Kashi ka Kabir
Reinterpreting a poet’s life and his times
BY PURUSHOTTAM AGRAWAL
1. The memory, the search and the vernacular sources: An
anecdote from Raju Guide’s life
Some people are quite convinced that India was a veritable
paradise on earth before the British arrived and that foreigners are
solely responsible for all our ills and problems. That is, of course,
another way of saying that we are not capable of solving these problems
any more than we are capable of creating a few of our own. Some others
however are equally convinced that the British, and the British alone,
brought some life and enlightenment to an otherwise doomed Indian society.
Both these assessments spring from the same colonial
episteme that prevents us from looking at the dynamics and problems
not just of India but of other colonised societies as well.
One cannot ‘read’ Kabir without ‘reading’ the genius of
the indigenous mind on the one hand and the impact of colonial
intervention on the other. This truth did not descend on me from the
heavens but came as a slow realisation during the long, painful and
adventurous journey in search of my own relation with Kabir.
In Kabir’s poetry, biting social criticism and delicate
personal emotion – love – coexist not as drops of oil floating on water
but as uniform and lustrous beads of water itself. His compositions
indicate a deep knowledge of the Puranic Hindu tradition, Nath
Panth and Islam. Born into a Muslim Julaha [weaver] family, he joined the
Vaishnav thinker, Ramanand, as a disciple. His constant irritation with
the Shaktas suggests a deep familiarity with the Shakta tradition
as well. In his Kabir Parchai (c. 1590), Anantdas categorically
asserts that in the beginning Kabir had been a Shakta himself: "Having
wasted a lot of time with Shaktas, he turned to Hari [god]."
Kabir was a householder who expected his god to grant him
sufficient resources to feed his family and the occasional guest but he
also spoke as a mendicant. He had some very harsh things to say about
women but adopts the persona of a woman in poetic moments of deep love and
devotion to his Ram. His anguish for the ‘outside’ world is matched by his
agony in the inner universe.
Kabir’s search leads him to the conclusion that in the
human mind, the elements of kamabhavana [sexual desire – the
agitation of love], ramabhavana [spiritual restlessness] and
samajabhavana [outrage against injustice] exist not as conflicting
forces but as elements that reinforce one another. Any claim of reading
Kabir without reading this creative coexistence of the three elements is
Kabir passed away by 1518 at the latest. In less than
fifty years Hariram Vyas was singing the praises of Kabir and his guru
Ramanand. Within a hundred years Anantdas had composed his Parchai.
Here the word ‘parchai’ does not only denote ‘parichay’
[introduction per se] but also introduces the reader to a man-miracle. It
is interesting to note that within a hundred years of his demise Kabir was
being venerated as a miraculous personality and yet the ‘modern’ mind sees
him as a failure. According to one such contemporary assessment, "he was
not courageous enough to critique the Muslim atrocities" while according
to another, "he failed to establish a new religion".
The colonial episteme has so circumscribed modern
search and research of Kabir that researchers and interpreters
condescendingly treat him as a child who has lost his way. We are told
that though he did not know it himself, Kabir was a forerunner of the
Protestant missionaries, some kind of a Sufi, a Nath Panthi, a Buddhist or
even an Ajivaka. And not knowing who he really was, he continued to see
himself as immersed in "Naradi" (i.e. Vaishnav) Bhakti – "Bhagati
Naradi magan sharira, ihi widhi bhav tare Kabira [Immersed in Naradi
devotion, Kabir is confident of transcending the world]".
And it is not Kabir alone. Modern episteme and
knowledge treat the whole of Indian society and its cultural experience as
an interface between some wily conspirators on the one hand and hopelessly
naïve people on the other. Thus we are told that this self-description as
"immersed in Naradi Bhakti" (which, incidentally, is found in the oldest
manuscripts) has been inserted in Kabir’s poetry by such conspirators.
Colonial modernity and post-modernity have elevated the
ideas of ‘conspiracy’ and ‘naïveté’ to the status of key concepts for
interpreting Indian history.
Throughout my book you will see how the relation between
‘search’ and ‘memory’ impacts on the understanding of Kabir. You will also
see that Kabir scholars have either totally ignored the vernacular sources
or have used them as native informants merely to authenticate an image of
Indian society constructed by colonial research and knowledge.
The native informant, naturally, can do nothing more than
provide the information. S/he is hardly qualified to participate in the
discourse, hardly expected to put the information in perspective. The
vernacular native informant is not allowed anywhere near the high table of
modern Kabir scholars: s/he should ‘inform’ and promptly exit the scene.
Each modern scholar may have a different reason for
treating the vernacular sources so shabbily but the end results are much
the same. It is due to this shabby treatment of vernacular sources that
poets like Kabir from those ‘stagnant medieval times’ surprise the modern
scholars. Modern assessments bemoan the ‘failure’ of those who were so
instrumental in changing the everyday practices and attitudes of their
society to a great extent. Such estimations fail to recognise that poets
like Kabir and Tukaram were both products of their times as well as
historical agents who actively contributed to the transformation of their
society and tradition. They were not oddities, strange people far ahead of
their time. If anything, ‘strange’ was that so-called medieval period
which provided Kabir and Tukaram with so many admirers and followers.
Kabir the weaver, Tukaram the farmer, Namdev the tailor,
Akha the goldsmith and Ravidas the cobbler were never marginalised in the
real life of vernacular communities but only in the academic life of
‘English-speaking’ universities. In fact, these people attracted the
attention of British administrators and scholars precisely because of the
great veneration they enjoyed. Not only the literary historian [George]
Grierson but also William Crooke, who produced an insightful survey of
Hindi-speaking areas in the late 19th century, found Kabir being venerated
and worshipped as a god.
What were the historical processes that made Kabir and
others like him so revered in the larger community? It is well known that
most Nirgun Panthis, like Kabir, were artisans and traders by vocation. So
did trade and commerce play a role in turning these sants into gods in the
minds of the people? Can you have such a large number of artisans and not
have flourishing trade and commerce?
Throughout world history the trading class has been in the
forefront of the opposition to the feudal idea of privileges and in
support of the demand for ‘fair play’. This is what led to the
democratisation of social institutions and cultural common sense. The
spread of democratic ideas has invariably been connected with the spread
of trade and commerce. Was India an exception to this historical process?
The fact of the matter is that the central characteristic of the Nirgun
Panthi sensibility – the demand for fair play in matters spiritual
and temporal – is an offshoot of the social experiences and desires of
traders and artisans. That is why these communities worshipped poets like
Kabir as gods.
The relation that modern scholarship has established with
vernacular sources, not only in the context of Kabir but in general,
brings to mind a scene from the film, Guide. As villagers reveal an
increasing respect for Raju, the guide, the village priests become
increasingly upset. In order to knock Raju off his pedestal, they confront
him with a poser in Sanskrit. Raju obviously cannot meet the challenge,
for he knows no Sanskrit. The priests are now quite excited: "What can he
say, has no Sanskrit." Raju’s reputation is at stake. He gets going in
English. Now the priests are at a loss: "What can they say, have no
Modern scholarship must realise that those "not having"
Sanskrit/Persian or English also have something to say. When we listen to
these voices carefully, we can easily see that Kabir was never treated
either as a failure or a marginal voice in his own society and tradition.
We can also see that Kabir was not speaking to a decadent and stagnant
community that was waiting on colonial modernity for its deliverance. It
was a society heading towards its own modernity by transforming its
tradition. Kabir and Tukaram seem ‘like moderns’ not because they were far
ahead of their time but because their times were witnessing the emergence
of modernity in Indian history.
You will notice in this book that my ideas of Kabir’s
times and of the Indian cultural experience as a whole are rather
different. The reason is simple. For years now I have been trying to
listen as well to those who speak neither Sanskrit nor Persian nor
2. ‘Behold this wonder’: modern poet in medieval times
Once upon a time, there was a great thinker and reformer.
He was convinced of the congenitally evil and deceitful nature of the
Jews. He actually authored a treatise, On the Jews and Their Lies,
wherein he castigates ‘his’ people: "Shame on you, these vile Jews are
still alive and kicking… Burn the scriptures and synagogues of these
vermin, drive them away from our beautiful land or force them into
One is talking here not of Hitler but of Martin Luther
(1483-1546), the father of Protestant Reformation and a junior
contemporary of Kabir. British scholars were very fond of comparing him
with Kabir; some even described Kabir as an "Indian Luther". On the
Jews and Their Lies is not an outburst of an immature young man. It
was written by Luther in 1543, in his advanced years, when he was already
venerated as the originator of the Protestant Reformation and the
spiritual and temporal guide of the German lords. His anti-Semitism
inspired Hitler greatly. In Luther’s time the cultural spectacle of
book-burning was also quite popular in Europe. The Basel city council had
decided to burn the Latin translation of the Koran but rescinded its order
after Luther intervened, arguing that knowledge of the Koran would
highlight the "glory of Christ, the good of Christendom, the disadvantage
of Muslims and the vexation of the devil."1
The practice of book-burning carried on for several
centuries and was exported to other parts of the world as Catholic and
Protestant missionaries vied with one another in saving heathen souls as
well as burning books. Not even the word of god was spared in this
competition. Lutheran Protestants working in South India charged the
Jesuit Catholics with hunting down and burning copies of a Tamil version
of the Bible that they had published.2 This competition amongst the pious
led to Michael Servetus (burnt at the stake in 1553) being bestowed with
the "dubious honour that Protestants in Geneva burned him and his books in
reality, and Catholics in France in effigy."3
Early modern Europe burnt alive around one hundred
thousand women between 1480 and 1700. The horrors of the ‘holy’
Inquisition are only too well known. Its ‘golden age’ coincided with the
early modern period of European history. The same period saw the
notoriously intolerant Feroz Tughlaq and Aurangzeb ruling in India. But
neither of them could even conceive of establishing an institution devoted
solely to the persecution and killing of heretics.
A distinction is generally made between modernity and
enlightenment. The latter, it is said, follows the former. Before
modernity, some individuals may achieve a level of enlightenment in spite
of general backwardness and ignorance but they are considered to be ahead
of their time. The general dissemination of enlightened values is possible
only after a society starts modernising itself. Early modernity started in
Europe during the 15th century and the Enlightenment began in the 17th. It
is in this sense that people like Kabir, Tukaram and Akbar are described
as "ahead of their time and closer to the modern i.e. enlightened mind".
We, the ‘moderns’, read Kabir and Tukaram with some surprise, as they seem
to provide a foretaste of typically modern existential anxieties and
The question however is whether or not such concerns and
anxieties relate to the times of Kabir and Tukaram. Do they or do they not
reflect the ‘mood’ of their own times? Were they simply ahead of their
time or did they not only reflect but also participate in the contemporary
churning of ideas? How is it that their poetry was not only widely
appreciated but also, in the case of Kabir at least, inspired many others
to compose similar poems in his name? Historically speaking, the most
important question would be: what was the role of trade and commerce in
During the period under consideration vernacular thinkers
like Sarhapa and Kabir were making a blistering critique of Brahmin
hegemony or ‘Manuwad’. More importantly, even the Dharmashastra
scholars in Sanskrit, responding to the changed social configurations
brought about by the spread of commerce, were reinterpreting the
Dharmashastra. Deval was categorical in his opinion: "So far as commerce
is concerned, the real practices and conventions of trade are to be given
precedence over the hundreds of scriptural instructions, even if the
instructions are from Manu himself."4
Manu prescribed very light penalties for Brahmin
offenders. According to him, under no circumstances was a Brahmin culprit
to be awarded capital punishment. In our own period, Hardutt, commenting
on Gautama’s Dharmasutra, opines that not all those who were born
Brahmin but only a Brahmin who scrupulously observed all the rules and
rituals may be granted some concessions. Chandeswar, the author of
Vivada Ratnakara, introduces such stringent conditions for clemency
towards Brahmins as to make any special treatment virtually impossible.
According to him, the exemption from capital punishment can be made
available only to a Brahmin who is well versed in the Vedas, Vedangas,
logic and history and who diligently performs the six daily rituals.
Moreover, even such a Brahmin is to be spared capital punishment only if
the offence was unintentional. A deliberate offender must be treated
harshly even if he is a model Brahmin. In contrast, the harshest
punishment that Manu prescribed for even an illiterate Brahmin was
banishment and this did not even entail the confiscation of his property.5
Interestingly, both the votaries of bhartiyata [Indianness]
and the revolutionaries choose to skip over this historical evolution.
Both share the myth of an ‘eternal’ or frozen India. Both the admirers of
Manu and his sworn enemies ignore the fact that Indian society had at that
time a political economy of its own which continued to evolve in history.
India was ‘within’ history even before the British arrived. Manu, the
mythological harbinger of Brahmin supremacy, had been so marginalised by
Kabir’s time that Kabir did not even bother to attack him by name.
The glory of Manu was reincarnated in the 18th century,
courtesy of [Governor General] Warren Hastings, when a committee of 11
Brahmins ‘codified’ Hindu law under the chairmanship of the orientalist,
Nathaniel Halhed. Halhed Sahib knew Persian but not Sanskrit. So the
codified Hindu law in Sanskrit was first rendered into spoken Bengali,
then into Persian for the sahib to read, who then rendered it into English
for the convenience of his fellow administrators. And undergoing so many
translations, the text of Hindu law had naturally been somewhat corrupted.
William Jones [the English philologist] was very unhappy
with the corrupted text. But, according to him, the corruption sprang not
from the strange method of codification but from the morally corrupt
nature of the 11 pandits. [Historical anthropologist] Nicholas Dirks
points out that both in this context as well as others, the colonial
knowledge system used to ‘translate’ the problems arising out of
linguistic and cultural ignorance into the ‘infirmities and corruption’ of
Anyway, Jones Sahib chose his own, better pandits and
prepared an ‘authentic’ text of Hindu law. This text of the Manu Smriti
was published in 1794 under the title Institutes of Hindu Law: Or, The
Ordinances of Manu. Now, [Governor General] Lord Cornwallis was
confident that this text prepared with the help of Pandit Jagannath
Tarkapanchanan would be easily accepted by the Hindus. Sir John Shore
[Cornwallis’s successor] was thrilled that Brahmin pandits had ‘created’
the Hindu law under the guidance of the British.7
This was a rather novel ‘experiment’ in governing the
natives in accordance with their own laws, where the natives’ ‘own laws’
were ‘given’ by the colonial power itself. The natives could hardly be
expected to play a role other than that of the ‘native informant’. A
couplet from Akbar Allahabadi’s poem ‘in praise of’ the ‘New’ Delhi built
by the British comes to mind:
"Auz-e-waqt mulaki unka, Charkh-e-haft tabaki unka
Mehfil unki saki unka, aankhen meri baki unka
[Time is on their side, the heavens dote on them/ The
tavern is theirs and so is the taverner, I only have eyes to behold the
The year 1794 can be described as the year of the rebirth
of Manuwad. The codification of Hindu law undertaken by the colonial power
gave Manu Smriti its unprecedented centrality and importance. Until then –
before and after the Kabir era – it was just one of the many Smritis, a
bit more respected, of course, but was never treated as the Smriti.
Its injunctions were never read as binding in all circumstances, in all
parts of the country. The colonial power and its "official Brahmins" (to
use Nicholas Dirks’s phrase) chose to read this normative text as if it
were describing actual practices. In the colonial and post-colonial
knowledge systems, fantasies in the name of Manu were taken as hard facts
of Indian history. Some saw Manu as the ‘ideal’ of the Hindu social system
while others theorised on the basis of the Manu Smriti that before the
arrival of the British, India was run solely on the basis of fear and
If this were the way to read a normative text, we must
necessarily assume that with the American Declaration of Independence in
1776, all men "created equal by god" began to enjoy equality in actual
practice. As we all know, the US was an apartheid-practising society
until the mid-20th century. Be it the Manu Smriti or the declaration or
Constitution of any country, such normative texts must not be read
as some kind of narrative of real-life everyday practices. Such texts can
only be read along with accounts of lived experience and it is only such a
reading that can give us an idea of the actual role and importance of the
Manu Smriti or any other text before, during and after Kabir’s time. That
is in fact how the history of Europe is written and read but in the case
of the non-western world, it is a different matter altogether.
While writing the history of Europe, the modern is
distinguished from the medieval on the basis of a new understanding of the
changed relation between individual, society and cosmos, of birth-related
parameters of social hierarchy being replaced by role-related ones. As the
spread of commerce leads to the emergence of new social groups and new
intellectuals, the authority of religion is challenged. The rising number
and increasing influence of traders provides a wider and sustainable
social basis for the popular discontent against feudal privileges. The
demand to replace these with the practice of fair play becomes
increasingly vocal. It is then that traders and artisans can hear echoes
of their own temporal demands in the spiritual yearnings of the sadhaks
[seekers] of mystical, transcendental liberation and equality. The voices
of social dissent and protest evolve into social movements and as a result
of this dynamics, a public sphere, distinct from the private and official
spheres, is created.
Were all these events confined to Europe during the
‘vernacular millennium’ or did the rest of the globe also experience
something similar around the same time? In Indian history the
vernacularisation of intellectual life, the secularisation of the
Dharmashastra and the evolution of the public sphere of Bhakti are closely
interrelated. This interrelation leads to the elevation of Kabir the
weaver to the status of a guru. In this changed social reality, Sarvajit,
the arrogant Brahmin scholar from South India, Virsingh Baghel and Bijli
Khan, influential lords from Central India, and Pipa, a raja from the
western parts, become humble disciples of the ‘illiterate’, ‘low-born’
Julaha – Kabir.
Surprisingly, little notice is taken of the profound
historical and social implications of such telling instances whereby the
feudal parameters of social hierarchy and respectability were replaced by
new ones. Instead of being recognised as indicators of historical
evolution with far-reaching implications, these are read merely as minor
details in the narrative of Kabir being ‘ahead of his time’. The question
is, was Kabir alone ahead of his time? Were the Brahmins and rajas who
chose Kabir the weaver as guru even further ahead of their time?
Of course, there were crucial differences between early
modern Europe and India. Whereas in Europe you had to seek permission from
the church to do so much as breathe, India had no comparable institution.
Hence, unlike Europe, India did not witness a sharp division between the
‘religious’ and the ‘secular’. Even in the Muslim world, the caliphate did
not enjoy churchlike powers. While the kings in Europe could not even
marry without clearance from Rome, the Mughal emperors of India didn’t
give a hoot about the khalifa.
Sir Jack Goody, a scholar of comparative history, reminds
his European readers: "We would never have reached a situation where an
Enlightenment in this sense had to take place, had we not been converted
to a single, dominant, monotheistic religion. In Europe, that religion
tried to regulate the people’s way of life in a very radical manner. In
every village, a costly church was erected, a custodian appointed… There
was little enough space for the secular."8
The centrality of religion continues to dictate European
mores in many ways even today. The king of England is the ‘protector’ of
the Anglican church, the US president takes the oath of office on the
Bible, US bills carry the legend, "In God We Trust", divinity schools
coexist alongside radical schools of social and natural sciences on the
most progressive university campuses. And yet, ironically enough,
sometimes with derision and sometimes condescendingly, scholars from the
western world find their societies very secular and the rest of the world
too religious. Even more interesting is the non-western propensity to
internalise such western descriptions of their own societies. To put it
simply, "They define us and we succumb to the definitions."
The indigenous modernity of any society indicates a
rupture in the continuity of tradition while colonial modernity leads to a
fundamental dissociation of social sensibility. The intelligentsia born of
this dissociation first locates itself in the tradition of Europe – from
‘ancient’ to ‘modern’ – and only then attempts to ‘search’ or invent the
‘tradition’ of its own society. The history of political thought
invariably begins with Plato. It is simply forgotten that other societies
must have also given some thought to the origin and dynamics of state. The
ideas of the western, Protestant thinker, Max Weber, on bureaucracy are
studied and taught but no one bothers to study the ideas of the ancient
Chinese who invented this institution.
This dissociation or dislocation of sensibility leads to a
very insubstantial and arbitrary sense of tradition in the modern mind.
Ignoring the totality of the dynamics of the tradition, all the ‘desired’
elements are attributed to it while anything ‘embarrassing’ is dismissed
as a pernicious foreign influence. Some people can only see the Kama
Sutra and Khajuraho in Hindu tradition while to some others the same
tradition resembles a monastery of celibates. The simple fact that the
ideas of erotica, renunciation and the concerns of everyday life were
integral parts of the same whole is simply overlooked by the modern
beholder or inventor of the Hindu tradition.
It is exactly a hundred years now since Tagore in his
Gora and Gandhi in his Hind Swaraj sought to free the colonised
mind from such diffidence.
This diffidence is a mirror image of the arrogance and
condescension that the typical European mind nurtures with reference to
non-western traditions and peoples. The African political scientist
Achille Mbembe puts the issue succinctly:
"On key matters, the Hegelian, post-Hegelian and Weberian
traditions, philosophies of action and philosophies of deconstruction
derived from Nietzsche and Heidegger share the representation of
distinction between the West and other historical human forms as largely
the way the individual in the West has gradually freed him/herself from
the sway of traditions and attained an autonomous capacity to conceive, in
here and now, the definitions of norms and their free formulation by
individual, rational wills. These traditions also share, to varying
degrees, the assumption that compared to the West, other societies are
primitive, simple or traditional in that, in them the weight of the past
determines the individual behaviour and limits the area of choice – as it
were, a priori. The formulation of norms in these later societies has
nothing to do with reasoned public deliberation, since the setting of
norms by a process of argument is a specific invention of modern Europe."9
The issue of indigenous modernity in India has become
entangled with the question of ‘potentialities of capitalism’ in
pre-colonial India. The argument is that the idea of indigenous modernity
makes sense only if you can prove the potential of capitalism before the
British Raj. This is indeed quite interesting. Nobody finds anything
incongruous in the sequence of modern ideas, commerce, capitalism and
industrialisation in European history but India is expected to go the
other way round. It must first prove the potential of capitalism before
the idea of modernity is even discussed. In the case of Europe, modernity
is spotted in challenges to the church and in the spread of commerce but
in the case of non-European societies, these parameters are discarded.
The Roman Catholic church used to issue ‘indulgences’
(assurances on behalf of god that you will not suffer in hell or in limbo)
on payment of a suitable fee. Luther wrote to Rome requesting the
discontinuation of this practice but the church simply ignored the
request. This prompted Luther to ‘publish’ his ‘95 Theses’ by pasting
these on the door of the church in his native Wittenberg. It is thus that
he came to be known as the pioneer of ‘early modernity’.
His contemporary, Kabir, was not so fortunate even though,
unlike Luther, Kabir did not view any community as vermin and who, rather
than limiting himself to the criticism of a few religious practices and
institutions, attempted to envision a spirituality outside the realm of
It is also interesting to note that the prevalence of
widespread commerce in pre-British India is ‘seen’ by every historian. The
historians know that this commerce was conducted through promissory notes,
commission agents, putting-out systems, ‘rationally’ written agreements
and account books and with mechanisms in place to ensure compliance with
the agreements and promises. They also see the existence of long-term
investments and ‘businessman’s ethics’ which, unlike the feudal idea of ‘honour’,
gave precedence to prudence over ostentatious living. So, contrary to what
Weber believed, merchant’s ethics could also have stemmed from sources
other than Protestant dogma.
And this merchant’s ethics brought far-reaching changes in
social attitudes and practices. Kabir’s was not a society based on the
jajmani [patronage] system, dominated solely by Brahmins. Traders and
artisans were quite powerful and influential and there was an ongoing
tussle between the parasitic priests and the traders. Kabir’s sharp attack
on the priests of all religions and his popularity amongst the traders and
artisans was a natural offshoot of this tussle. Jack Goody rightly notes
in his study, The East in the West: "Of their [Banias and
traders] importance there can be no doubt, whatever the Brahmin ideology
had to say"10 (emphasis added).
Although of Hindu provenance, the ideology of Varnashrama
was used by Muslim and Christian (British) rulers to their advantage. As a
matter of fact, the British deliberately destroyed India’s commerce and
thus weakened the social base for the rejection of Varnashrama ideology.
It is important to note that not only Kabir but most of those who rejected
this casteist ideology had some connection with trade and commerce. The
author of the famed autobiography, Ardhakathanak [A Half Story],
the jewel merchant, Banarasidas, was also the founder of the anti-Varnashrama
sect, Adhyatma Panth. In fact, Kabir himself referred to his god as a
Bania: "Sai mera Bania sahaj kare vyapar [My Lord is a Bania who
deals in the innate]."
The supposed Hindu taboo on sea voyage is often cited as
incontrovertible proof of the stagnant, insular ‘social attitudes’ in pre-colonised
India. It is also used to argue that in spite of commerce, there was
hardly any change in the social and cultural practices of Indians. It is
suggested that only foreigners, or Indian Muslims at best, were engaged in
overseas trade while Hindu traders remained ‘genetically’ backward and
The Marwari Banias are considered to be one of the most
conservative and insular communities even today. In the century of Kabir
however, Marwaris had a thriving business as far away as Russia. By the
17th century they had a colony of their own in the city of Astrakhan on
the banks of the Volga. They had their own temples, employed Brahmin
priests and occasionally also invited sadhus, Jain munis and Sikh granthis
from India. They dealt in jewels, textiles, spices and moneylending and
were so influential in the corridors of power that the tsar had instructed
the local governor to ensure a smooth religious and cultural life for
these ‘cow-worshippers’ who were sometimes seen as ‘offending’ the
sensibility of ‘true’ Christians by acts such as burning their dead. In
order to fulfil their ritual and cultural needs, these Marwari Banias even
consecrated the Volga, indeed turned it into their local Ganga, by pouring
some gangajal into it.11
The fact of the matter is that the taboo on sea voyage was
confined to some communities and regions. However, colonial knowledge
‘convinced’ the Indians that this had been an ‘integral’ part of their
The historian Carlo Ginzburg quotes [French historian]
Lucien Febvre: "To describe what one sees is one thing but to see what
must be described, that is the hard part."12
Sadly, so far as the historiography of India is concerned,
even that which can be clearly seen is not described, to say nothing of
seeing "what must be described". Kabir was ‘worshipped’ as a god, his
followers including the rich and famous of the time. The tribal Gonds
ruled for centuries in the Central Indian state of Mandla while Brahmins
sang their praises. These are ‘known facts’. How then can it also be
‘true’ that in so-called medieval India, none but the Brahmins were
venerated and respected? How can it be true that in pre-colonised India,
there was only jajmani and no political economy?
The fact is that the British Raj marked not the beginning
of modernity in Indian society but the end of its indigenous, vernacular
modernity. This led to the dissociation of sensibility and the resultant
diffidence in the Indian mind. Which civilised and modern society could
even imagine the existence of schools where children are fined for
speaking their mother tongue? We all know that "it happens only in India".
The British certainly did not invent caste but the credit
for inventing the myths of caste hierarchy and the contention that
considerations of ‘racial purity’ made India immune to political economy
and the spread of commerce certainly goes to them. The invention of these
myths was necessary to sustain the fiction of the ‘progressive’ role being
played by the Raj in bringing a frozen society into contact with the warm
‘mainstream’ of historical progress.
Indian society was never an ‘otherworldly’ society,
limited to contemplating great abstractions, nor was it always immersed in
ahimsa and compassion. The warmongering, battle-ready and ‘politicised’
sadhus are not a phenomenon confined to the 20th and 21st centuries. In
Kabir’s period too there were frequent and bloody battles between the
Shaiva sanyasis and the Vaishnavs. These battles were rooted in the
conflict over economic and symbolic resources. Apart from their stake in
the income from places of pilgrimage and from patrons, both the sanyasis
and the Vaishnavs were also engaged in the moneylending business. In
addition to these temporal arenas of conflict, ‘symbolic’ conflict was
centred on the ‘right to renunciation’. The Shaiva sanyasis granted this
right only to the Brahmins while according to the Vaishnavs, anyone could
opt for renunciation, irrespective of caste, and they were willing to take
up arms to defend this right.
Kabir’s India was negotiating its way towards its own
modernity, a negotiation that involved painful conflicts as well as the
evolution of ‘reasoned’ norms through a process of argument. This process
led to the creation of the public sphere of Bhakti.
3. The public sphere of Bhakti
Caste was by no means a democratic system. If it had been,
Kabir would not have found its criticism necessary. But it was not a
racist system either. No doubt there was stagnation in Varnashrama-oriented
thinking but not in the thought patterns of the whole of Indian society.
The dynamics informing caste mobility flew in the face of the Varnashrama
fantasies of perpetual domination. Poets like Kabir, Pipa, Meera and
Ravidas were in fact one step ahead, as they were already insisting on the
idea of individual dignity and equality in all matters and practices. All
this took place in the public sphere of Bhakti.
According to [German sociologist and philosopher] Jürgen
Habermas, secularity is an inevitable ingredient of the idea of the public
sphere. From this viewpoint, the idea of Bhakti as a public sphere might
sound a bit odd. But, firstly, the ‘totally’ secular picture, even of
European modernity, is nothing but a myth. Secondly, India could not have
had a Europe-like rupture between the religious and the secular, since
religion was not as widespread. Pre-colonial India, unlike Europe, was not
really a religious (should we say dharmapran?!) society. India had
to have a Europe-like church in order to have a Europe-like ‘secularity’.
Instead of looking for an Indian version of the European public sphere and
secularity, one should take note of the fact that Kabir, Pipa and Meera
were not translating the ‘word of god’ into the vernacular. Rather, they
were busy elevating the vernacular to the status of the language of god.
There are only two universal prerequisites for the public
sphere. One, it must have an existence autonomous from the private and
official spheres. Two, it must be based on everyone’s access to
information and knowledge. These two essentials define the poetic
sensibilities of the various sants in any case. More importantly, they
define the organisational structures and interface between the various
Bhakti sects. The late 19th century administrator, William Crooke,
recognised the cultural role of the Vaishnav sects of the ‘lower castes’
quite correctly: "to establish the more intellectual and more sacred forms
of public worship and to actively oppose the ideas and practices of the
This tradition was passed down from the time of Kabir,
whose contemporary admirer, Pipa, paying back the upholders of Brahmin
hegemony in their own coin, bracketed the idea of Kaliyug with this
hegemony itself. "Had Kabir not been there, the Kaliyug in collusion with
dominant ideas would have taken the world to hell," said Pipa.
And Tulsidas, outraged by such talk, did not mince his
words while condemning the opponents of brahmanical ideology: "These days
nobody talks of anything but knowledge of the Brahma (i.e. the godhead)
and Brahmins even murder the guru for a pittance. The Sudras dare the
Brahmins and scold them, saying we are your equals, as the Brahmin is the
one who knows the Brahma. Such people talk in sakhis, dohas
and anecdotes. In this Kaliyug the so-called bhagats go on
denouncing the Vedas and the Puranas" (dohavali 552-554).
Note the radically opposite senses in which Tulsidas and
Pipa use the same term – Kaliyug. This opposition was part of the
larger debates and arguments taking place in the public sphere of Bhakti
through institutions like panths, temples, maths, and the
satsangs [sacred gatherings]. Tulsidas was naturally upset with those
who were rejecting the ‘age-old’ ideas of the Varnashrama but could do
little about it, as the rising class of traders and artisans identified
more with people like Kabir who imagined their god and themselves through
terms, metaphors and idioms drawn from the daily life of trade and
4. The weaver from Kashi
Indian society did, of course, have its problems and
unresolved issues but as a result of the dissociation of sensibility
induced by colonial modernity, modern studies of Kabir have scarcely
bothered to explore these and place Kabir in their context. The scholars
have instead been asking questions such as whether Kabir actually
represented the ‘natural’ evolution of the Indian tradition of Bhakti or
whether his bhakti was an offshoot of ‘foreign’ (read Islamic)
influences. Assertions have been made that "Islam left hardly any impact
on the Bhakti sensibility." Kabir’s Muslim parentage has been doubted
because of his knowledge of Hindu traditions. And due to a similar
knowledge of the Nath Panthi traditions, his family is supposed to have
followed in some way the practices of the Nath Panth.
All these assertions and queries appropriate for 19th-20th
century India are being projected backwards into 15th-16th century India.
It is conveniently forgotten that as late as the 18th century, Dariya
Sahib (of Bihar), who was a Muslim tailor, chose to pen his own version of
the Nirgun Ramayana under the title Gyan Ratan, following
exactly the forms and style of Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas. Around
the same time Marco della Tomba, an Italian missionary settled in North
Bihar, was translating parts of the Ramcharitmanas,
describing it as the "Kabiristi" Ramayana simply because he
was introduced to this text by the Kabir Panthis. And in the 20th century
the French scholar of Kabir, Charlotte Vaudeville, was quite confidently
telling her readers that this "Kabiristi" Ramayana
translated by Tomba was actually a Buddhist version of the Ram story in
which Ram appears not as a warrior but as a mendicant.14
Ironically enough, Tomba had chosen to translate the ‘Lanka Kanda’
of Tulsidas’s text and ordinary readers know how Ram appears there.
Obviously, one cannot be too sure of the great scholars and experts on
Indian history and culture!
Anantdas says in the very first stanza of his Kabir
Parchai: "There was a Julaha living in Kashi who followed the customs
of the devotees of Hari. Earlier, he spent many days among the worshippers
of the goddess; afterwards he spent time praising the virtues of Hari."
The third stanza tells us: "Kabir said: ‘I belong to a
Muslim caste. How can I obtain these prayer beads?’ The inner voice said
to him: ‘Take an initiation from Ramanand’."
And then the seventh stanza informs us of the lamentations
of his family and community: "His own family members came together and
lamented: ‘He has gotten confused. Why has he abandoned the customs of his
own home where Mecca and Medina, the Muslim creed, fasting during Ramadan
and prayers to Allah are our way of worship?’"15
Anantdas composed similar parchais of Ravidas, Pipa,
Angad and Trilochan. Although he wrote in the idiom of miracles, he wrote
about the lives of ‘ordinary’ humans, not divine figures. This was quite
congruent with the emerging early modern sensibility. Similarly, he
credited Namdev (only two centuries before him) with being the ‘first’
bhakta in this Kaliyug.
It has been argued in modern Kabir scholarship that
Kabir’s family were only recent converts to Islam. Well, Kabir was not
born into a family of Chughtai Mughals or Seljuk Turks at any rate. People
from his social strata were ‘recent converts’ in any case and we have no
clue to the measure of this recentness. It may have been just one
generation earlier or maybe five. Who knows? All we know from the evidence
of both Ravidas and Pipa is that in Kabir’s family "Id and Bakri Id were
observed and the cow was slaughtered."16
The Kabir Panth was a community of traders and artisans.
The founder of the panth – Dharmdas – belonged to the ‘lower rung’
of the Vaishya jati. Today his descendants and the bulk of his
followers would be known as OBCs. Their economic condition had improved
but they still lacked symbolic capital. The attempts to create such
capital resulted in the creation of the Bhakti public sphere.
In the 19th century this public sphere had an interface
with the emerging, sharply defined and mutually exclusive identities of
Hindu and Muslim. At the same time, the ‘print culture’ had arrived in a
big way. Many Kabir Panthi texts started appearing in print. Swami
Parmanand’s Kabir Manshur (first published in Urdu in 1887) was one
such text. This was published in Ferozepur, Punjab, where the air was
particularly thick with sharp exchanges between the Arya Samajis and the
Tablighis. Everyone was asked, as it were, to clearly identify him/herself
as Hindu or Muslim. This choice was projected back on Kabir as well and
Kabir Manshur ‘proved’ that he was not a Muslim in a rather forceful
"After some time, all the Julahas gathered and asked Niru
[Kabir’s father] to get his son circumcised in accordance with the
commands and traditions of the prophet of Islam. A barber was duly
summoned and he along with his knife reached the child, Kabir. Lo and
behold, the child showed five penises to the barber and said, ‘Cut
whichever you like.’ On seeing this arrangement, the terrified barber took
flight and Kabir was spared the circumcision."17
Some scholars indulge in all manner of intellectual
jugglery to prove that Kabir was not a Muslim. They should ‘see’ and
‘show’ the ‘arrangement’ depicted by Swami Parmanand. It would ‘prove’
their point without expending too much energy and effort. Others take
pains to prove that Kabir was in fact a Nath Panthi or a Sufi. One wonders
how Kabir, who constantly describes himself as a ‘Julaha’ and, alluding
with irony to the then prevalent prejudices, sometimes even as ‘vile’ [kamina],
simply forgot to mention the ‘fact’ of his being a Nath or a Sufi.
Similarly, some are very fond of projecting Kabir as an
‘apostle’ of Hindu-Muslim unity. Kabir in his poetry and in legends shows
no inclination towards the kind of Hindu-Muslim unity that is spoken of
today. Anantdas reports in detail how ‘representatives’ of Hindus and
Muslims from Kashi forged unity not because of Kabir’s poetry but
against it and approached the court of Sikandar Lodi, who was
visiting Kashi. Their complaint was fundamental: Kabir has "corrupted
everyone. He has separated himself from both the Hindus and the Muslims."
To put it in the idiom of our times, Kabir was ‘guilty’ of ‘hurting
religious sentiments’. The crucial concern of these representatives was
that "no one respects us as long as this Julaha remains in Kashi."18
The emperor interrogated and tortured Kabir but was
ultimately convinced by the miraculous purity of Kabir’s heart and
purpose: "Kabir, your Ram is the true god. Just this once, please save my
life! The kazis and mullahs do not understand the inner truth. The creator
has accepted your word."19
Sikandar offered him several gifts which, naturally, Kabir
politely declined and then walked back to his abode, followed by his Ram!
As the end drew near, Kabir decided to move to Maghar in
order to debunk the belief that dying in Kashi guaranteed entry into
heaven. But once in Maghar, he missed his Kashi, as it was not just a
‘holy’ city to him but his own city, the city of his childhood pranks and
youthful adventures, the city of his friends and family, the city of his
dreams, which now haunted him. Kabir describes his feelings towards his
city in a poignant poem (collected in Adi Granth, 1604 CE) that is
generally ignored by his progressive and radical admirers, for it is
likely to ‘deconstruct’ the unidimensional, ‘progressive’ image of Kabir
that they have so diligently constructed.
Kabir’s final departure was as dramatic as the rest of his
life. He talked of the futility of the religious divide all his life but
his ‘admirers’ fought over his body to settle the question: cremation or
burial? Kabir had probably foreseen this drama, as one of his poems
"Hindu kahen hum hi le jaaron, Turk kahen mor pir
Dou aaye dinan main main jhagdein, dekhein hans Kabir
[The Hindu wants to burn my body but the Muslim resists:
‘How can you do this to my pir?’/ The followers of both religions quarrel
as Kabir the swan looks on]" (Bijak, pada 90).
Since Kabir had foreseen his followers’ enthusiasm
regarding the ‘treatment’ his dead body should receive, he took care to
make ‘suitable arrangements’. How did he feel as he made these
arrangements? Much like Gandhi perhaps, who along with a few friends and
comrades was ‘fast asleep’ at Haidari Mansion in Kolkata on the night of
the 14th and 15th of August 1947 when India was "awakening to the dawn of
Kabir himself called for some flowers, spread them over
the sheet, wrapped himself up, asked his followers to sing bhajans and
quietly ‘left’. It is unclear whether he left the world itself at that
very moment or whether he left the world of his followers who were now
free to divide, cremate and bury the flowers. Kabir had nothing to do with
all this; he was on his way, alone. Or, more correctly, with his
sadhana [spiritual endeavour], his poetry and his loneliness.
Kabir says: "I cry for this world, I am not sure if
somebody will cry for me, maybe he who knows the Sabad [Word] will
cry for me."
Without a doubt. As long as there are words, he who knows
the Word will certainly cry for Kabir – the Sabad sadhak. n
(Translated by Javed Anand.)
(Purushottam Agrawal, former chairperson of the Centre of
Indian Languages, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, is currently a
member of the Union Public Service Commission of India. The above article
is excerpted from his recent book, Akath Kahani Prem Ki: Kabir ki
Kavita aur Unka Samay [The Untellable Tale of Love: Kabir’s Poetry and His
Times], published by Rajkamal Prakashan, New Delhi, in 2009.)
1 Hans J. Hillerbrand, ‘On Book Burnings and Book
Burners: Reflections on the Power (and Powerlessness) of Ideas’,
Journal of the American Academy of Religion (Vol. 74, No. 3,
September 2006), Atlanta, ed. Charles Matthews, p. 598.
2 Kate Teltscher, India Inscribed: European and British
Writing on India 1600-1800, Oxford University Press, New Delhi,
1997, p. 101.
3 Hans J. Hillerbrand, op. cit., p. 600.
4 Ashutosh Dayal Mathur, Medieval Hindu Law: Historical
Evolution and Enlightened Rebellion, Oxford University Press,
New Delhi, 2007, p. 14.
5 Ibid, p. 188.
6 Nicholas B. Dirks, The Scandal of Empire: India and
the Creation of Imperial Britain, Permanent Black, New Delhi,
2006, p. 229.
7 Kate Teltscher, op. cit., pp.199-200.
8 Jack Goody, The Theft of History, Cambridge
University Press, Cambridge, 2006, p. 242.
9 Achille Mbembe, On the Postcolony,
University of California Press, Berkeley, 2001, pp. 10-11.
10 Jack Goody, The East in the West,
Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996, p. 94.
11 The Encyclopedia of the Indian Diaspora,
ed. Brij V. Lal, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006, pp. 364-365.
12 Carlo Ginzburg, The Judge and the Historian:
Marginal Notes on a Late-Twentieth-Century Miscarriage of Justice,
tr. Antony Shugaar, Verso, London, 1999, p. 36.
13 William Crooke, The Tribes and castes of the North
western India, first published, 1896, reprint, Cosmo
Publications, Delhi, 1975, Vol. I, Preface, p. CLXIX.
14 Charlotte Vaudeville, A Weaver Named Kabir: Selected
Verses with a Detailed Biographical and Historical Introduction,
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1993, p. 15.
15 David N. Lorenzen, Kabir Legends and Ananta-Das’s
Kabir Parachai, Sri Satguru Publications, Delhi, 1992, pp.
16 Shahabuddin Iraqi, The Sarbangi of Rajjabdas,
Granthayan, Aligarh, 1985, p. 173; and Shukdev Singh, Raidas Bani,
Radhakrishna Prakashan, New Delhi, p. 229.
17 Kabir Manshur, reprint, Venkateshwar Press,
Mumbai, 2001, pp. 268-269.
18 David N. Lorenzen, op. cit., pp. 107-108.
19 Ibid, p. 113.