A Look at Kabir
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, February 15, 2004
The Life of Kabir
As is the case of many holy men, the life of Kabir is shrouded in myth and mystery. As a holy man who claims adherents from practitioners of a variety of different faiths, the situation with Kabir becomes even more complicated.
The best guess is that Kabir was born in or near Benares in northern India in the year 1440. According to one legend, his mother was a virgin, who conceived while visiting a Hindu temple, after being blessed by the holy man Ramanand. According to another, she was a Hindu princess; according to third, a poor, unwed Hindu woman who had conceived a child out of wedlock. At any rate, while his parentage was Hindu, he was adopted and raised by a Muslim couple, who, according to one legend, discovered him floating on a lily pad in the holy Ganges River. It was his adopted (Muslim) mother who gave the baby the name Kabir—meaning “great one” in Arabic (though later, Kabir himself would add the name Dasa, Sanskrit for “servant” or “slave”).
The caste of his adopted family was that of weavers—not the poorest of the poor, certainly; but not a group commanding overwhelming respect within Indian society. The fact that they were Muslim, too, added to Kabir’s feeling of being marginalized as a young man. Isolated from the esteem and prestige of society as a young man, Kabir went inside himself for consolation. From an early age, he seemed a deeply thoughtful and spiritual person (and not much of a weaver, to his struggling parents’ chagrin). As a young man, a vision came to him that he would find truth by the River Ganges, so there he went, and remained a long while, deep in meditation, until the great Brahmin holy man, the Swami Ramanand (the same one who had blessed his birth mother in the temple years before), crossed his path. The lowly Kabir immediately caught hold of the holy man’s feet, and wouldn’t let go, unleashing a torrent of outrage against him from the holy man’s followers (especially since Ramanand had just had his ritual cleansing in the Ganges, and now this dirty person was grasping hold of him). They wanted to string him up on the spot. But the Swami told them to desist.
“Son, what do you want?” he asked Kabir.
“Sir, give me initiation,” Kabir replied. “I want self-realization.”
Swami Ramanand, it is said, immediately agreed.
His followers objected: “But he’s a Muslim,” they argued. “He’s an orphan, brought up in a Muslim family. He’ll not accept any of the principles of the Hindu religion.”
But, we are told, “Ramanand looked at Kabir and saw a great seeker there.” “You don’t know him,” the wise man replied. “I know him.” So he took Kabir on as a disciple.
The Sermon by Rev. Jeffrey B. Symynkywicz
So it was that Kabir came to study under the great Swami Ramanand—his spiritual father, perhaps. Two great seekers of truth—though of different religious backgrounds—their relationship soon developed into one of mutual dependence and learning, rather than that simply of teacher and pupil. While Kabir honored and respected his guru greatly, even as a young man, he saw (above all perhaps) the need to think for himself in discerning the truth. While Kabir scorned the outward rituals of Hindu dharma, Ramanand still held them in high esteem. But gradually, impressed by Kabir’s clarity of mind and outspokenness and honesty, Ramanand would come around more and more to Kabir’s outlook. He understood that it is a truly wise teacher who knows that he has the most to learn.
In trying to understand Kabir, we need to remember his simple, sometimes difficult roots. Born into a working class family, he developed a strong practical streak which complemented well his calling as a holy man. Kabir always stressed that if religion was to be true, it had to become alive in people’s everyday lives. “I do not quote from the scriptures,” he wrote. “I simply see what I see.”
Lord, I weave the cloth of Thy Name.
The fruitless toil
of weaving for the world
has come to an end.
I have attained
the dazzling state of bliss,
free from fear, free from pain,
I am the weaver, Lord, of Thy Name;
I weave and reap the profit
of inner rapport with Thee.
I am the weaver of the Lord’s Name.
Only if our faith transformed every waking moment of our daily lives—and if we developed the sense of being in the presence of the Divine, day in day out, in all that we do—will our lives truly be transformed, and can we achieve true bliss and happiness.
Kabir had little patience with the grand and ostentatious public rituals of the holy men around him. To Kabir, they seemed to care more for the world’s acclaim—more for profiting materially from their religion. Kabir called such false prophets “the thugs of Benares”. Better, he said, to follow the example of the simple folk who knew and experienced the healing of God firsthand. God is not to be found in the temple, Kabir said, but inside our own beings:
I have met him in my heart.
When a stream enters the Ganges,
it becomes the Ganges itself.
Kabir is lost in the Ganges.
True knowledge is taught by real life, Kabir understood:
There is nothing but water in the holy pools.
I know, I have been swimming in them.
All the gods sculpted of wood or ivory can’t say a word.
I know, I have been crying out to them.
The sacred books of the East are nothing but words.
I looked through their covers one day sideways.
What Kabir talks of is only what he has lived through.
If you have not lived through something it is not true.
Don’t go off somewhere else!
Kabir says this: just throw away all thoughts of imaginary things,
and stand firm in that which you are.
It would always be the “direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder” that would remain the primary source from which Kabir would draw his faith.
Religion should also be about bringing people together in the presence of God, and not dividing them up (as was—and is—too often the case). As a Hindu child raised in a Muslim household, Kabir developed both a strong fondness (and a healthy skepticism) about the ways and teachings of both of the dominant faiths in India. From Islam, Kabir took the idea of a single, all-powerful God, dwelling both in the universe and in our individual souls, as well as a dislike of idolatry and empty ritual. From Hinduism, he accepted the concept of reincarnation, the transmigration of the soul, and the ultimate goal of life to grow into harmony with the cosmos.
Kabir described himself as “the son both of Ram and of Allah”, and he used both names in describing his vision of God. But it pained Kabir to see his two faiths so often locked in conflict with one another. “Kabir laments that between the grinding of the two stones, nothing stays intact,” he wrote.
Once, when a neighboring sultan was visiting Benares, he asked that Kabir be brought before him for an audience. But rather than bowing and humbling himself before the great ruler, Kabir merely offered his hand in greeting, the same as he would with any other man. When the shocked members of the king’s retinue asked him to explain his behavior, Kabir simply said: “There is only one King in the world—God. Within the Hindu and the Muslim dwells the same God.”
Good Muslim that he was, the sultan could not but accept and agree with Kabir’s remarks, and he “pardoned” Kabir’s “transgression”.
But the priests of Benares—both Muslim and Hindu—could not be persuaded so easily. In spite of their great differences, they formed an alliance against Kabir. They hauled him into court, to face charges of blasphemy. Before the court, Kabir merely smiled. “All my life,” he began, “I have tried to impress upon the Hindus and the Muslims that God is one, the Father of both. I pleaded with them to join hands in worshipping the Lord of All, but they rejected my plea. They could never stand together in the court of the King of Kings, but today it amuses me to see them standing united in the court of a worldly king, a mortal like all others.”
This was all-too-honest for these “holy men” to accept. A court of priests convicted Kabir as a heretic. According to legend, he was sentenced to death by drowning, but when thrown into the river, his chain broke, and Kabir floated away unharmed. So, the priests charged that Kabir was practicing black magic as well, and sentenced him to be trampled by an elephant. But the animal wouldn’t cooperate. “In the elephant’s heart, too,” said Kabir, “dwells the Lord.” Finally, the priests ordered Kabir burned at the stake—but when the fire was lit, the skies opened with a torrential downpour, and Kabir merged safely again, surrounded, it is said, by a divine radiance.
This time, the sultan had seen enough; he ordered Kabir set free. In remorse, the king approached the poet-saint. With his head downcast, expecting a severe judgment, he confessed, “I did not know your greatness. I am sorry.” But Kabir responded, “You are not at fault. Such was the will of God. Look up, O Sultan. Don’t feel sad. Forget what has happened. The Lord is all love and mercy. In his court, repentance never goes unrewarded.”
“Forgiveness is a game that only the saints play,” Kabir once wrote. Or, on another occasion: “Where forgiveness happens, there God dwells.”
Kabir belived that there was One Great Truth undergirding all religions, at the heart of all human striving for God.
I am not a Hindu,
nor Muslim am I.
I am this body, a play
of five elements, a drama
of the spirit dancing
with joy and sorrow.
Within our humanity and along the way of our human journey, Kabir taught, was contained all that we needed to seek the Divine. The great tragedy was that so soften people failed in their quest, because they were tied too closely to the material and sensual ways of the world, or because they clung mindlessly to their self-centered ideas of truth, rather than grasping the greater truths which life offered them. Adherents of a religion which practiced exclusivity and domination were like men who stumbled into a hole along a dark road, Kabir said, because they held a lantern in only one hand, and not the other.
Kabir believed that religious tradition could lead people to the holy. But one needed to be careful, and choose one’s teachers with caution, and, above all, use the gifts of one’s own discernment and intuition in approaching one’s truth. “Admire the diamond that can bear the hits of the hammer,” he wrote: listen to those teachers whose words can bear the slings and arrows of real life.
Likewise, not all people would be sympathetic to the spiritual search:
“Don’t open your diamonds in a vegetable market,” Kabir wrote. “Instead, tie them in a bundle, and keep them in your heart, and go your own way.” Uncover your deeper truths only in the presence of those soulmates and kindred spirits who will grasp their true worth.
The small ruby everyone wants has fallen out onto the road.
Some think it is east of us, some west of us.
Some say, ‘among primitive earth rocks’
Others ‘in deep waters’.
Kabir’s instinct told him it was inside and what it was worth.
And he wrapped it up carefully in his heart cloth.
There, in the deep vault of our hearts, the truth of sahaj can never be taken away or destroyed. To Kabir, sahaj represented a state of perfect balance, where one is closest to God. He describes sahaj in these words:
Where there is neither sea nor rains,
Nor sun nor shade;
Where there is neither creation
Where prevails neither life nor death,
Nor pain nor pleasure,
Beyond the state of meditation and trance;
Beyond words, O friend,
Is that unique state of sahaj.
It can be neither weighed
Is neither heavy nor light;
It has no upper regions
Nor lower ones;
It knows not the dawn of day
nor the gloom of night;
Where there is neither wind
Nor water, nor fire,
There abides the perfect Master.
It is inaccessible,
It is, and it will ever be;
Attain it through the Master’s grace.
Sayeth Kabir: I surrender myself
At the feet of my Master,
I remain absorbed
in his true company.
The true miracle of life, Kabir taught, was that this Divine Master was within every human soul. All eternity dwells within each of us. And it is as available in every breath we make, in every holy moment:
Are you looking for me [God asks]?
I am in the next seat.
My shoulder is against yours.
You will not find me in the stupas, not in Indian shrines, nor synagogues,
nor in cathedrals:
not in masses, nor ceremonies, not in legs winding around your own neck,
nor in eating nothing but vegetables.
When you really look for me, you’ll see me instantly—
you will find me in the tiniest hour of time.
Kabir says: Student, tell me, what is God?
He is the breath inside the breath.
As I said earlier, every element of Kabir’s life is cloaked in myth and mystery. It’s not surprising then, that we’re not sure, exactly, when he died. According to his most devout followers, Kabir lived to be more than 120 years old. Other historians say he died in 1448, even before his fiftieth birthday. Some historians claim he lived somewhat longer—to the age of 70 or 75, maybe a little more.
In India, custom has it that if one dies in Benares, salvation is guaranteed, and one will automatically break free from the cycle of birth and rebirth. (Indeed, even today, many Indians travel to Benares when they know they’re going to die, for exactly that purpose.)
But Kabir, in his quest for a deeper truth, always believed in turning the accepted way of the world on its heads. According to most legends, when Kabir knew that he was about to die, he decided to leave Benares, the holy city where he had spent most of his life, and his entire ministry. He chose, instead, to die in the city of Maghur, an especially poor and loathsome settlement, where, it was said, anyone who died would be reincarnated as a jackass. (It was, perhaps, Kabir’s last way of thumbing his nose at the religious establishment—and at laughing at himself.) “What difference is there,” he told his followers, “between Benares and Maghur, if God be in the heart?”
When Kabir died, it is said, Maghur’s usually dry streambed exploded into a rushing torrent of water. What was once a wasteland became a fertile plain instead. But even in death, Kabir could not unite (entirely) the fueding sides in the religious wars of his land. True to form, Muslims and Hindus argued over who should get his body. The Muslims wanted to bury it in a mighty tomb; the Hindus wanted to cremate it and cast its ashes on the holy Ganges. Finally, it was agreed that they would divide the body between them.
But when the death shroud was removed, no body remained—only a great heap of flowers. The Muslims took their half of the flowers and buried them; the Hindus burned theirs and scattered the ashes. To this day in Maghur, Kabir’s Muslim tomb stands side-by-side with the Hindu temple erected in his memory.
Both sides claimed him. Yet, he belonged to neither. He, he belonged to something much greater:
Kabir is [at peace];
Self-realization is my saddle,
In the stirrup of sahaj
I place my foot and ride
Astride the steed of my [own] mind.
Come, my steed, I’ll take you
On a trip to heaven.
If you balk
I’ll urge you on
With the gentle whip of divine love.
Says Kabir: The adept riders remain aloof from both
the Vedas and the Koran.
Would that the lesson of this holy life live as well in the heart of his country—and in the heart of our world:
As sons and daughters of the Divine, may we remain aloof from any religion that would trammel our hearts in its limiting and earthly strictures. To quote Kabir once more: “Religion devoid of love is heresy.”
And a life without love is blasphemy.