While the debate on who is or can be an Indian rages on, and lines are laid down outlining ‘good’ versus ‘anti-national’ Indians, let us hark back to our iconic figures, whose legacy continues to remind us that it is perhaps most important to be a ‘good’ person.
On 28 June 2018, the Prime Minister of India visited the twin shrines of Kabir in Maghar on the occasion of his 500th death anniversary. Apart from announcing the foundation of a 24 crore ‘Sant Kabir Academy’, he offered flowers and laid chaadars at the Sant Kabir Samadhi and Sant Kabir Mazaar which lie cheek by jowl with each other.
One of the PM’s official tweets on the occasion said this: “Some groups do not desire peace and development, but rather strife and discord. They think that creating an atmosphere of discontent and hostility will lead to political gains. The truth is that these people are disconnected from ground reality. They have no understanding of the nature of this country which believes in Sant Kabir, Mahatma Gandhi and Baba Saheb [Ambedkar].” (translated from Hindi by the author)
The Idea of Identity
The irony could not be greater. The country is on the boil, and it appears as though there are ‘efforts’ to keep it on the boil. In one of his most trenchant songs, ‘Saadho dekho jag bauraana’, Kabir says this:
Hindu kahat hai Raam hamaara, Musalmaan Rehmana
Aapas mein dou lade marat hain, marm koi nahin jaana
(Hindus say Ram is ours, Muslims say Rehman
They die fighting each other, neither understands the essence.)
In this song, Kabir describes a world gone mad. If you speak the truth, they’ll beat you up (or lock you up). If you utter falsehoods, you’ll acquire many followers.
The idea of identity is at the forefront of the current debates on nationalism, patriotism and religion. What constitutes an Indian, or a Hindu, or a Muslim, let alone a ‘good’ one? The impulse to fix identity by entirely external markers, such as birth, is at the root of religious or caste agglomerations and conflicts.
One of the most-loved things about Kabir has been that, even as he expressed his devotion for Ram or Hari fully and without shrinking, he defied categorisation. He refused to be pinned down to a single identity which might confine him. He did not hesitate to say that Ram was the same truth as Rahim, and Hari the same as Karim.
Raam Rahima ek hai, mat samjho koi do
Andar taati bharam ki, ja se soojhe do
(Raam and Rahim are one, don’t think of them as two
A veil of delusion inside, that’s how they appear to be two.)
How Hindus & Muslims ‘Fought’ Over Sant Kabir
The samadhi and the mazaar in Maghar lie side by side for a reason. It has to do with a very well-known though apocryphal story around Kabir’s death. Kabir left Varanasi to die in Maghar because he did not subscribe to the theory of ‘dying in Varanasi in order to go to heaven’. To cock a snook at those who harbour such beliefs, he went to Maghar. When he did die, all those who might have vilified him during his life, promptly showed up to claim his body.
This is the way of the world. We crucify the living saint but worship his mortal remains.
While the two groups of Hindus and Muslims were fighting over Kabir’s mortal remains – whether it would be cremated or buried – someone thought to lift the shroud supposedly covering the body. What the shocked gathering found was his mortal remains but a bunch of flowers. The solution then was easy. Hindus took half the flowers and built a samadhi/temple to house his remains, while Muslims built a mazaar right next to it. The irony is hard to miss – someone who refused to be pinned down in life is neatly divided – into Hindu and Muslim – thus seeking to pin him down into two camps.
How Kabir Is Used to Dredge Up Proclamations of ‘Hindu-Muslim Unity’
Kabir is sometimes used to dredge up tired proclamations of Hindu-Muslim unity. This is something of a misconception and does him a great disservice. Kabir was mercilessly and often savagely critical of both Hindus and Muslims clinging to identity, ritualism and dogmas, and of the folly of groups using these identities in order to wage war against each other. What he proposed was something much more radical – going beyond using mere social markers as the whole, or even the essence, of one’s identity.
Hindu mue hain Raam hai, Musalmaan Khudaai
Kahe Kabir so jeevta, dui mein kadai na jaai
(Hindus die chanting Raam, Muslims die chanting Khuda
Kabir says only she is alive, who does not enter into duality.)
For Kabir, those who cling fast to these identities, whether of caste, religion or nationality, are ‘dead people’. They are not really ‘alive’.
Only he or she truly lives who can find themselves beyond these narrow confines. But confining identities can be subtler. They can be ideological, ‘left’ or ‘right’, ‘liberal’ or ‘nationalistic’.
A deep sense of ‘injustice’, often pitched historically, currently prevails among some groups of people, even among those who are in power and in the majority. This is a very curious phenomenon. At the bottom of it lies perhaps the fact that social identity has managed to overpower the heart. It is easy to feel ‘wronged’ when we make ourselves small.
Tagore on Nationalism
One of the greatest lovers of this land, who composed our national anthem, Rabindranath Tagore, says this in his essay on ‘Nationalism’:
“In past ages we had foreign invasions, but they never touched the soul of the people deeply. They were merely the outcome of individual ambitions... But now, when the spirit of western nationalism prevails, the whole people is being taught from childhood to foster hatreds and ambitions by all kinds of means – by the manufacture of half-truths and untruths in history, by persistent misrepresentation of other races and the culture of unfavourable sentiments towards them, by setting up memorials of events, very often false, which for the sake of humanity should be speedily forgotten, thus continually brewing evil menace towards neighbours and nations other than their own.”
Hopefully we can still find it in our hearts, in these turbulent times, to connect with, in the PM’s words, the ‘ground reality’ and the ‘true nature’ of this country.
(Vipul Rikhi is the author of ‘One Palace, a Thousand Doorways: Songlines through Bhakti, Sufi and Baul Oral Traditions’, published by Speaking Tiger Books, among other books of translation, prose and poetry. This is a personal blog and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)