“Mat kar maya ko ahankar, mat kar kaya ko ghamand, kaya gaar se kaachi,” (Don’t take pride in your wealth, nor in your body, for this body is weaker than the mud upon the potter’s wheel). These words of caution were sung to his disciple Bhavani Nath by none other than the legendary weaver/poet/saint Kabir in the 15th century. Effortlessly melding strident socio-political commentary with transcendent spiritual experience, Kabir sang out loud and bold in the colloquial vernacular of his day, cutting across all barriers of caste, creed, religion and societal status. His message is equally, and perhaps even more, relevant today — as evidenced by a sudden resurgence of interest in his work and, dare we say, in his popularity.
In fact, Kabir has become quite fashionable these days, with diverse segments staking claim to his message, resulting in some hilarious situations. In numerous conversations with people across the country as well as abroad, some intriguing aspects of how Kabir’s message is being implemented have astonished, amazed and often perplexed me.The most interesting one has got be the emerging trend where hardcore, card-carrying leftists laud Kabir as being a true Communist, speaking out against social injustice as well as bourgeois mores. Kabir’s well-known jibes against pundits and mullahs alike are naively taken to mean that he does not believe in any god, whereas in truth he steadfastly urged people to look beyond mere mechanical ritual and delve into the depth of divinity inherent within each of us. Kabir sings freely of Ram and Rahim, and his bhajans are sung not just in villages across Madhya Pradesh and UP, but have now become well established in the Hindustani classical repertoire as well, thanks largely to the late legend Pandit Kumar Gandharva, whose life story itself is a poignant reprisal of the Nirguni bhajans that he sang, and which fortunately are being carried forward by several prominent as well as upcoming young musicians.
Yet there are several in our country who are hesitant to use the word “bhajan” (which actually means “to share”) since it has an overtly religious context to them. They are far more comfortable in branding Kabir as a Sufi, since that word apparently has a “secular” sheen! It has reached a point where, if I sing Kabir “bhajans”, there are many who would label me as being communal or at best religious, whereas concert organisers have pleaded with me to sing the exact same songs but to term them as “Sufi”, which would appear to make everyone comfortable! Isn’t it this the very hypocrisy that Kabir lashed out against? “Hindu kahat hai Ram hamara, Mussalman Rehmana; aapas mein dou lade marat hai, maram koi nahin jana” (Hindus claim Ram as theirs, the Muslims, Rehman; they fight and kill in their name, but they will never know the essence)
He goes on to lucidly enunciate minute facets of the spiritual, inward journey, cautioning us of every peril and pitfall we may encounter along the way. Kabir’s descriptions of the experience of opening of various chakras (energy centres) in the body (“Nirbhay nirgun gun re gaoonga”) are spell-binding. Spiritual practitioners strive for years to glimpse a single moment of stillness and totality in meditation, whereas a poor weaver in a remote village so many centuries ago exhorted us to shun the impermanent, evanescent material world and revel in the indescribable exhilaration of self-knowledge. His experiences are his reality, the legacy which he has bequeathed upon us – a succinct map which charts the terrain most unexplored, the journey back to our source.
The pseudo-secularists, not to be left behind, have interpreted Kabir as being anti-ritualistic and hence anti-religious. To them, secularism means avoiding all religious activity or reference — a far cry from Kabir’s equanimous view which sees all as equal, free from bias and prejudice. Several sections of Dalit society cite Kabir as their Guru and God, since he abhorred casteism. Among them, there are some who are renowned singers such as Prahlad Tipanya, who is invited to perform at all major festivals in his area (near Dewas, MP) and yet not allowed to enter the village temple since he is a Dalit! How ironic that Kabir’s teaching is so widely loved and yet not taken to heart.
It is a testament to the universality and accessibility of Kabir’s message that so many factions can claim him as their own, but to use that message to foster further division would be to crucify yet another reluctant messiah at the altar of our own self-righteousness.
It is said that on his deathbed, Kabir was dismayed to hear the voices of his devotees arguing about whether he should be cremated according to Hindu rites, or buried in a Muslim cemetery — as if his entire life’s message had gone unheeded. The story goes that when they came to collect his remains, they lifted the sheet that covered him to find that the body had disappeared, and all that remained was a heap of flowers!
Today, the intelligent and sincere are left with his ever-fragrant dohas and sakis, and it is up to us to do with them as we please. Do we take the bold step of enquiring within, acknowledging the fickleness of our own mind — and strive to realize our full potential? Or do we continue to hide behind a fragile cloak of intellectual pretence or crass commerciality while exploiting yet another savant’s message to our personal gain? Kabir, established in perennial bliss, a witness to all despite being an active participant in day-to-day life, couldn’t really care less!