July 1999

Whose Kabir is he anyway?

Contrary to the popular notion of his being an ‘apostle of Hindu–Muslim unity’, Kabir’s notion of the individual challenges both the Varnashrama and Islamic systems. An assessment on the occasion of the sant-poet’s 600th birth anniversary

The ‘individuality’ of Kabir’s style and language has already been analysed by scholars like Hazariprasad Dwivedi and Linda Hess; essentially in terms of the uniqueness of his diction and ‘spontaneous, rough rhetoric’. What I wish to talk about is the implicit notion of individual which informs Kabir’s critique of the Varnashrama and also his yearnings and longings.

Kabir has been vehemently criticised for his supposed ‘individualism’. Acharya Ramchandra Shukla actually contrasted Kabir’s ‘irritating individualistic arrogance’ with the ‘persuasive modesty’ of Jayasi. It was but natural. Unlike Sufis, Saguna Bhaktas and Christian mystics, Kabir did not insist on the ‘correct reading’ of scripture. According to him, the dichotomy is not between the right and wrong reading of the scripture but between the so-called authority of the scripture and the felt authenticity of his own experience. Even when he is apparently asking the people to understand their scriptures correctly, it is clear that the reference of correctness is not the divinity of the scripture but it’s capacity (or the lack of it) to illuminate one’s real social and spiritual experience.

It is this lack of the capacity to explain things in a convincing manner which leads to the refusal on Kabir’s part. Nabhadas anticipated a lot of modern discourse on Kabir when he noted that "Kabir refused to accept the sanctity of either Varnashrama or the systems of philosophy". The question is: why was such a refusal inevitable?

Let me make here a personal submission. I felt the need to explore the possibility of some notion of the "individual" in a philosophical sense in the poetic sensibility of Kabir while working on a paper about the state of human rights in contemporary Indian society. Obviously the idea of human rights presupposes the existence of inalienable human dignity inherent in every individual. This idea implies a categorical rejection of any denial of human dignity or any a priori, un–negotiated hierarchy of human beings. Such a rejection cannot but be based upon the idea of "individual" that enters into a variety of social relations. In fact whose existence do such relations define and yet who ought to be recognised as an individual and who precisely because of such recognition has a right to be protected against discrimination. Against being placed in a hierarchy based on birth in a pure or impure, higher or lower social group.

In other words, the worth of any human being ought to be determined on the criteria wholly independent of a priori valuation of the merit or demerit of his/her social origin or gender etc. Varnashrama is anti–thetical to such an idea. It is rooted in the idea of divinely sanctioned social ascription of all human beings. No doubt there is a variety of opinions within the Varnashrama thinking about the mechanism and degree of this ascription. But the idea of all persons having something in common in equal degree is simply inadmissible to all the theorists of the Varnashrama scheme of "ordering" the differences as it is sometimes euphemistically called!

The point is quite simple: the difference which is sought to be ordered is not among the "individuals" but among the social groups to which the human beings are ascribed at the time of their birth itself. This ascription is "rational" for the reason that it is a result of their deeds in the perennial flow of cosmic time. Quite understandably, Varnashrama rationality defines salvation from this flow of time as the ultimate and logical end of life; even this goal is restricted to those who have achieved a certain degree of purity - not to be measured against any theoretically common set of moral criteria but against the specific duties and values ascribed to each social group.

The notion of specific duties and values inform the concept of "swadharma" — so eloquently articulated in the Gita. Naturally, birth in a lower caste or in an alien cultural group or even in a lower specie is not accidental or irrational; but the indication of one’s place in the hierarchy of status. By the same token, birth in a higher caste is not the cause of undue privileges but actually an incontrovertible proof of one’s inherent, moral superiority that entails a preferential treatment in all matters — spiritual and mundane.

How is all this compatible with the idea of universal man — something that makes the great Indian tradition so proud of itself? How does the structured inequality of Varnashrama go with the idea of the Ultimate Self permeating all the animate beings?

We know that this paradox is resolved by making Truth itself divisible. There is a domain of absolute truth which admits of no difference whatsoever among various manifestations of the Ultimate Self. But we also have the domain of pragmatic truth which pre–supposes the multi–layered ascription and structured inequalities as a pre–condition of Dharma, i.e., the natural and rational order of society as well as of the universe. This denial of individual was by no means confined to Hinduism alone. The notion of an individual — a moral person who is capable of making rational decisions and accepting moral responsibility for his free acts — is lacking in Islam as well. Both Hinduism and Islam certainly have a notion of the "legal person" but not that of a moral person who may freely set the goals and content of his life, of the individual who has rights and the duties qua individual. Moreover, Islam in India lost no time in entering into a kind of an alliance with the caste system even while theoretically preaching the equality of all believers. Here, too, Truth was given a divisible character. The ultimate and the pragmatic Truth in reality contradicted each other.

I do not think it is necessary to quote from Kabir to remind us that all his social criticism essentially targets the divisibility of Truth concept. His logic is devastating precisely because, instead of entering into scholastic debates and intricate arguments he exposes the paradox. If there is the same Self permeating all human beings how come one is venerable without any individual achievement and the other is untouchable — again without any individual fault? Such a logical inconsistency becomes torturous when transformed into a social system and a moral paradigm. We then have the perfectly cosy co-existence of the lofty idealisation of the abstract Man and inhuman denial of human dignity to concrete human beings. Kabir’s significance lies in implying an alternative idea of the individual. Alternative to the abstract universality called "Man" and defined in exclusively spiritual context. How does he poetically envision this alternative?

Was his celebrated anguish a poetic articulation of a social identity only? Was he primarily concerned only with individualistic Bhakti and was his trenchant social criticism only a by-product? Was he consciously trying to evolve an autonomous religious sect as the late Ramkumar Verma believed? Or, was his attempt a failed one to evolve a distinct religion for the Dalits, as Dr. Dharamvir wants us to believe?

In order to have a closer understanding of Kabir’s vision we need to go beyond the identity paradigm as well as beyond the attempt to marginalise his social concern. We need to ask different questions — keeping in mind the dialectic of his acute awareness of his ‘location’ and his confidence in the authenticity of his individual spiritual achievement. We must read his description of himself a bit more carefully.

Kabir’s insistence on being neither a Hindu nor a Muslim is only too well known. According to Hazariprasad Dwivedi, this insistence "besides carrying a spiritual connotation is also indicative of social fact". The social fact is that Kabir belonged to a recently converted social group of Jogis — situated on the border of Hindu and Muslim communities. But interestingly enough, Kabir nowhere identifies himself as a Jogi. In fact, he distinguishes the domain of his spirituality from that of Hindu, Muslim or Jogi variety: "Hindu says Rama, Rama, Jogi chants the name of Gorakh, Musalman has his one God but the lord of Kabir is all–pervasive."

And yet, nowhere does Kabir seek an escape from his caste identity, there is no attempt to deny that he is a julaha or kori. He is acutely aware of the vileness and idiocy attributed to his caste, he even uses this awareness with pungent irony at many places — a fact which makes his insistence on being a julaha even more significant. He categorically rejects the "normal" attribution of vileness and idiocy to julahas or for that matter to any social group.

Declares he: Julaha by caste and steadfast in intellect, Kabir is happily merged with the qualities (of God). — Granthavali–pada 270. Also, says he: Kabir that caste of mine is a joke to everyone; Blessed indeed be such a birth that let me invoke the creator — Saloka 2, Adigranth. (Translated and cited by Charlotte Vaudeville in ‘A Weaver named Kabir’, p.71; OUP, new Delhi, 1993).

It should be clear from the above that his caste is the inevitable marker of the social location which Kabir does not feel like escaping from, while descriptions like Hindu, Muslim or Jogi essentially refer to certain conceptual frameworks and the communitarian identities based on them. His refusal to describe himself as belonging to any of them indicates the intellectual independence of an individual who is conscious of his location and precisely because of this conciseness is insistent on rejecting the available frameworks. Here is an individual who is confidently challenging the given attributions of certain qualities to certain social groups on the basis of his own achievements and intellectual steadfastness. His description of himself as a julaha, steadfast in the intellect, his insistence on his worth as an individual is in conformity with his fundamental refusal to internalise the idea of arbitrary ascription to some social group without any regard for the individual’s achievement or the lack of it.

Kabir’s agonised awareness of his caste–location and his rejection of available conceptual frameworks and the communities based on them indicate the nature of the notion of individual implicit in his poetic vision. Unlike the abstract spiritual idea of Man, negotiating the dialectic of inherent human essence and his specific social location leads to Kabir’s idea of the individual. His references to his caste indicate no attempt to valorise any fixed ascription; instead, he is demonstratively demolishing the "logic" of such ascriptions.

The point indeed is very simple. It is the worth of an individual qua individual that, according to him, really matters. And matters to such an extent that if a person makes himself really pure then even the relationship with God undergoes a dramatic change.

Says Kabir: "Having purified his mind like the waters of the Ganga, Kabir finds God following after chantingKabir-Kabir". (Granthavali, appendix - sakhi-103).

Let us not forget that Kabir is not interested in founding a new religious order. His is not the search for a new community of believers but for a way to negotiate the complex relationship between individual and social, spiritual and mundane, transcendence and immanence. His concept of Sahaj indicates not only the rejection of empty ritual but also an affirmation of the ‘indivisibility’ of Truth. It is an affirmation which revolutionises the very idea of Sadhna. He refuses to acknowledge any Sadhna detached from a passionate and moral life.

In one of his most remarkable padas the mundane activities of life are invested with the sacred. He describes his normal activities like sleeping, eating, and walking etc. as various specific acts of worship. If the idea of ultimate Truth is not divisible between absolute and pragmatic, then why should life acts be compartmentalised into the domains of ‘worship’ on the one hand and ‘routine’ on the other?

Naturally enough, Kabir’s notion of the individual also implicitly informs his reiteration of the moral agency and attendant sense of responsibility. Unlike many schools of Bhakti (e.g., the Pushtimarga) Kabir’s idea of devotion does not entail any freedom from individual responsibility for one’s acts. This is even more important today when the enthusiasm for identity discourse is already leading to virtual erasure of the moral and philosophical agency of individual.

In fact, an analysis of his speech and style would indicate that he is not addressing a community of believers with given boundaries. He seeks to address the discretion of the individual audience at a "very personal" level — as Linda Hess rightly puts it. (Vide ‘Kabir’s Rough Rhetoric’ in The Sants (Eds. Karine Schomer and W.H.Mcleod; Motilal Banarasidas, Delhi, 1987–p.147). Some of his most poignant utterances are those where he is looking for someone sensitive enough with whom one could talk openly without hesitation:

"There is no one to whom I can open my heart, I get poisonous bites whenever I speak." Naturally the question rises: Are we saying the same thing which Hazariprasad Dwivedi said long ago? His assessment of Kabir in this regard is well known: "Actually, he was a propagator of personal Sadhna. Sociality was not the natural bent of his mind. He was an individualist"(Kabir, in H.P. Dwivedi, Granthavali–4, Rajkamal, New Delhi, 1981,p.368).

This observation is quite correct so far as it cautions against the construction of Kabir’s image in the manner of 19th century social reformers or the contemporary spokespersons of the communitarian identities. But the very logic of a consistent opposition to the Varnashrama and Islamic system precludes any possibility of dichotomising between individuality and sociality. Here individuality can express itself only through a confident and uncompromising rejection of both the systems and sociality can not even be properly imagined without first insisting on one’s worth as an individual. Kabir’s notion of the individual is rooted in the instinctive realisation of this exciting dialectic. In fact, it is this dialectic of agony and confidence that makes Kabir distinct from the erstwhile critics of Varnashrama. This distinction is best described by Dwivedi himself: "His is not the frustration of someone who has been denied good company, but the self–assurance of one who is aware of the hollowness of good company". (Ibid.p.326).

Kabir was not a professional philosopher. Moreover the Varnashrama tradition hardly made available any discourse on the socially negotiated individual. It is not surprising therefore that the notion of the individual implicit in Kabir’s poetic vision in particular and the Nirguna sensibility in general could not be articulated into a full–fledged philosophical concept. But by "refusing" to submit to the idea of divisible Truth and by insisting on negotiated individuality as opposed to ascriptive sociality, Kabir forcefully highlighted the crucial fact the Varnashrama is actually a very systematic negation of the idea of universal Man itself. An idea of which the Brahminical tradition has been so proud till today. On the other hand, he implies a caution to us as well. A caution against the erasure of the agency of the individual, which has already became a hallmark of much of the communitarian and identity discourse.

Muktibodh, the towering poet and critic in the 20th century Indian literature, was prophetic when he almost innocently asked the crucial question: "Why is it that Kabir, along with other Nirguna poets and some of the Maharashtrian sants seem more modern than Tulsidas?"(‘An aspect of the medieval Bhakti movement’, in Rachnavali–5, Rajkamal, New Delhi, 1980, p.292).

A similar query in a more systematic way informs Linda Hess’s exciting analysis of Kabir’s ‘Rough Rhetoric’.

A reading of Kabir in these times of identity discourse underlines the need to rethink the relation between the concept of individuality and sociality. We must admit that Ram Chandra Shukla’s disapproval of Kabir is quite logical given the fact that the conceptual framework of Varnashrama informs his model of Lok–Dharma. So far as many Marxist critics like Ram Vilas Sharma are concerned, they are so obsessed with the idea of ‘social’ that anything even remotely resembling an individual’s critique of social becomes suspect in their eyes. The question, therefore, is: can we privilege all social ideas and ideologies over all notions of the individual?

Can we read Kabir only as an articulation of a certain social identity without taking his notion of the individual into consideration? And at the end, a question to which even Kabir provides a very disturbing and disappointing answer. The question is: what is the gender of the individual? n

Purushottam Agrawal

(The writer teaches at the Centre of Indian Languages, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi).

(This is a slightly modified version of the paper presented by the writer at the international conference on Kabir, held in Hiedelberg, Germany, June15-18. All translations from Hindi, unless otherwise indicated, are the writer’s).

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