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Painting of Kabir and disciple
An 1825 CE painting depicts Kabir with a disciple
Born c. 1440
Lahartara near Kashi (present-day Varanasi)
Died c. 1518
Occupation Weaver, poet
Known for influencing the Bhakti movement, Sikhism, Sant Mat and Kabir Panth

Kabīr (also Kabīra) (Hindi: कबीर, Punjabi: ਕਬੀਰ, Urdu: کبير‎) (c. 1440 – c. 1518)[1][2][3][4] was a mystic poet and saint of India, whose writings have greatly influenced the Bhakti movement. The name Kabir comes from Arabic al-Kabīr which means "The Great" – the 37th name of God in Islam.

Kabir's legacy is today carried forward by the Kabir panth ("Path of Kabir"), a religious community that recognises him as its founder and is one of the Sant Mat sects. Its members, known as Kabir panthis, are estimated to be around 9.6 million. They are spread over north and central India, as well as dispersed with the Indian diaspora across the world, up from 843,171 in the 1901 census.[5] His writings include Bijak, Sakhi Granth, Kabir Granthawali and Anurag Sagar.[6]

Early life and background

Kabir's early life is not firmly established.[7]:14 In Indian tradition, he is commonly supposed to have lived for 120 years from 1398 to 1518, which "permits him to be associated with other famous figures such as Guru Nanak and Sikander Lodi", however most historians state this to be highly unlikely.[7]:14 Historians are uncertain about his dates of birth and death. Some state 1398 as a date of birth,[8]:5 whereas others favour later dates, such as 1440.[9] Some assign his death date to the middle of the 15th century – for example, 1440[8]:5 or 1448[7]:15 – whereas others place it in 1518.[10]:106 Lifespans commonly suggested by scholars include from 1398 to 1448,[8]:5 and from 1440 to 1518.[9]:27–28

According to one traditional version of his parentage, Kabir was born to a Brahmin widow at Lahartara near Kashi (modern day Varanasi). The widow abandoned Kabir to escape dishonour associated with births outside marriage.[11][12] He was brought up in a family of poor Muslim weavers Niru and Nima. They could not afford formal education for Kabir and initiated him into their trade of weaving.[13] Vaishnava saint Swami Ramananda accepted Kabir as his disciple. When Swami Ramananda died, Kabir was 13 years old.[11]

According to American Indologist Wendy Doniger, Kabir was born into a Muslim family and "all these stories attempt to drag Kabir back over the line from Muslim to Hindu".[14]

Kabir's family is believed to have lived in the locality of Kabir Chaura in Varanasi. Kabīr maṭha (कबीरमठ), a maṭha located in the back alleys of Kabir Chaura, celebrates his life and times.[15] Accompanying the property is a house named Nīrūṭīlā (नीरू टीला) which houses Niru and Nima's graves.[16] The house also accommodates students and scholars who live there and study Kabir's work.


Kabir's legends describe his victory in trials by sultan, a Brahmin, a Qazi, a merchant and God. The ideological messages in Kabir's legends appealed to the poor and oppressed. David Lorenzen describes primary purpose of his legends as a "protest against social discrimination and economic exploitation".[17]


Kabir composed in a pithy and earthy style, replete with surprise and inventive imagery. His poems resonate with praise for the true guru who reveals the divine through direct experience, and denounce more usual ways of attempting god-union such as chanting, austerities, etc. Kabir, being illiterate, expressed his poems orally in vernacular Hindi, borrowing from various dialects including Avadhi, Braj, and Bhojpuri.[18]

Songs of Kabir is a collection of his poems, collected by Kshitimohan Sen from mendicants across India, that has been translated to English by Rabindranath Tagore.[19]


A considerable body of poetical work has been attributed to Saint Kabir. And while two of his disciples, Bhāgodās and Dharmadās, did write much of it down, "...there is also much that must have passed, with expected changes and distortions, from mouth to mouth, as part of a well-established oral tradition."[20]

Poems and songs ascribed to Kabir are available today in several dialects, with varying wordings and spellings as befits an oral tradition. Opinions vary on establishing any given poem's authenticity.[21] Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the spirit of this mystic comes alive through a "unique forcefulness... vigor of thought and rugged terseness of style."[22]

Kabir and his followers named his poetic output as "bāņīs" (utterances). These include songs, as above, and couplets, called variously dohe, śalokā (Sanskrit: ślokā), or sākhī (Sanskrit: sākşī). The latter term, meaning "witness", best indicates the use that Kabir and his followers envisioned for these poems: "As direct evidence of the Truth, a sākhī is... meant to be memorized... A sākhī is... meant to evoke the highest Truth." As such, memorising, reciting, and thus pondering over these utterances constitutes, for Kabir and his followers, a path to spiritual awakening.[23]

Kabir's influence was so great that, similar to how different communities argued to cremate the Buddha upon his death, after Kabir died, both the Hindus and Muslims argued to cremate his body in Varanasi or bury it in Maghahar them according to their tradition.[24]

Kabir's poetry today

There are several allusions to Kabir's poetry in mainstream Indian film music. The title song of the Sufi fusion band Indian Ocean's album Jhini is an energetic rendering of Kabir's famous poem "The intricately woven blanket", with influences from Indian folk, Sufi traditions and progressive rock.

Noted classical singer, late Kumar Gandharva, is widely recognized for his wonderful rendering of Kabir's poetry.

Documentary filmmaker Shabnam Virmani, from the Kabir Project, has produced a series of documentaries and books tracing Kabir's philosophy, music and poetry in present day India and Pakistan. The documentaries feature Indian folk singers such as Prahlad Tipanya, Mukhtiyar Ali and the Pakistani Qawwal Fareed Ayaz.

The album No Stranger Here by Shubha Mudgal, Ursula Rucker draws heavily from Kabir's poetry. Kabir's poetry has appeared prominently in filmmaker Anand Gandhi's films Right Here Right Now (2003) and Continuum. Pakistani Sufi singer Abida Parveen has sung Kabir in a full album.

A music band from Mumbai known as Neeraj Arya's Kabir Cafe produces and performs the poetry of Kabir.

Criticism of Kabir

Kabir has been criticised for his depiction of women. Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh states "Kabirs opinion of women is contemptuous and derogatory. Women historians of religion, such as Karine Schomer and Wendy O'Flaherty, are familiar with Kabir's mysogynist bias. Schomer has pointed out some blatant examples of Kabir's deprecatory attitude. For Kabir woman is "Kali nagini" (a black cobra), "kunda naraka ka" (the pit of hell), "juthani jagata ki" (the refuse of the world). She is an impediment to spiritual progress." [25]

Furthermore, Kabir states:

Woman ruins everything when she comes near man;

Devotion, liberation, and divine knowledge no longer enter his soul.

— Bhagat Kabir


This seems to be in contrast with the philosophy of Nanak who has the diametrically opposite view.[25]

See also


  1. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica
  2. ^ Carol Henderson Garcia; Carol E. Henderson (2002). Culture and Customs of India. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 70–. ISBN 978-0-313-30513-9. Retrieved 12 July 2012. 
  3. ^ Hugh Tinker (1990). South Asia: A Short History. University of Hawaii Press. pp. 76–. ISBN 978-0-8248-1287-4. Retrieved 12 July 2012. 
  4. ^ "Narrative Section of a Successful Application" (PDF). Claflin University. Retrieved 12 July 2012. 
  5. ^ Westcott, G. H. (2006). Kabir and the Kabir Panth. Read Books. p. 2. ISBN 1-4067-1271-X. 
  6. ^ The Ocean of Love– The Anurag Sagar of Kabir
  7. ^ a b c Dass, Nirmal; Dass, introduction by Nirmal (1991). Songs of Kabir from the Adi Granth. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. ISBN 0791405605. 
  8. ^ a b c Hess, Linda; Shukdev Singh (2002). The Bijak of Kabir. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0199882029. 
  9. ^ a b Keay, Frank Ernest (1995). Kabir and His Followers. Mittal Publications. OCLC 872151. 
  10. ^ Lorenzen, David N. (2006). Who invented Hinduism?: essays on religion in history. New Dehli: Yoda Press. ISBN 8190227262. 
  11. ^ a b Karki, Mohan Singh (2001). Kabir: Selected Couplets from the Sakhi in Transversion. Motilal Banarsidass Publ. p. 15. ISBN 978-81-208-1799-9. 
  12. ^ Khan, Abdul Jamil (2006). Urdu/Hindi: An Artificial Divide : African Heritage, Mesopotamian Roots, Indian Culture & British Colonialism. Algora Publishing. p. 163. ISBN 978-0-87586-439-6. 
  13. ^ Jashan P. Vaswani (1 August 2008). Sketches of Saints Known and Unknown. Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd. pp. 4–. ISBN 978-81-207-3998-7. Retrieved 12 July 2012. 
  14. ^ Wendy Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History, Oxford University Press (2010), p. 462
  15. ^ Karine Schomer; W. H. McLeod (1 January 1987). The Sants: Studies in a Devotional Tradition of India. Motilal Banarsidass Publ. pp. 291–. ISBN 978-81-208-0277-3. Retrieved 12 July 2012. 
  16. ^ "Jab Mein Tha Tab Hari Nahin‚ Ab". Retrieved 12 July 2012. 
  17. ^ Lorenzen, David (1991). Kabir Legends and Ananta-Das's Kabir Parachai. SUNY Press. ISBN 978-1-4384-1127-9. 
  18. ^ Scudiere, Todd. "Rare Literary Gems: The Works of Kabir and Premchand at CRL". South Asian Studies, Spring 2005 Vol. 24, Num. 3. Center for Research Libraries. 
  19. ^ "Songs of Kabir in Persian : Gutenberg: Songs of Kabir by Rabindranath Tagore". 
  20. ^ The Vision of Kabir: Love poems of a 15th Century Weaver, (1984) Alpha & Omega, p. 47 ASIN B000ILEY3U
  21. ^ The Vision of Kabir: Love poems of a 15th Century Weaver, (1984) Alpha & Omega, pp. 49–51 ASIN B000ILEY3U
  22. ^ The Vision of Kabir: Love poems of a 15th Century Weaver, (1984) Alpha & Omega, page 55 ASIN B000ILEY3U
  23. ^ The Vision of Kabir: Love poems of a 15th Century Weaver, (1984) Alpha & Omega, page 48 ASIN B000ILEY3U
  24. ^ The Strides of Vishnu: Hindu Culture in Historical Perspective by Ariel Glucklich p. 192
  25. ^ a b c Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh (24 Sep 1993). The Feminine Principle in the Sikh Vision of the Transcendent. English: Cambridge University Press. p. 114. ISBN 978-0521432870. 

Further reading

  • Bly, Robert, tr. Kabir: Ecstatic Poems. Beacon Press, 2004. (ISBN 0-8070-6384-3)
  • Dass, Nirmal, tr. Songs of Kabir from the Adi Granth. SUNY Press, 1991. (ISBN 0-7914-0560-5)
  • Duggal, [edited by]G. N. Das ; foreword by K.S. (1992). Love songs of Kabir. Sittingbourne: Asia. ISBN 978-0-948724-33-6. 
  • Kabir. Compilation of Kabir's dohas in Devanagiri. Kabir ke dohey
  • Masterman, David, ed/rev. Kabir says... Los Angeles: Three Pigeons Publishing, 2011.
  • Tagore, Rabindranath, tr. Songs of Kabir. Forgotten Books, 1985. (ISBN 1-60506-643-5) Songs of Kabir
  • Vaudeville, Charlotte. A Weaver Named Kabir: Selected Verses with a Detailed Biographical and Historical Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. (ISBN 0-19-563933-2)
  • Compilation of Kabir's dohas in Devanagiri Kabir Page on Kavitakosh

External links

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