निंदक नियरे राखिए, ऑंगन कुटी छवाय, बिन पानी, साबुन बिना, निर्मल करे सुभाय। (Build a hut for your critics in your courtyard, and keep them close to you. They will scrub you clean,without water, without soap.)
These are famous lines from a Kabir doha. Kabir was a 16th century mystic who lived in Kashi (now Varanasi). There are several stories surrounding his birth, and the version we were taught in school says: he was an abandoned child brought up by Neeru and Neema, a Muslim weaver couple.
Kabir grew up to be an iconoclast, questioning everything around him. He was seeking spirituality, and never shied away from demolishing notions about deep-seated customs and rituals. Always undogmatic, he used simple rustic metaphors to put his point across. Fearless and forthright, he chafed the Muslims, when he said:
कंकर-पत्थर जोरि के मस्जिद लई बनाय, ता चढ़ि मुल्ला बांग दे का बहरा भया खुदाय| (Pebbles and stones were pieced together to build a mosque. The muezzin climbs up to crow like a rooster. Has God gone deaf?)
The Hindus didn’t escape his sarcasm either. He mocked idol worship when he said:
पाथर पूजें हरि मिलें तो मैं पूजूं पहाड़, घर की चाकी कोऊ ना पूजे जाका पीसा खाए| (If worshipping a stone can bring you closer to God, I would worship a mountain. Why doesn’t anyone worship the mill stone which grinds your daily flour?)
Needless to add, his quest of a formless (nir-gun) God and his blunt criticism of prevailing beliefs wasn’t welcomed by the people of faith around him. But clearly he didn’t belong to either side.
कबीरा खड़ा बाज़ार में, मांगे सबकी खैर, ना काहू से दोस्ती, न काहू से बैर | (Kabir stands before you seeking everyone’s well being. Nobody is my friend. Nobody is my foe)
From his work, it is apparent that he was persecuted while he lived. In his words:
साधो, देखो जग बौराना साँची कही तो मारन धावै, झूठे जग पतियाना। (Saints, I see the world is mad. If I tell the truth they rush to beat me, if I lie they trust me )
Kabir’s verses have always appealed to the common man. Written in simple colloquial language, his sayings are routinely used in daily conversations, and live on. A story which needs retelling is that of his death.
Maghar is a town which is around 30 km away from Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh. During Kabir’s time there was a conflict between the Brahmins in the area. Maghar was where the Maghi Brahmins, who had Iranian roots, lived. They were despised by the Vedic Brahmins of Kashi, who left no stone unturned to show that they were far superior than the Maghi Brahmins. And so this rumour was spread, that whoever died in Kashi would go to heaven, while whoever died in Maghar would go to hell. Kabir lived in Kashi all his life. But given the unorthodox person that he was, he used his life to break another baseless myth. He decided to relocate to Maghar, when he reached the end of his life!
The ironic part is that both Hindus and Muslims opposed his views while he lived. But when he died both groups claimed that he was theirs. There was even a dispute on whether to bury him or cremate him. Even today, in Maghar, there is both a Kabir Samadhi and a Mazaar.
These are times when we need another Kabir. To question orthodox beliefs. To make people see where blind faith is leading them to. Within him was a rebel willing to fight against untruths and yet aware of the dangers this involved.
कबीरा खड़ा बाजार में, लिए लुकाठी हाथ, जो घर फूंके आपना, चले हमारे साथ। (Kabir stands before you, holding the flame of rebellion. If you are willing to have your house burnt down, walk along with me.)
Contrary to popular belief Kabir certainly didn’t go to hell after dying in Maghar. He lives on in his pragmatic verses. In Kabir’s eternal words:
पोथी पढ़ि पढ़ि जग मुआ, पंडित भया न कोय, ढाई आखर प्रेम का, पढ़े सो पंडित होय।
(The world has read book after book, and yet no one ever became learned. The one who has read the letters of ‘love’ is the most learned of them all)
(Featured photo is from an 1825 painting showing Kabir as a weaver with his disciple. Photo sourced from Wikimedia Commons)