1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Kabīr

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KABĪR, the most notable of the Vaishnava reformers of religion in northern India, who flourished during the first half of the 15th century. He is counted as one of the twelve disciples of Rāmānand, the great preacher in the north (about A.D. 1400) of the doctrine of bhakti addressed to Rāma, which originated with Rāmānuja (12th century) in southern India. He himself also mentions among his spiritual forerunners Jaidēo and Nāmdēo (or Nāmā) the earliest Marāthī poet (both about 1250). Legend relates that Kabīr was the son of a Brāhman widow, by whom he was exposed, and was found on a lotus in Lahar Talāo, a pond near Benares, by a Musalmān weaver named ‘Alī (or Nūrī), who with his wife Nīmā adopted him and brought him up in their craft as a Musalmān. He lived most of his life at Benares, and afterwards removed to Maghar (or Magahar), in the present district of Bastī, where he is said to have died in 1449. There appears to be no reason to doubt that he was originally a Musalman and a weaver; his own name and that of his son Kamāl are Mahommedan, not Hindu. His adhesion to the doctrine of Rāmānand is not a solitary instance of the religious syncretism which prevailed at this time in northern India. The religion of the earlier Sikh Gurus, which was largely based upon his teaching, also aimed at the fusion of Hinduism and Islam; and the example of Malik Muhammad,[1] the author of the Padmāwat, who lived a century later than Kabīr, shows that the relations between the two creeds were in some cases extremely intimate. It is related that at Kabīr’s death the Hindus and Musalmāns each claimed him as an adherent of their faith, and that when his funeral issued forth from his house at Maghar the contention was only assuaged by the appearance of Kabīr himself, who bade them look under the cloth which covered the corpse, and immediately vanished. On raising the cloth they found nothing but a heap of flowers. This was divided between the rival faiths, half being buried by the Musalmans and the other half burned by the Hindus.[2]

Kabīr’s fame as a preacher of bhakti, or enthusiastic devotion to a personal God, whom he preferred to call by the Hindu names of Rāma and Hari, is greater than that of any other of the Vaishnava spiritual leaders. His fervent conviction of the truth and power of his doctrine, and the homely and searching expression given to it in his utterances, in the tongue of the people and not in a learned language remote from their understanding, won for him multitudes of adherents; and his sect, the Kabīrpanthīs, is still one of the most numerous in northern India, its numbers exceeding a million. Its headquarters are the Kabīr Chaurā at Benares, where are preserved the works attributed to Kabīr (called the Granth), the greater part of which, however, were written by his immediate disciples and their followers in his name.

Those works which seem to have the best claim to be considered his own compositions are the Sākhīs, or stanzas, some 5000 in number, which have a very wide currency even among those who do not formally belong to the sect, and the Shabdāwalī, consisting of a thousand “words” (shabd), or short doctrinal expositions. Perhaps some of the Rēkhtas, or odes (100 in number), and of the Ramainīs—brief mystical poems in very obscure language—may also be from his hand. Of these different forms specimens will be found translated in Professor H. H. Wilson’s Sketch of the Religious Sects of the Hindus, i. 79-90. Besides the followers who call themselves by Kabīr's name, there may be reckoned to him many other religious sects which bear that of some intermediate guru or master, but substantially concur with Kabīr in doctrine and practice. Such, for instance, are the Nānakshāhis in the United Provinces, the Central Provinces, and Bombay, and the Dādū-panthīs, numerous in Rajpūtānā (Wilson, loc. cit. pp. 103 sqq.); the Sikhs, numbering two and a half millions in the Panjāb, are also his spiritual descendants, and their Granth or Scripture is largely stocked with texts drawn from his works.

Kabīr taught the life of bhakti (faith, or personal love and devotion), the object of which is a personal God, and not a philosophical abstraction or an impersonal quality-less, all-pervading spiritual substance (as in the Vēdānta of Śankarāchārya). His utterances do not, like those of Tulsī Dăs, dwell upon the incidents of the human life of Rāma, whom he takes as his type of the Supreme; nevertheless, it is the essence of his creed that God became incarnate to bring salvation to His children, mankind, and that the human mind of this incarnation still subsists in the Divine Person. He proclaims the unity of the Godhead, the vanity of idols, the powerlessness of brāhmans or mullās to guide or help, and the divine origin of the human soul, divinae particula aurae. All evil in the world is ascribed to Māyā, illusion or falsehood, and truth in thought, word and deed is enjoined as the chief duty of man: “No act of devotion can equal truth; no crime is so heinous as falsehood; in the heart where truth abides there is My abode.”[3] The distinctions of creeds are declared to be of no importance in the presence of God: “The city of Hara[4] is to the east, that of ‘Alī[5] is to the west; but explore your own heart, for there are both Rāmā and Karīm;”[6] “Behold but One in all things: it is the second that leads you astray. Every man and woman that has ever been born is of the same nature as yourself. He, whose is the world, and whose are the children of ‘Alī and Rāmā, He is my Guru, He is my Pīr.” He proclaims the universal brotherhood of man, and the duty of kindness to all living creatures. Life is the gift of God, and must not be violated; the shedding of blood, whether of man or animals, is a heinous crime. The followers of Kabīr do not observe celibacy, and live quiet unostentatious lives; Wilson (p. 97) compares them to Quakers for their hatred of violence and unobtrusive piety. »

The resemblance of many of Kabīr's utterances to those of Christ, and especially to the ideas set forth in St John’s gospel, is very striking; still more so is the existence in the ritual of the sect of a sacramental meal, involving the eating of a consecrated wafer and the drinking of water administered by the Mahant or spiritual superior, which bears a remarkable likeness to the Eucharist. Yet, though the deities of Hinduism and the prophet of Islam are frequently mentioned in his sayings, the name of Jesus has nowhere been found in them. It is conjectured that the doctrine of Rāmānand, which came from southern India, has been influenced by the Christian settlements in that region, which go back to very early times. It is also possible that Sūfīism, the pietistic (as distinguished from the theosophic) form of which seems to owe much to eastern Christianity, has contributed some echo of the Gospel to Kabīr's teaching. A third (but scarcely probable) hypothesis is that the sect has borrowed both maxims and ritual, long after Kabir's own time, from the teaching of the Roman Catholic missionaries, who were established at Agra from the reign of Akbar (1556-1605) onwards.

No critical edition of the writings current under the name of Kabīr has yet been published, though collections of his sayings (chiefly the Sākhīs) are constantly appearing from Indian presses. The reader is referred, for a summary account of his life and doctrine, to H. H. Wilson’s Sketch of the Religious Sects of the Hindus (Works, 1. 68 sqq.). Dr E. Trumpp’s edition of the Ādi Granth (Introduction, pp. xcvii. sqq.) may also be consulted. Recent publications dealing with the subject are the Rev. G. H. Westcott’s Kabīr and the Kabīr Panth (Cawnpore, 1908), and Mr. M. A. Macauliffe's The Sikh Religion (Oxford, 1909), vi. 122-316. (C. J. L.)

  1. See article Hindostani Literature.
  2. An exactly similar tale is told of Nānak, the first Guru of the Sikhs, who died in 1538.
  3. This and the following passages in quotation marks are from Professor Wilson’s translation of 100 Sākhīs, pp. 83-90.
  4. Benares; Hara, a name of Śiva.
  5. I.e. Mecca.
  6. “The Bountiful,” one of the Korānic names of God (Allah).