namadiksa (sacred rite) from the guru.  And so this boy from a Muslim family entered the realm of the great teacher Ramanand, one of the pioneers of Hinduism’s bhakti movement.

It is but an image of stone
which they worship as ‘Creator’!
Those who put their trust in it
were drowned in a black torrent

Why does that Mullah climb the minaret?
Allah is not outside!
Him for whom you shout the call to prayer
you should recognize in your heart

On his death his followers fell back into their divisions.  There was a struggle for his body.  How should it be honored in death – as that of a Hindu and burned on a pyre, or as that of a Muslim, laid to rest in the soil? The conflict divided the community, and erased decades of Kabir’s teachings and ideals.  Amongst this collapse, he appeared before them, risen from the dead, and asked that they look under the shroud.  And when they did, they found that his mortal remains had been replaced by rose petals!

O Qazi,
what is this book you are explaining?
Day after day, you kept reading it
yet of the true Path, you know nothing.

Sure of your right, you catch people
and you circumcise them –
but I’ll have none of it, O Brother!
If God wanted me to be a Turk
couldn’t He do it himself!

Even then his followers failed to understand his message.  Even in death he was defied.  They placed half of the petals on a pyre and burned them.  They placed half the petals in the soil and buried them.

O Pande,
what foolishness if yours!
You don’t call on Ram
you, wretched one!

Carrying your Veda and Puranas, O Pande, you go along
like a donkey loaded with sandal wood
The secret of the Name of Ram, you’ve never known
and so you come to shame

You kill living beings and you call it ‘Piety’:
tell me, Brother, what then is impiety?
Among yourselves, you address each other as ‘Great Sage’:
whom then shall I call ‘Butcher’?

Or so legend says.

I did not read Kabir in school, nor in college.  He is not in the officially sanctioned ‘Pakistan/Islamic pantheon’.  I suspect that he, one of the most influential voices in classical Hindi literature and poetry, did not sit well with the guardians of morality and all things pious in the Pakistan I was growing up in.  I suspect that he is still not read.  I can’t see how he could be given that he would probably be found in violation of Section 295 B and C and 298 A, B, and C of Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws.

In India, the Hindutva, version of history erases the syncretic realities of the culture and life outlook that permitted a life and work such as Kabir’s. In their imaginations there were once a peaceful, pure Vedic people who lived in the Indus Valley.  Their peaceful condition went on for centuries until the rude and unprovoked invasions by the Muslims.  These were the centuries of darkness with endless human suffering, vandalizing of temples, theft of sacred objects, construction of mosques where once temples stood and a number of unspeakable horrors.  Until the arrival of Shivaji, the Maharashtrian hero who restored the Hindu kingdom, only to be later outdone by the British.

A nice, clean, black&white history to help people decide where they stand; with ‘us’ or against ‘us’.  And everything that was shared, everything that evolved and flourish because of the incredible mixing of Hindu, Muslim and other cultures within India, is erased. And those who challenge this infantile view of history face opprobrium and violence where they can be reached.  Just ask Professor J.H. Jha who wrote “The Myth of the Holy Cow’ or Professor J. Laine who wrote ‘Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India’ .

And so to is with Kabir; erased and forgotten or just plain ignored because he reminds the historians and the moralists of matters human and compassionate.  He reminds them of the necessity of doubt in all religious beliefs because man is just man and can never know.

It is not a doubt towards rejection, or towards negation of belief but doubt towards humility and a tolerance towards other interpretations and ways of reaching the divine.  A constructive doubt that allows us to see through hardened ideologies that are as much about hate for the other as they are about piety.

Kabir is one of the great voices of India that spoke against sectarian divisions.  And there have been others, like Dadu, Ravi-Das and Sena to name just a few*. And in the centuries after the classists such as Moinuddin Chisti, Ghalib, Mir Taki Mir, Momin and Akbarabadi.  And to not forget the great folklorists and popular poets like Bulle Shah, Baba Fariduddin Ganj-i-Shakar, Shah Abdul Latif of Bhit Sharif, Sachal Sarmast to name just a few who challenged all those who spoke as the officials of religions

Neither Hindu nor Muslim
I sit with all on a whim.
Having no caste, sect or creed,
I am different indeed.

I am not sinner or saint
knowing no sin nor restraint.
Bulle tries hard to shirk
the embrace of Hindu and Turk

(Bulle Shah)

Kabir was persecuted by the priesthood.  His impieties led to his being accused of sedition against the state by a group of Brahmins.  He was imprisoned and later dragged in chains before Sultan Sikander Lodi.  An intolerant man who preferred the company of the orthodox, Lodi condemned Kabir not for the seditions he was accused of, but for refusing to bow to him.  Three attempts were made to execute him, but he miraculously escaped each time.

Legend has it that the Sultan eventually bowed to Kabir in reverance.

* Many of India’s medieval poets and their anti-clericalism will be discussed in future essays.

Further Reading

Vaudeville, Charlotte: A Weaver Named Kabir, Oxford University Press

Tagore, Rabindranath: Poems of Kabir

Jha, J.H. The Myth of the Holy Cow, Verso

Laine, James Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India, Oxford University Press