Kabir and the Use of Legend as History

A while earlier, I wrote about the use of non-traditional sources that can still serve as history of a sort. Today, I turn to two other sources to illustrate the same point: the poetry and the legends surrounding the life of Bhakti poet Kabir.

First, some basic information surrounding his life. Born in the late 14th or early 15th century Varanasi, there is uncertainty about his origins. Some speculate that he was born to a Brahmin widow and raised by a Muslim childless family, others posit him as being born to the Muslim weaver couple itself.

It is similarly said that he was taken on by a Vaishnava saint Ramananda, despite his Muslim birth/family. Some state that this was because he convinced his future guru to allow him to be a disciple due to his arguments on religion that would characterise his later work.

Not much is also known about the nature of his religious/ spiritual training. At the age of 13, Kabir witnessed the demise of his guru. He lived an earthly life of a simple weaver, married and had children, and did not renounce the world – something that brought him in conflict with several high priests of both Hinduism and Islam.

At the age of around 60, so profound was his rebellion that he was forced into exile. He died at Maghar. Several legends surround his death as well. It is said that on his death, his disciples quarreled over the way his last rites should be conducted: Muslim disciples preferred burial, while Hindu disciples were bent on the ceremonial burning. It is said that as they were disputing, Kabir’s voice arose asking them to lift the death shroud. Flowers were found where his dead body should have been. The disciples divided these and buried or burned them according to the dictates of their religion.

All the above is illustrative of Kabir’s philosophy. At once the “child of Allah and Ram”, he sought to unify the two religions. He was critical of dogmatism and meaningless rituals in both, favouring a direct union with God. This brought him in confrontation with dogmatists of both religions. His life is similarly exemplary of his insistence on living out a material life without renunciation of worldly pleasures and pains.

Using the colloquial tongue, his writing is a mixture of both Hindi and the local Awadhi, Braj, and Bhojpuri, as spoken by the common people. This won him the popularity and of the masses. His followers, Kabir panthis, came from both sides of the religious divide.

Illiterate himself, he believed not in a fervent reading of the scriptures or ritual chanting, but in good words and deeds. His works often begin with a sudden insult to gain the attention of passersby, and are replete with in-ornate language and compressed imagery and a play on words, something that is often lost in translation.

His poetry then, as well as the various legends surrounding his birth, life, and death tell us something crucial about his time, especially the state of its religion. Occurring at a time when other historical sources are hard to come by, legends taken critically, do present an historical account. So does poetry. They may not give us facts, but they do give us Ideas.

At a time when, Kabir has been “reduced” to a saint, and his works put down in textbooks for meaningless choral repetitive recitations, his Ideas are all that are left. And Ideas are precious.