Kabir was one of the chief exponents of the Bhakti movement in the medieval period. His early life is shrouded in mystery.
According to a prevailing legend he was the son of a Brahmin widow who had left him by the side of a tank in Benares.
A Muslim weaver Niru and his wife Nima picked up the baby and brought him up. Thus Kabir spent his early life in the house of his Muslim parents.
As they were quite poor, they could not provide him with formal education. But from his childhood Kabir had a spiritual bent of mind. Then in later years he became the disciple of a great saint named Ramananda in Uttar Pradesh. He followed the profession of his foster father and led a family life after his marriage to a lady named Loi.
In spite of this, his deep interest in religious affairs attracted many people. Gradually the number of his disciples increased. Both Hindus and Muslims became his followers who were later known as Kabirpanthis. His oral sermons were anthologized into a book by his disciples name Vijak. Kabir composed simple hymns in Hindi in the honour Almighty and these hymns called doha became extremely popular because of their lyrical beauty and simplicity of ideas.
Teachings of Kabir:
Kabir spent much of his time in the company of Hindu ascetics, saints and Muslim sufis. So he imbibed the tenets of both the religions and realized the best of both. Allah and Ram were but names of the same God. He was to be found neither in temples nor in mosques, neither in Benares nor in Mecca but only in the heart of a true devotee.
The following doha of Kabir reflects these ideas:
O Seeker, where dost thou seek me
Lo, I am beside there
I am neither in temple nor in mosque
I am neither at Kaaba nor at Kailash
Neither am I in rites and ceremonies
Nor Yoga nor in renunciation
Lamp burns in every house, O blind me,
And you cannot see them…..
Your Lord is near, you are climbing
The palm tree to see him
Yoga and the telling of beads
… These are naught to me.
Thus Kabir deliberately abandoned the two faiths and taught a middle path. He spread the simplest message of love and fraternity among all. Presence of a single God was the central point of his teachings. God is unlimited, endless, pure, omniscient and omnipotent.
In one of his dohas Kabir sings the glory of God:
Oh, how may I ever express these secret words?
Oh, how can I say He is not like this
and He is like that?…
There are no words to tell that which He is!
For the realisation of God one must take the help of a guru or a teacher who will show the right path. Kabir told his followers to consider the teacher as Govind (God). This guru alone can lead the disciple to the light of knowledge emanating from God.
And the only path to attain God is the path of Bhakti or devotion. With pure thoughts and a pure heart one can devote himself towards God. No formal rites or rituals are required. However, the devotee should surrender himself completely at the feet of God to receive His blessings.
Kabir did not believe in idol worship nor did he believe in caste system. Reacting to the authority of the Vedas and the Quran he put emphasis on the inner virtues of man. For him the love for human race, irrespective of caste, colour or creed, was the true religion. He appealed to the Hindus to give up rituals, sacrifices, lip-worship and caste differences and openly denounced the concept of incarnations. He appealed to the Muslims to give up their exclusiveness, their blind faith in one prophet, their performance of rites like pilgrimage to Mecca, their regulated prayers and mode of fasting etc.
Thus Kabir’s mission was to preach the religion of love that could unite all. For him, religion without devotion was no religion at all which should be accompanied with the singing of hymns in praise of God Almighty. In the words of Underhill,
“Kabir is an intrepid path-finder, the great pioneer of the unity of Hindu and Muslim communities of India and the apostle of faith of Humanity who taught that the Divine disclosed itself in the human race as a whole.”
Thus Kabir did not establish any separate religious sect. Both Hindus and Muslims were his followers and came to be known as Kabirpanthis. His views and teachings, challenged and rejected by the upper castes, were largely accepted by the lower strata of the society and later on some of his hymns were incorporated in the Adi-granth of the Sikhs.
Kabir was the first saint to reconcile Hinduism with Islam. In the words of Yugalanand, “The Hindu resorts to the temple and the Muslim to the mosque, but Kabir goes to the place where both are known. These two religions are like two branches in the middle of which there is a sprout surpassing them. Kabir has taken the higher path abandoning the customs of the two.”
His immediate disciple Dharamdas rightly remarked,
“Kabir is an incarnation of the Absolute who revealed himself to the world.”
Kabir died at Maghar in the Gorakhpur district of Uttar Pradesh in 1518 A.D.