Al-Kabir “the Great” is also one of the 99 names of God in Islam. For a complete disambiguation page, see Kabir (disambiguation)
Depiction of saint Kabir on the cover of a Hindi magazine named Shree Kabir GyanamritKabir (also Kabira) (born in 1398 according to some accounts) was one of the most interesting personalities in the history of Indian mysticism. Born in or near Benares, there is a mystery about his family background, however he became in early life a disciple of the celebrated Hindu ascetic, R?m?nanda, who brought to Northern India the religious revival which R?m?nuja, the great twelfth-century reformer of Br?hmanism had initiated in the South. A Bhakti saint, a contemporary of Guru Nanak Dev, who sang the ideals of seeing all of humanity as one, and also to the path of natural oneness with God, some even believe him to be the preceptor of Guru Nanak. He was known to be a weaver and later became famed for scorning religious affiliation. His philosophies and ideas of loving devotion to God are expressed in metaphor and language from both the Hindu Vedanta and Bhakti streams using vernacular Hindi. Kabir is also considered one of the early northern India Sants. He was initiated by Ramananda. An excellent source is Robert Bly’s “Versions” of Kabir’s Poems, called THE KABIR BOOK: Forty-Four of the Ecstatic Poems of
For more details on this topic, see Sant Mat.
Kabir is known to belong to the Sants(saints), a loosely associated group of teachers (Sanskrit: Guru) that assumed prominence in the northern part of the Indian sub-continent from about the 13th century. Their teachings are distinguished theologically by inward loving devotion to a divine principle, and socially by an egalitarianism opposed to the qualitative distinctions of the Hindu caste hierarchy and to the religious differences between Hindu and Muslim.[
The Sants were not homogeneous, consisting mostly of these Sants’ presentation of socio-religious attitudes based on bhakti (devotion) as described a thousand years earlier in the Bhagavad Gita.Sharing as few conventions with each other as with the followers of the traditions they challenged, the Sants appear more as a diverse collection of spiritual personalities than a specific religious tradition, although they acknowledged a common spiritual root.
The first generation of north Indian sants, (which included Kabir), appeared in the region of Benares in the mid 15th century. Preceding them were two notable 13th and 14th century figures, Namdev and Ramananda. The latter, a Vaishnava ascetic, initiated Kabir, Raidas, and other sants, according to tradition. Ramanand’s story is told differently by his lineage of “Ramanandi” monks, by other Sants preceding him, and later by the Sikhs. What is known is that Ramananda accepted students of all castes, a fact that was contested by the orthodox Hindus of that time, and that his students formed the first generation of Sants.
The basic religious principles he espouses are simple. According to Kabir, all life is an interplay of two spiritual principles. One is the personal soul (Jivatma) and the other is God (Paramatma). It is Kabir’s view that salvation is the process of bringing into union these two divine principles. The social and practical manifestation of Kabir’s philosophy has rung through the ages. It represented a synthesis of Hindu, and Muslim concepts. From Hinduism he accepts the concept of reincarnation and the law of Karma. From Islam he takes the affirmation of the single god and the rejection of caste system and idolatry. Not only has Kabir influenced Muslims and Hindus but he is one of the major inspirations behind Sikhism as well.
His greatest work is the Bijak (that is, the Seedling), an idea of the fundamental one. This collection of poems demonstrates Kabir’s own universal view of spirituality. His vocabulary is replete with ideas regarding Brahman and Hindu ideas of karma and reincarnation. His Hindi was a very vernacular, straightforward kind, much like his philosophies. He often advocated leaving aside the Qur’an and Vedas and to simply follow Shahaj path, or the Simple/Natural Way to oneness in God. He believed in the Vedantic concepts of atman and therefore spurned the orthodox Hindu societal caste system and worship of statues, thus showing clear belief in both bhakti and sufi ideas. The major part of Kabir’s work as a Bhagat was collected by the fifth Sikh guru, Guru Arjun Dev, and forms a section of the holy Sikh scripture “Guru Granth Sahib”. According to legendary accounts Kabir and Guru Nanak had met once.
While many ideas reign as to who his living influences were, the only Guru of whom he ever spoke was Ramananda, a Vaishnav saint whom Kabir claimed to have taken initiation from in the form of the “Rama” mantra.
“The poetry of mysticism might be defined on the one hand as a temperamental reaction to the vision of Reality: on the other, as a form of prophecy. As it is the special vocation of the mystical consciousness to mediate between two orders, going out in loving adoration towards God and coming home to tell the secrets of Eternity to other men; so the artistic self-expression of this consciousness has also a double character. It is love-poetry, but love-poetry which is often written with a missionary intention. Kab?r’s songs are of this kind: out-births at once of rapture and of charity. Written in the popular Hindi, not in the literary tongue, they were deliberately addressed?like the vernacular poetry of Jacopone da Tod? and Richard Rolle?to the people rather than to the professionally religious class; and all must be struck by the constant employment in them of imagery drawn from the common life, the universal experience. It is by the simplest metaphors, by constant appeals to needs, passions, relations which all men understand–the bridegroom and bride, the guru and disciple, the pilgrim, the farmer, the migrant bird–that he drives home his intense conviction of the reality of the soul’s intercourse with the Transcendent. There are in his universe no fences between the “natural” and “supernatural” worlds; everything is a part of the creative Play of God, and therefore–even in its humblest details?capable of revealing the Player’s mind.” [
His poems resonate with praise for the true guru who reveals the divine through direct experience, and denounced more usual ways of attempting god-union such as chanting, austerities etc. His verses, which being illiterate he never expressed in writing, often began with some strongly worded insult to get the attention of passers-by. Kabir has enjoyed a revival of popularity over the past half century as arguably the most acceptable and understandable of the Indian Saints, with an especial influence over spiritual traditions such as that of Sant Mat and Radha Soami. Prem Rawat (‘Maharaji’) also refers frequently to Kabir’s songs and poems as the embodiment of deep wisdom.
It is a fruitless endeavor, indeed one that Kabir himself disliked, to classify him as Hindu or Muslim, Sufi or Bhakta. The legends surrounding his lifetime attest to his strong aversion to established religions. From his poems, expressed in homely metaphors and religious symbols drawn indifferently from Hindu and Mohammedan belief, it is impossible to say of their author that he was Br?hman or S?f?, Ved?ntist or Vaishnavite. He is, as he says himself, “at once the child of Allah and of R?m.” In fact, Kabir always insisted on the concept of Koi bole Ram Ram Koi Khudai…, which means that someone may chant the Hindu name of God and someone may chant the Muslim name of God, but God is the one who made the whole world.
In Kabir’s wide and rapturous vision of the universe he never loses touch with the common life. His feet are firmly planted upon earth; his lofty and passionate apprehensions are perpetually controlled by the activity of a sane and vigorous intellect, by the alert commonsense so often found in persons of real mystical genius. The constant insistence on simplicity and directness, the hatred of all abstractions and philosophizings, the ruthless criticism of external religion: these are amongst his most marked characteristics. God is the Root whence all manifestations, “material” and “spiritual,” alike proceed; and God is the only need of man–“happiness shall be yours when you come to the Root.” Hence to those who keep their eye on the “one thing needful,” denominations, creeds, ceremonies, the conclusions of philosophy, the disciplines of asceticism, are matters of comparative indifference. They represent merely the different angles from which the soul may approach that simple union with Brahma which is its goal; and are useful only insofar as they contribute to this consummation. So thorough-going is Kab?r’s eclecticism, that he seems by turns Ved?ntist and Vaishnavite, Pantheist and Transcendentalist, Br?hman and S?f?. In the effort to tell the truth about that ineffable apprehension, so vast and yet so near, which controls his life, he seizes and twines together–as he might have woven together contrasting threads upon his loom–symbols and ideas drawn from the most violent and conflicting philosophies and faiths.
His birth and death are surrounded by legends. He grew up in a Muslim weaver family, but some say he was really son of a Brahmin widow who was adopted by a childless couple. When he died, his Hindu and Muslim followers started fighting about the last rites. In Maghar, his tomb or Dargah and Samadhi Mandir still stand side by side. 
Another legend surrounding Kabir is that shortly before death he bathed in both the river Ganges and Karmnasha to wash away both his good deeds and his sins.
One popular legend of his death, which is even taught in schools in India (although in more of a moral context than a historical one), says that after his death his Muslim and Hindu devotees were fighting over his proper burial rites. The problem arose, as Muslim customs called for the burial of their dead, whereas Hindus cremated their dead. The scene is depicted as two groups fighting around his coffin one claiming that Kabir was a Hindu, and the other claiming that Kabir was a Muslim. However when they finally open Kabir’s coffin, they find the body is missing, in lieu of which is placed a small book in which the Hindus and muslims wrote all his sayings that they could remember some even say a bunch of his favourite flowers were placed. The legend goes on to state that the fighting was resolved, and both groups looked upon the miracle as an act of divine intervention.
Kabir is revered as Satguru by the Kabirpanthi spiritual group, based in Maghar.
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