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Kabir: Kabir, Spirituality and Social Development, adbhut, ulatbamsi, laukik and alaukik

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Kabir: Kabir, Spirituality and Social Development, adbhut, ulatbamsi, laukik and alaukik

Kabir: Spirituality and Social Development


A dive in the quagmire of Kabirís philosophical thoughts and a note on the spirituality as a harbinger of individual and social development.


Annette van der Hoek

Printable Version of 'Kabir: Spirituality and Social Development'Updated On: 12/20/2005

Kabir, Spirituality and Social Development, adbhut, ulatbamsi, laukik and alaukik: Spirituality and Social Development

A lot can be said about Kabir and a lot has indeed been said about him. From all kinds of different angles his enigma has been viewed. As a poet he always remains a little strange and incomprehensible to us- adbhut one would say in Hindi, marvelous and strange, a word that Kabir himself used frequently in his verses when speaking of the nature of reality.

The facts of his life already, as far as we know them, are unusual and remarkable. We know he was a 15th century weaver from Benares whose entire caste converted to Islam. Kabir himself though didn’t seem to belong to any religion. He never spoke in favor of any one of them. On the contrary he could mock a few in the same verse ‘Qazi, what book are you lecturing on?/ Yak yak yak, day and night /[…]/ That Shudra is touching your food, Pandit? /How can you eat it?/ Hindu, Muslim- where did they come from?/ Who started this road?’[1]. Not conforming to religion was obviously not common practice in the middle-ages and thus a matter of great courage. Kabir himself refers in some of his verses to being beaten: ‘Saints, I see the world is mad./ If I tell the truth they rush to beat me’ and ‘When I speak to a man of his own good,/ he leaps up, my enemy’.[2]

Rather then religion as a means of- or to spirituality Kabir used to emphasize the feeling of ‘sahaj’ or innate spontaneity. The term is also used in early Hindi and particularly in Braj to denote the Supreme Being or unqualified absolute [to be intuitively perceived in the heart)[3]. Furthermore ‘sahaj’ means ‘ease’ and so altogether we may carefully assume that Kabir’s ‘sahaj’ refers to an easy, internal understanding of the force that underlies all life, as opposed to an external, ritual and religious reference to the same. Or as Linda Hess writes: if Kabir insisted on anything, it was on the penetration of everything inessential, every layer of dishonesty and delusion. The individual must find the truth in his own body and mind, so simple, so direct that the line between ‘him’ and ‘it’ disappears’ […] Kabir understood the countless ploys by which we avoid recognizing ourselves. One form […] is our desperate, seemingly sincere searching outside ourselves’[4].

Another way to see the concept of ‘sahaj’ is to say that in that state of ‘natural perception’ one can view the ‘laukik’, the worldly, and the ‘alaukik’ at the same time[5]. One can live in this world with its petty rules and divisions and see the underlying, unifying law at the same time.

Kabir is also ‘adbhut’ and praiseworthy to us because of his strong social sense. He repeatedly refers to necessary social reforms and is far ahead of his time in this respect. Naturally, in the light of his spiritual teachings, his remarks often relate to caste-ism and the importance given to the higher, priestly classes: ‘Saints, the Brahmin […] lounges after his bath, slaps sandalpaste/ on his brow, does a song and dance/ for the Goddess, crushes souls/ […]/ How holy! What a superior race! What authority/ in society, and how people grovel to get his initiation![6]

In some legends too Kabir’s ideological character is mentioned. Take for instance the story of Kabir’s wife and the merchant[7]. In it economic and sexual exploitation of the lower castes is revealed and at the same time the importance of the proper reception of saintly men –and by extrapolation probably the spiritual in oneself- is emphasized, as well as ‘the importance of being earnest’.

A number of dervishes came to Kabir’s house but as there was no food to offer them Kabir asked his wife to get some groceries on credit. The shopkeeper who had already been eyeing her for a while gave her the food but made her promise to return later that night. When she expressed her wish to break her promise to Kabir, he insisted that she’d keep her word and as it started to rain that night he himself carried her to the merchant’s place. When the shopkeeper saw she had no mud on her feet and came to know how this was possible he begged Kabir for forgiveness. Soon after he gave away all his belongings and became a saddhu, a wandering ascetic.

An aspect of Kabir’s ‘adbhut-ta’ that still has scholars all over the world speculating on its meaning, is his ulatbamsi or upside down language. The use of riddles and paradoxes to refer to the transcendent realm, was already quite common in the Upanisads, the esoteric teachings composed between the 7th to the 1st centuries BC, appendices to the more ritual Veda’s and the basis of modern Hinduism. But Kabir is the most famous exponent of this mysterious language. An example, from his Bijak, Shabd (word) 31: ‘The cow is sucking at the calf’s teat,/ from house to house the prey hunts.’

Because of his ulatbamsi Kabir is often considered a mystic[8]. But this, Purushottam Agrawal points out, is not the correct term for Kabir. It would suit better to describe those medieval followers of Jesus who consider themselves to be in a love-relationship with him. But the term mysticism does not hail from the field of literary analysis nor does it provide a place for the description of Kabir’s sensitivity towards social reform, Agrawal says[9].

Then there are those, even in the Kabir Panth, who feel, probably because of the crudeness of Kabir’s speech -‘hey fool’, ‘son of a slut’, ‘you simple-minded people […] listen!- that Kabir is not so much a poet as well as a radical social reformer[10].

Some say his language is symbolical and then the prey from our earlier example would be man and the hunter death. Others feel Kabir’s verses are zen-like expressions, applied to startle the brain of the listener into silent submission, finally receptive to something fresh. Or it may be that his expressions are secret keys to tantrik knowledge[11].

Per Kvaerne thinks that Kabir’s ulatbamsi may be an instructional kind of language as was used in Buddhist traditions[12].

However plausible, sometimes practically proved, and always helpful these notions are in understanding Kabir, there is another very simple way of looking at ulatbamsi. Perhaps Kabir simply tried to convey to the best of his capacity what he actually saw and felt. Perhaps he tried, in any which way he could, to explain what one sees when the laukik and the alaukik view become one. When one sees cause and effect in the same glance. When one can see the interdependence of things.

Perhaps we can understand it like this, by looking at a chair, or any object, not by looking at it directly but by taking in its surroundings until finally we cannot but see the chair as well. Then we’ll understand that the chair and its surroundings are of equal importance. The surroundings give the chair place to be, the one cannot exist without the other.

In the same way the cow would be as dependant of the calf as the calf is of the mother and the prey too may be chasing the hunter as an image of the equality of mutual dependence of all that is.

Object and surroundings, cause and effect, mother and child, hunter and prey, in essence there is no difference between them, they are the food for each other’s existence. Kabir’s ulatbamsi could be an attempt at describing his own all-encompassing vision, the hallmark of an enlightened mind.

(Such vision would be immediate, timeless too. When cause and effect have become as one then the separate perception of time-frames ceases to exist as well. Time operates on the laws of cause and effect after all: the present being the effect of the past and the cause of the future. The passing of time will now also be seen in one and the same vision and so the separate steps of this passing –the medium by which something seems to come into existence or disappear- will no longer be there. Perhaps to speak of this immediateness too, Kabir came to lines like in Shabd 24: a tree stands without root, without flowers, bears fruit[13].

Now we don’t perceive a separation between flower and fruit. We don’t consider cause and effect to be different, we don’t linger on the separate steps of a development, we see at once, simply: sahaj. )

When one has such a vision of equality naturally one wouldn’t speak according to the precepts of a certain religion. And obviously one would strongly emphasize social reform. This is not so strange, not so ‘adbhut’ after all.

And then: the same goes -almost by way of ulatbamsi- the other way around too: how can one work on social development without a certain spiritual maturity?


[1] Shabda, 84 The Bijak of Kabir, Linda Hess and Sukhdev Singh, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi (2001: 69) (reprint of 1986 edition)

[2] Shabda 4, Sakhi 186, Hess (2001: 42,111)

[3] R.S. McGregor Oxford Hindi-English dictionary

[4] Hess (2001: 5)

[5] See for a more thorough explanation on the philosophy concerning the concepts ‘laukik’ and ‘alaukik’ for instance Richard Barz, The Bhakti Sect of Vallabhacarya, Thomson Press Ltd. Faridabad, (1976: 9, 14 and passim)

[6] Shabda 12, Hess (2001: 46,47)

[7] Which is not found in many sources, probably because most Kabir followers would not like the idea of ‘their’ saint having been married. Also for a brief rendition of the legend : David N. Lorenzen, Kabir legends and Ananta Das’s Kabir Parachai, State University of New York (1991: 49,50)

[8] For instance Ramchandra Shukla, Hindi Sahitya ka Itihas, Nagaripracarini Sabha, Varanasi, samvat 2046.

[9] Purushottam Agrawal, Vicar ka Anant , Rajkamal Prakashan, New Delhi, Patna (2000:133-137)

[10] Kabir Panth is the sect of Kabir followers that survives until today. For several comments on Kabir’s crude language see for instance Hess (2001: 7 and further).

[11] Tantrism is a branch of magical mysticism in Buddhism and Hinduism were the followers use Tantras, texts that give formulas as to how to compel deities to bestow magical powers and release from worldly bondage upon the seeker. See for instance A.L. Basham, The Wonder that was India (first published 1954) Rupa, (2000: 280, 336,337).

In a modern work Tantra gets explained as a method that broadens the range of mental experience by manipulating an energy force within the body called Kundalini.

Kundalini Tantra, Swami Satyananda Saraswati, Yoga Publications Trust, Munger , Bihar, (first published 1984) (2001:3)

Kabir sometimes indeed seemed to have referred to the rise of this energy through the spinal column, awakening the energy vortices called chakras on the way. See for instance Shabd 24 : a tree stands without root/ […] no leaf, no branch, and eight/ sky-mouths thundering Hess (2001: 49)

[12] Per Kvaerne, An Anthology of Buddhist Tantric Songs, Norwegian Research Council, Oslo (1977: passim)

[13] Also see note 11

Kabir, Spirituality and Social Development, adbhut, ulatbamsi, laukik and alaukik
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