I love Kabir.
He was a fifteenth century North Indian poet and mystic who “preached an abrasive, sometimes shocking, always uncompromising message exhorting his audience to shed their delusions, pretensions, and empty orthodoxies in favor of an intense, direct, and personal confrontation with truth.”
That quote is from the back cover of Linda Hess’s masterful treatment of “The Bijak of Kabir.” There are many sides to Kabir. He’s impossible to pin down. Yet various religions and spiritual paths—such as Sikhism and Sant Mat—try to make him into one of their own.
A relentless critic of organized religion, Kabir would have laughed at their attempts to confine him within a dogmatic box. Hess shows us a Kabir who was wild, wooly, and utterly unafraid of priestly pretension. She writes:
While drawing on various traditions as he saw fit, Kabir emphatically declared his independence from both the major religions of his countrymen [Hinduism and Islam], vigorously attacked the follies of both, and tried to kindle the fire of a similar autonomy and courage in those who claimed to be his disciples. In a famous couplet he declares:
I’ve burned my own house down, the torch is in my hand. Now I’ll burn down the house of anyone who wants to follow me.
If Kabir insisted on anything, it was on the penetration of everything inessential, every layer of dishonesty and delusion. The individual must find the truth in his own body and mind, so simple, so direct, that the line between “him” and “it” disappears. One of the formulaic phrases in Kabir’s verses is ghata ghata me, in every body, in every vessel. The truth is close—closer than close. One form our foolish cleverness takes is our desperate, seemingly sincere searching outside ourselves. We try to find other people who have the secret, and then we try to understand them.
Neither am I righteous nor non-righteous
Neither am I an ascetic nor a sensualist
Neither do I speak nor do I listen
Neither am I a servant nor a master
Neither am I constrained nor liberated
Neither am I sad nor jubilant
Neither am I distinctly isolated from anything
Nor am I identified completely with anything
Neither do I go to the world of hell
Nor do I proceed to the world of heaven
All actions are really my actions
But yet I am distinct from the actions
This truth only a rare exceptional one realizes
Such a person sits in quiescence
Oh Kabir don't bring forth any creation
And don't efface anything either
The translator, Rajender Krishan, tries to answer the question “Why Kabir?” in a forthright personal statement of what Kabir means to him. And this essay by Maalok is a fine introduction to Kabir. Here’s an excerpt:
What distinguished Kabir from other “gurus” were his inner conviction and an undying trust in his own self and experience. He seems to have questioned and challenged all scriptural teachings, traditions and rituals, until he himself was able to validate their truth. This, however, should not be taken to imply that he rejected all teachings and practices. To the contrary, given his familiarity with, and his use of stories/teachings from, a variety of traditions, he appears to have openly embraced and accepted any path that could be validated by his own experience. Perhaps, this is why it is so difficult to typecast Kabir into this or that faith or tradition. Sometimes, he was this, sometimes he was that and at other times he was neither this nor that!