Kabir's theological secularism

WHEN KABIR sings `Look into your heart, your very heart/that's where Karim and Rama reside,' he becomes the undisputed hero for all who believe in tolerance, freedom and equality. Yet, individuals and societies have been continuously interpreting, appropriating and learning from this supreme poet, critic and philosopher for the past five centuries.

Every age and epoch privileges one aspect of Kabir's message. There is, however, the inescapable temptation to unravel the `core' or the `heart' of his way of thinking. One such audacious attempt in our century identifies `theological secularism' as the `centre' of Kabir's way of thinking. This might sound ironical for those who perceive the poet as someone who sought to systematically dismantle organised religion and as someone who was a fierce critic of the religious practices of Hindus and Muslims.

The argument for Kabir's theological secularism begins with the idea of God as nirguna or without attributes and qualities. It is, therefore, sheer hubris to believe that ordinary language or human consciousness can ever sufficiently comprehend the idea of God, who is also nirankar or formless and niranjan or flawless. In order to establish these characteristics of God, Kabir uses various names attributed to God from diverse religious in quick succession and interchangeably to prove that the very act of naming God will always remain a non-starter. Rama, Allah, Krishna and Karim, then, are so many names of God, but the God beyond all gods remains nameless, formless and pure.

God is also sirjanhar or the creator of the universe. This universe has name, form, qualities, and is deeply flawed, tainted and impure. In the ultimate sense, it is also unreal because it partakes nothing of God who is real and yet does not belong to the ephemerality of his own creation. What of the human creature? He too is tainted and flawed with vanity, greed, pride, hatred, envy and violence. Further, humans are driven relentlessly by pretensions and delusions. This leads to their perpetrating acts of deception and violence upon one another, and they do so in the form of false beliefs, false religions, and values steeped in error. Was there a way out?

Kabir is emphatic that individuals must change and so must societies. This is possible only by reuniting oneself with God by escaping from the clutches of maya or the illusion that the world of the senses is real. One must seek to establish a direct union with the God beyond God. This cannot, however, be done with the help of scriptures, prayers, rituals, sacrifices, pilgrimages, rules of purity and pollution, mantras and building temples or mosques. All these are man-made illusions. Following Kabir, God can only be found within oneself. The formless and flawless God is easily realised by discovering one's true self.

The implications of this argument are profound. For instance, if violence belongs to the realm of delusion and deception, then the very nature of absolute reality must be non-violent. Any religion, individual or society that practices violence would, therefore, be definitionally false and tainted. Further, since all organised religions come under the sovereign influence of maya, they are all false and must be rejected without exception. This is familiar terrain for those who know Kabir and his poetry.

In the introduction to his translation of one hundred poems of Kabir (Kabir: The Weaver's Songs), Vinay Dharwadker introduces an additional nuance in the argument delineated thus far. The nirguna God stands outside the pale of organised religions and their rules and observances. Since the secular is invariably defined as that which lies outside the realm of religion, then, by implication, God also must be entirely secular.

Salvation, nirvana, mukti, moksha, then, are perfectly secular categories and attainable through entirely secular means. Kabir's theological secularism makes God accessible to all.

Dharwadker's dazzling gloss on Kabir is instructive in building a concerted challenge against religious extremism and intolerance. There are, however, several strands of the argument that need closer attention. Kabir often referred to God as a master weaver and the universe as the product of the efforts of God on his divine loom.

If the world was as wretched as Kabir made it out to be, then there are questions that arise about the status of God as a weaver. Why did God weave such a flawed tapestry? Dharwadker does refer to Kabir's misanthropy, but does not elaborate. While Kabir does provide the most perfect antidote to the deceptions and delusions that religion and society construct, his hatred of all things human could lead to quietism, apathy, indifference, and the ultimate triumph of the bully.

To find God beyond God is a perfect ideal. In doing so, one understands the futility of intolerance, organised religions and all forms of violence. What Kabir does not tell us is the way out when people do not see reason, and prefer the brutal embrace of maya to the sublime joys of attaching oneself to the company of a secular God. He was aware that `only one in a million/awakens to this.' Kabir's misanthropy was willing to leave everyone else in the lap of maya.