Organised religion inevitably turns into a confusing mesh of outdated codes and rituals and therefore invites a reaction against itself. Just as the 5th-century BC saw the emergence of Buddhism as an alternative to the rigid strictures of Hinduism, 15th-century India was a time when many prominent figures – poets and saints raised their voices against the malpractices then prevalent in the guise of religious customs.
Kabir, the 15th-century mystic, was an important figure of the Bhakti movement. He was an outspoken critic of the dogma that encumbered both Hinduism and Islam at the time. Possessing a cheerful and uninhibited personality, he was practically illiterate. Yet this did not deter him from reaching out to the masses and conveying his simple, yet profound, message. The vehicle of his verse was the easy-to-remember couplet and his language, called ‘khichdi’ was an amalgam of various Indian dialects.
Though Kabir’s poetry is in the curriculum of most Indian boards, I doubt if there is an effort to make the students understand the depth of his writings. Usually, the teacher dictates the literal meaning of the couplets included in the syllabus and the students reproduce the same in the exam hall. Thus, they lose a chance to learn a lesson that has the potential of changing their vision of life and give them a new-found sense of purpose. Perhaps it is because of the deceptive simplicity of his writings that we miss his message. He aimed at bestowing people with the most fundamental truth of life, knowledge that had hitherto been the preserve of only the upper-caste Brahmins and available only to those with access to the classical Vedas and Upanishads written in Sanskrit. He writes in one of his couplets-
जब मैं था तब हरि नहीं, अब हरि हैं मैं नाहिं।
प्रेम गली अति सॉंकरी, तामें दो न समाहिं ।।
(Till the time ego lived in my heart there was no lord, now when my lord lives in my heart there is no ego
love is a very narrow space which can not accommodate both at the same time)
The ‘मैं’ here is usually considered to mean pride. Whereas Kabir is really pointing out at the illusion that an independent ‘I’ exists and our identification with this ‘I’. In reality, it is just the play of language. All writing and speech is an attempt to label and affix. Grammar has fooled us into thinking that ‘I’ am the agent of my actions. However, in reality, there are only actions, no agent. When the body and mind are observed, it is found that there is no ‘person’ as such, there are only processes. Kabir tried to point towards this inseparability of the flow of life in his verse. He teaches us to see the world as it is and become free in the searing light of truth. We would do well to inculcate this spirit in our own lives.