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The Bhagats of the Guru Granth Sahib$

Pashaura Singh

Print publication date: 2003

Print ISBN-13: 9780195662696

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195662696.001.0001

Bani Bhagat Kabir Ji Ki

(p.81) Three Bani Bhagat Kabir Ji Ki
The Bhagats of the Guru Granth Sahib

Pashaura Singh

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter focuses on the works of Kabir (ca. 1398-1448), representing the Sant tradition of north India. Kabir is the major Sant poet of the Adi Granth who has received direct comments from the Sikh Gurus. The Sants were individuals who did not have the sense of mission or the idea of an organized religious community. Indeed, the question of self-definition makes sense only with a community; the Sants who seemingly lacked communities and institutional settings did not engage in a quest for self-definition. The chapter examines how the comments on the works of Kabir made by the Sikh Gurus like Guru Amar Das and Guru Arjan sharpened the process of Sikh self-definition.

Keywords:   Kabir, Sants, Sant tradition, Adi Granth, Sikh Gurus, community, Sikh self-definition

Biographical Sketch

There is a great deal of legendary material about Kabir, but little is known about the historical facts of his life.1 The occasional references that he makes in his works provide only glimpses of the actual details of his life. He was born in Banaras around the beginning of the fifteenth century and belonged to a family of weavers that had recently been converted to Islam. The earliest testimony about his birth and upbringing in a household of Muslim weavers is recorded by Ravidas, who is generally believed to have been Kabir's younger contemporary, but who probably belonged to the following generation. Ravidas says:

In whose family on the occasion of Id and Bakr Id, the cow is butchered; in whose family Shaikh, Shahid and Pir are reverenced. Whose father acted in this way, the son following him—he, Kabir, became reverenced in the three worlds.2

(Ravidas, Malar 2, AG, p. 1293).

It should be emphasized that to be a Muslim in North India in the fifteenth century would mean to be still half Hindu, because the people—usually low caste Hindus—who found it convenient to convert en masse to the religion of the conquerors to improve their social status did not necessarily forsake their former gods and practices.3 In his own sayings Kabir does not seem to identify himself as either a Hindu or a Muslim; instead he refers to his Julaha (‘weaver’) caste and the family craft of weaving which he followed in his life. His social background as a low-caste weaver makes it likely that he was more or less illiterate. It is however possible that he may have learned meditative and devotional practices in the company of the saints in Banaras, a widely recognized centre of Hindu religion, learning and culture.4

Like other poet-saints of the Adi Granth, Kabir does not name and acknowledge any human Guru. He is generally believed to (p.82) have been a disciple of the famous Guru Ramanand’5 But the traditional association with Ramanand is highly improbable because it ‘involves chronological difficulties and the only references which Kabir makes to Ramanand are to be found in works of doubtful authenticity’.6 Vaudeville, for instance, remarks:

The story of the way that Julaha Kabir somehow managed to snatch the Rama-mantra from Ramanand appears to have been concocted with a view to hinduizing Kabir.7

Perhaps the later Hindu followers of Kabir made an attempt to provide their panth (‘sect’) with a Brahmin Guru to counter the criticism of such smartas as the poet Tulsi Das.8 On the other hand, the Muslim followers of Kabir claimed that he was a disciple and successor of Shaikh Taqqi, a famous Sufi of the Suhrawardi order, who is said to have lived in Jhusi and died in 1429.9 Chaturvedi examines the numerous references that Kabir makes to a ‘Guru’ and concludes that he probably considered all ‘saints’ to be his human Gurus.10 An allusion to this view is found in Kabir's verse: ‘The men and women you have created, O Lord, are all in your form. Kabir is the child of Ram and Allah, and accepts all Gurus and Pirs.’11 However, it is quite evident that Kabir sometimes uses the word ‘Guru’ not to refer to a human Guru, but to describe the Satguru (‘True Guru’) within, the voice of God within the human soul.12

Although there has been an endless controversy over the issue of Kabir's dates, current scholarship prefers to accept 1398–1448 CE as the dates of his birth and death.13 Chaturvedi discusses the issue at length and decides in favor of 1448 CE as the date of Kabir's death. His conclusion is based on the fact that a memorial in Magahar is said to bear a date equivalent to 1450 CE.14 Vaudeville follows Chaturvedi's line of argument and prefers to accept the view that Kabir lived in the first half of the fifteenth century. All traditions agree that Kabir spent most of his life in Banaras and probably died in the village of Magahar.15

While there is ample evidence to show that both Hindus and Muslims were ready to assault Kabir physically during his lifetime because of his vigorous attack on ritual and slavish outward observance in both Hindu tradition and Islam, they have since his death been ready to assault each other over the privilege of claiming him as their own.16 The very fact that his sayings were included in the Adi Granth along with the utterances of the Sikh (p.83) Gurus and other medieval poet-saints, and that at least two panthic traditions trace their origin to Kabir, points to a reputation of high spiritual attainment which he may have enjoyed already during his lifetime.

Textual Traditions

The Adi Granth collection of Kabir's utterances is the oldest document relating to Kabir, going back to the third quarter of the sixteenth century, and it is the only one for which an early and precisely dated manuscript exists.17 It includes 225 shabads arranged under 17 different ragas in which they are supposed to be sung. There are three longer works of Kabir to be found in the Gauri raga: ‘The Fifty-Two Letters’ (Bavan Akhari, AG, pp. 340–3), ‘The Lunar Dates’ (Thittin, AG, pp. 343–4) and ‘The Seven Days’ (Var Sat, AG, pp. 344–5). The saloks by Kabir are gathered together in the epilogue of the Adi Granth that follows the raga-section. There are 243 saloks in the collection entitled Salok Bhagat KabirJiu Ke, ‘Bhagat Kabir's couplets or stanzas’ (AG, pp. 1364–77), but of these five are by Guru Arjan (nos. 209–11, 214, 221), one by Guru Amar Das (no. 220), three (nos. 212, 213, 241) may possibly be by Namdev and one (no. 242) by Ravidas. Two extra saloks by Kabir are included in the Maru raga (AG, p. 1105). A number of saloks are duplicated in vars (AG, pp. 509,555,947 and 948), and are followed by the commentary verses by Guru Amar Das. The English translations of the complete works of Kabir in the Adi Granth may be seen in Nirmal Dass's Songs of Kabir from the Adi Granth.18

The collection of Kabir's works exceeds that of any other poet-saint represented in the Adi Granth. In the absence of any other reliable manuscript dating from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (with the exception of the newly found Fatehpur manuscript of Sur Das [1582] which contains a total of 149 padas or hymns by other poet-saints, including fifteen hymns by Kabir),19 the Adi Granth tradition of Kabir remains perhaps the most authentic part of his work. In this context, Vaudeville remarks: ‘‖ the simplicity of the language and the naturalness of the style gives an air of authenticity to Kabir's sayings in the Granth.’20 However, it should be emphasized that the Adi Granth does not contain all the sayings of Kabir. The (p.84) fact that at the time of the canonization of the Sikh scripture Guru Arjan dropped several hymns of Kabir available in the copies of the Goindval pothis and deleted four hymns from the Kartarpur volume (1604) itself, clearly indicates that a selection was made out of Kabir material accessible to the Sikh Gurus.21

There are two other major collections of Kabir's works, the Kabir-granthavali (KG) and the Bijak, representing the Dadu-panthi and Kabir-panthi traditions respectively. The dates of origin of these two collections are uncertain, but both can be assumed to have taken shape in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, rather later than the Adi Granth.22 Although there are a number of verses common to the three collections, each one taken as a whole presents a different picture of Kabir. Comparing the dohas (saloks) of Kabir in the Guru Granth Sahib (GGS) with those found in the KG, Karine Schomer concludes:

Thus we see that dohas of Kabir included and preserved in the GGS tradition tend to be those which encourage the ‘moods and motivations’ appropriate to a solid, moral, God-fearing religious community of householders. Utterances pointing to the ecstasies of mystical experience are not totally absent, but are strikingly few in comparison with those found in the KG.23

Why the difference in the images? It may be that much of the KG material emphasizing asocial, amoral and ascetic ideals— especially the deprecation of women—was edited out in the formation of the GGS corpus of Kabir utterances.24 Of course, Schomer assumes that the KG material is authentic. Another possible explanation is that the KG may contain a large number of apocryphal verses, added later but attributed to Kabir.25 Similarly, the Bijak might be regarded as a Kabir-panthi recasting of the sayings of Kabir rather than the original work of Kabir.26 However, Linda Hess has argued for the authenticity of the Bijak as follows: ‘If the Bijak's range is narrower than that of the western collections, it can be regarded as an authentic core in this sense: it contains what is universal and typical, what is present, even dominant, in all three collections.’27 Recently, Winand M. Callewaert has put together in The Millennium Kabir Vani all the works attributed to Kabir in the three collections based upon various manuscripts.28

(p.85) There are two important issues concerning the sources of the collection of Kabir's sayings in the Adi Granth. First, it has been claimed in the later hagiographic janam-sakhis (‘birth narratives’) that Guru Nanak met Kabir in the course of his visit to Banaras.29 But such an encounter was a clear impossibility. Even if the traditional date of Kabir's death 1518 is accepted as factual, there is no sound evidence to suggest that Guru Nanak ever met Kabir.30 Second, it is commonly assumed that Guru Nanak knew Kabir's sayings and that he was the source of the Kabir collection in the Adi Granth. Sahib Singh, for instance, discusses the issue at length and asserts that a comparative analysis of some of Guru Nanak's works and those of Kabir clearly indicates thematic as well as verbal similarities which can be explained only by the assumption that Guru Nanak had access to at least some of Kabir's works.31 In a similar vein, Nirmal Dass argues that ‘Guru Nanak himself was acquainted with the Kabir corpus that would later appear in the Adi Granth’ and that ‘intertextuality is at play here, where we can see the songs of Kabir setting the stage for the verses of Guru Nanak.’32 The examples of intertextuality in Dass's analysis are primarily drawn from Sahib Singh's work.

W.H. McLeod, however, challenges this assumption by arguing that many of the resemblances that Sahib Singh perceives are too vague to warrant consideration as they concern common themes rather than actual correspondence.33 He then quotes five brief passages of less than two lines each that possess verbal correspondence and asserts that they may simply be proverbial expressions that may have come from the religious language of everyday life of Northern India. The following examples from the hymns of Beni, Kabir and Guru Nanak will illustrate the point:

Says Beni: ‘The Guru-directed thus meditates; without the true Guru, one does not find the way.’

(Beni, Prabhati 1, AG, p. 135)

‘Without the true Guru, one does not find the way; explaining the mystery,’ so says Kabir.

(Kabir, Basant 3, AG, p. 1194)

Says Nanak: ‘With trusting faith one meditates; without the true Guru, one does not find the way.’

(Ml, Sahaskrili 1, AG, p. 1353)

The original expression bin satgur bat na pavai (‘without the true Guru, one does not find the way’) is common in the hymns (p.86) of Beni and Guru Nanak. Although it differs slightly in the case of Kabir's hymn, the meaning is retained. McLeod maintains that such examples are a type of epigram that could easily have gained common currency within the circles of the Sants. In other words, the common phrases were part of the Sant discourse. He concludes the discussion as follows:

The examples of verbal correspondence are sufficient to suggest that Guru Nanak may have known some of the compositions of Kabir, but they do no more than establish it as a remote possibility. We may accordingly conclude that in all likelihood Guru Nanak and Kabir neither met nor knew each other's works.34

Moreover, there are two other significant points that need to be made in the context of the present discussion. In the first place, Guru Nanak does not mention Kabir in his works. Secondly, he does not comment on any verse of Kabir as he does in the case of Shaikh Farid. Thus there seems to be no reasonable ground to assert that Guru Nanak was familiar with Kabir's works, and one must look elsewhere for the inclusion of Kabir in the Adi Granth.

It was the third Guru, Amar Das (1479–1574), who mentioned the name of Kabir for the first time in the following verse: ‘Nama (Namdev) was a cotton printer and Kabir a weaver, yet from the Perfect Guru, they obtained salvation.’35 Again, it was Guru Amar Das who inserted a number of Kabir's saloks in his own vars (‘ballads’) and responded to them in his commentary verses for the sake of defining true teaching, practice and community from the viewpoint of Sikh doctrine. Perhaps it was he who may have collected the works of Kabir during his sixty years of wandering as a spiritual seeker before coming into the fold of Sikhism. This assumption is further strengthened by the traditional accounts of his life that state that he made an annual pilgrimage to the Ganges twenty times while still a Vaishnavite.36 Moreover, the fact is that Kabir's works were first recorded in the Goindval Pothis under the care of Guru Amar Das. The inclusion of Kabir in the Adi Granth should therefore be dated to Guru Amar Das. Beginning with him the verses of Kabir were regarded by the Gurus as significant enough to be used for comment on what constitute true religious belief and practice.

It should, however, be emphasized here that the major concern in the present study is not with the issue of the source of (p.87) the Kabir collection in the Adi Granth, but with the understanding of the Gurus’ concerns behind their comments on Kabir's sayings. We will first look at the teachings of Kabir as they emerge in the Adi Granth. This will be followed by an analysis of the responses of Guru Amar Das and Guru Arjan respectively to some of Kabir's utterances.

Kabir in the Adi Granth

Like most of the poet-saints of the Adi Granth, Kabir's thought is firmly rooted in the teachings of the Sant tradition of northern India.37 The Sants were a group of mystical poets who believed in the one supreme God beyond all form and sectarian garb. They believed in the basic equality of human beings and thus rejected all social distinctions based upon the caste system. They shunned the outward symbols of religious life including images, formal religious exercises, pilgrimages and ritual bathing associated with the idea of pollution and purity. They also challenged the authority of the scriptures, the priests and the sacred languages, and expressed their beliefs not in the traditional Sanskrit, the language of the privileged few, but in the vernacular that enabled the common people access to and equal participation in religious discourse. Their emphasis upon the doctrine of one supreme reality immanent in everyone meant that spiritual experience, enlightenment and attainment of liberation lay within the reach of everyone.38 The only requirement for the individual was to offer his/her loving devotion not to an avatar (incarnation of a deity, usually Vishnu), but directly to the supreme God himself strictly through inward meditation on the divine Name.

The distinctiveness of Kabir's thought lies in his reassertion of the Sant teachings in the light of his own personality and experience. Kabir claims to have had an enlightenment experience that came to him after he had passed through stages of spiritual crises and bewilderment.39 He describes it metaphorically as follows:

Kabir, the Satguru is the true Hero, who loosed off a single arrow. The moment it struck, I fell to the ground and a wound opened in my heart.

(Kabir, Salok 194, AG, p. 1374)

(p.88) Here the archer is the True Guru (Satguru), the divine teacher within the human soul, and his arrow is the shabad, the inner Word through which he communicates with those who seek him out. The doctrine of the Word that Kabir employs to refer to the enlightenment experience or the means of reaching it is central to the teachings of the Sikh Gurus as well.40

In another hymn in the Gauri raga, Kabir describes his spiritual awakening more clearly: ‘Lo! My brethren, a storm of divine knowledge has come; the screens of doubt have all been blown away, and even the ropes of Mammon (Maya) have not been left ‖.’41 In both cases, Kabir maintains that revelation comes at the divine initiative and it comes with suddenness which pierces every layer of delusion in the mind of the individual whose total life is then transformed for all times to come. This new life of spirituality is to be found in mystical union with the Divine.

In his Prabhati hymn, Kabir elaborates on his understanding of the Supreme Being. For him God is universal and is present everywhere especially in the human heart. He condemns the sectarian notions of both Hindus and Muslims who try to keep God confined to their respective holy places:

If the mosque is the place where God (Allah) resides, then who owns the rest of the land? For Hindus, He lives in idols; there is no reality in both. O Allah and Ram, I live by your Name. Be merciful to me, O Lord. Refrain (rahau). Hari (‘Lord’) lives in the South and Allah in the West. Search in the heart—inside your heart of hearts—that is His real abode. Brahmins fast twice a month twenty-four times and Qazis fast in the month of Ramadan. Neglecting the remaining eleven months, they search for treasure in one month. Why go and bathe [at Jagannath] in Orissa? Why bow your heads in a mosque? With heart full of fraud you chant prayers. What avails you to go on a pilgrimage (hajj) to the Ka’aba? All these men and women of the world that you have created, O Lord, are in your form. Kabir is the child of Ram-Allah; everyone is my Guru, my Pir. Kabir Says: ‘Listen, O men and women, seek only one shelter: Repeat his Name, O mortals. Only then shall you be assuredly saved.’

(Kabir, Prabhati 2, AG, p. 1349)

Kabir here emphatically states the oneness of the Divine, His omnipresence and in a typically mystical tone takes the human heart (dil) to be the abode of God. Thus the individual must find the truth in his/her own body and mind by repeating the (p.89) divine Name with utmost inner sincerity of the heart, which is the only means of attaining liberation.

Given this understanding of the Supreme Being it is not surprising that Kabir vigorously attacks the outward observances and sectarianism in both the Hindu tradition and Islam of his time. Hindus abstain from grains on ekadasi (gias in the original text), the eleventh day in each lunar fortnight, roughly twenty-four times a year. Muslims observe fast during daylight hours in the month of Ramadan, a sacred month heralding the revelation of the Qur’an in the Muslim tradition. By ‘South’ in the original text Kabir seems to have meant the Jagannath temple at Puri in Orissa, which is evident from rest of the hymn. The phrase ‘Allah in the West’ refers to Indian Muslims’ attitude to their holy place in Mecca that is to the west of India. Accordingly, the Hindus visit the pilgrimage centre at Jagannath Puri in Orissa (in the south from Banaras) for ritual bathing to remove accumulated karma and Muslims trudge to Mecca to pay their homage to Ka’aba. Kabir condemns both Hindus and Muslims, especially the Brahmins and Qazis, as hypocrites for the way in which they divorce moral conduct and religious practice. He uses the formulaic phrase dil mahi kapat —‘with heart full of fraud’—to underline the phoniness in traditional religion.

Further, Kabir recognizes the basic equality of human beings on the ground that they are created by the same God and are ‘all in your form’.42 Each person is somehow in God's image and is worthy of equal respect and dignity. Kabir may have intended to resolve the historical tension prevailing between two major religious communities of India—Hindus and Muslims—who were making exclusive religious claims. Kabir, however, declares his independence from the sectarian categories of the Hindu tradition and Islam by identifying himself to be a ‘child’ of one God who is known by different names such as ‘Allah and Ram’. Moreover, he seems to have shown equal regard to the devout leaders of the two faiths—gurus and pirs—who may have influenced him during his lifetime with their piety.

Throughout his works Kabir seems to have rejected the authority of the scriptures of both the Hindu tradition and Islam. He asserts that the Vedas and the Semitic texts (kateb, namely, the Torah, the Zabur [‘Psalms], the Injil [Gospel] and the Qur’an) are a pretence that cannot remove the wanderings of (p.90) the heart.43 At points he is unequivocal in his rejection of religious texts:

I have discarded the writings of Pandits and Mullahs. I have taken nothing out of them. If purity is in the heart, you can behold the Lord. Kabir has found Him searching the self again and again.

(Kabir, Bhairau 7, AG, p. 1159).

Kabir here claims to have attained the enlightenment experience through self-realization. He is quite explicit that the source of his spiritual development is not some external authority, but his own personal mystic experience.

Kabir places much emphasis upon the inwardness as true religiosity and denounces all external observances as futile. He maintains that mere rituals and ceremonial worship are of no use in bringing about liberation:

If the union yogis seek (yoga, ‘union’ with the self) came from roaming about naked in the buff, every deer in the forest would achieve liberation. Why go naked or wear skins when you cannot see Ram in your own heart? Refrain. If by shaving your head you gain spiritual fulfillment why are not all the sheep saved? If by holding back your ‘seed’ (bind, ‘sperm’) you earn a place in paradise, brother, why cannot eunuchs achieve the supreme state of bliss? Kabir says: ‘Listen, brother, who has ever won the spirit's prize without the divine Name (ram nam)?’

(Kabir, Gauri 4, AG, p. 324)

In the last verse Kabir recommends the spiritual discipline of meditation on the divine Name as the only means of release. Kabir shows his preference for the word ‘Ram’ to depict God. It should be noted that this ‘Ram’ is not the deity of popular Hindu mythology, incarnation of Vishnu and hero of the epic Ramayana. In a number of poems Kabir explicitly repudiates this anthropomorphic Ram. For Kabir, ‘Ram’ is primarily a sound, a mantra consisting of the long and short syllable ‘Ra-ma’.44

Kabir sarcastically condemns the hierarchical social values of the caste system under which human beings are in principle unequal, and the ideas of purity and pollution associated with the caste. He challenges the Brahmin as follows:

You do not know your caste when you are in the Mother's womb. All are born from Brahman's seed (brahm bindu). Say, O pandit, when did you become a Brahmin? Do not waste your life saying, ‘I am a Brahmin.’ Refrain. If you are a Brahmin born of a Brahmin woman, then why did you not come out some special way? How are you a Brahmin? How are we (p.91) Shudras? How are we of blood? How are you of milk? Kabir says: ‘He who meditates on Brahman is indeed a Brahmin in my opinion.’

(Kabir, Gauri 7, AG, p. 324)

Milk, for all its white appearance seemingly symbolizes ‘purity’ whereas blood symbolizes ‘impurity’ or untouchability.45 Kabir argues with merciless logic that Brahmin and Shudra are either both polluted or are both clean. He uses the common argument against untouchability that everyone is born in the same way from the same stuff, the brahm bindu (‘seed of Brahman’). Shudras are therefore not polluted in relation to Brahmins. Kabir thus ridicules the absurdity of the claim made by Brahmins that they enjoy special status because of their birth in a particular caste. In his radical reinterpretation he points out that a true Brahmin is the one who meditates on God.

For Kabir, the way of devotion is a solitary one. In the following salok, he cautions the devotee not to take anyone along while following the saintly path to union because that would delay his/ her own spiritual progress:

Kabir, if you start off to join the Sadhu, take no companion with you. And never retrace your steps, whatever may come in your way.

(Kabir, Salok 116, AG, p. 1370)

The word sadhu may mean ‘the saint’ par excellence, one who is the Satguru, or it may be taken in the plural, meaning ‘saints’ in general. Although Kabir implies that the way of devotion should be pursued with determination in spite of the difficulties it entails, he seems to be stressing individual salvation as the goal of spiritual endeavour. The Sikh Gurus, by contrast, place emphasis on collective emancipation as the goal for the seeker. In his Japji, for instance, Guru Nanak says:

They who have faithfully followed the divine Name have run their course, their labours done. Freed are they and others with them. Radiantly, Nanak, they go to glory.46

(Ml, Japji, AG, 8)

It seems evident that individual salvation is not Guru Nanak's ideal. The stress here is on altruistic concern for the humanity as a whole (sarbat da bhula). In this context, Niharranjan Ray skillfully remarks: ‘Neither the leaders of the Bhakti movement nor of the Nathapantha and the Sant synthesis attempted to do what Guru Nanak did, not in any systematic manner at any rate. These (p.92) leaders seem to have been individuals working out their own problems towards achieving their personal religious and spiritual aims and aspirations.’47 In a similar vein, Jasbir Singh Ahluwalia aptly notes: ‘The Bhakti movement could not play a revolutionary role on the sociological level owing, inter alia, to its individualistic mystique; the stress here was on individualistic salvation in the world hereafter realizable through the mystical union with God ‖. On the other hand Sikhism enlarged the conception of salvation by investing it with collectivistic, societal dimension.’48

Kabir's emphasis on solitariness is seen in his views on mendicity as a means of acquiring merit in spiritual life. He says:

Kabir, it is pleasant to beg (madhukari), you receive grains of many kinds. None has a claim over you, and you enjoy a great country, a great kingdom.

(Kabir, Salok 168, AG, p. 1373)

Madhukari literally means ‘honey-making’ and it refers to the normal way for a mendicant to sustain oneself, by collecting uncooked food grains from a number of households. Vaudeville writes that the praise of mendicity as a way to freedom both material and spiritual is already found in Nath-panthi literature. She quotes the following verse from the Gorakh-bani :

Mendicity is my cow of plenty, and the whole world is my field. By the Guru's grace, I obtain alms, and when the end comes, no burden (of karma) on my head.49

(Doha, 108)

Kabir seems to have been influenced by the Nath-panthi tradition with regard to his emphasis on the practice of living off alms. Prabhakar Machwe maintains: ‘Though Kabir was a weaver and weaving was his parental occupation, his heart was not in his profession, neither as a craft nor as a means of earnings.’50 Perhaps Kabir renounced the family craft at some stage in his life and reverted to madhukari to sustain himself and his family. This seems to be implied in the following autobiographical hymn from the Gujari raga:

Kabir's mother sobs and weeps in secret: ‘How will these children live, O God (Raghurai, “Ram”)?’ Kabir has given up setting the loom and weaving: On his body he has written the Name of Ram! Refrain. ‘As long as I went on threading my shuttle, so long the thread of Ram's Love kept snapping! I am slow-witted and a weaver by caste—but I have earned the profit (p.93) of divine Name.’ Says Kabir: ‘Listen, O mother: He who is the Lord (Raghurai) of the three worlds provides me and them.’

(Kabir, Gujari 2, AG, p. 524)

The hymn clearly describes the sorrow of Kabir's mother because her son had given up his weaving to devote all his time to meditating on the divine Name. Kabir seems to have withdrawn himself from various concerns of the well being of his family.51

In contrast with Kabir, the Sikh Gurus are strongly opposed to begging. They consider it degrading and denounce those self-styled leaders who live off alms. For instance, Guru Nanak pro-claims:

They who call themselves gurus and pirs but go about begging for alms—never fall at their feet to show them reverence. They who eat what they earn through their own labour and who give some of what they have in charity; says Nanak: ‘They alone know the true way of spiritual life.’

(Ml, Var Sarang, 1 (22), AG, p. 1245)

Guru Nanak asserts that the true way of spiritual life requires that one should live on what one has laboured to receive through honest means and that one should share with others the fruit of one's exertion. Thus there is no place for mendicity in the Sikh view of life. This is the most significant stance that sets Guru Nanak and his successors apart from the Sants of North India.

Finally, the theme of the love of the Divine and the anguish of separation (biraha) pervades the compositions of Kabir in the Adi Granth. Vaudeville writes: ‘In Kabir's poetry and in the Sant tradition generally, the notion of viraha (or biraha), a tormenting desire of the soul for the absent Beloved, bears a resemblance to the Sufi notion of ishq.’52 Kabir describes the painful longing of the soul who has not yet obtained the beatific vision of the divine Beloved as follows:

Once the snake of biraha is in the body, no mantra can control it. He who is separated from Ram will not survive. But if he does, he will go mad.

(Kabir, Salok 76, AG, p. 1368)

To dislodge a venomous snake from its hole, to bring it under control or to cure a snake-bite, yogis use appropriate mantras, that is, magic spells.53 Kabir employs the symbol of the snake to describe the lovelorn condition of the devotee that resembles that of a man under the influence of a deadly poison. Kabir thus stresses the arduousness of the path of love that involves long (p.94) periods spent in the anguish of separation. He maintains that very few ever reach their goal and experience the union with the divine Beloved.

Guru Amar Das and Kabir

Guru Amar Das, who was only ten years younger than Guru Nanak and who outlived him by thirty-five years, seems to have seriously studied the works of Kabir. He makes comments on some of Kabir's verses and joins issues with him on vital points such as the primacy of divine grace over personal effort, the ideal of jivan-makti (‘spiritual liberation within lifetime’) and the means to attain liberation.

In one of his couplets, duplicated in Var Ramakali, Kabir seems to be resenting that he has not been blessed with divine favour in spite of his stern asceticism. Kabir develops this theme by using the symbol of henna. It reads as follows:

Kabir, to make my henna, I have crushed and ground my own self. Yet, You, O Beloved, never had a word for me and never let me embrace your feet.

(Kabir, Var Ramakali, 1 (2), p. 947)

In India, leaves of henna (mehandi) plant are ground with catechu to make a reddish-orange paste used by women to decorate the palms of their hands and the soles of their feet. This is always done at the time of marriage. Here, the wife-soul complains that, having surrendered her body and soul to win her divine Husband's favour, she has not yet been able to win Him over.54 Kabir seems to have lost his patience because of his failure to get the reward (divine grace) for his spiritual efforts.

On the other hand, the Sikh view of grace requires that one must have the belief that the whole of one's spiritual progress is a matter of divine grace, not of one's efforts alone. Efforts are to be made with the spirit of total surrender to the divine will (hukam) and without seeking any reward. There is no room for any kind of grumbling at any stage of spiritual progress. Thus we have Guru Amar Das's response to Kabir's verse as follows:

M3 (Guru Amar Das)

I have become henna, Nanak, so that the Lord may cast his gracious glance at me. He himself beats [the leaves of henna], He himself pounds it to (p.95) powder, and He himself applies it to his limbs. This cup of love belongs to the Lord, and He himself gives it to him whom He likes to bless.

(M3, Var Ramakali, 2 (2), AG, p. 947).

Here, Guru Amar Das makes it amply clear that grace is a matter of divine free choice that determines the fundamental spirit in which the whole of the spiritual progress is to be viewed by the devotees. Each and every action right from the beginning is performed with the belief that grace is a constituent of it and it makes the act a totality. Avtar Singh has termed it as a ‘coeval theory or simultaneous concomitance theory of grace and action.’55 It is the divine grace that occupies a position of primary importance in the thought of Guru Amar Das, although human effort is always required in response to the divine initiative. Marking a contrast with Kabir's view on the issue of human effort and divine grace, Guru Amar Das accentuates the distinctive Sikh viewpoint.

The second major concern of Guru Amar Das in responding to Kabir's verses is related to the ideal of the jivan-mukat (‘liberated while living’). Kabir repeatedly proclaims that one who attains liberation within one's lifetime must of necessity be a jivat-mirtak (‘dead while alive’). He states: ‘There are very few men, indeed who, while living, are as if dead: Free from fear, they are absorbed in the praise of God, wherever they look, they see but Him!’56 Thus the true devotee is the one who has ‘died’ to the world and obtained the state of jivat-mirtak, which coincides with the sahaja experience. The technical term sahaja (lit. ‘simple, spontaneous, natural or easy’) stands for enlightenment experience associated with Tantric Buddhism (the Sahajayana School). For Kabir, the sahaja experience is the condition of ultimate, inexpressible beatitude (sahaja ki akath katha hai nirari).57 Vaudeville writes that the mysterious sahaja state, which Tantrikas conceive as one of perfect bliss (mahasukha), is for Kabir, only to be bought at the cost of one's life.58 The idea is developed in Kabir's salok as follows:

Says Kabir: ‘Such is the touchstone of God that false ones are proclaimed false. And, he alone passes the Lord's test who dies (to his self) while yet alive.’

(Kabir, Var Ramakali, 1 (4), AG, p. 948)

The touchstone (kasauti) is a kind of black stone used by the jewellers to test gold—rubbed on the kasauti real gold leaves a golden mark on it.59 Kabir employs the symbol of kasauti to (p.96) assert that none can really succeed in the life of spirituality to win divine approval with any kind of pretence. Only through the process of ‘dying to the self while remaining physically alive can one reach the ideal of spiritual attainment during one's lifetime.

Evidently Kabir expresses himself in terms that are not readily understandable. One can raise the question: what is the meaning of the phrase ‘living dead’ (mari-jiva or jivat-mirtak) in Kabir's usage? How does one attain the state of spiritual liberation within one's lifetime? These seem to have been issues for Guru Amar Das, for he makes the following two comments on Kabir's verse:

M3 (Guru Amar Das)

How is one to still one's mind and how is one to die (to the self)? [It cannot happen] if one does not accept the divine Word (shabad) uttered [by the Guru] and does not leave one's self-centredness (haumai). By the Guru's grace (gurparsadi), one abandons one's haumai (‘I-am-ness’), and is thus emancipated in life. Says Nanak: ‘He who is blessed by divine grace meets with the Lord. Thereafter, he suffers no pain.’

M3 (Guru Amar Das)

Everyone says: ‘I die to the self, but how is one to be emancipated while yet alive?’ Indeed, [one can achieve such a state] if one disciplines (the mind) through the Lord's fear, and cures one's maladies with the Lord's love. By singing the Lord's praises and seated in the peace of poise, one swims across the sea of tumultuous existence. Thus through the Guru, Nanak, one attains to the Lord when one is blessed by the divine grace.

(M3, Var Ramakali, 2–3 (4), AG, p. 948)

Here, Guru Amar Das clearly defines his own vision of the mystic theme of ‘dying to the self contained in the obscure verse of Kabir. On the basis of his personal experience of human nature he asserts that haumai (‘I-am-ness’ or ‘self-centredness’) is the root cause of one's maladies and that this needs to be slain so that one becomes ‘dead while alive.’ Only then can one attain the state of spiritual liberation within one's lifetime by accepting the divine Word (shabad) through the Guru's grace. Further, Guru Amar Das proposes a spiritual prescription that includes the singing of God's praises, disciplining the unstable mind through the fear of God and achieving the state of poise (sahaja) through loving devotion. Although this is in line with Kabir's ideal of jivan-mukti, it is much simpler and practical for ordinary people. Also, Guru Amar Das seems to have felt the need for (p.97) clarifying comments on Kabir's verse emphasizing the idea that spiritual liberation can be had only if one dies to the self by means of the divine Word (shabad) of the Guru.60

Another theme, related to the issue of spiritual liberation within one's lifetime, is the question of transmigratory existence. Kabir does accept the doctrine of karma and rebirth, although there is an allusion to the belief that human life provides the one and only chance of liberation. For instance, Kabir says: ‘Your chance of human birth does not come time and again. Once the ripe fruit falls on the ground, you cannot stick it back on the branch.’61 Here Kabir's belief in the unique opportunity of human birth reflects his Muslim background or the verse seems to be originally intended for the Muslim audience, but elsewhere he explicitly states his belief in the doctrine of rebirth.62 He describes the circular motion of the wheel of time that is always depicted as being gripped in the teeth and claws of death:

Kabir, dying, dying, world keeps dying, but none knows how to die. He who dies such a death will never have to die again.

(Kabir, Var Bihagara, 1 (17), AG, p. 555)

Kabir maintains that because one was born one will die, and because one dies one will be born again. However, one can find deliverance from this condition if one dies ‘such a death’ (to one's self).

In his comment in Var Bihagara, Guru Amar Das elaborates on the meaning of the original phrase aisi marani (‘such a death’) in Kabir's verse as follows:

M3 (Guru Amar Das)

I know not how to die (to my self): what this (strange) death is! If one forsakes not the Lord from the mind, one dies spontaneously (to the self). Everyone is afraid of death and wants to live eternally, but he who dies in life, through the Guru's grace (gur parsadi), alone knows the divine Order (hukam). He who dies such a death, Nanak, lives eternally and forever.

(M3, Var Bihagara, 2 (17), AG, p. 555)

Guru Amar Das clearly implies here that one may attain the ideal of the ‘living dead’ through the Guru's grace (gur parsadi) by constantly remembering the Lord. Then one comes to realize the functioning of divine Order (hukam) in one's life. By bringing one's life into harmony with the divine Order, of which (p.98) karma is a part, one finds the effects of an adverse karma obliterated.63 In this way one transcends the condition of death and transmigration. Guru Amar Das further asserts that one's quest for eternity can end only if one can overcome the fear of death. Thus one can find the secret of eternal life (sad jivan) by liberating oneself from the fear of dying again and again. In offering his exegesis of Kabir's verse, Guru Amar Das, in the first instance, is agreeing with Kabir on the ideal of ‘dying to the self. But beyond Kabir, he is also making a point that even that achievement (‘dying to the self) is something that comes by the grace of the Eternal Guru (God). This serves to underline the Gurus’ continuing emphasis on the primacy of divine grace. In effect, Guru Amar Das is agreeing with Kabir but he is also concerned with emphasizing the distinctive Sikh teaching of divine grace.

The main obstacle on the path of spiritual liberation, according to Kabir, is the unstable nature of human mind (man). Kabir often speaks of passion driven mind, equating it with a mad killer-elephant that is out of control:

Kabir, the Door of salvation is narrow like the tenth of a mustard seed! Mind is an elephant gone mad: How could it go through (that Door)?

If I find that Satguru who is pleased to favour me, the Door of salvation will open to me. Then I will come and go easily.

(Kabir, Var Gujari, 1 (4), AG, p. 509)

Vaudeville interprets mukti duara (‘Door of Salvation’) as an allusion to the opening called brahmarandhra (‘Hole of Brahman’) in the Yogic language.64 But in Kabir's usage in the present context, it seems to symbolize the extreme difficulty one must encounter to reach the ultimate goal of one's spiritual journey, for a huge creature like an elephant cannot pass through a door as narrow as the tenth of a mustard seed. Kabir maintains that by the grace of the True Guru (Satguru) one can attain total freedom from the delusion of the mind and enjoy the ultimate sahaja state.

In his commentary verse in Var Gujari, Guru Amar Das gives his own interpretation of the theme of Kabir's verses in terms that are more intelligible. That is, he substitutes the word haumai (T-am-ness’ or ‘ego’) for Kabir's maigal (‘elephant’):

M3 (Guru Amar Das)

The Door of salvation is narrow, Nanak, but he who is meek, passes through it. But, if the mind is inflated with ego (haumai), it cannot pass through it (p.99) Meeting with the True Guru (Satguru), one's ego departs, and one is filled with the divine light (prakash). This soul (Jiu) is then forever emancipated and it merges in the peace of poise (sahaja).

(M3, Var Gujari, 2 (4), AG, pp. 509–10)

Guru Amar Das asserts that one's mind becomes deluded under the influence of an inflated ego (haumai manu asathulu hai). The moment one becomes a free ego-less person through one's union with the True Guru, one comes to realize that ‘this soul is forever emancipated’ (ehu jiu sada muktu hai). The state of liberation, in the fullest sense, is an enlightening experience of a real fact that had always been there, but veiled from the ‘self’ by the ego (haumai). Explaining the meaning of the phrase ehu jiu sada muktu hai in the verse of Guru Amar Das, Mohan Singh Diwana aptly observes:

We are ever free; who bound or fettered us? Only we have to perfectly, unshakably, rest in, blend with this Truth. Even the best of Vedantins, old or medieval, have not expressed it so simply and succincdy in two lines.65

According to the Advaita Vedanta doctrine, liberation arises from knowledge of non-duality that implies the identity of Brahman and Atman. A key part of this knowledge is the realization that the real ‘you’ is not the body (including mind and senses) but the eternal, unchanging self. In particular, the Advaita of Shankara rejects the notions that liberation is inherently related to the end of physical embodiment or gaining physical immortality in heaven. One becomes bodiless and immortal when one knows only the self and not one's body is immortal. Thus one gains liberation while (in fact only while) living. Indeed, the jivanmukat might teach others and in rare and extraordinary cases, a liberated one might return to perform a commission.66

Thus Guru Amar Das clearly defines his own vision of the realization of the ultimate truth as something spontaneous and simple (sahaja) that is already there in every body and in every heart. It is the recognition of one's own true ‘self which requires complete honesty and utter humility. This is the meaning of the phrase nana hoi so jai — ‘he who is meek, passes through’ (the door of salvation). It would seem that both Kabir and Guru Amar Das characterize the sahaja state, the ultimate human experience of bliss and peace, as the ideal of all spiritual endeavour. However, Guru Amar Das seems compelled to comment on Kabir's (p.100) verse perhaps in order to clarify how the sahaja experience is to be understood by the contemporary Sikh community, which in turn develops its sense of independent identity.

Finally, there is Kabir's theme of self-withdrawal from active life in the world. His autobiographical hymns in the Adi Granth clearly state that ‘Kabir does not care for his profession’ and that ‘he has ruined the whole family business.’67 His wife frequendy complains that our ‘son and daughter have nothing to eat’ because Kabir has renounced his ancestral trade of weaving and that ‘he no longer speaks of his beam and shuttle.’68 There is a sense in which passivity is raised to the level of normative behaviour for the mystic:

Kabir, whatever I propose, God disposes, so why propose and scheme? For, what God proposes, He does, and does He what one cannot even dream?

(Kabir, Salok 219, AG, p. 1376)

Rather than accepting the divine will with a positive attitude, Kabir here wants to escape from life, giving up all proposing and scheming for the sake of making a living.

This escapist attitude is directly opposed to the Sikh view of action-oriented life in the world and a joyous acceptance of the divine will in every situation whether favourable or not.69 For the Gurus, creative activity in the world is the yardstick of one's progress in the life of spirituality. Guru Amar Das, for instance, responds to Kabir's view as follows:

M3 (Guru Amar Das)

He himself puts care (chinta) in us, He himself makes us carefree (achint): Give praise to that One, Nanak, who takes care of all.

(M3, Salok 220, AG, p. 1376)

The word chinta in the present context means ‘care and anxiety’. One experiences these worries in one's life while participating in worldly affairs. Guru Amar Das asserts that one should put one's faith exclusively in the indwelling God who looks after everyone in one's mundane concerns. Thus by submitting to the divine will cheerfully one can become ‘carefree’ (achintu) and gain confidence to cope with any situation of anguish and despair, because every happening is then seen to be coming from God. The acceptance of anxiety (chinta) is in itself regarded by the Guru as an act showing a positive attitude towards life. (p.101) Clearly, this is a corrective to Kabir's view of self-withdrawal, defining Guru Amar Das's personal view of the spirit of optimism, or the need to confront life with a positive attitude.

However, in order to guard against the excessive indulgence in the things of the world, Guru Arjan adds a further comment in this context as follows:

M5 (Guru Arjan)

Kabir, man meditated not on Ram, he wandered, following his desires. Whilst given to sin, he died: In one moment, his life span was over.

(M5, Salok 221, AG, p. 1376)

Here, Guru Arjan describes the nature of the ‘unregenerate man’ who is so attached to his passions for worldly pleasures that he forgets the Divine and wastes his entire life in sin.70 In Sikh writings, the word manmukh (‘self-willed’) is used for the ‘unregenerate man’. Guru Arjan's remark is clearly intended to explain the Sikh view that life in the world must be based on the remembrance of the divine Name. Otherwise the diamond-worth life becomes worthless.71 The emphasis then is on a harmonized ‘balance’ in life by avoiding the extremes of self-withdrawal and excessive indulgence in the things of the world. Thus the Guru's comments serve to highlight the distinctive Sikh way of life for the benefit of the Sikh community.

Guru Arjan and Kabir

As the director of the process of canonization of the Sikh scripture, Guru Arjan was responsible for editing the works of Kabir to bring them into harmony with the ‘moods and motivations’ of the Sikh community.72 Like Guru Amar Das, he has entered his comments to define the distinctiveness of the Sikh view at various points in the verses of Kabir. His dialogue with Kabir is centred on the themes of urgency in the face of death, the company of Sants and sinners, the dignity of regular labour as a part of spiritual discipline and the supremacy of enlightened intellect over the wayward mind.

Karine Schomer has suggested that the Adi Garnth verses of Kabir point to religious themes that are more supportive of a sense of religious community and social morality rather than of an individualistic mystical religion.73 Accordingly, one finds the (p.102) theme of urgency in the face of death duly stressed time and again in Kabir's verses. There is the sense in which human beings are urged to settle their accounts with a just God before death overtakes them and it is too late. The theme is developed as follows:

Kabir, putting off paying, the day has passed, the interest goes on mounting—Man has not adorned Hari or cleared his debts. And lo! Death has arrived!

(Kabir, Salok 208, AG, p. 1375)

The payment of old debts refers to the destruction of past karma. In this context Hess and Singh observe: ‘Karma—popularly understood as a sort of bank account-cum-Mastercharge, where your current balance may be either a credit or a debit (good karma, bad karma)—is actually the principle of cause and effect. The root meaning of karma is activity or doing. The karmic principle could be stated, ‘You are what you do’ or, in the context of time, ‘your actions determine what you become’. Actions include thinking and all other functions of the mind. Karma is logical and inexorable. Because you think the way you do, you act the way you do, and your actions reinforce or prove the validity of your thinking.’74 Karma is also understood as a predisposition that safeguards the notion of free choice. Kabir maintains that one who keeps on postponing the ultimate concern of liberation from the condition of bondage accumulates a further load of bad karma. In this way one has surely wasted one's entire life without clearing the account (khatu) of karma. Not only does one experience separation from God, but karma keeps on mounting in much the same way as interest does in the case of bad debts.

Most surprisingly, Kabir's single verse is followed by six commentary saloks (209–14), inserted by Guru Arjan, which are intended to be reflections on various ideas of Kabir. For the sake of convenience, the discussion of these passages will be organized according to the religious themes. First of all, Guru Arjan responds to the above salok of Kabir as follows:

M5 (Guru Arjan)

Kabir, man is like a barking dog, running to get the bone. By good fortune, I obtained the True Guru (Satguru) who made me drop it.

(M5, Salok 209, AG, p. 1375)

(p.103) Guru Arjan asserts that the self-willed persons are like dogs that are always running after the vile pleasures (karang, literally ‘carrion’) of this world. They bark falsehoods and their account of karma is not torn up. The Guru then mentions his personal experience of having been delivered from the attractions of the world by the grace of the True Guru. The point is that without God as True Guru (Satguru), none can succeed in attaining release from the bondage of karma. Guru Arjan is telling Kabir (and by implication, his contemporary followers) that it is the divine grace that overcomes karma, not one's own efforts.

The second important theme in Guru Arjan's comments is related to the company of Sants and sinners. Kabir repeatedly stresses the value of associating with righteous and saintly people for the cultivation of proper devotional conduct: ‘Do not leave the way of the Sants, follow in their path: Just seeing them, man is purified, and meeting them, he invokes Ram.’75 This is in line with the Sikh concept of spiritual fellowship (sadh sangat) in which the Eternal Guru is mystically present. This concept is fundamental to the teachings of the Gurus. Guru Arjan spells it out in detail in the seventh octave of his celebrated Sukhmani.76 However, Kabir is strongly opposed to any kind of association with sinners. He describes them with loathsomeness as the meat-eating, liquor-drinking, Devi-worshipping Sakta : ‘Do not associate with sinners (saktas), flee from them. By touching a blackened vessel, one is sure to get stained.’77 For Kabir, the sinners are totally lost and for them the door of liberation is closed. Hence one must stay away from the bad moral influence of sinners. In this context, Guru Arjan makes the following two comments:

M5 (Guru Arjan)

Kabir, though the earth belongs to the holy, thieves have taken possession of it. Yet the earth feels not their weight, and for them (thieves) it is all gain.

M5 (Guru Arjan)

Kabir, on account of the husk, rice is beaten with a pesde: So if one sits in the company of the wicked, Dharamrai (god of death) will take him to task!

(M5, Saloks 210–11, AG, p. 1375)

In the first salok Guru Arjan suggests that the presence of sinners (thieves) in the company of the holy can in no way affect (p.104) the saintly people (sadh), for they look on all things with ‘equanimity’. Moreover, the company of the holy is all gain for the sinners because they may turn towards God by accepting the sound moral influence of the Sants. In contrast with Kabir, Guru Arjan seems to keep the company of the Sants open for the sinners. This serves to underline the optimistic Sikh view that it is never too late to turn towards God and that every sinner is a potential Sant. Kabir remains a solitary spiritual seeker who does not seem to have a sense of social mission or the idea of an organized religious community. By contrast, the Sikh Gurus have a strong sense of mission that compels them to proclaim their message for the ultimate benefit of their audience and to promote socially responsible living. While as a mystic Kabir can afford to stay away from sinners (saktas), the Sikh Gurus cannot do so, and they keep their doors open for them principally because of their sense of mission.

However, in his second comment Guru Arjan seems to warn against the dangers of keeping bad company. He employs the symbol of edible rice (chavala) to make the point. The edible rice is obtained by beating the un-husked grains with a long pesde. The husk (tukh) here symbolizes the wicked. On account of its association with the husk, ‘good’ rice undergoes the punishment of being pounded with the pestle.78 Guru Arjan shares Kabir's view to the extent that one must stay away from the bad moral influence of sinners. He clearly implies that when one starts to accept evil moral influence in the company of the wicked, one is sure to suffer the consequences of such association. He wants to apprise his audience that one should keep company with discernment and associate with saindy people in order to cultivate virtues in life. In his comments on Kabir, Guru Arjan seems to move toward a ‘balanced approach’ with regard to the company of sinners. That is, one should neither flee from them nor indulge excessively in their company.

Another important concern of Guru Arjan is linked with the issue of the dignity of regular labour as a part of spiritual discipline. As we have already noted, Kabir is reputed to have abandoned his weaving profession to follow the path of devotion.79 Guru Arjan consciously inserts the following two saloks in Kabir's verses that compose a short dialogue between the Maharashtrian saint Namdev and his contemporary saint Trilochan, both of whom preceded Kabir. The verses read:

(p.105) ‘O Nama, Maya has deceived you,’ said his friend Trilochan. ‘Why do you keep printing cotton cloth, instead of meditating on Ram?’

Said Nama: ‘O Trilochan, with your mouth, invoke Ram, with your hands and feet, do all your work, keeping your soul fixed on Niranjan!’

(Namdev/M5, Saloks 212–13, AG, pp. 1375–6)

Vaudeville maintains that these two saloks can scarcely be attributed to Kabir.80 Elsewhere, she takes an opposite position: ‘Such an utterance, put by Kabir in the mouth of his illustrious predecessor Namdev, points to the convergence of the spiritual attitudes of the northern Sants and the Sants of Maharashtra. Whatever their particular religious tradition, the Sants are seekers of the “Pure” (niranjan), the Absolute, a Godhead which transcends their own traditional allegiance.’81 In both instances, Vaudeville is not certain whether to attribute these two saloks to Kabir or not. In fact, this whole controversy of authorship has resulted from ignorance of the editorial interventions of Guru Arjan in the Bhagat Bani. Two explanations may be offered to address this question. First, these saloks are probably the compositions of Namdev because they reflect his views as expressed in his hymn in the Ramakali raga that work and worship should go hand in hand.82 Second, it is more likely that Guru Arjan himself composed them on the basis of Namdev's Ramakali hymn to provide corrective to Kabir's views of self-withdrawal from worldly occupation. The language of the saloks is certainly different from Namdev's Marathi hymn. Moreover, they definitely point to the Sikh concept of disciplined worldliness which emphasizes that one must live on what one has laboured to receive through honest means (ghali khai or kirt karni) and engage in the discipline of remembrance of the divine Name’ (nam-simaran). One can see here a corrective to the views held by Kabir, through the use of the name and composition of Namdev, who may have enjoyed high spiritual reputation before Kabir.83

Guru Arjan then makes the final comment on the issues raised by Kabir's works and concludes the discussion as follows:

M5 (Guru Arjan)

Kabir, I have nobody, and I belong to no one. I remain absorbed in that One who is the Creator of this world.

(M5, Salok 214, AG, p. 1376)

Here, Guru Arjan asserts that freedom from attachment while remaining in the midst of temptations to attachment should be (p.106) the proper pattern of living for the true devotee. The emphasis is a dual one—absorption in God on the one hand and recognition of the world as God's creation on the other.

Throughout his comments in the six saloks (nos. 209–14), Guru Arjan seems to be concerned with emphasizing the distinctive Sikh way of life based on the principle of earning one's living through honest creative labour, meditation on the divine Name, associating with saintly people which even promotes the spiritual life of the sinners, and remaining above worldly attachments. Thus he responds to the issue, originally raised in the verse of Kabir, that one can attain release from the debt of karma by following the path of the Guru. It is only through the proper understanding of the editorial process behind the making of the Sikh scripture that we can fully appreciate the original context of these comments in the verses of Kabir.

kabir's gauri hymn written with guru arjan's additional verse

There is a unique instance in the works of the poet-saints included in the Adi Granth. A hymn by Kabir in the Gauri raga is entitled Gauri Kabir Ji Ki nali ralae likhia Mahala V, ‘Kabir's hymn in the measure Gauri to which Guru Arjan's composition is added at the time of writing.’ This title clearly indicates that Guru Arjan's comment is added to the hymn. It reads as follows:

Such is the wonder that Kabir has beheld: People churn water under the delusion of curd. (1) Refrain (rahau). Each morning, the donkey feeds on green shoots. Thereafter, he has a hearty laughter, then brays and dies. (1) There is a mad he-buffalo that is intractable. Leaping while grazing, and ultimately going to hell. (2) Kabir says: ‘Now this sport has become manifest. The sheep is sucking at the lamb's teat.’ (3)

By divine contemplation (ram ramat) such realization has appeared to my intellect (mat): Say O Kabir! ‘This enlightenment has come by the Guru's guidance.’ (4)

(Kabir & M5, Gauri 14, AG, p. 326)

Most of the time Kabir uses the formula kahu kabir (‘Kabir says’) in the last verse of each hymn (shabad), which constitutes a kind of signature ‘or ‘stamp’ (mudyika or chhap) to claim authorship of the hymn.84 We will return to the theoretical discussion of the issue of ‘poetic signature’ in the next chapter. Here, it is (p.107) Kabir's trademark and signifies his passion to engage, to wake people up, and to affect their lives.85 In the present case, his hymn ends with the verse containing the mudrika:

Kahu kabir paragatu bhai khed//lele kau chungai nit bhed// (3)

Kabir says: ‘Now this sport has become manifest. The sheep is sucking at the lamb's teat’ (3)

The additional verse is the composition of Guru Arjan that is a reflection on Kabir's hymn. It reads as follows:

Ram ramat mati paragati ai//kahu kabir guri sojhi pai//(4)

By divine contemplation (ram ramat) such realization has appeared to my intellect (mat): Say, O Kabir! ‘This enlightenment has come by the Guru's guidance.’ (4)

It is instructive to note that Guru Arjan always employs the ‘signature’ of Kabir while commenting on his poetry. This new convention shows a more intimate relationship with the Bhagat Bani.86 It signifies the Guru's editorial device to engage personally on the issue raised by Kabir in his hymn.

Before we return to the exegesis of the actual hymn, let us look at Jeevan Deol's recent interpretation of the heading of this composition. He writes:

It may, however, mean that the shabad was added to an already existing corpus of the bhagat bani by Guru Arjan, in which case the heading would mean ‘ [work of] Kabir in Gauri, added [to the section] by M5’. The marker M5 in the other headings would then also indicate their having been added to the Sikh repertoire of bhagat compositions by the fifth Guru. There is, however, not enough evidence about authorship of the shabads to warrant this conclusion: they may in fact represent compositions of the bhagats gathered during Guru Arjan's lifetime, or they may equally have been attributed to or otherwise connected with him by contemporary Sikh community.87

If one is looking to nitpick in textual criticism, here is a good example. Deol has simply failed to understand Guru Arjan's editorial perspective and his translation of the original Punjabi line is incorrect. Although he notes down that the hymn ‘uncharacteristically has two verses’ containing Kabir's signature, he is not aware of the convention that Guru Arjan's verses of commentary bear the signatures of the Bhagats being commented upon. This will become sufficiently clear from the contextual meaning of this hymn.

(p.108) The Gauri hymn is one of Kabir's paradoxical (ultabamsi) sayings. Linda Hess maintains that the meaning of ulta is more like ‘reversed’—rather than ‘upside-down’. Typical ultabamsi expressions are based on the reversal of roles, personalities, laws of nature: a rabbit eats a lion, a quail conquers a hawk, an arrow strikes the hunter, or fire burns in water, rain rises from the earth to sky.88 In the present case, the sheep is sucking at the lamb's teat, people churn water under the delusion of curd. Kabir seems to have inherited this language of paradoxes and enigmas from the Sahajaiyas and Naths and adapted it to his own purpose.89 These ultabamsi statements of Kabir are designed to stir his audience with surprises (acharaj) so that he could engender in his hearers/readers a sense of immediacy of experience.

Sahib Singh interprets that ‘sheep’ and ‘lamb’ in Kabir's hymn stand for ‘intellect’ (mat) and ‘mind’ (man) respectively.90 In fact, the hint for such an interpretation comes from Guru Arjan's comment in the last verse. Kabir asserts that when the intellect (sheep) is following the sensual mind (lamb), people cannot distinguish between truth and falsehood, the real and the unreal. That is why they are wasting their lives in futile activities (‘churning water’) instead of ‘invoking the divine Name which is like milk’. In this context, Vaudeville cites another verse: ‘Invoking Hari's Name is like milk, and all other activities like water: A few saints are like Hansa birds, able to distinguish the Essence.’91 Being pervaded by sensuality, self-willed people behave like animals such as the donkey and he-buffalo that symbolize foolishness, lust, vanity and violence. Kabir seems to be amazed at the way they are knowingly sinning: ‘The mind is aware of all, knowing, it does wrong: Will you fare any better, if you fall into a well, lamp in hand.’92 It happens because the intellect is being led by the deluded mind.

Guru Arjan adds his comment that by divine contemplation (ram ramat) the intellect (mat) is illumined with divine knowledge and it no longer follows the directions of the mind (man). Rather, the intellect now has the upper hand because it follows the guidance of the Guru and keeps the unstable mind under control. In this context, Kabir may have said this: ‘This body is the pitch-dark forest and the Mind is an elephant gone mad: the jewel of wisdom is the goad but few are the saints who can apply it!’93 Thus with Guru Arjan's comment Kabir's paradoxical (p.109) hymn becomes intelligible and in the process one gets a glimpse of the Sikh view of the supremacy of the enlightened intellect over the mind (man nivan mat uchi). In fact, this phrase has become an integral part of the Sikh Congregational Prayer (Ardas): ‘O Akal Purakh! Vahiguru! Grant to your Sikhs a humble mind and high thinking wisdom! May Vahiguru be the light of our thoughts and protect our wisdom!’


As in the case of Shaikh Farid, it is quite evident that the bani of Kabir is recorded in the Adi Granth in the first instance because of basic agreement with the belief of the Sikh Gurus—the belief in One God beyond all form and sectarian garb, the basic equality of human beings, the doctrine of the Word (shabad), the spiritual discipline of nam-simaran, the doctrine of God immanent in the human soul, the company of saintly people, the worthlessness of a life empty of devotion to God, the mystic path of Love, the emphasis upon true inner religiosity, and the ideal of spiritual liberation within life. Both Kabir and the Sikh Gurus reject social distinctions based upon the caste system and criticize the pretensions of Brahmins and Mullahs. Both shun the outward display of religiosity including images, pilgrimages, fasting, and ritual bathing associated with the ideas of pollution and purity.

However, as in the case of Shaikh Farid, there are some disagreements between Kabir and the Sikh Gurus on essential points. Kabir remains a solitary spiritual seeker who does not seem to have a sense of social mission or the idea of an organized religious community. In contrast, the Sikh Gurus seem to have a strong sense of mission that compels them to proclaim their message for the ultimate benefit of their audience and to promote socially responsible living. While as a mystic Kabir can afford to run away from the sinners (saktas), the Sikh Gurus cannot do so and they keep their doors open for them principally because of their sense of mission. Kabir regards mendicity (madhukari) as a means of acquiring merit in spiritual life and this may have been the reason for renouncing his traditional family craft of weaving. In contrast with Kabir, the Sikh Gurus are strongly opposed to begging. They stress the dignity of regular labour as an integral part of spiritual discipline. Whereas Kabir (p.110) seems to be resentful because of his failure to win divine favour in spite of his stern asceticism, Guru Amar Das seems to correct his view through his comment that grace is a matter of divine free choice that does not depend upon any kind of previous growth in spirituality. In the Sikh doctrine, divine grace and human effort go together in spiritual life, because human effort too is a matter of divine grace. Kabir sometimes gives the impression of self-withdrawal from active life in the world and appears to be complaining against the divine will betraying a type of negative or escapist attitude. The Sikh Gurus, on the other hand, stress the spirit of optimism to confront life with a positive attitude and to create a harmonized ‘balance’ by avoiding the extremes of self-withdrawal and excessive indulgence in the things of the world.

At issue, it would seem, is the concern to mark out very carefully the boundaries between the Gurmat (‘Guru's view or doctrine,’ normally called ‘Sikhism’) and the Sant teachings, in this case, the views of Kabir. This is clearly evident in the Gurus’ comments on the verses of Kabir. These comments serve to point out basic agreement and disagreement between the Gurus and Kabir where this exists, to clarify anything that might be unintelligible in Kabir or construed in a wrong way, and to correct views of Kabir that border on the erroneous from the Sikh point of view. Supporting this is the fact that a great deal of the Kabir material—dealing with such themes as deprecation of women, asceticism, esoteric teachings of tantric yoga and abusive language—was ‘edited out’ at the time of the canonization of the Sikh scripture. The basic concern of the Gurus’ comments and editing was not so much with the goal of mystical union with the Divine or the sahaja experience itself, but with the spiritual practice leading towards that goal.

The comments of the Sikh Gurus actually reflect the nature of religious dialogues that took place between the Sikhs and Kabir's followers at that particular time in the Punjab. The issues raised in these dialogues were crucial for shaping the emerging Sikh identity. They played an important role in defining what it meant to be a Sikh in relation to the commonly held Sant beliefs. Not surprisingly, Nirmal Dass argues that the Sant tradition never rose beyond its spirit of protest. Although the sant tradition worked out well as a critique of the Hindu tradition, it failed to replace the (p.111) latter since it could not sufficiently separate itself from the Hindu tradition. On the other hand, Dass continues, Sikhism was never successfully assimilated, and remained a distinct system of belief: one that continually sought to segregate itself from other faiths and creeds. Thus Sikhism went beyond mere criticism—it offered an alternative to the Hindu tradition.94 On the whole, this study clearly demonstrates how the early Sikh tradition was involved in the process of self-definition, a process through which the Sikh Panth achieved ‘a pronounced clarity of definition, one which entitles it to be regarded as a distinct religious system in its own right.’95



(1) For legendary accounts of Kabir's birth and life, see Muhammad Hedayetulla, Kabir: The Apostle of Hindu–Muslim Unity (Delhi: Motilal Banarasidass, 1971), pp. 157–65. Also see, Ahmad Shah, The Bijak of Kabir (New Delhi: Asian Publication Services, 1979), pp. 1–28.

(2) Charlotte Vaudeville, Kabir, vol. I (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974), p. 29. Most of the time I use Vaudeville's translations of Kabir's saloks.

(3) Linda Hess and Shukdev Singh, The Bijak of Kabir (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1979), p. 5.

(4) David C. Scott, Kabir 's Mythology (Delhi: Bhartiya Vidya Prakashan, 1985), p.11.

(5) Hazariprasad Dvivedi, Kabir (New Delhi: Rajkamal Prakashan, 1985), p. 125. Also see Ram Kumar Verma, Kabir: Biography and Philosophy (New Delhi: Prints India, 1977), pp. 23–5.

(6) W.H. McLeod, Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1968), p. 156. The reference to Ramanand is found in Rabindranath Tagore, One Hundred Poems of Kabir (London: Macmillan and Co. Ltd., 1967), p. 36: ‘I became suddenly revealed in Benaras, and Ramananda illumined me ‖.’

(7) Vaudeville, Kabir, p. 116.

(8) W. Owen Cole, The Guru in Sikhism (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1982), p. 10. Tulsi Das's view is discussed by Raymond Allchin in his critical introduction to Kavitavali (London: Allen and Unwin, 1964), pp. 47–9.

(9) Vaudeville, Kabir, pp. 91–2.

(10) Parashuram Chaturvedi, Uttari Bharat Ki Sant-Parampara (Allahabad: Leader Press, 1964), pp. 159–61.

(p.112) (11) Kabir, Prabhati 2, AG, p. 1349.

(12) McLeod, Guru Nanak, p. 156.

(13) Vaudeville, Kabir, pp. 36–9.

(14) Archaeological Survey of India (New Series): The Monumental Antiquities and Inscriptions in the North Western Provinces and Oudh, vol. 11, p. 224. Also, see P.D. Barthwal, Traditions of Indian Mysticism Based on Nirguna School of Hindi Poetry (New Delhi: Heritage Publishers, 1978), pp. 252–3.

(15) For an excellent chapter on Kabir, see John Stratton Hawley and Mark Juergensmeyer, Songs of the Saints of India (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), pp. 35–61.

(16) Hess and Singh, Bijak, p. 4.

(17) Karine Schomer, ‘Kabir in the Guru Granth Sahib: An Exploratory Essay,’ in Mark Juergensmeyer and N.G. Barrier, eds., Sikh Studies: Comparative Perspectives on a Changing Tradition (Berkeley: Berkeley Religious Studies Series and Graduate Theological Union, 1979), p. 76.

(18) Nirmal Dass, Songs of Kabir from the Adi Granth (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1991).

(19) Gopal Narayan Bahura, ‘Surdas ka pada: Manuscript of 1639V.S. (1582), ’ in Monika Thiel-Horstmann, ed., Bhakti in Current Research, 1979–1982 (Berlin: Dietrich Reimer, 1983), pp. 19–23.

(20) Vaudeville, Kabir, p. 58. Also see William J. Dwyer, Bhakti in Kabir (Patna: Associated Book Agency, 1981), p. 3.

(21) For details, see Pashaura Singh, The Guru Granth Sahib: Canon, Meaning and Authority (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 184–5, 188–93.

(22) Vaudeville, Kabir, pp. 56–9. The Bijak is found in two major recensions. The Kabir-granthavali is based on the so-called Panchavani manuscripts, none of which is earlier than 1774.

(23) Schomer, ‘Kabir in the GGS,’ p. 86.

(24) Ibid., pp. 80–86.

(25) W.H. McLeod, ‘Guru Nanak and Kabir,’ in Punjab History Conference, Ist Session, November 1965 (Patiala: Punjabi University, 1966), p. 92.

(26) McLeod, Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion, p. 156.

(27) Karine Schomer and W.H. McLeod, eds., The Sants: Studies in a Devotional Tradition of India (Berkeley and Delhi: Berkeley Religious Studies Series and Motilal Banarsidass, 1987), p. 141.

(28) Winand M. Callewaert, ed., The Millennium Kabir Vani: A Collection of Pads (New Delhi: Manohar Publishers and Distributors, 2000).

(p.113) (29) Schomer, ‘Kabir in the GGS’, p. 76.

(30) McLeod, Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion, pp. 85–6.

(31) Sahib Singh, Bhagat Bani Steek, Part 4 (Amritsar: Singh Brothers, 1980), pp. 26–43.

(32) Dass, Songs of Kabir, p. 8.

(33) McLeod, ‘Guru Nanak and Kabir,’ pp. 89–90.

(34) Ibid., p. 92.

(35) M3, Siri Ragu 23, AG, p. 67.

(36) Mohan Singh, A History of Punjabi Literature (Jalandhar: Bharat Prakashan, 1971), pp. 45–6.

(37) The most comprehensive treatment of the Sant tradition may be seen in Schomer and McLoed, eds., The Sants. Also see McLeod, Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion, pp. 151–8; Vaudeville, Kabir, pp. 97–110 and Ronald Stuart McGregor, ‘Hindi Literature from its Beginning to the Nineteenth Century,’ in Jan Gonda, ed., A History of Indian Literature (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1984), pp. 38–60.

(38) Cole, Guru in Sikhism, p. 13.

(39) Hedayetullah, Kabir, p. 200.

(40) McLeod, Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion, pp. 191–4.

(41) Kabir, Gauri 43, AG, p. 331.

(42) Kabir, Prabhati 3, AG, pp. 1349–50: ‘In the beginning was Allah's radiance; all people are His creation. The entire world was created from this radiance; who is then good and who bad?’

(43) Kabir, Tilang 1, AG, p. 727.

(44) Hess and Singh, Bijak, p. 4.

(45) Ml, Var Majh, 1 (6), AG, p. 140: ‘If blood stains the garment, it becomes polluted ‖.’ Also see, Guru Nanak's emphatic criticism of the notions of purity and pollution in the Adi Granth, Var Asa, 1(18) and 1(19), pp. 472–3.

(46) Translation is taken from Hew McLeod, Sikhism (London: Penguin Books, 1997), p. 281.

(47) Niharranjan Ray, The Sikh Gurus and the Sikh Society (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1975), p. 40.

(48) Jasbir Singh Ahluwalia, The Sovereignty of the Sikh Doctrine (New Delhi: Bahri Publicaitons, 1983), p. 39.

(49) Vaudeville, Kabir, p. 305.

(50) Prabhakar Machwe, Kabir (New Delhi: Sahitya Akademy, 1968), p. 13.

(51) Jodh Singh, Kabir (Patiala: Punjabi University, 1971), pp. 11–15.

(52) Vaudeville, Kabir, p. 146.

(p.114) (53) Ibid., p. 160.

(54) Ibid., p. 318.

(55) Avtar Singh, Ethics of the Sikhs (Patiala: Punjabi University, 1970), p. 249. Also, see Chapter 2 of this study for a discussion of the understanding of divine grace and human effort in the Gurus.

(56) Kabir, Salok 5, AG, p. 1364.

(57) Kabir, Gauri 48, AG, p. 333.

(58) Vaudeville, Kabir, p. 146.

(59) Ibid., p. 258.

(60) Cf. Ml, Gauri 7, AG, p. 153: ‘If one dies by means of the Word one dies not again. Without such a death how can one be perfected?’ Cited in McLeod, Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion, p. 220.

(61) Kabir, Salok 30, AG, p. 1366.

(62) Kabir, Maru 4, AG, pp. 1103 and Gauri 13, AG, pp. 325–6. Also see, Scott, Kabir 's Mythology, pp. 183–5.

(63) For the Gurus, the law of karma is not inexorable. It is subject to the higher principle of hukam (‘divine Order’). See McLeod, Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion, p. 205. Also see W. Owen Cole, Sikhism and its Indian Context 1469–1708 (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1984), p. 77.

(64) For details, see Vaudeville, Kabir, pp. 128–32 and 319. For further details, see my Guru Granth Sahib, p. 216.

(65) Mohan Singh Diwana, ‘Discoveries in Sikh Culture—III’ in the Journal of Sikh Studies, vol. II, no. 1 (Amritsar: Guru Nanak Dev University, 1975), p. 91.

(66) Andrew O. Fort, Jivanmukti in Transformation: Embodied Liberation in Advaita and Neo-Vedanta (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998), pp. 44–5.

(67) Kabir, Bilaval 4, AG, p. 856.

(68) Kabir, Gond 6, AG, p. 871.

(69) Ahluwalia, Sovereignty of Sikh Doctrine, p. 37.

(70) ‘Unregenerate man’ is the expression used by McLeod in Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion, pp. 177–8: ‘This is the condition of pride, of self-centredness, of sin, and so of death and transmigration. This is the condition which must be transcended if man is to attain release from transmigration.’

(71) M1, Gauri 18, AG, p. 156: ‘Night was lost to sleep, day to eating: This life worth a diamond for a farthing goes.’

(72) For a comprehensive treatment of the process of canonization, see my The Guru. Granth Sahib.

(p.115) (73) Schomer, ‘Kabir in the Guru Granth Sahib,’ p. 84.

(74) Hess and Singh, Kabir, p. 155.

(75) Kabir, Salok 130, AG, p. 1371.

(76) M5, Gauri Sukhmani, 1 (7), AG, p. 271.

(77) Kabir, Salok 131, AG, p. 1371.

(78) Vaudeville, Kabir, p. 328.

(79) Kabir, Asa 2, AG, p. 487.

(80) Vaudeville, Kabir, p. 328.

(81) Charlotte Vaudeville, ‘The Shaiva—Vaishnava Synthesis in Maharashtrian Santism,’ in Schomer and McLeod, eds., The Sants, pp. 216–17.

(82) Namdev, Ramakali 1, AG, p. 972.

(83) Kabir himself mentions Namdev together with Jaidev as the ‘great saints of the Kali age’. See Kabir, Bilaval 7, AG, p. 856.

(84) Vaudeville, Kabir, p. 62.

(85) Hess, ‘Kabir's Rough Rhetoric,’ p. 147.

(86) For more details, see Sahib Singh, Sri Guru Granth Sahib Darpan, vol. 2 (Jalandhar: Raj Publishers, 1962), pp. 868–70.

(87) Jeevan Deol, ‘Surdas: Poet and Text in the Sikh Tradition,’ Bulletin of School of Oriental and African Studies, 63:2 (2000): 191–2.

(88) Hess and Singh, Bijak, p. 145.

(89) Ibid., p. 14. For more details on Kabir's language, see Charlotte Vaudeville, A Weaver Named Kabir (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 109–30. Also see, Hess, ‘Kabir's Rough Rhetoric,’ in Schomer and McLeod, eds., The Sants, pp. 143–65.

(90) Sahib Singh, Sri Guru Granth Sahib Darpan, vol. 2, pp. 868–870.

(91) Vaudeville, Kabir, p. 287.

(92) Kabir, Salok 216, AG, p. 1376.

(93) Kabir, Salok 224, AG, p. 1376.

(94) Dass, Songs of the Saints from the Adi Granth, p. 6.

(95) W.H. McLeod, ‘Kabir, Nanak and the Early Sikh Panth,’ in his Exploring Sikhism: Aspects of Sikh Identity, Culture, and Thought (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 23.