Kabir’s exile and death

Did Kabir go to Maghar of his own accord? The answer to this question is complicated. But from the available historical references, it is clear that he left Kashi and moved to Maghar out of compulsion. He was exiled by the ruler, writes Kanwal Bharti

Kahe Kabir sunahu re santon,

brahmi pare jini koyee

Jas Kasi tas Maghar usar, hirdein Ram Sati hoyee [1]

Hindi scholars have created a controversy around the death of Kabir and also on his decision to shift to Maghar saying that he did not want to give the credit for his salvation to Kashi (Benaras). The fact is that these scholars never intended to understand Kabir, so they could have only created confusion. They say that Kabir moved to Maghar from Kashi in the evening of his life because he did not want to die in Kashi. The story which has been crafted to explain his decision, according to Babu Shyam Sundar Das, goes like this.

Kashi was considered a place which helps one attain salvation. That was why people came to Kashi to die. Dying in Maghar, on the other hand, was sure to condemn you to the fires of hell. This superstition continues to date. It was to express his disdain for this superstition that Kabir moved to Maghar. He believed that he was entitled to salvation solely on the basis of his devotion to god. As he wrote:

Jo Kashi tan taji Kabira, to Ramhi kaha nihora re [2]

The first point is that a scientific thinker like Kabir could not have been superstitious. The concept of salvation had no place in his philosophy. He did not believe in the other world and in heaven and hell. Then, why would Kabir deny his own beliefs by making such arguments? This needs to be dwelt upon. Kabir Granthavali has the following lines:

Loka mati ke bhora re,

Jo Kasi ran taje Kabira, to Ramahi kaha nihora re

Ab hum vaise ab hum aise, ehai janam ka laha

Jyun jal mein jal paise n nikse, yun dhuri mile julaha

Ram Bhagti pari jako hit chit, tako achiraj kaha

Gur Prasad sadh ki sangati, jag jite jayee julaha

Kahe Kabir sunahu rahe santo, bhrami pare jinni koyee

Jas Kasi tas Maghar usar, hiredein ram sati hoyee [3]

Here, Kabir is just referring to the popular belief. He must have heard from the people that dying in Kashi would help one attain salvation. If Kabir dies in Kashi, then how is it Ram’s blessing? Next, he says, that we are what we are. We only believe in this birth. Just as when water joins water, it becomes one, Kabir, the weaver, would also become one with the elements. Those who become one with Ram, need not be surprised. Due to his guru’s blessings and the company of the saints, this weaver is leaving after conquering the world. So, the saints need not be misled. If Ram resides in one’s heart, Kashi is the same as Maghar.

The statues of Kabir and his followers at the Kabir Math in Benaras

In this verse, Kabir talks of leaving Kashi and going to Maghar. This also finds mention in the “Kabir Vani” compiled in Guru Granth Sahib. Kabir’s verses compiled in Guru Granth Sahib differ in their wording from the verses in the Kabir Granthavali. There are also some new verses. Guru Granth Sahib was compiled by Guru Gobind Singh in 1604 – 200 years after Kabir’s death – hence the changes. There are many interpolations too. One such interpolated verse is:

Jyon jal choodi bahar bhayo meena

Poorab janam hain tap ka heena

Ab kahu ram javan gati mori

Tajile Banaras mati bhaye thori

Sakal janam Shivpuri gawaya

Marti baar Maghar uthi aaya

Bahut baras tap kiya Jasi

Marna bhaya Maghar ko baasi,

Kasi Maghar sam beechari

Ochi bhagati kaise utarasi paari

Kahu Guru gaji Shiv sabko jame

Mua Kabir ramat Shrirame [4]

This verse seems to have been crafted by some Ramanandi Vaishnav because “Shri Ram” is the mantra of Ramanand sect[5]. This verse goes against the thoughts and beliefs of Kabir and it seems to be saying that he was regretting his decision to leave Kashi. Kabir’s situation is just like that of a fish out of water. “I did not perform penance in my earlier birth. Now, I don’t know what Ram will do with me. Leaving Benaras meant I had lost my mind. I spent my entire life in Shivpuri (Kashi) and now, at the time of death, why have I come to Maghar? I performed penance in Kashi for years but now why have I become a resident of Maghar? Kashi and Maghar are the same but how will shallow devotion take me to the other side? Now, Kabir will die only with the help of Ram.”

Also read: Kabir’s Nirgunvad influenced Ambedkar

This verse makes a mockery of Kabir, who did not believe in past births, rebirths and the other world; who did not perform pujas, penance and other rituals. The Kabir who said, Man, tu paar utar kahan jaihon, aage panthi panth n koyee kocch mukam na paihon[6], can he be worried about how he will reach the other world after leaving Kashi? On the one hand, Brahmin scholars are crying themselves hoarse that:

Bhakti dravida upaji laye Ramanand

Pargat kari Kabir ne saat dweep nav khand[7]

On the other hand, he becomes a man practising shallow devotion. He is being praised and abused at the same time. Kabir opposed Bhakti. Then, why would he get involved in it?

Quoting this fake verse, dwij scholar Purushottam Agarwal writes:

“Kabir was not converting to another religion. He was just baring his real self. He had self-confidence but had self-condemnation, too. Whether Kashi guaranteed an entry into heaven or not, it was his town. Kabir was a devotee of Ram. Loving Kashi even for attaining salvation or going to heaven was an insult to his Ram and also to his Kashi. He loved Kashi – not because it would help him attain salvation but also because it had given him life. Leaving such a city and that too as an evidence of his devotion and its result? And to say that Kashi doesn’t guarantee you salvation he had to forget that Sakal janam Kashi mein bitaya. Then, the devotion of this poet, who was in love with Kashi, cannot be called anything except shallow.”[8]

With many ifs and buts, Purushottam Agarwal uses this verse to prove that Kabir’s devotion was shallow. And he is also insisting that Kabir had repented saying, “Kashi cannot lead you to salvation.” Can’t he think of any other reason for Kabir leaving Kashi?

In the first verse “Lokmat ke bhora re” Kabir says that he is departing after conquering the world with the blessings of his guru and the company of sadhus. Why did no scholar pay attention to this verse? Had he quit Kashi of his own will, would he have said such a thing? Obviously, he meant something else. Had he paid attention to the first verse, Agarwal would not have concluded that Kabir was worried about his salvation after leaving Kashi. He would have realized that the verse is an interpolation.

Also read: Namvar’s Kabir

The fact is that legends are often tinged with truth but to zero in on it, one requires knowledge of the contemporary history. No one leaves a city due to a superstition or what the people believe. Often, social, economic and political factors are behind it. A materialist Kabir, a realist Kabir would not have quit Kashi due to a superstition (for negating it implies believing in it). But the fact is that he had to leave Kashi. But why did he move to Maghar? Those who believe in the weird idea that dying in Kashi leads one to heaven and dying in Maghar, to hell may well continue to believe it but we have to dwell on the sociopolitical reasons for this decision and those should be historically accurate.

For this, let us talk about another legend – that Sultan Sikandar Lodhi had committed atrocities on Kabir. A interpolated verse on this legend says:

Aho mere govyand tumhara zor, kazi bakiva hasti tor
Bandhi bhuja bhale kare daryo, hasti kopi soond main maryo,
Bhagyo hasti cheesa mari, va moorati ki main balihari,
Mahabat to kon maari santi, ishi maraun dhalon kati
Kaha apradh sant hon keenha, bandhi pot kunjat ko dinha|
Kunjar pot bahu vandan kare, ajahoon na sunjhein kazi andhere
Kahe Kabir hamare Govindya, chaithe pad hai jan to gayand

What is clear from the language of this verse is that Kabir did not write it. He could never have talked of a miracle. This verse does not figure in Kabir Granthavali or in Guru Granth Sahib. Babu Shyam Sundar Das has quoted it in the preface to Kabir Granthavali[9] without specifying its source. He writes, “This verse is not there in the old books. If it was written by Kabir, it shows that all the three attempts to kill him involved elephants. The verse does not say that he was thrown into the river or burnt alive.”[10] This finds mention in the legend, too.

The poets who wrote verses and attributed them to Kabir were his Hindu disciples and they wrote them after his death. According to Prof Om Prakash Gupta, “By the first half of the 17th century [ie 1650 AD], Kabir’s Hindu followers had established a Kabir Panth, which has its own set of rules, norms and code of conduct. The Panth launched a well-planned campaign to publicize tales about Sikandar Lodhi and Kabir and about Kabir’s miracles. This was done to elevate Kabir to someone godlike and draw the people to the Panth.”[11] The stories of miracles and the legends came into being in this era.

The fact is that Kabir was not a contemporary of Sikandar Lodhi and so the question of the latter persecuting him does not arise. Kabir’s Hindu disciples pushed forward the year of his death by 70 years (to 1575 AD) just to prove that he was a contemporary of Lodhi. This also makes it easier to portray him as a disciple of Ramanand. But historical evidence shows that Kabir died in Samvat 1505, ie 1448 AD. Prof Om Prakash Gupta writes, “There is historical (archaeological) evidence to prove that Kabir died in Samvat 1505.”[12] According to Gupta, “The surveyor of historical memorials, A. Fuherer, had described Kabir’s mausoleum in Maghar thus: “Towards the east of the town, on the right bank of Ami river lies the mausoleum of famous religious reformer Kabir Das or Kabir Shah, which was built by Bijli Khan in 1450 AD and was renovated by Nawab Fidai Khan in 1567.”[13]

Kabir could not have died after Bijli Khan built his mausoleum. Thus, it seems that Kabir died in Samvat 1505. Many verses about Kabir’s death are prevalent among the Kabir Panthis. Two of them are quoted often:

Samvat pandrah sai aur panch mau maghar kiyo gaun
Aghan sudi ekadeshi, milyo paun mein paun

Samvat pandrah say pachhatra, kiya maghar ko gaun
Magh sudi ekadashi, ralu paun mein paun

The first of these verses is historically accurate. Now, two questions remain to be dwelt upon. First, why Kabir moved to Maghar and second, who was Bijli Khan.

In 1448, the religio-political conditions in Benaras became adverse for Kabir. At that time, Bahlol Lodhi was the ruler and under his dispensation, Hindu and Muslim fundamentalism had grown manifold. The Hindu religious norms were laid down by the Brahmins and the Sultan did not interfere in them. The protector of the Muslim religious norms was the Quazi, who was the master of all he surveyed. Both considered Kabir their enemy because he challenged the Brahmins and the Quazi. But Kabir’s followers were large in number and included both Muslims and Hindus. He was the messiah of the poor. Thus, Kabir was a thorn in the flesh for both the Brahmins and the Quazi. And both jointly plotted to get rid of him. Prof Om Prakash Gupta rightly points out, “The Brahmins were not in a position to punish Kabir but under the Muslim rule, the Quazis enjoyed both judicial and administrative powers.”[14]

A painting of Kabir that shows him weaving

But two disciples of Kabir were very influential – Bijli Khan, who was the adopted son of Pahad Khan, the Amir of Bahlol Lodhi, and the Raja Veer Singh. Prof Gupta opines that because of Veer Singh, the Brahmins of Kashi could not harm Kabir and Bijli Khan protected him from the ire of the Sultan and the fatwas of the Quazi[15]. This may or may not be true. But given the nature of Kabir, it is difficult to imagine that he would have begged for his life. It is true that Raja Veer Singh and Bijli Khan were disciples of Kabir and it is also true that despite being well connected, he had to leave Kashi.

Why was Kabir forced to quit Kashi? It must have been a major issue that must have rendered the large number of his disciples and Veer Singh and Bijli Khan helpless. This could have happened if the ruler had exiled him or forced him to leave Kashi. Kabir’s verse that talks of him leaving Kashi to negate the popular belief has a line Guru Prasad sadh ke sangati, jag jite jayee julaha. It has a tinge of sadness over having to leave Benaras but it also exudes the pride of having conquered the world – that is, he is not leaving after a defeat. This suggests that Kabir was exiled from Benaras. Had he surrendered before the Brahmins and the Quazi, why would he have been exiled? He was exiled because he did not give in to the Brahmins and the Quazi.

There is no doubt that the Quazi had played a major role in his exile. Kabir’s verse, which we have quoted earlier, Aho mere govyand tumhara zor, kazi bakiva hasti to and ajahoon na sunjhein kazi andhere, refers to the Quazi. Om Prakash Gupta writes, “If this interpolation is about persecution of Kabir, then the Quazi referred to is the Quazi of Kashi-Benaras, located on the banks of the Ganga, because the Quazi had judicial powers.”[16]

But still, it would be better to assume that Kabir had performed “Hijrat”. The Brahmins and the Quazi might not have been able to harass Kabir but they must have been torturing Kabir’s vulnerable disciples and saints. This was the same situation that was created in Mecca against Prophet Mohammed by the opponents of Islam. The situation became so grim that it became impossible for Mohammed to continue in Mecca and on the night when his enemies planned to attack him, Prophet Mohammed left for Medina with Mohammed Abu Bakra. In Islam, this is called Hijrat. Perhaps, Kabir was also forced to carry out Hijrat, as his enemies had created a situation that made it impossible for him to continue living in Benaras; he was forced to shift to Maghar. Why did Kabir choose Maghar? That was because he was born there and had come to Benaras, which was a centre of education, for acquiring knowledge and wisdom. Later, he decided to settle in Benaras for the sake of “Ramanand Chetay”. The tempest of his wisdom swept away the brahmanical theories and stirred Indian society for 200 years. It was so powerful that it took Brahmanism 200 years to free itself from it.

Kabir had done what he had wanted; he was leaving after conquering the world.

History does not tell us when Kabir went to Maghar. The verses popular among Kabir Panthis only tell us that he left for Maghar but not about his death. Probably, he died a short time after he moved to Maghar. He went to Maghar in 1448 but it does not mean that he died in the same year. It is possible that he died later or in the year in which Bijli Khan had his mausoleum built.

Translation: Amrish, copy-editing: Lokesh



[1] Kabir Granthavali, p 167

[2] ibid p 23

[3] ibid p 167

[4] ibid, p 224

[5] Kabir Sangrah (p 152)

[6] Ibid p 763

[7] Ibid p 404

[8] Akath (p 197)

[9] Kabir Granthavali (p 22)

[10] Ibid p 22-23

[11]  Ibid p 56

[12] Ibid p 46

[13] Ibid p 47

[14]  Ibid p 54

[15]  Ibid p 55-56

[16]  ibid p 54

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