Kabir, who lived in fifteenth-century Varanasi, North India, is known as one of the great poets of Hindi literature. He is also a revered figure in religious history, an iconoclastic mystic who bore marks of both Hindu and Muslim traditions but refused to be identified with either. Stories about his life come to us as legends, most of them unverifiable. Everyone agrees that he grew up in a family of Muslim weavers and practiced the weaving craft himself. He is widely believed to have had a Hindu guru, and his tradition has many links with Hindu lore. In the early sixteenth century he was adopted as one of the exemplary devotees whose poetry was inscribed in the sacred book of the nascent Sikh religion. Meanwhile some of his admirers turned him into a divine avatar and took to worshiping him in a sect called the Kabir Panth. His own poetry subverts and criticizes religious identities and institutions, but such subversion has never stopped religions from co-opting their critics. Kabir also has a life beyond established religions, his couplets taught to school children all over India, his poems and songs appreciated by people of all classes and regions. Such people may think of themselves as religious, spiritual, secular, or atheist, but they all have their reasons for liking Kabir.
Kabir’s compositions have a uniquely powerful style, expressing his own spiritual awakening, urging others to wake up, observing delusion in individuals and society. His voice is fearless, direct, anti-authoritarian. Kabir was of a “low” social status, and most of his sectarian followers belong to communities now called Dalit (former “untouchables”). His poetry has a vivid streak of social criticism, making trenchant observations on caste prejudice, religious sectarianism, hypocrisy, arrogance, and violence. At the same time it is profoundly inward-looking. It examines the nature of mind and body, points out the tangle of delusions in which we live, urges us to wake up and cultivate consciousness. The imminence of death and the transiency of all things are frequently invoked. The journey within is permeated with the imagery of yoga--its map of a subtle body made of energy, lotus-centers, coursing breath-streams, sound and light. A key word associated with Kabir’s spiritual stance is nirgun--“no quality”-- indicating an ultimate reality that can’t be visualized in form or described in language. While invoked negatively, it conveys simultaneously emptiness and fullness.
-- Dr.Linda Hess is a scholar, writer, and a lover of Kabir. She began her travels to India in the 1960s and has been studying and translating the poetry of Kabir since the 1970s. In the current century she has also been singing it, as she has focused on oral and musical traditions of Kabir in North India. She has been an advisor to The Kabir Project since 2003 and has been an invaluable friend and resource person.She is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies at Stanford University and is Co-Director of Stanford’s Center for South Asia.
Linda Hess: http://www.kabirproject.org/profile/linda%20hess