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Kabir (Hindi: कबीर, IAST: Kabīr) was a 15th-century Indian mystic poet and saint, whose writings influenced Hinduism's Bhakti movement and his verses are found in Sikhism's scripture Guru Granth Sahib. His early life was in a Muslim family, but he was strongly influenced by his teacher, the Hindu bhakti leader Ramananda.
Kabir is known for being critical of both Hinduism and Islam, stating that the former was misguided by the Vedas, and questioning their meaningless rites of initiation such as the sacred thread and circumcision respectively. During his lifetime, he was threatened by both Hindus and Muslims for his views. When he died, both Hindus and Muslims he had inspired claimed him as theirs.
Early life and background
The years of Kabir's birth and death are unclear. Some historians favor 1398–1448 as the period Kabir lived, while others favor 1440–1518.
Many legends, inconsistent in their details, exist about his birth family and early life. According to one version, Kabir was born to a Brahmin unwed mother in Varanasi, by a seedless conception and delivered through the palm of her hand, who then abandoned him in a basket floating in a pond, and baby Kabir was picked up and then raised by a Muslim family. However, modern scholarship has abandoned these legends for lack of historical evidence, and Kabir is widely accepted to have been born and brought up in a family of Muslim weavers. According to the Indologist Wendy Doniger, Kabir was born into a Muslim family and various birth legends attempt to "drag Kabir back over the line from Muslim to Hindu".
Some scholars state that Kabir's parents may have been recent converts to Islam, they and Kabir were likely unaware of Islamic orthodox tradition, and are likely to have been following the Nath (Shaiva Yogi) school of Hinduism.
Kabir is widely believed to have become the first disciple of the Bhakti poet-saint Swami Ramananda in Varanasi, known for devotional Vaishnavism with a strong bent to monist Advaita philosophy teaching that God was inside every person, everything.
Some legends assert that Kabir never married and led a celibate's life. Most scholars conclude from historical literature that this legend is also untrue, that Kabir was likely married, his wife probably was named Dhania, they had at least one son named Kamal and a daughter named Kamali.
Kabir's poems were in vernacular Hindi, borrowing from various dialects including Avadhi, Braj. They cover various aspects of life and call for a loving devotion for God. Kabir composed his verses with simple Hindi words. Most of his work were concerned with devotion, mysticism and discipline.
Kabir and his followers named his verbally composed poems of wisdom as "bāņīs" (utterances). These include songs and couplets, called variously dohe, śalokā (Sanskrit: ślokā), or sākhī (Sanskrit: sākşī). The latter term means "witness", implying the poems to be evidence of the Truth.
Literary works with compositions attributed to Kabir include Kabir Bijak, Kabir Parachai, Sakhi Granth, Adi Granth (Sikh), and Kabir Granthawali (Rajasthan). However, except for Adi Granth, significantly different versions of these texts exist and it is unclear which one is more original; for example, Kabir Bijak exists in two major recensions.
Kabir's poems were verbally composed in the 15th century and transmitted viva voce through the 17th century. Kabir Bijak was compiled and written down for the first time in the 17th century. Scholars state that this form of transmission, over geography and across generations bred change, interpolation and corruption of the poems. Furthermore, whole songs were creatively fabricated and new couplets inserted by unknown authors and attributed to Kabir, not because of dishonesty but out of respect for him and the creative exuberance of anonymous oral tradition found in Indian literary works. Scholars have sought to establish poetry that truly came from Kabir and its historicity value.
Numerous poems are attributed to Kabir, but scholars now doubt the authenticity of many songs credited to him.
Some commentators suggest Kabir's philosophy to be a syncretic synthesis of Hinduism and Islam, but scholars widely state that this is false and a misunderstanding of Kabir. He adopted their terminology and concepts, but vigorously criticized them both.
Many scholars interpret Kabir's philosophy to be questioning the need for religion, rather than attempting to propose either Hindu-Muslim unity or an independent synthesis of a new religious tradition. Kabir rejected the hypocrisy and misguided rituals evident in various religious practices of his day, including those in Islam and Hinduism.
Some scholars state that the sexual imagery in some of Kabir's poems reflect a mystic Sufi Islam influence, wherein Kabir inverts the traditional Sufi representation of a God-woman and devotee-man longing for a union, and instead uses the imagery of Lord-husband and devotee-bride. Other scholars, in contrast, state that it is unclear if Sufi ideas influenced Bhakti sants like Kabir or it was vice versa, suggesting that they probably co-developed through mutual interaction.
Kabir left Islam, states Ronald McGregor, but that does not mean Kabir adopted Hindu beliefs. Kabir, nevertheless, criticized practices such as killing and eating a cow by Muslims, in a manner Hindus criticized those practices.
Kabir literature legacy was championed by two of his disciples, Bhāgodās and Dharmadās. Songs of Kabir were collected by Kshitimohan Sen from mendicants across India, these were then translated to English by Rabindranath Tagore.
New English translations of Songs of Kabir is done by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra ."It is Mehrotra who has succeeded in capturing the ferocity and improvisational energy of Kabir’s poetry".
There are two temples dedicated to Kabir located in Benares. One of them is maintained by Hindus, while the other by Muslims. Both the temples practise similar forms of worship where his songs are sung daily. Other rituals of aarti and distributing prasad are similar to other Hindu temples. The followers of Kabir are vegetarians and abstain from alcohol.
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