When Kabir, the poet-saint, died five centuries ago, he could not have predicted he would be reimagined over and over again, to allay the anxieties of every succeeding generation. To most, of course, this icon of Bhakti is a champion of Hindu-Muslim unity, his Arabic name sitting cheerfully alongside the chant of Ram. Indeed, soon after his death, Abul Fazl, emperor Akbar’s chronicler, described him as “the asserter of the unity of God", one who “discarded the effete doctrines" of his time, “revered by both Hindu and Muhammadan for his catholicity of doctrine and the illumination of his mind". Sikhs too looked upon him with respect, dedicating to his work whole passages in their Adi Granth. And in the 19th century, European missionaries laid claim to the weaver-saint of Varanasi, delighting in his barbs against caste, finding in his sayings a reflection of such thought which could only, they were convinced, be Christian in origin.

“Kabir appears to modern India," Charlotte Vaudeville pointed out, “to be the true symbol of non-conformity." And yet everything about him is immersed in myth and awe. He was the poor son of Muslim weavers, though the vocabulary of his devotion led early on to Hindu claims upon him. Some invented for him a miraculous birth—he was the conception of a Brahmin widow, delivered through her palm. Abandoned, he was raised Muslim. Others said he descended enveloped in lotus leaves and light from the heavens, floating upon a lake where he was discovered by his Julaha father. He certainly did celebrate Hindu imagery over Muslim theology, evidently also enjoying the tutelage of the guru, Ramananda. But by most accounts he was definitely a Muslim, with a wife and children, coming to mean so much to Hindus that stories were invented to drag him, as Wendy Doniger records, “over the line from Muslim to Hindu".

While he lived, ironically, there was enough in Kabir’s message to upset Hindu and Muslim elites alike. To Brahmins he asked whether they were born with a caste-mark on the forehead, or whether their mothers delivered them through a special canal. “And if you say you’re Turk," added Kabir, “why weren’t you circumcised before birth?" So, too, he sneered, it was “dumb" if people sought salvation in ritual. “If going naked brought liberation, the deer of the forest would attain it first. If a shaven head was a sign of piety, ewes would be pious too." That low-castes and kafirs were doomed to their fate by the accident of birth was nonsense. Only those “who don’t have Ram on their lips" were ignorant; they alone were the low-born of the earth. “Those who read the Vedas call themselves Pandits, those who read the Quran call themselves Maulana; they give themselves different names…(but they) are all," announced Kabir, “in their own delusions, not one of them knows the Lord."

Like many in the Bhakti tradition, Kabir too knew persecution, therefore. Many are the tales that place him at the receiving end of the ire of Sikander Lodi, sultan of Delhi. Punishment was ordered, and suffering inflicted, but here again Kabir laughed at the irony. Giggling, it is said, in the presence of the emperor himself, the weaver is said to have declared, “All my life I have tried to impress upon the Hindus and Muslims that God is one." He had tried to build a bridge between different paths, only to be ridiculed: “How could a Brahmin demean himself by joining hands with a low-caste weaver? How could a maulvi degrade himself by allying with a kafir?" They did not listen to words of wisdom, but hate achieved what Kabir had failed to bring about: “They could never bear to stand together in the court of (God) the King of Kings, but today it amuses me to see them standing united in the court of a (mortal) king." And this because the custodians of the faiths universally disliked Kabir and his message.

It was his large following—those like him, illiterate, weak, and devoid of books—that made him an asset to wardens of the great traditions after he went to the grave. Indeed, they fought over his remains when he died, till, legend claims, only flowers remained under the funeral sheet: Some were buried, the rest cremated, and both sides got to claim a share of Kabir’s legacy. He might have chuckled at the feud over rites and ownership. “His death in Benares," he once sang, “won’t save the assassin from certain hell," just as “a dip in the Ganges won’t send frogs—or you—to paradise." Matters of ritual were futile: mere instruments to enthral the susceptible, shrouding true wisdom from the masses. But no sooner had he died than Kabir too became an instrument. “I say the world is mad," he had laughed. “If I tell the truth, they rush to beat me; if I lie, they trust me." Now that he was dead, owning him trounced his message—and for this, things he eschewed became now truly imperative.

Of course, Kabir was no perfect man. His message resonated with the masses, and with quiet confidence he stood up to the power of those who held the keys to heaven. But he too had prejudices. “Woman," he declared once, “is the refuse of the world" so that “noble men will put her aside, only the vile will enjoy her." Elsewhere, he compared the female to a 20-hooded serpent, and “if she stings one," he warned, “there is no chance to survive". We can try and console ourselves that perhaps this streak of misogyny was a reflection of his age; that he never himself claimed to be a perfect man, or the one true soul in whose words lay answers for all. He was merely Kabir the weaver—a mortal made of flesh and blood—and he cared for Ram alone, not for the world and its numerous other battles.

Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne (2015)and Rebel Sultans (2018).

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