Kabir: Fearless sociologist who challenged conventions

Kabir’s uniqueness is evident in his treatment of the ‘questions of caste’. Kabir opposes the caste system but copiously refers to the caste-based social structure. He rejects the idea of caste-based occupations but alludes to them metaphorically in his devotional poems, writes Kamlesh Verma

Special on Kabir Jayanti[i]

Kabir and Tulsidas – the two leading lights of the Bhakti movement – have dwelt on the “questions of caste” in their poetry. There are fewer references to caste in the works of other poets. Muhammad Jayasi, Surdas, Meerabai and others have referred to caste here and there but clearly the issue is not of much consequence for them. However, whether Kabir and Tulsi were opponents or supporters of the Varnashrama system, has been one of the persistent themes of Hindi criticism – Kabir opposed Varnashrama, Tulsi supported it!

In one of verses of Surdas, Shridama tells Krishna, “You are not superior to me in caste terms”. Now, Shridama was a Brahmin while Krishna was a Yadav. In the verse “Khelat mein ko kako gausaiyyan” a line goes: “Jati-paanti ham te bad nahin, nahin basat tumhari chaiyyan”. In his famous verse “Avigat gati kachhu kahat na aawey”, Surdas writes that worshipping Nirgun Brahma is difficult because one cannot contemplate its form. He also writes that the “caste” of Nirgun Brahma is also difficult to determine – “Roop-rekh-gun-jati-jugati binu nirlamb kit dhaave”. But what is certain is that the question of caste is not of wider importance for Surdas.

Among the poets of the Bhakti movement, besides Kabir and Tulsi, Raidas also treated the “question of caste” as important. These three poets dwelt on the question differently. Kabir and Raidas both belonged to the Gyanashreyi stream of Nirgun Bhakti but their views on the question of caste were not identical. Their descriptions of caste are different. Hindi criticism has confined itself to the question as to who supported the Varnashrama system and who opposed it. Kabir and Raidas are considered to be among those who opposed it, so it is concluded that they have similar views on the matter. However, the poetic works of the two demonstrate that there is a gaping difference in their outlooks and their ways of thinking. Kabir is aggressive on the issue while Raidas is patient. Kabir does not pull punches in commenting on the fundamentals of caste but Raidas avoids making hard-hitting remarks. Kabir extends the “questions of caste” to both the Hindus and the Muslims. But Raidas has nothing to say about Muslim society. For Kabir, Brahmin and Mullah are two sides of the same coin, but not for Raidas. However, the poems of Raidas take a clearer stand than those of Kabir on the question of “untouchability”[ii]. Kabir opposes the concept of so-called “purity”[iii] but Raidas is more concerned with the questions of the untouchability of the lowest castes. Both the poets take note of the problem of untouchability but Raidas is ahead of Kabir on this subject.

 Also read : Kabir’s guru and the Dwij propaganda

While dwelling on the question of caste in the context of Bhakti poets, we should keep the contents of their works in mind. By dubbing them as supporters or opponents of the Varnashrama system, we classify them into two distinct groups but our analysis will be incomplete without taking note of what they have to say about caste in their works.

A painting shows Kabir working his loom

Saint-poets like Kabir, Raidas and Tulsi talk at length about caste in their works. However, that is not to be seen in Hindi criticism. The ideologies and methodologies which contributed to the development of Hindi literary criticism never left any scope for the questions of caste to be the obvious basis of criticism. “Questions of caste” were present in the works but no methodology for their evaluation could develop. In the criticism based on the ideal of “equality”, the questions of class overshadowed the questions of caste. Critiques written with “harmony” as the ideal never allowed the “questions of caste” to come to the fore, taking cover in the idea of a wider “humanity”. A close study of both these kinds of criticism would reveal that the questions of caste have been playing a role in shaping them although apparently these questions have been rejected.

Acharya Ramchandra Shukla develops his methodology of criticism and its inherent social vision on the basis of Tulsidas’ Varnashrama and Lokdharma. While doing so, he does not deem it proper to go into the details of the caste system or of castes. At first glance, his writings appear to be caste-free but that is not the truth. “Questions of caste” play an important role in the shaping of his Lokdharma. While discussing the theory that Islamic invasion led to the emergence of the Bhakti movement, he refers to “Pujya Purush” (venerated men). Who are these Pujya Purush? Shukla also uses words like “nimn shreni ki janata” (people of lower categories). Shukla is in fact analyzing the “questions of caste” using a different terminology, which definitely does not permit a comprehensive analysis. But the caste system did shape his thinking process. Broadly, he believed that the present – and traditional – system of social privileges should not be tampered with, although he does criticize the caste system in some of his later essays.

Acharya Hazari Prasad Dwivedi, Marxists and Dalits’ literary critiques belong to a different stream. It must be clarified that no attempt is being made here to lump the three together. There are considerable differences between the three, of which the learned readers are well aware. These three represent a different stream of Hindi criticism because they seek in Kabir’s poetry the basis for their direct and indirect efforts to dwell on the “questions of caste”. The “akaran dand” (punishment for no reason) that Dwivedi talks about is related to the “questions of caste”. Marxist criticism views Kabir as a poet who stood up to the Varnashrama system and to feudalism and identifies him as a poet critical of Purohitvaad-Mullahvaad. Though Marxist criticism formally ignores the “questions of caste” it does admit that they are present in its undercurrent.

Compared with Dwivedi and the Marxists, Dalit critics have made a greater effort to understand and interpret the “questions of caste”. But it is clear that Dalit criticism’s original commitment is to the Dalits, so the questions it raises pertain to Dalits. Besides, Dalit critics have made an attempt to discuss caste while treating all Dalit castes together as a social group or as those having a common identity. They did not want to treat each Dalit caste differently. They wanted the Dalit community’s unity to remain intact. To an extent, this attempt was justified, but it did not succeed. In their works, Dalit litterateurs have raised issues pertaining to different castes. If Joothan talks about the Chuhad caste, Murdhiya about the Chamar caste. In other words, while caste differentiation is visible in the literary works of Dalits, all the castes are lumped together “Dalit” in Dalit criticism.

On reading this stream of criticism, the oppressed castes felt that it made an attempt to highlight their view. Those justice-lovers backed it so that the interests of the weaker sections might be served. Consequently, the first stream ended up with negative criticism of Kabir and the second stream with negative criticism of Tulsi. Acharya Shukla even described Kabir as “Lok-vidhweshi” (enemy of the people) while the second stream proved that Tulsi was brahmanical and anti-Dalit.

In all these debates, there was no attempt to give enough space to caste configurations and patient deliberations. A compilation or collection of caste-related poems of these poets , which would facilitate a comprehensive analysis of these poems, was not available[iv]. The truth is that there are ample contexts of and references to castes in the poetry of Kabir and Tulsi. Questions related to the social vision of the two poets that are often asked in university examinations have caste as their foundation.

Here are some observations based on the detailed reference to castes in Kabir’s poetry:

Kabir has referred to castes, not caste groups. You will find Brahmins, Rajputs and Kayasthas in his poems – but not as a group of upper castes. You will also find Julahas, Yadavs, Mahtos and Kumhars but not as a group of backward castes. Similarly, Chamar, Khateek, Dhobhi, Chuhad and so on but not as a group of Dalit castes. You cannot say that Kabir’s poetry is against or for any caste group. However, the tendency to see castes collectively emerges 100 years later in the poetry of Tulsidas. Tulsi writes in his Ramcharitmanas, “Je barnadham teli kumhar, swapach kirat kol kalwar”. The word “barnadham” indicates grouping of castes.

Kabir does not blindly oppose or support any caste. Many criticisms on Kabir declare that he was bitterly opposed to Brahmins. But such verses need to be studied closely to understand as to exactly why he criticizes Brahmins. Kabir flays Brahmins as he holds them guilty for patronizing hypocrisy and falsehoods. He does not oppose a Brahmin merely because he is a Brahmin. He gives ample space to Brahmins in his Amardesva. There are Brahmins among his Nirguniyas[v]. He does not harbour any ill will or hatred towards the Brahmins. He is critical of the Brahmins who have caste-based prejudices[vi].

Tulsi’s humanity is weaker in this respect. In many of his verses, he portrays Brahmins as superior and Shudras as lowly solely on the basis of birth. He does not cite any reason other than caste as the basis of his opinion. He wants people to do jobs as assigned by their Varnas. He is in favour of harmony, not equality. He wants the traditional stratification to remain intact and people to perform their duties while remaining within the boundaries set for them. Clearly, those who believe in justice will prefer Kabir’s path, which allows discussions on caste that are based on logic and reason. Tulsi’s views do not allow that.

Kabir also talks about Muslims but they do not figure in Tulsi’s poetry. Both Kabir and Tulsi lived in societies that had a sizeable Muslim population. The Muslims also controlled the levers of power. This is a rankling deficiency in Tulsi’s views on society. It can be argued that the Muslims couldn’t have had any place in Ramcharitmanas as the period in which the epic is set is very different from the period in which the author lived. But while describing “Kalikaal” in “Uttarkand”, Tulsidas analyzes the situation that prevailed in his time. He cites the changes in the outlook and nature of the women and the Shudras as signs of the advent of Kalikaal. The period in question is the time in which he lived. Muslims were part of society during Tulsi’s lifetime but “Uttarkand” contains no reference to them. Muslims simply don’t figure in Tulsi’s thoughts. The word “Jolha” has been used in the famous savaiyya (four-line verse) of Kavitavali. That probably is the only word in Tulsi’s entire corpus of works that symbolizes Muslims or Muslim castes and that also has been used just once. In contrast, Nirala had analyzed Tulsidas’ works against a Muslim backdrop. The way Tulsi’s poetry is read and taught has a counter-Muslim element though Muslims have no visible presence in his works. It can be said that Kabir’s social concerns are wider than that of Tulsi and is a votary of justice.

Kabir relates to “questions of caste” in great detail. In the 1000-year-long history of Hindi poetry, there is no other poet who has dwelt on the questions of caste in such detail as Kabir has. Beginning with the Varnashrama, he talks about various castes, even Muslim castes. In verses like “Jo pain karta baran vichare” or “Tan man dhan bajee lagee ho”, he talks of the Varnas. In “Awadh ram sabe karam karehoon”, he mentions castes like Kumhar, Dhobi, Aghori, Teli, Kshatri, Nauaa and so on. In the Amardesva verse he talks of Mughals, Pathans, Syeds and Shaikhs. He talks about Julahas at numerous places. Thus, as far as the castes are concerned, Kabir talks about them comprehensively and in depth. He writes much more openly on this topic than any other poet.

It can be said that Kabir is unwilling to accept religious concepts. Not only does he reject Hinduism and Islam, he disagrees with Buddhism and Jainism, too. In verses like “Tathein seviye narayaina” or “Bahuri nahin aavna ya des” Kabir ridicules Buddhists and Jains by calling them “lunchit mundit” or “mundit”. He also makes fun of “jogis” and “sanyasis”. To sum up, he does not approve of any institution created in the name of spiritualism. He believes that institutionalization of religion creates many evils. That is why though god is present in Kabir’s poetry and so are ruminations on spiritualism, he rejects religion altogether. Kabir is unique in the sense that he talks of god and spiritualism but without reference to religion. Today, many of those who want to make Kabir their emblem believes in neither god nor religion. The Marxist critics and Dalit thinkers who like the social messages of Kabir are atheists and do not follow any religion. That is why Kabir’s god creates problems for them. Muktibodh finds Kabir “modern”. It is correct, too, and has been discussed extensively. But Kabir’s god is not discussed extensively. How to reconcile “modern” with “god” is the question.

Kabir’s ideology is not confined to any tradition. You will not be able to contain his thoughts within the boundaries of any single ideology. He is a monotheist but of which stream – Vedanti or Islamic? Let alone Marxist critics, even Shukla does not consider him part of the Vedic tradition and Dwivedi does not accept that he is a thinker in the Islamic tradition. His god is a mystic, a Yogmargi, who holds Sahaj Sadhna of the Siddhas. Dwivedi has rightly pointed out that Kabir is “unique”.

Kabir’s uniqueness is evident in his treatment of the “questions of caste”. Kabir opposes the caste system but talks about the caste-based social structure. He rejects the idea of caste-based occupations but refers to them metaphorically in his devotional poems. In the verse “Aavadh ram sabai karam karihoon” he says that “O Ram, I will do everything for you. I will make pots as a Kumhar, I will wash soiled clothes as a Dhobi and make my body a ‘Kolhu’ as a Teli …” He rejects the pandits and their isms but also says that one who has learnt the meaning of love is a pandit. He treats pandits and mullahs as equals in some of his works. In some verses, he delivers a common sermon for the pandit and the mullah, forgetting that they belong to different religions. Sometimes he asks the Mullah to chant the name of Ram! He urges “Pande” to dump the Vedas and Quran as they mislead people. Some examples:

  • Ek kahawat mulla kazi; Ram bina sab phokatbazi[vii]
  • Chadeen kateb Ram kahi kazi, khoon karat hau bhari[viii]
  • Ved-kiteb chaddein deu pande, ee sab man ke bharma[ix]
  • Ved-Kiteb padhe we kutuba, we maulana we Pande
    Begari begari naam dharaye, ek matiya ke bhande[x].

While talking of the castes of his society, he makes sure that the information is accurate. The characteristics and occupations of the castes he refers to are in consonance with the contemporary reality. He writes that the Kayastha manipulates documents, the Bania cheats while weighing, the Banjara comes to sell his wares, and so on. Such things can be said of these castes only. This does not mean that Kabir wants to perpetuate the caste stereotypes. The fact is that “Bhakti” is the bedrock on which his poetry rests. His utterances come from the ground prepared by Bhakti. Using notions prevalent about different castes to make his point related to Bhakti is his style.

Sai mera baniyan, sahji karai vyopar
Bin dandi bin palde, tole sab sansar[xi]

In these lines, he compares god with a Bania. He says his god is a Bania who does “sahaj” (spontaneous) business and weighs the world without using beams and pans (ie a balance). Clearly, the earthly Bania conducts his business with the help of beams and pans, he does not weigh the world and his business is not “sahaj”. Through these lines, Kabir wants to say something about god and not about the Bania caste. One could ask whether “Kayastha” could have been used as a metaphor instead of Bania. The answer is no. Only this particular caste as the metaphor would make these lines meaningful.

While crafting such metaphors, Kabir ensures that what he is saying is also socially relevant. In the verse “Aavadh Ram sabai karam karihoon” he takes the names of many castes – Kumhar, Dhobi, Teli, Nai, Badhai, Kasai, Banjara, Mallah and so on – and refers to their occupations one by one. What Kabir wants to say is that he will do anything for the sake of his devotion to Ram. Is it a mere coincidence that all these castes are the so-called lower castes? It seems that Kabir’s message is that no occupation is a barrier in devotion to god, that no occupation is impure. In this verse, Kabir also says, “Kshatri haiy kari khadag sambhaloon” – I would become a Kshatriya, wield a sword and be the protector. Note how he refers to the Kshatriya as a protector, not a ruler. In this caste-based metaphorical verse, Kabir does not talk of the Brahmins. Why? Probably because he was mentioning the work of every caste and there was no work that was associated with the Brahmins. No occupation which involves labour is traditionally associated with the Brahmins. It is definitely revolutionary on the part of Kabir to make “work” the basis of Bhakti.

Kabir’s verses that talk about castes are not a collection of unconnected details. They represent the sociology of castes and detailed inquiry of a vigilant intellectual. His metaphors are not merely poetic embellishments. Kabir is the only Hindi poet to have documented society as a collection of castes. If rightly interpreted, the caste-related contents of his poetry will be an asset for sociology. This 15th-century document can help us understand mainland Indian society.


[i] Kabir Jayanti is celebrated in accordance with the Vikram Samvat. It normally falls in the month of June.

[ii] A poem of Raidas presents the issue of untouchability in very clear terms. In this poem, ‘Cham’ and ‘Ram’ have been given the same weightage. The comprehensiveness of ‘Ram’ is seen as the comprehensiveness of ‘Cham’. Kabir did not write poems of this nature.

Jyanha dekho wahan chamhee cham
Chamke mandir bolat Ram
Cham ki gau, cham ka bachda
Chamhi dhun chamhi thadan
Cham ka hathi, cham ka raja
Cham ke unt par, cham ka baja
Kahat ‘Raidas’ suno Kabir bhai
Cham bina deh kinki banayee
(Raidas Bani, Ed Dr Shukdev Singh, Radhakrishna Prakashan, New Delhi, 2006, p 111)

[iii]Pande bujhi piyahu tum pani
       Jihi mitiya ke ghar manh baithe, tamah sist samani,
       Chapan koti jadav janh bheenje, munijan sahas athas.
       Paig-Paig paigambar gade, so sab sari bho bhanti,
       Tehil mitiya ke bhande pande, bujahi piyahu tum pani,
      Machh-kachh ghariyar biyane, rudhir-neer jal bhariya
       Nadiya neer narak bahi aawe, pasu-manas sab sariya
       Haad jhari jhari good gari gari, doodh kahan te aaya
       So lai pande, jevan baithe, matiyahi chhuti lagaya
       Bed-kiteb chhadi deyu pande, ee sab man ke bharma
       Kahaheen Kabir sunahu ho pande, ee tumhre hain karma
(Jati Ke Prashn Par Kabir, Kamlesh Verma, The Marginalised Prakashan, New Delhi, 2017, p 131-132)

[iv] In the appendix to Jati Ke Prashn Par Kabir, I have compiled those poems of Kabir in which there is some reference to caste. These comprise about 275 verses

[v]Jahva se aayo amar wah desva
    Pani na paan dharti akasva, chand na soor na ren diwasva
    Brahman chhatri na sudra baiswa, mughal, pathan na syed sekhwa
(Jati Ke Prashn Par Kabir, Kamlesh Verma, The Marginalised Prakashan, New Delhi, 2017, p 128)

[vi]Pandit baad bandante jhootha” (ibid, p 117)
Pande kaun kumati tohi laagi” (ibid, p 118)
Santo pande nipun kasai” (ibid, p 161)

[vii] Ibid, p 114

[viii] Ibid, p 112

[ix] Ibid, p 132

[x] Ibid, p 133

[xi] Ibid, p 108

(Translation: Amrish Herdenia; copy-editing: Goldy/Nawal/Anil)

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