Exploring Political Ideas of Kabir

Himanshu Roy

Kabir[1] (15th Century), a contemporary of Sikander Lodi (1489-1517) and a resident of Banaras, was the most radical intellect of his age after Basavanna[2] (12th Century, Karnataka). His works[3] are compiled/referred[4] 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].

There is rarely any works that focus on the political ideas of Kabir, basically a discourse for a social-political alternative. Even those who have worked on Kabir have ignored these aspects. He has been mostly appropriated by the litterateurs, historians and theologians whose focus are largely literary, historical and religious. Kabir's critique of state, particularly of judicial and revenue administration, his Utopia of Begumpura6, of an ideal village polity without any private property, taxation and injustice has been largely overlooked. His secularism premised on monotheism and syncretism, the absence of critique of patriarchy in typical sense or the idea of gender equality in his poems remain inadequately explained. This work intends to fill in this gap.

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 Panjab and Rajasthan whereas, Padavali has the imprint of Bhojpuri[7]. Or, the intensity of critique of social order in Bijak is more severe than in other works. Even the usage of words[8], their frequency or the number of dohas, pad, saakhi vary in different sources[9]. Since Kabir's works began to be compiled years after his death, the authenticity of his many baanis requires questioning. 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, to read and analyse therefore, requires critical analysis of texts to understand him, and the folk traditions for his relevance in contemporary times. The objective is to unravel Kabir's political ideas, to discern the meaning of his ideal polity, his secularism and his understanding of gender question.

There is wide number of works[10] on Kabir. But these are mostly by litterateurs, theologians and historians with their disciplinary perspectives and of its limitations thereof. Kshiti Mohan Sen, Rabindranath Tagore (2007, reprint), Hazari Prasad Dwivedi (2013,reprint), Raj Kishore (2001), Purushottam Agarwal (2009), Irfan Habib (1994, a), David Lorenzen (2004), Charlotte Vaudville (1993), Ali Sardar Zafri (1999), Ramvilas Sharma, R P Bahuguna (2003, a), Namwar Singh (2001, a), Manager Pandey (2001, a), Saral Jhingran, Mamta Sagar (2001, a), Linda Hess (1986), Vidya Mishra Niwas (2001, a), Gail Ombedt, and many more have worked on the different literary, cultural and historical aspects of Kabir and his times. But rarely has anyone focused on his political ideas, on his political Utopia, on his critique of state. In brief, there is lack of any focused study on his political ideas.

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, religious, 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.

Besides it, freedom to be heretics, critical of existing order or searching for social alternatives was not only frowned upon 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 Begum-pura, 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 primodialities of caste, religion and gender. It was a rationale and humane society.

The Utopia was to be constructed through bhakti[12], i.e., through collective participation of people in decision making and in social construction which necessitates breakoff from the prevalent social-economic divisions. The monotheism (muwahid) that he had envisaged preset this condition. It was the ideological avantagarde 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[13] here.

"Gaon ku Thakur khet kunape,
kaith kharchan pare
Jeri jevri kheti pasare, sab mili
mauko maare ho Ram
Khoto Mahato vikat balahi,
sirkas dam ka pare
Buro Diwan dadi nahi laage,
eki baandhe ek maare ho Ram"

Or his critique[14] of judicial administration, which is equally apt, can be noted here.

"kazi tumhare man ko rajsi baatein hi bhaati hain. Ishwar ne kabhi atyachaar karne ki aagya nahi di. Tu deen se sahanubhuti nahi rakhta."

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.

Kabir, however, as critics[15] have argued was uncritical of patriarchy. 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, sub-altern 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 god16. 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 Mordern). He represented the modernity of his time which was indigenous (desi) and rooted in subalternity.

Notes and References
1.    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, 1398-1513 and 1398-1448.
2.   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.
3.   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 pads and 243 Saakhis. In others, these numbers are different. For detail, see Rajkishore, op.cit
4.   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/Pod, Ramaini/Doha and Saakhi/Shloka.
5.   Ambedkar wrote extensively on Budh and on Phule, his other two gurus.
6.  Gail Ombevdt's chapter on Kabir in Seeking Begumpura is very elementary.
7.   See Manager Pandey in Kabir Ki Khoj, op.cit, pp 202-203.
8.   See Vidya Niwas Mishra in Ibid., p 98.
9.  See Manager Pandey, op.cit, pp 201, 210-211.
10. 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 Kaaliri Lokvadi Ekeshwarvaad Tatha Uska Maanviya Swaroop: Itihaasik Sandarbh' (Hindi) in Bhanwar Bhadaani (ed.) Khayaat (1994), Marubhasha Research Institute, Sri Dungargeirdh, Churu; Purushottam Agarwal, Akath Kahani Prem Ki (2009), Rajkamal; Linda Hess, The Bijak of Kabir (1986), Motilal Banarsidas.
11.  R P Bahuguna, 'Symbols of Resistance' in Bismoy Pati et.el (eds) Negotiating India's Past, Tulika Books, 2003, p 235.
12. Bhakti means collective participation and sharing. It was a saintly method to transcend the social divisions of the age.
13. Namwar Singh, 'Kabir ka Dard' in Rajkishore (ed.), op.cit.
14. Shivdan Singh Chauhan, Kabir ka Yug, Publication Division, Government of India, 1973, p.63.
15. Mamta Sagar, op.cit ; Purushottam Agarwal, op.cit, chaps 6, 8, 9.
16. R P Bahuguna, op.cit, p 241.

Autumn Number, Vol. 48, No. 14 - 17, Oct 11 - Nov 7, 2015