Indian Arts and Culture Hinduism Mystical Saint-Poet Sant Kabir (1440 to 1518) His Unique Life and Works Share Flipboard Email Print Saint Kabir with Namdeva, Raidas and Pipaji. Jaipur, early 19th century, National Museum New Delhi. National Museum New Delhi/Wikimedia Commons/CC by 1.0 Hinduism Hindu Gurus and Saints India Past and Present Important Texts Temples and Organizations Indian Arts and Culture Hindu Gods By Subhamoy Das M.A., English Literature, University of North Bengal Subhamoy Das is the co-author of "Applied Hinduism: Ancient Wisdom for Today's World." He has written several books about Hinduism for children and young adults. our editorial process Subhamoy Das Updated March 08, 2019 The saint-poet Kabir is one of the most interesting personalities in the history of Indian mysticism. Born near Benaras, or Varanasi, of Muslim parents in 1440, in early life he became a disciple of the celebrated 15th-century Hindu ascetic Ramananda, a great religious reformer and founder of a sect to which millions of Hindus still belong. Kabir's Early Life in Varanasi Kabir's story is surrounded by contradictory legends that emanate from both Hindu and Islamic sources, which claim him by turns as a Sufi and a Hindu saint. Undoubtedly, his name is of Islamic ancestry, and he is said to be the actual or adopted child of a Muslim weaver of Varanasi, the city in which the chief events of his life took place. How Kabir Became a Disciple of Ramananda The boy Kabir, in whom the religious passion was innate, saw in Ramananda his destined teacher; but knew the chances were slight that a Hindu guru would accept a Muslim as a disciple. He, therefore, hid on the steps of the Ganges River, where Ramananda came to bathe often; with the result that the master, coming down to the water, trod upon his body unexpectedly, and exclaimed in his astonishment, "Ram! Ram!"—the name of the incarnation under which he worshiped God. Kabir then declared that he had received the mantra of initiation from Ramananda's lips, which admitted him to discipleship. In spite of the protests of orthodox Brahmins and Muslims, both equally annoyed by this contempt of theological landmarks, he persisted in his claim. Ramananda's Influence on Kabir's Life and Works Ramananda appears to have accepted Kabir, and though Muslim legends speak of the famous Sufi Pir, Takki of Jhansi, as Kabir's master in later life, the Hindu saint is the only human teacher to whom he acknowledges indebtedness in his songs. Ramananda, Kabir's guru, was a man of wide religious culture who dreamed of reconciling this intense and personal Mohammedan mysticism with the traditional theology of Brahmanism and even Christian faith. It is one of the outstanding characteristics of Kabir's genius that he was able to fuse these thoughts into one in his poems. Was Kabir a Hindu or a Muslim? Hindus called him Kabir Das, but it is impossible to say whether Kabir was Brahmin or Sufi, Vedantist or Vaishnavite. He is, as he says himself, "at once the child of Allah and of Ram." Kabir was a hater of religious exclusivism and sought above all things to initiate human beings into liberty as the children of God. Kabir remained the disciple of Ramananda for years, joining in the theological and philosophical arguments which his master held with all the great Mullahs and Brahmins of his day. Thus, he became acquainted with both Hindu and Sufi philosophy. Kabir's Songs Are His Greatest Teachings It is by his wonderful songs, the spontaneous expressions of his vision and his love, and not by the didactic teachings associated with his name, that Kabir makes his immortal appeal to the heart. In these poems, a wide range of mystical emotion is brought into play—expressed in homely metaphors and religious symbols drawn without distinction from Hindu and Islamic beliefs. Kabir Lived a Simple Life Kabir may or may not have submitted to the traditional education of the Hindu or the Sufi contemplative and never adopted the life of an ascetic. Side-by-side with his interior life of adoration and its artistic expression in music and words, he lived the sane and diligent life of a craftsman. Kabir was a weaver, a simple and unlettered man who earned his living at the loom. Like Paul the tentmaker, Boehme the cobbler, Bunyan the tinker, and Tersteegen the ribbon-maker, Kabir knew how to combine vision and industry. And it was from out of the heart of the common life of a married man and the father of a family that he sang his rapturous lyrics of divine love. Kabir's Mystical Poetry Was Rooted in Life and Reality Kabir's works corroborate the traditional story of his life. Again and again, he extols the life of home and the value and reality of diurnal existence with its opportunities for love and renunciation. The "simple union" with Divine Reality was independent both of ritual and of bodily austerities; the God whom he proclaimed was "neither in Kaaba nor in Kailash." Those who sought Him needed not to go far; for He awaited discovery everywhere, more accessible to "the washerwoman and the carpenter" than to the self-righteous holy man. Therefore, the whole apparatus of piety, Hindu and Muslim alike—the temple and mosque, idol and holy water, scriptures and priests—were denounced by this clear-sighted poet as mere substitutes for reality. As he said, "The Purana and the Koran are mere words." The Last Days of Kabir's Life Kabir's Varanasi was the very center of Hindu priestly influence, which made him subject to considerable persecution. There is a well-known legend about a beautiful courtesan who was sent by Brahmins to tempt Kabir's virtue. Another tale talks of Kabir being brought before the Emperor Sikandar Lodi and charged with claiming the possession of divine powers. He was banished from Varanasi in 1495 when he was nearly 60 years old. Thereafter, he moved about throughout northern India with his disciples; continuing in exile the life of an apostle and a poet of love. Kabir died at Maghar near Gorakhpur in 1518. The Legend of Kabir's Last Rites A beautiful legend tells us that after Kabir's death, his Muslim and Hindu disciples disputed the possession of his body—which the Muslims wished to bury; the Hindus, to burn. As they argued together, Kabir appeared before them and told them to lift the shroud and look at that which lay beneath. They did so, and found in place of the corpse a heap of flowers, half of which were buried by the Muslims at Maghar and half carried by the Hindus to the holy city of Varanasi to be burned—a fitting conclusion to a life which had made fragrant the most beautiful doctrines of two great creeds. Sources Kabir translated by Rabindranath Tagore. Songs of Kabir. Macmillan Company, New York, 1915.