Kabir was a great revolutionary saint and mystic of the fifteenth century, whose teachings helped to bridge the gap between the Hindus and Muslims of his time. His outspoken views, his profoundly mystical poems and his devotional songs, have made him one of the most eminent figures amongst the saints of India.
Generally believed to have been born in 1440 A.D., legend has it that Kabir was the castaway child of a Brahmin widow. He was found in a lake called Lahar Tolao, near Benares, by a childless Muslim weaver named Niru, and his wife Nima, The couple adopted the baby, and although they brought him up as a Muslim, Kabir took on many of the Hindu customs. This angered his father greatly and infuriated his Muslim neighbours.
From a very early age, Kabir longed for spiritual life, but not feeling an affinity for the Muslim faith or for Hinduism, he thought endlessly about finding himself a spiritual guide. He had heard about the renowned Hindu saint Ramananda, who was living in Benares, but because he was a low class Muslim boy, Kabir feared that the great guru would reject his plea for discipleship.
However, one day he devised a plan. He knew that in the early hours of the morning, Ramananda used to take his bath at a particular ghat. Kabir hid himself on the steps of the ghat, so that Ramananda unknowingly stepped on him, crying out in surprise, "Rama, Rama". Kabir took this as an initiation into mantra and told Ramananda that he had just become his disciple. Surprised at such earnestness, Ramananda accepted Kabir as his disciple, and from that day onward, Kabir constantly repeated the Rama mantra.
Ramananda was a firm teacher and Kabir spent many years with him. Under his guidance he learned devotion to the formless (nirguna) aspect of God. It pained Kabir to see religion, caste and creed keeping people apart, and he mixed freely with the Muslim preachers and the Hindu sages. This enraged many people and gave him a bad name.
Like Guru Nanak, Kabir imbibed the best of the Hindu philosophy and of Islam. He tried to shatter the beliefs of the orthodox and openly shunned idol worship. His frankness and unconventional opinions created many enemies, but fearlessly, he continued to preach the gospel of social equality and he travelled far and wide spreading the teachings of his guru.
Most of Kabir's teachings were contained in his inspiring mystical utterances and men were charmed and elated by his innumerable songs and poems. His disciples wandered all over India singing his sacred songs and his fame spread throughout the land in his own lifetime.
Although people revered Kabir as a saint, there were also many who wanted to ostracise him and even have him sentenced to death. One day he was brought before the emperor of Delhi on charges of heresy. Unafraid of the consequences Kabir addressed the emperor:
"I care not if you call me Moral or immoral, corrupt or incorrupt, Nor do I care if I am Honourable or dishonourable.
I am steadfast in my faith
The father, yours and mine."
The emperor was intrigued by his words and thinking him to be an innocent Sufi saint, he granted Kabir freedom. Kabir lived a long life, and legend says that when he died his Hindu and Muslim devotees were still quarrelling over him. The Muslims wanted to bury him while the Hindus wanted to cremate him. When they went to remove the shroud from his body, all that remained were flowers.
The name of Kabir has been immortalized in the translation of his hymns by Rabindranath Tagore. The contribution that this reformer saint made to Hindu literature is unmatched and we can still imbibe his message and the spirit of his teachings from his words which are forever preserved in the great work Bijak.
"Be not the slaves of tradition; fear not to walk upon new paths, if these bring you nearer to God who is the Truth."