January 2010 
Year 16    No.147
Cover Story

Kashi ka Kabir

Reinterpreting a poet’s life and his times


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 simply futile.

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 English."

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 English.

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 slavery."

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 concerns.

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 this churning?

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 the colonised.6

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 spectacle]."

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 persecution.

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 organised religion.

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 ‘insular’.

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 pan-Indian tradition.

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 Brahmin hegemony."13

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 commerce.

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 way:

"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 suggests:

"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 freedom".

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. 93-94.

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.


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