Kabir Jayanti 2022: Embracing Bhakti and Challenging Caste Discrimination

Aditi Narayani Paswan 

Kabir defied hegemony through his usage of a simple language that could reach the crowds and enlighten them with his message of a casteless Indian society.

Poetry can be considered one of the most complex forms of art. Putting human emotions on paper in a way that it touches the reader’s heart and conveys most profound feelings. As Robert Frost once said, “poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words”.

A practise that very few have been able to perform and fewer perfect. Kabir — means ‘Great’ in Arabic, a Quranic name — was a part of the Julaha caste, a weaver’s son who started on his journey to become, a poet, a philosopher, a guru, and a Saint. His couplets embodied pain, anger, love, care, sorrow, happiness and even despair without any classical ornamentations. He personified inclusivity through his Doha (Couplets).

‘Dohas or Couplets’ was a medium through which Kabir spread his teachings and created a special place for himself. The flow and spontaneity of Kabir’s couplets came from his own inner experiences. The main constituting elements of Kabir’s couplets were nature and its various facets, and the day-to-day experiences, anecdotes from the life of the common man. Sant Kabir’s teachings through his songs and couplets always reflected his vivid and creative imagination. He has widely been known for his rhymes and his ideas behind his Dohe which were primarily in Hindi borrowing from dialects such as ‘Awadhi’, ‘Braj’ etc. — never the politics behind the language of his poetry.

The politics behind the usage of the common tongue lies in the Gramscian theory of cultural hegemony and its defiance. The class narrative takes the shape of caste narrative in our ancient society. The ruling caste took over the cultural dialogue and restricted its percolation to the lower stratum by predominantly using Sanskrit. Kabir defied this hegemony through his usage of a simple language that could reach the crowds and enlighten them with his message of a casteless Indian society. Gramsci and Kabir probably never knew each other in their lives, but the uncanny resemblance between the two principles fortifies the existence of the phenomena and its relevance in societies of East and the West.

“In pain everyone cries out, in pleasure none recall the Godhead
One whose happiness centres on Him, walks away from sorrow”

Another personality of prominence who could be called a devotee of Kabir was Babasaheb Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. The ferocity of their belief was alike in their disregard for caste structure. Both Kabir and Dr Ambedkar believed the caste orthodoxy had no solid base, and it was all just to favour a few in society against the many. He believed everyone had equal rights over education and that it was guarded from the masses since it was the only way which could make the sham of caste hierarchy transparent. 

Ram doesn’t go near a heart living in doubt –
Between Ram and his loving seeker there isn’t room

Kabir’s ‘Nirgun-Vaad’ was against sanctioning holy attributes to societal elements. His philosophy denounced Islamic rituals and went against the rites, rituals, and customs which, according to him, propagated caste divide, went against the real words of God since if there was no caste among the gods, how could there be caste among God’s children? How could a father have favourites among his children? How could he create all human beings equal physiologically, but favour a few and preach carrying out atrocities against others? 

“Log aise bavare, pahan pujan jai
Ghar ki chakiya kahe na puje jehi ka peesa khai”

People are such fools that they go to worship the stones
Why don’t they worship the stone which grinds for them the flour to eat?

Kabir followed that the only way to exercise bhakti was by denouncing the caste system from one’s life. Only if a person was free from the shackles of the inconspicuous caste system could he attain true bhakti. For Kabir, religion should be a liberating and unifying force, rather than a divisive tool leading to tensions and cleavages in the society. Kabir’s essence lies in the fact that he tried to use the same concept of religion to create a bond and unity. God had been accorded the status of One unified being who belongs to all, and who does not differentiate between the human beings. 

Kabir wanted to transcend the structural aspect of religion and bring out the ‘diving power’ aspect which emanates from the Divinity. When one tries to delve deeply into the thoughts which Kabir tried to invoke, it becomes clear there was an end towards which Kabir was striving. That end was of trying to place all the individuals on the same level and ironing out the differences. Kabir equated caste-based discrimination to humanly degrading behaviour.

He emphasised on the fact that since all human beings are born equal and in the same manner, they should not be treated differently. The person who moulded Babasaheb Ambedkar’s political ideology was only of one major belief — of deconstructing our highly socialised self to learn new perspectives which promote peace and harmony in society. 

Kabir always tried to develop a connection with the masses. The motive behind connecting with the people at the base was certainly to empathise with their cause and be able to create changes from within the society. He never tried to preach anything in a dogmatic and strict manner; there was always a very soothing and lyrical manner in the way Kabir tried to disseminate his teachings.

His ideas on religion, equality, caste, and various other social issues of the times are relevant more today than they were at that time, which makes Kabira saint of all seasons who resonated well with the masses at all levels of social existence. Instead of fighting over who Kabir belonged to, it is our duty to understand his teachings — that can be the only way to properly pay homage to the great Sant. Let me end this note with this invocation from Kabir, shabda ko khoji le…. 

‘Find the Word, know the word, You are nothing but the word

Word is sky word is hell
Word is in the cell and in the cosmos
Word is man, word is woman
Word is trinity
Word is the visible and invisible Omkar
Word is the beginning of the creation Kabir says, you examine the word Word is the Creator, O, brother’.

OR

“Are you looking for me?
I am in the next seat.
My shoulder is against yours.
you will not find me in the stupas,
not in Indian shrine rooms,
nor in synagogues,
nor in cathedrals:
not in masses,
nor kirtans,
not in legs winding around your own neck,
nor in eating nothing but vegetables.
When you really look for me,
you will see me instantly —
you will find me in the tiniest house of time.
Kabir says: Student, tell me, what is God?
He is the breath inside the breath.”

Aditi Narayani Paswan is assistant professor, Maitreyi College and founder of DAPSA (Dalit Aadivasi Professors and Scholars Association)

The article was first published in The Indian Express as Kabir Jayanti 2022: The poet who practised ‘bhakti’ by denouncing caste system on June 14, 2022.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.

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Acknowledgment: This article was posted by Bhaktiba Jadeja, a research intern at IMPRI.

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