Political Ideas of Kabir
This paper focuses on the political ideas of Kabir which was a discourse of an alternative society of his time. Kabir’s critique of state, particularly of judicial and revenue administration, his utopia of Begumpura, of an ideal village polity without any private property, taxation and injustice, his secularism premised on monotheism and syncretism with the absence of critique of patriarchy or his idea of gender equality needs to be explained. His praxis in private and public domain which were fused, not separate, also requires to be analyzed in the backdrop of his ideas. Both, the ideas and the praxis, revolutionary in nature thus, represented the avant-garde of subalterneity of his time.
Kabir1 (15th Century), a contemporary of Sikander Lodi (1489–1517) and a resident of Banaras, was the most radical intellect of his age after Basavanna2 (12 Century, Karnataka). His works3 are compiled and referred4 to in Adi Granth, Panchvani, Sarvangi, Bijak and Granthavali which still imprints the social, academic discourse, folk traditions and radical praxis. He was one of the gurus of Ambedkar on whom, unfortunately, the disciple did not write much.5
The compilation of Kabir’s work has been add continuum for centuries. Different kinds of scholars in different regions of India have been compiling it. As a result, content and language of his works vary in different sources. For example, the language of Saakhi has the impact of Punjab and Rajasthan whereas, Padavali has the imprint of Bhojpuri.6 Also, the intensity of critique of social order in Bijak is more severe than in other works. Even the usage of words7, their frequency or the number of dohas, pad, saakhi vary in different sources.8 Since Kabir’s works began to be compiled seventy-five years after his death, the authenticity of his many baanis requires critical review. The experts, however, have in the meantime, filtered the authentic from the spurious premised on the evolved parameters; and the work is still on. The methodology, therefore, requires critical analysis of texts, and of folk traditions to understand him.
There is a wide number of works on Kabir.9 But these are mostly by litterateurs, theologians and historians with their disciplinary perspectives and of its limitations thereof.Kshiti Mohan Sen (1910-1911); Rabindranath Tagore (2007, reprint); Hazari Prasad Dwivedi (2013,reprint); Raj Kishore (2001); Purushottam Aggarwal (2009); Irfan Habib (1994, a); David Lorenzen (2004);Charlotte Vaudville (1993); Ali Sardar Zafri (1999); Ramvilas Sharma (1986); R.P. Bahuguna (2003, a); Namwar Singh (2001, a); Manager Pandey (2001, a); Saral Jhingran (1997); Mamta Sagar (2001, a); Linda Hess (1986); Vidya Mishra Niwas (2001, a); Gail Ombedt (2008); and many more have worked on the different literary, cultural and historical aspects of Kabir and his times. But these are not focused on his political ideas, or his political utopia, or his critique of state. In brief, there is a lack of a focused study on his political ideas.
The discourse on the political ideas of Kabir needs to be situated in the backdrop of 15-century Banaras in north India with the prevalent hegemonic culture and ideology of elite, of its state structure, taxation, technology, of its caste, class, religion, gender dominance,and of protest movements of the subaltern in different forms. It also needs to be contextualized with the rising trade that facilitated opportunities for vertical-horizontal mobility of social groups and individuals. The elite, however, reacted against this upward mobility of subaltern. Kabir, himself a weaver and the vendor of his products in the textile market of Banaras, was critical of this feudal reaction and discrimination by the elite. His universal categories and monotheistic praxis were intended to transcend the social divide of his time.
Ramvilas Sharma writes that both Kabir and Tulsi transcended the caste structure of their times to focus on the classes which is reflected in their writings. The rising trade dented the traditional structure. Or the trade broke the old moorings to an extent that even the trading caste/class, the baniya, no longer escaped the criticism of Kabir who remarked that which meant that the traders, shopkeep-ers or the mercantile class are rogues. Witnessing their acts in his every day deals, this was an apt observation of Kabir. It was, however, equally important to note that the mercantile class was breaking the old cultural moorings and structure through their trade by linking towns and villages to each other, providing opportunities of social mobility and bringing in new ideas and technology through these exchanges. The trade also reflected the rising prosperity among the population which had the purchasing power in the market either through barter exchange or through monetization. It may be stated here that the trade has the tendency to create a monetized economy as well as has the potential to break the old caste, hierarchical order. It actuates the development of language or generates a new cultural movement reflecting universal humanism. It also has the potential to create condition for the overthrow of the feudal/pre-capitalist order, enabling the emerging new social forces to create new bourgeois social order. The monetized economy not only remains confined to towns but also spreads to villages. At least, it percolates to a large extent due to the collection of revenue in cash or due to production for market resulting into its impact on society in different forms.
Kabir was equally, in fact, more critical of the zamindari system which beheld the traditional structure in precapitalist social formation. Both, Hindus and Muslims were part of the elite structure and fostered this system. Similarly, both Hindus and Muslims were poor and were part of the subalterneity despite their religious differences. Religious victimization by elite did occur but the economic position of the victims pulled them back to their class. Kabir reflected their condition. Since majority of the population was rural and was associated with agriculture, and they were a source of surplus extraction, it was imperative that an organic, subaltern voice like Kabir would reflect on their social, and political condition.
The surplus extraction was usually through two methods: one was through cultural hegemony, another was through dominance. Both were countered in different forms with different intensity. While the first method was acceptable with minimum resistance, the second method which was part of a coercive state apparatus was resisted subtly. The latter, the resistance against taxation/rent collection was starkly visible in everyday existence in different ingenous forms devised by the subjects. Kabir expressed this primary social contradiction of the classes in his poetic manifestation:
The dominant class, composed of big traders, shopkeepers, financiers, administrative personnel, priestly section, were mobile (except for land owners) across different contiguous regions. The rising trade, both national and international had created monetized economy to an extent that it had its impact on the slackening of social structure. Also, it created a limited civil society with individual freedom, more than that of a regular village life which is inbuilt in mercantile capitalism without which the trade cannot be conducted in diverse society across different regions. The imprint of the trade impacts rural relations in proportion to the economy; and even in rural areas, the numerical preponderance of free peasantry imprints the cultural freedom of the time. In Indian history, this was starkly visible resulting in to existence of more individual freedom within the framework of pre-capitalist social formation. Kabir’s subalterneity reflects this freedom. Therefore, there was a thorough repudiation of economic and cultural exploitation in his verses, not restricted to any religion or sect.
It was equally a critique and repudiation of past cultural, religious, ritualistic legacies which were fostered as god created by the elite for dominance. Bhakti was an alternative, and a method of protest against the existing social order. It was also an escape from it. Kabir, however, remained a Bhakt, a weaver and a rebel in ideas. His consciousness and other worldliness were not separate from each other; rather these were fused into one. The Begampura, therefore, was the reflection of his consciousness, of his rebel ideas. It was premised on a universal society without any economic and primordial differentiation which in praxis meant the betterment of the poor and the discriminated. Kabir and the bhakts were the avant-garde rebels representing the subaltern for their imaginary Begampura which was their actual desire.
Kabir’s bhakti and the existence of bhakts, their critique of the polity, and their desire of Begampura reflected the existence of substantive degree of civil society in pre-capitalist India. Civil society, it may be explained here as, “is understood… to be a sphere of social relations between the individual and the state whose autonomy is guaranteed by law and the presence of corporate institutions”. In medieval India, the common people did participate in political opinion which was due to the formation in the society. Festivals and prayers were public spheres, accessible to all which the subaltern used these to resist the elite. It was also a space of individual freedom guaranteed within the social relations. More than that, in many towns and cities, there were recognized formal places meant for public speeches. One, for example, was in Delhi. Therefore, on many occasions the elite used their coercive power to check it. Aurangzeb did it in 1665 to check foul language during the festivals. Usually in Holi, satires were used to make fun of the elite; or in the mosques, before the Friday prayers, the occasions were used by the namazis to propagate their views on specific issues to mobilize the common people against the elite. Three elements of ‘normative discourselaw (authority), rationality (common sense wisdom) and tradition (sanctity)’ were put forward in favour of their arguments.
Then, there was, of course, literary organizations, literary expressions and folk tales which were part of public discourse. These were, usually, not regulated by the state or elite; and their social composition was inclusive consisting of persons of different religions and castes. Even women were part of it. But, of course, their numbers were less. They “made a succinct critique of the prevailing political and social conditions but in literary form that relied on contemporary standards of literary aesthetics. The writers of the period were increasingly raising issues of an efficient administration and better governance, criticizing the… rulers, nobility and officials for lacking imagination, initiative and willingness to improve the affairs of the state”. It was ‘a pluralistic cultural space in which multiple and contrastive public intersected, emerged and collapsed’ on continuous basis. The subaltern gained in the long run but it was not always homogeneous and uniform; many times, it was rapid, many times it was piecemeal. But they always found methods of protest against the state and elite, and despite many attempts by the elite to regulate and influence their ideas, the subaltern maintained substantive degree of ideological autonomy.
After Kabir’s death, his disciples began to compile his dohas. The earliest compilation began 75 years after his death. Bhago Das, Jagu Das, Surati Gopal and Dharamdas formed Muths to spread his ideas to new regions. In course of time, these Muths and their branches became sectarian and centers of power struggle to control the organizational resources. Initially, however, Kabir Panth attracted the large sections of poor particularly of lower castes irrespective of their religions which reflect that they never accepted caste, religion, gender differentiation. Or in other words, they always transcended these primordial ties. Moreover, the panth had always ‘contested the hegemonic tradition… and their worldview’. Their occasional meetings at sub-regional, regional levels facilitated the spread of panth and of Kabir’s ideas. Also, they used the literary public sphere and public meetings for it.
Since Kabir had not written anything, there emerged many new dohas or interpolations in his banis. An illustration of a case in point may be cited. In one Bijak, the book begins with the doha in other Bijak, it begins with Even in the other aspects of his life, the different sections of his disciples emphasized different facets. While few focused on his humanism or on his consciousness, on his worldview, the others focused on his divinity. But all of them were assertive against exploitation, injustice, hierarchy which in course of time gradually led them towards convergence with Dadu Panthi, Ramanandi and Gorakhpanthi. Or a more radical section joined socialist, communist parties.
Kabir became such a symbol of subversion and of opposition that a parallel subaltern tradition of Bani, dohas emerged in the name of Kabir which constantly challenged the ideological dominance of the elite, and it was very much secular. It was also sarcasm, allegorical and euphemism. But it was rational in a deceptive manner, that exposed the property relations and its dominance. An initiation into the ideas of Kabir gave the person self confidence, freed him from the bondage of subjugation, in terms of ideas, and transcended him from his religious, caste identity to a secular one. It was a transformation to be a rebel, to be a vanguard in different forms for the service of society. It was a paradigmatic shift, a shift in social, ideological positioning or in constructive, reformative acts, and the change was to begin from the self, interrogating the social hierarchy and hegemonic order in every form.
In the pre-capital social formation, Kabir’s ideas were the most radical challenge to the social, political order during his time and in the centuries that followed after him. It was a thorough critique of an order where the religious, political and personal spheres were either overlapping or fused. At least, like the contemporary time, it was not separate. His suggestion of an alternative society may not be feasible in praxis but, in terms of his ideas, his Begampura was an appropriate utopia of his thought and a reflection of popular will.
Besides, the freedom to be heretics, and critical of existing order or searching for social alternatives was not only frowned upon by the elite but was also dealt with coercively, if it was persisted with. In such a situation, Kabir broke away from the traditions, defied it, was critical of the state, of elite, of clergy, and suggested the political alternatives of his time in Begumpura. His praxis for it continued till his death in his undifferentiated private-public domains.
His political utopia, the Begumpura, the kingdom of god, was an ideal village society without any sorrow, private property, taxes, monarchy or social hierarchy. It was a land of saintly people without any fear, greed, caprice, crime and scarcity.11 There was no distinction and discrimination premised on any primordial ties of caste, religion and gender. It was a rationale and humane society. It meant the sovereignty of the citizens and equality among them which translates into freedom for all.
The utopia was to be constructed through bhakti12, i.e., through collective participation of people in decision making and in social construction which necessitates a break off from the prevalent sociol-economic divisions. The monotheism (muwahid) that he had envisaged preset this condition. It was the ideological avant-garde for social change; and its believers, the bhakts, were vanguards of Begumpura. It reflected, in praxis, the freedom of religious expression premised on equality without any religious divide and internal hierarchical order. It manifested into syncretism of ideas and secularization of bhakt personified by Kabir himself.
His Begumpura had emerged out of his critical observation of society, of the functioning of the State, of clergy and its linkages with the elite that perpetuated propertied relations and social divisions. This reflects in his critique of the revenue administration which can be cited here.13
Or his critique of judicial administration, which is equally apt, can be noted here.14
Both the cases reflect the oppression of the poor by the state and its linkages with the elite. It also reflects the situation of helplessness for them. Kabir, therefore, invokes God to protect them. His Begumpura was an imagined, ideal polity, the kingdom of God, that had no state, no elite, no corruption and no surplus extraction. It was premised on justice, equality and freedom.
In social domain, in praxis, it meant rejection of idol worship or of the idea of incarnation; it also meant monotheism or the idea of one god transcending different religious divide. He rejected the four stages of life (ashramas) and six systems of philosophy. Even asceticism, fasting or almsgiving was rejected. To him, god was the only ‘eternal emperor of this Kingdom’ who was equated with an ancient sage. It meant the rejection of kings as divine incarnation of gods and also the rejection of social hierarchy. In brief, it was subversion against structural dominance, in cultural form, by an ordinary subject. Unlike open rebellion, it was a protest in the usual form of everyday life. But it was non-institutional, fluid and unorganized. It, however, ‘managed to transcend regional, linguistic and caste boundaries’ through amorphous community like singers, musicians, listeners, vairagis, sadhus and householders, and underwent many changes in regional dialects.
Kabir’s bani, thus, was ‘counter hegemonic’, challenged the ‘established social political order’ and was ‘anti-authority and subversive’. It was an alternative politics ‘through the composite narratives’ that laid the ideological base for the future acts of resistance against dominance.
Kabir, however, as critics have argued was uncritical of patriarchy.15 Or, there was an absence of gender equality in his discourse. At best, there was glorification of an ideal wife within the patriarchal values unlike Basava who had preached gender equality in 12th Century Karnataka. Basava had argued that since aatman is one in both man and woman, therefore, they are equal. Kabir, on the other hand, protests against the patriarchy for not recognizing the woman’s labor within the households by glorifying the ideal wife. The feudal-patriarchal society treated the woman’s labour within the private domain or even in public domain as inconsequential, of no importance. It did not command merit and premium. The recognition of work of wife in the private domain was antidote to the feudal-patriarchal values. It was revolutionary in the 15th century.
Kabir represents the organic, subaltern intellect of radical intent. His Begumpura was a rupture from the past. It was the land of freedom and plenty. The sovereignty of the people over temporal and spiritual was final. He rejected the sovereignty of the monarch or refused to accept him as the incarnation of god.16 He constantly endeavored to subvert the authority of the elite and of its culture that fostered dominance. But for the oppressed, he was inclusive in spirit. His emancipatory cultural movement and its utopia represented the alternative political ideas of his age. Therefore, Tagore called him Muktidoot and his poems as Chir adhunik (Ever Modern). He represented the modernity of his time which was indigenous (desaj) and rooted in subalternity.
Notes and References
- Kabir is an Arabic word which means God/great person. He was a resident of Kashi and died in Maghar in eastern Uttar Pradesh. His birth and death years are multiple in record. In contemporary times, however, there are three commonly mentioned years: 1440–1518, 1398–1518 and 1398–1448.
- Basava/Basavanna was a Kannad saint poet in the 12th Century who had led a much radical Bhakti movement preceding Kabir. See Mamta G. Sagar, ‘Stri ki Jagah’ (Hindi) in Rajkishore(ed.), Kabir ki Khoj, Vani Prakashan, New Delhi, 2001.
- Kabir never wrote. What he said (Baanis) was compiled afterward, 85 years after his death, in the tradition of Shruti and Smriti. Different Bhakts in different centuries, in different regions wrote it in their own languages and in their literary forms. While Kabir spoke in Hindui( Purvi) now called Bhojpuri, his baanis compiled in Punjab, Rajasthan and in other regions were written in their popular regional languages/ dialects and in literary forms of the times. Consequently, there are wide variations in the number of his pad referred to/compiled in different works of others which smack of interpolations and authenticity of contents. In Adi Granth, for example, there are 229 pad and 243 Saakhis. In others, these numbers are different. For detail, see Rajkishore, op. cit.
- Adi Granth was written during Guru Arjun Dev’s time while Panchvani was written during Saint Dadu Dayal’s time; and Sarvangi was written during Razzab’s time who was the disciple of Dadu Dayal. Bijak was compiled in late 17th Century and Granthavali was compiled in early 20th Century. While, the first three sources were known as western traditions, the latter two are called as eastern traditions. The literary forms of these compilations/ references were in Sabad/ Pad, Ramaini / Doha and Saakhi/ Shloka.
- Ambedkar wrote extensively on Budh and on Phule, his other two gurus.
- See Manager Pandey in Kabir Ki Khoj, op. cit., pp. 202–203.
- See Vidya Niwas Mishra in Ibid., p. 98.
- See Manager Pandey, op. cit., pp. 201, 210–211.
- Rabindranath Tagore, Poems of Kabir (207), Rupa, New Delhi; Hazari Prasad Dwivedi, Kabir: A Critical Study (2013) Rajkamal, New Delhi; Charlotte Vaudeville, A Weaver Named Kabir (1993), Oxford; Ali Sardar Jafri, Kabir Bani (1999), Rajkamal; David Lorenzen (ed.), Religious Movements in South Asia, 600-1800, (2004), Oxford; Irfan Habib, ‘Madhya Kaalin Lokvadi Ekeshwarvaad Tatha Uska Maanviya Swaroop: Itihaasik Sandarbh’ (Hindi) in Bhanwar Bhadaani (ed.) Khayaat (1994), Marubhasha Research Institute, Sri Dungargardh, Churu; Purushottam Agarwal, Akath Kahani Prem ki (2009), Rajkamal; Linda Hess, The Bijak of Kabir,(1986), Motilal Banarsidas.
- R.P. Bahuguna, ‘Symbols of Resistance’ In Bismoy Pati et.el (eds) Negotiating India’s Past, Tulika Books, 2003, p. 235.
- Bhakti means collective participation and sharing. It was a saintly method to transcend the social divisions of the age.
- Namwar Singh, ‘Kabir ka Dard’ in Rajkishore (ed.), op. cit.
- Shivdan Singh Chauhan, Kabir ka Yug, Publication Division, Government of India, 1978, p. 63.
- Mamta Sagar, op. cit; Purushottam Agarwal, op. cit, chaps 6, 8, 9.
- R.P. Bahuguna, op. cit, p. 241.