Benares, located on the banks of the Ganges, was a seat of religious and spiritual learning in the 15th century. Leaders of various faiths came there to learn, preach, debate and meditate. Vaishnavas, Saivas, Sufis, Jains and Buddhists, all established monasteries, temples, mosques and hermitages there.
One of the ascetics of the Vaishnava tradition, Ramananda, set up a monastery on the banks of the Ganges, where he preached love for one, without rituals or caste hierarchies. It is considered the first sant of the Bhakti tradition in North India.
It is possible that during their visit to Benares, Sant Jnaneshwar and Sant Namdeo met Ramananda and influenced each other in their thoughts and teachings. Ramananda was also deeply influenced by a Bhakti poet from South India, Ramanujan, who also traveled to Benares to drink from its fountains.
As Islam reached much of northern India, many weavers who were considered to belong to the so-called lower castes and who believed and worshiped a formless god, converted to Islam. Kabir (the Quranic title of Allah, meaning great) was brought up in one of these weaving families in Benares in the early 15th century. He is believed to be an early childhood researcher. Appalled at the hypocrisies of the religion being practiced, both Hinduism and Islam, he was drawn to the teachings of the Bhakti Sants and the Sufis of his time.
He not only beautifully blended their teachings, but transcended them by combining direct and passionate fellowship with the formless, fearlessly denouncing the deception of Hindu and Muslim fundamentalists, promoting love and harmony among humanity, and pouring out pearls of wisdom for a happy world and fulfilling life.
Kabir continued to weave fabric, song, and wisdom throughout his life. It was through his life and his songs that he sought communion with God, and not through sterile places of worship. He found his god in mundane things:
Your lord is in your house
Outside, why are your eyes straying?
Kabir says, listen oh sadho
In the sesame I found the Lord, pray!
Kabir has always been on the side of the oppressed, whether the oppression is due to caste, poverty or religion. He warned the oppressors to make amends, otherwise justice would be operated in an unknown way:
Do not oppress the weak, their curse ends
A pair of bellows, although lifeless, turns iron into ashes!
For Kabir, love was the ultimate teacher, the seat of wisdom and the means of reaching the one god. Reading the scriptures was not essential:
Never get wise, reading the scriptures you can die
A word of love that one reads, and becomes a wise man!
Tirelessly and in myriad ways, he sang the oneness of god and the oneness of mankind, though manifested differently:
Kashi and Kaba are one, one are Ram and Rahim,
The dough is one, the delicacies are numerous; gorges himself on Kabir!
In death as in life
When he fell terminally ill, Kabir decided to move from Benares to Maghiyar, against the wishes of his supporters. We believed at the time (and still today) that if we die in Benares, we go straight to heaven, while death in Maghiyar leads straight to hell! Kabir’s contempt for religious hypocrisy and religious beliefs ran so deep that even in death he proved a point.
The divisions of caste and religion were (and are) so deep that after his death Hindus and Muslims claimed Kabir. The first wanted to cremate him, and the second, to bury him. In death as in life, Kabir sought to bring harmony: it is said that when they lifted the sheet that covered his body, they only found flowers. Hindus and Muslims shared the flowers and performed the last rites according to their respective doctrines.
Kabir was fortunate to be in Benares at a time when a considerable movement was taking place in society and when followers and practitioners of different faiths and counter-religions frequented the city. He was inspired by each of these religions and its precepts, but never followed any of them in its entirety.
After encountering several faqirs that he found spiritually evolved, Kabir was drawn to Sheikh Taqi, a Sant Sufi of the Chisti lineage who had settled in Kada-Manikpur, twin villages on either side of the Ganges, about 250 km away. of Benares. It was from Sheikh Taqi that he discovered an intense love and romance with a personal god, one of the hallmarks of Sufism. Kabir was thus fortunate to find himself at the confluence of two rivers of love and wisdom, coming from different sources but watering the same lands.
The Bhakti tradition that began with Ramananda in North India and was propagated by Kabir, one of his most illustrious disciples, has continued to develop in the region. Kabir’s contemporaries, like Ravidas, were often from the “lower castes” and burned with the same desire to have direct communion with the one god, and dreamed of an egalitarian society, without caste and without class discrimination. And Sufism also continued to flourish, continuing to challenge the dominant, rigid, exclusive and aggressive forms of Islam that were propagated by the rulers of the slave dynasty.
Read also :
Meet the mystical poets of the history of the subcontinent: Baba Farid, the Sufi face of Islam
Meet the Mystical Poets of Subcontinent History: Namdeo’s Search for the Formless God
Meet the mystical poets of the history of the subcontinent: how Rahim combined war with poetry