The Atma Ram Sanatan Dharma College, University of Delhi, organised this week a two-day seminar on “Kabir: Different Perspectives” to celebrate 500 years of the foremost Bhakti saint-poet, Kabir (died 1518). The event brought together a number of scholars and researchers from the disciplines of history and Hindi, as well as Dalit studies and allied subjects in the social sciences and humanities. Together, they looked at the extraordinary life and teachings of Kabir from various vantage-points and inter-disciplinary approaches to present a complex picture of critical relevance over these past five centuries. They especially discussed crucial questions relating to religious contestations, community formations, scriptural justifications of social hierarchies and forms of resistance adopted by subordinated groups against the injustices of dominant castes, classes and communities. In much of these, Kabir’s iconoclastic ideas are found showing the way forward—challenging discriminatory social norms, defying agonising religious orthodoxy and protesting against the arbitrariness of political regimes which had no or little regard to the idea of justice for all.

As the keynote speaker, Harbans Mukhia, who is a leading scholar of medieval Indian historiography and a former professor at the prestigious Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, emphasised how the muwahhid or monotheistic figure of Kabir could not have been boxed into a simple category of the modern Hindu-Muslim kind. He can be understood better as part of the inclusive cultural and political traditions exceptionally epitomised by intellectuals and rulers like Abul Fazl and Akbar, with their broad vision and strong emphasis on creating conditions for peaceful coexistence of a large public in all their spectacular diversity. Purushottam Agrawal, who is also a reputed former professor of Hindi in JNU and well-known for his fascinating work on Kabir’s enchanting poetry of love, highlighted the value of vernacular literature and its early modern history, which was suppressed by the British colonial regime with horrible consequences to community relations and subsequent history of communalism in India, particularly of the kind we are faced with in recent times. 

Professor R.P. Bahuguna, head of the Department of History and Culture in Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, drew attention to the many ways in which Sant Kabir was remembered in the 17th century, when hardened boundaries of religious identities of Hindu, Muslim or any other kind had not yet formed. This writer spoke on Kabir’s search for common grounds—with reference to the saintly-figure’s life as a Muslim weaver with reported Brahmin paternity, discipleship of a Sufi tradition that was increasingly appropriating yogic ideas and practices and thus getting somewhat Hinduised also. While attacking both Hindu social order of things and bigotry of the custodians of Islam, Kabir stressed on the unity of existence or monism (advait-wad/wahdat-ul-wujud), an outstanding idea common to both classical Hindu and Muslim mystical traditions—doing away with quarrelsome Hindu-Muslim dichotomy and worshipping one formless God (Ram or whatever): kahen Kabir ek Ram japhu re, Hindu turak na koyi. This can be done by cleansing one’s own heart, and, thus, discovering God within for someone to become a good human being.

A number of other speakers (scholars of Hindi literature such as Vishwanath Tripathi, Gopeshwar Singh and Bajrang Bihari Tiwari) found tantalising similarities between the teachings of Kabir, Mahatma Gandhi and Ambedkar, among others, who have fought against oppressive political regimes—seeking justice for those at the bottom of the social order, even if there might have been some contradictions in their attitudes or worldviews. Professor Eugenia Vanina, renowned Indologist and scholar of Hindi literature relating to Bhakti traditions at the Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, argued that Kabir’s valuable contributions to the long-standing tradition of communal amity in India’s historic past cannot be undone through the politically-opportunistic binaries of us and them. The unity in diversity thread common to India’s culture has a long history emphasised also by fine intellectuals like Abul Fazl and sophisticated Mughal prince such as Dara Shukoh.

Tabir Kalam of Banaras Hindu University and Saifuddin Ahmad of University of Delhi spoke on Kabir’s critical position within Urdu-Persian Muslim culture, especially the poet’s resistance to the fanatical approach of Muslim orthodoxy. Also in a session chaired by this writer, a panel consisting of historians, political scientists, literary scholars and educationists (I.M. Jha, Simmi Kapoor Mehta, Gautam Choubey, Kumar Prashant, Jaya Kakkar, Jasmeet Kaur Bhatia, Birendra Kumar and Charu Mathur) searched for literary equivalences and commonality of idioms of Kabir, on the one hand, and those of Guru Nanak, Maluk Das, Bulhe Shah and Gandhi, on the other. They also looked at problems of historicity, translations, multilingualism, hegemonic power relations involving dominance and subordination, as well as the limits of the relevance of Kabir from the point of view of contemporary social and political thought.