Namvar’s Kabir

By linking Kabir with Premchand in this new atmosphere created by ‘Dalit criticism’, Namvar Singh sought to lend strength to a new stand of Hindi criticism. Kabir’s revolutionariness, mysticism, social perspective were already much discussed, so Namvar unveiled a new aspect of his personality – his ‘dukh’ (pain)

Namvar Singh considers Dr Dharamvir’s writings on Kabir important. “Definitely, Dr Dharamvir has done important work. He showed the limits of the earlier writers, which people hadn’t noticed. I had also not noticed them.”(1) In the same interview, Namvar Singh describes Dr Dharamvir’s criticism of Kabir as “Dalit criticism” and praises it from that angle.

Here, we are concerned with how leading Marxist critic Namvar Singh’s writings on Kabir throw light on the Dalit facet of Kabir. That Kabir was born into a Julaha family is unanimously accepted. Hence, it would be patently wrong to say that Kabir was a Dalit. It was Hazari Prasad Dwivedi who began the tradition of describing Kabir as a Dalit and an Untouchable. Marxist critics gave this tradition their sanction – sometimes by keeping quiet, sometimes openly and sometimes indirectly. Dr Dharamvir’s books only served to fix the Dalit label on Kabir more firmly. What needs to be discussed is what role Namvar’s writings have played in Kabir being declared a Dalit.

Marxist criticism, while avoiding direct reference to caste, did create an impression that “Nirgun” (believers in an attribute-less god) sants were Dalits. Besides Kabir, Raidas was also declared a Dalit. That Raidas was indeed a Dalit is clear. Kabir’s is a case of mistaken identity. Whatever “Dalit criticism” did vis-à-vis Kabir is evident but Marxist criticism also persistently insisted that Kabir was a Dalit and hence a revolutionary.

Namvar writes, “Kabir’s revolutionariness was a product of his social position”(2). And he quotes Acharya Hazari Prasad Dwivedi to buttress his point, “He was poor and a Dalit”(3). When Marxist critics talk of the Bhakti Movement and refer to “social status”, “low castes” and “lower castes”, the intent is clear: they are saying these saints were Dalits or Untouchables. Marxist criticism might not dwell on untouchability or casteism specifically but it closely examines the stratification of “social status”. Marxist criticism, which emphasizes “social reality”, also links Kabir with the Dalit community, albeit using a different vocabulary. While interpreting the words “akkhad” (audacious or fearless) and “fakkhad” (bohemian or non-conformist) used by Dwivedi to describe Kabir, Namvar Singh links them with his guru’s life and works. And then, just peruse these lines of his about social reality, “Is it a mere coincidence that both these ‘akkhad’ and ‘fakkhad’ saints of Anamdas Ka Potha were from low castes and were anti-Brahmin?”(4) What does Namvar Singh mean by “low castes”? Obviously, the lower the social strata from which voices of resistance arise, the higher are the chances of a revolution! There can be no doubt that Namvar Singh is hinting at Dalits here. In the same piece, Namvar Singh goes on to say, “Since the caste system sought to regulate society through religious customs and rituals, generally the Dalit castes also gave expression to their anger and dissatisfaction through religion.”(5) Here comes the word “Dalit”. This article is on Kabir and obviously, the “dissatisfaction” and “anger” of the “Dalit castes” has to be seen in the context of Kabir only. The article’s main thrust is that Kabir was a Dalit. This piece was written in 1982 and its objective is to bring to the fore the revolutionariness of Kabir. This revolutionariness has two aspects – one, Kabir raised his voice against the cycle of oppression of the priestly and feudal classes and two, he was himself a Dalit.



Namvar has written Kabir Ka Dukh. While analyzing the “dukh” (pain) of Kabir, who had the courage to face rejection, in keeping with “Dalit criticism”, Namvar Singh gives voice to what Hindi criticism had left unsaid about Kabir. By then, “Dalit criticism” had already shown the “courage to reject” Premchand and the “courage of excessive acceptance” of Kabir. Interestingly, Premchand wrote a lot about Dalits and Kabir wrote nothing about them. Despite that, “Dalit criticism” rejected Premchand and gave Kabir the status of its religious guru. The sole argument used to validate this formulation is that Premchand was not a Dalit while Kabir was! It is entirely valid to say that Kabir wrote nothing about Dalits. His poetry is against Brahmins and Brahmanism. His works oppose the varna system and casteism. Kabir rejects the very concept of casteism. He is against caste-based inequality. But nowhere has he written anything about Dalit castes or Dalit society. His poetry would appeal to anyone who believes in human equality. Kabir writes on “Pandits”. He opposes them. If you want to describe this as Dalit poetry, well, go ahead and do it. But the problem is that pandits and their sophistry were opposed by many – right from the Kshatriya Gautama Buddha to Gobar of Godan. Then how can Kabir’s anti-pandit poetry be described as Dalit poetry; why not describe it as the poetry of Hori Mahto’s son Gobar. The problem remains the same – because according to you Kabir was a Dalit.

By linking Kabir with Premchand in this new atmosphere created by “Dalit criticism”, Namvar Singh sought to lend strength to a new stand of Hindi criticism. Kabir’s revolutionariness, mysticism, social perspective, etc were already much discussed. Namvar unveiled a new aspect of his personality – Kabir Ka Dukh. Kabir’s “dukh” had never been discussed. A lot of energy had gone into establishing Kabir in Hindi criticism. “Dalit criticism” repositioned Kabir in such a way that Hindi criticism could not go back to the old issues. It had to find new ones. That is why, Namvar Singh moved towards Kabir’s “dukh” and Purushottam Agarwal towards Kabir’s “prem” (love). Hindi criticism decided to focus on those aspects of Kabir that were hitherto “unexplored”, for instance, Kabir’s “dukh” and his “prem” – “akath kahani prem ki” (the unsaid story of love).

Namvar Singh devises a new way to understand Kabir – through the Dalit characters of Premchand. “I was introduced to Kabir’s pain through Premchand’s story Kafan. The introducers were Ghisu and Madhav. At this juncture, it would suffice to say that they are Chamars – now known as Dalits – by caste.”(6) Namvar Singh tries to link Kabir with Premchand’s Dalit characters and insists that this is a new “introduction”. He tries to present a new Kabir in his article. He writes, “Ghisu and Madhav are singing their Kabir, they are dancing their Kabir and it seems as if Kabir is also singing and dancing with them.”(7) How do we interpret “their Kabir”? Considering the social atmosphere that prevailed then and what Namvar seems to be driving at in this article, it can be concluded that Ghisu and Madhav find Kabir “theirs” as he was a Dalit. And Namvar confirms this. “Kabir’s pain has a definite social basis.”(8) And this basis is linked with the Dalit community. Towards the end of the article, Namvar’s critiquing prowess is on full display. “Not only Ghisus and Madhavs of the yester years but crores of them today are the foundation of Kabir’s attribute-less god and they consider attributeless god as their mainstay. Despite this well-defined social base, Kabir does not seem to be satisfied with it.”(9) Namvar agrees with the construct of “Dalit criticism” that Dalit society is the social base of Kabir’s poetry. But he opens new doors of opportunities for Hindi criticism by saying that Kabir “does not seem to be satisfied” with the base of Dalit society. Thus, there is need for such a reinterpretation of Kabir that will help him make the poet of a wider society and take him beyond the confines of Dalit criticism.

Despite this attempt, the article says that Kabir was a Dalit. Kudos to the sociological perspective that turns a Julaha into a Dalit! The next article in this book is Kabir Ka Sach (Kabir’s truth). This adds a new dimension to the “personality analysis” of Kabir. After some searching, Namvar Singh tells us that Kabir is an “Anal Pakshi” (an otherworldly bird that has no connection with the earth and sky). His ardent desire to say something different about Kabir makes him write: “He was born a Muslim in the home of a Julaha – Dalit despite being a Muslim.”(10) Again the same, matchless sociological perspective! Even today, there is not a single Muslim who is a Dalit and not a single Dalit who is a Muslim. But here is an example of his pushing the Dalit boundaries endlessly.

In the new century, Namvar Singh wrote Kabir Ko Bhagwa? In this, the word “Dalit” was replaced by “Shudra”. “… he is a Julaha by birth? The condition of weavers in society is the same as that of women. Whether it is Islam or Hinduism, in both religions, the condition of women and Shudras is the same”.

(11)Namvar Singh uses the word “Shudra” as a synonym for “Dalit”, which is wrong. Dr Ambedkar had made it clear that today’s Dalits are not the Shudras of the past. In Kabir Ko Bhagwa?, he describes Kabir as a “Muslim Julaha”. “There can be no doubt that in this verse, Kabir is talking about himself. He is a Muslim weaver and considers himself a Muslim weaver.”(12) In this article, he describes Kabir as neither a Dalit nor a Shudra. Thus, Namvar Singh’s sociological perspective takes Kabir from a person of low castes to a Muslim weaver via the Dalit and Shudra. The chronological presentation of Namvar Singh’s views about Kabir is aimed at throwing light at the role of the leading Marxist critic in labelling Kabir as a Dalit.

Namvar Singh

Any claim that Namvar Singh’s criticism of Kabir lent strength to Dr Dharamvir would be open to challenge. But what definitely lent strength to Dharamvir was the fact that almost everyone said that Kabir was a Dalit. Now that Kabir was a Dalit, scholars born into Dalit families would naturally have a monopoly over him! Dwivedi and Namvar Singh played a major role in turning Kabir into a Dalit. Though Muktibodh, Manager Pandey and Shivkumar Mishra do not directly say that Kabir was a Dalit, the undertones of their writings definitely hint at Kabir being a Dalit. Kabir is the first to be counted among Raidas, Dhanna, Sena and Peepa, and everyone – from Acharya Shukla to Dr Pandey – has said that these saints were from the lower castes.

Acharya Shukla, Acharya Dwivedi, Muktibodh, Namvar Singh, Manager Pandey and Shivkumar Mishra were well aware that our society does not comprise of only upper and lower castes. The upper castes are clearly identifiable. Among the castes that are called “lower”, there are many which were considered “untouchable” for centuries and there are innumerable backward castes. These backward castes are not “Untouchables”. Dalit society is made up of castes that were considered “untouchable”; and Dalit discourse is the ideological assertion of these castes. The backward castes comprise more than half of India’s population. The backward castes include both Hindus and Muslims. The Julahas were always Muslims. A debate on whether Kabir considered himself a Muslim may be in order for other reasons. But it is a proven fact that Kabir was born into Julaha caste. Julahas are OBCs. Unlike Syeds, Pathans and Shaikhs, they are not upper castes. Julahas are probably the biggest Muslim caste in India. Kabir was born a Julaha. The critics’ folly turned him from a “touchable” into an “untouchable”. Once he became an “untouchable”, his becoming a Dalit was a logical consequence. Acharya Ramchandra Shukla, wherever possible, alludes to the caste of the writers in his history of Hindi literature. One may disagree with this approach but it is a fact that in Hindi literature, caste has always been a major factor. What is interesting in this respect is that the leading poets were either of the upper or the lower castes. Kabir also became a victim of this tendency. He was born to a Brahmin widow. But that blood kinship had no meaning because Kabir’s poetry was against Brahmins. Since Kabir could not be made a Brahmin, he was accorded a place in the lower castes. But Kabir belonged neither to the upper castes nor to the lower ones. He was an OBC – a rich poet of the majority community. He belonged to a powerful section in terms of numbers. He was not related to the Dalit community, which has a small population.

The canvas of Kabir’s poetry is very wide. His poetry cannot be analyzed either from a Brahmin or Dalit perspective. The admirers of his poetry are from every caste. Kabir wrote against Brahmins and Brahmanism not because he wanted to express the voice of Dalits. If Dalit criticism draws inspiration from Kabir, there is nothing wrong about it. Kabir poetry is definitely liberty-seeking. But Dalit criticism seems to be trying to convert this liberty-seeking poetry into domination-seeking poetry. Dalit criticism could have chosen Kabir as its beacon irrespective of whether he was a Dalit. It remains to be seen how much Kabir will continue to interest Dalit criticism once the Dalit label is removed from him.


(1) Sammukh, Namvar Singh, ed Ashish Tripathi, Rajkamal Prakashan, New Delhi, 2012 p188

(2) Doosri Parampara Ki Khoj, Namvar Singh, Rajkamal Prakashan, New Delhi, 1994, p44

(3) Ibid p44

(4) Ibid p53

(5) Ibid p56

(6) Kavita Ki Zameen Aur Zameen Ki Kavita, Namvar Singh, Rajkamal Prakashan, March 2011, p35

(7) Ibid p35

(8) Ibid p39

(9) Ibid p42

(10) Ibid p49

(11) Ibid p53

(12) Ibid p59

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