The questions of life and beyond hover around our beings irrespective of our gender identities. But the path to finding answers to these questions is not gender neutral. The mystic poets of this land have time and again emphasized that what is inside is outside and vice versa.

Therefore, the challenges that women face in navigating through the outer world are replicated and reflected even when the voyage is internal. In addition to striving to find their own spiritual selves and resisting material desires, women have to carry the burden of not arousing the desires of men. Thus in this story, women become a hindrance or a roadblock in the spiritual path of men oblivious of their own identity.

In earlier times, spiritualism, intellectualism and self-actualization were all wedded to religion. Almost all religions are patriarchal and often prescribe a different spiritual path for men and women. But then came a time when these artificial fortresses of power were attacked by the seekers who transcended all the societal barriers in the pursuit of attainment of their God.

Here the indication is towards the Bhakti movement. It became a movement for democratization of religion. In destruction of all hierarchies and oligarchies of religion, what often remained unchallenged was again the hegemony of gender. While this subject is as boundless as the spirit of this movement itself, this article seeks to exhibit the poetry of Kabir to substantiate the paradoxical gender situation where there is both conservative rigidity and spiritual fluidity.

The iconoclasm in Kabir’s poetry is wonderfully represented by one of his verses where he says:

Kabeera khada bazaar main liye lukhati haath,
Jo ghar phoonke apna, chale hamare saath

[Kabir stands in the market, flaming torch in hand.
Burn down your home, then come and walk with me]

But the Kabir who is standing in the middle of the city and challenging all established institutions and notions ready to bring about a spiritual revolution becomes another person when he writes about women. In the verses where he is talking about women, his tone becomes very one-dimensional and very unlike him. Then he is addressing only the men warning them about the infectiousness arising from a woman’s body. It is difficult to find any one of them as most despicable due to the width of his work in that aspect too. But, for the sake of exemplification, two of his verses are presented here, which epitomize his misogyny.

Kabir naari ki priti se kete gaye garant
Kete aur jahinge, narak hasant hasant

[Kabir says many have been ruined due to the love for women
Many more will go to the hell laughing all the way through]

Nagin ke to doye fun,nari ke fun bees
Jaka dasa na fir jeeye,mari hai bisba bees

[A snake has two hoods, a woman has twenty hoods
If she stings one, there is no chance to survive]

Men often camouflage their weaknesses by women’s bodies. Kabir has not been different. He has amply belittled women by portraying them as spiritually abhorrent beings and called them names like Kaali Nagini (black viper), Sundar Sarpini (beautiful snake), Nahri (tigress who eats from head to tail), Nari dare fand mein (one who binds in trappings), Bish ki Bel (creepers of poison), Madan Talabhari (tank of lust) amongst others. These honorary titles increase in number when the proper noun of women is qualified by other (parnari). One example is exhibited below.

Parnari paini chhuri, birla banchai koye
Na wah pet sanchariye, jo sona ki hoye

[Other’s wife is a sharp knife, rarely one is saved
Never keep her in your heart, even if she is attractive like gold]

He has also written some compensatory verses which equal the recent government advertisements on Beti Bachao saying, ‘If girls are not born, who will make you rotis’. Women here are accorded some worth only because of their role as birth givers of the men who go on to become saints.

Nari narak na janiye, sab santan ki khaan
Jaame harijan upjay, soyee ratan ki khaan

[Don’t think of women as hell, she is the goldmine of all saints.
Its women who gives birth to the men of God, the women are the mine of jewels]

Nari ninda na karo, nari ratan ki khaan
Nari se nar hot hai, Dhrub Prahlad samaan.

[Never defame a women, a women is the mine of jewels
All men come out of woman, Dhruva Prahlad alike]

Yet there are places where Kabir returns to the stereotypical and societally sanctioned role of women. That obedient and unswervingly faithful woman is synonymous with the definition of love. A figurative woman is always better than a real woman.

Sati ko kaun sikhawataa hai, sang swami ke tan jaarna ji
Prem ko kaun sikhawataa hai, tyaag maanhi bhog ka paawna ji

[Who has ever taught the widowed wife to burn herself on the pyre of her dead husband?
And who has ever taught love to find bliss in renunciation?]

Jaise sati chadhe agin par, prem vachan na taara ho
Aap jare auran ko jaare, raakhe prem-marjada ho

[It (love) is like a wife, who enters the fire at the bidding of love.
She burns and lets others grieve, yet never dishonours love]

The metaphor of a woman standing on a funeral pyre, having nothing to do with the world in the absence of her beloved, appears often in Kabir’s idea of pure love. The black vile lose their venom in front of sacrificial fire. Well, this constructs an extremely misogynist image of a saint poet who rocked the existing superstructure of spiritual hierarchy and liberated millions from spiritual servitude. This is however only one side of the story.

Kabir’s voice assumes delicacy when he is declaring his love for the Lord. He becomes vulnerable and fearful. He assumes certain fragility while describing the emotions of longing and separation. This is also when his voice becomes feminine. Disguising under the façade of a female voice, Kabir sheds his ego and intimately talks to the Lord.

Nis din saale ghaav, neend aave nahiin,
Piya milan ki aas, naihar bhaawe nahiin
Khul gaye gagan kivaad, mandir ujiyaar bhayo
Bhayo hai purush se bhent, tan-man vaar diyo

[A sore pain troubles me day and night, and I cannot sleep;
I long for the meeting with my Beloved, and my father’s house gives me pleasure no more.
The gates of the sky are opened, the temple is revealed:
I meet my husband, and leave at His feet the offering of my body and my mind]

Aayo din gaune ke ho, man hot hulaas
Paanch bheeT ke pokhara ho, jaame das dwaar
Paanch sakhi bairin bhayi ho, kas utarab paar
Chhot-mot doliya chandan ke ho, laage chaar kahaar
Doliya utaare beech banama ho, jaha koi na hamaar
Paiya tori laagu kaharava ho, doli ghar chhin baar
Mil lev sakhiya saheli ho, milo kul-parivar

[The palanquin came to take me away to my husband’s home, and it sent through my heart a thrill of joy;
But the bearers have brought me into the lonely forest, where I have no one of my own.
O bearers, I entreat you by your feet, wait but a moment longer:
Let me go back to my kinsmen and friends, and take my leave of them.]

So in these tellings, Lord becomes the men that the saint seeks to unify with. It is only by assuming feminine character, a man is able to kill his self and completely surrender it in the feet of his Lord. This remains the subtle disability of the male poets who have no vocabulary for devotion in their grammar of the world. On the other hand, female poets like Meera and Lal Ded were never insecure in articulating their helplessness in the face of separation from their love. While men do borrow feminine voices to convey the fragility of their state, they also borrow female experiences to express the intensity of their love. Thus references to sindoor, kajal, babul, naihar, sasural et cetera are plenty in Kabir’s poetry.

Kabeera rekh sindoor aru kaajal diya na jay
Nainam pritam ram raha dooja kahaan samaaye

[I cannot use any outward cosmetics like sindoor and kohl
The eyes in which the Beloved lives have no space for anything else]

Sab ko keh tumhari naari, moko ihe adeh re
Ekamev hyabe sej na saube tab lag kaisa neh re

[When people say I am Thy bride, I am ashamed;
For I have not touched Thy heart with my heart.
Then what is this love of mine?]

There are poems where Kabir intimately talks about the tremors in the heart of a new bride before her first night with the beloved. While feminine voice creates a veil between the poet and his poetry, female experiences help them explore the myriad emotions of love to which their male being remains oblivious. Just a reminder that Kabir here himself assumes the character of the so called venomous creature discussed in the beginning of this article. Gender identity here becomes irrelevant or at least fluid.

There is another aspect of femininity in Kabir’s poetry where he confides in a close female friend, often referred to as sakhi, piyaari or heli. Often he is talking at this sakhi or heli than talking to her. He conveys the lessons on his spiritual understanding to this friend often in the form of sermonising. Yet there is an intimacy in these verses as can be perused below.

Baagon na jaa re na jaa, teri kaaya mein gulzar
Sahas-kanwal par baith ke tu dekhe roop apaar

[Do not go to the garden of flowers!
O Friend! go not there;In your body is the garden of flowers.
Take your seat on the thousand petals of the lotus, and there gaze on the Infinite Beauty.]

Jaag piyari ab ka sowe
Rain gayi din kaahe ko khowe
Jin jaaga tin maanik paaya
Tain bauri sab soye ganwaya

[O friend, awake, and sleep no more!
The night is over and gone, would you lose your day also?
Others, who have wakened, have received jewels]

His poetry is fraught with soulful conversations with this female friend. These verses have a very strong effect on the reader and it seems that Kabir is intimately conversing with the readers providing them his pearls of wisdom. It is almost an embrace of words.

Travelling from absolute misogyny to femininity to gender fluidity, Kabir does come to the place of gender neutrality. In some of his poetry, there seems to be a possibility of same spiritual path for salvation for both men and women. Kabir’s poetry, being strongly embedded in the oral tradition, there is little evidence as to the timeline of the poems he wrote. So it is not possible to conclude whether there was an evolution into gender neutrality. But this aspect of his poetry cannot be ignored.

Nar naari mein ek viraaje
Do duniya mein dise kyun

[While you live in both man and woman
What is the point of constructing two worlds?]

Nari purush sabhi suno,yeh satguru ki sakhi
Bis fal fale anek hai,mati koi dekho chakhi.

[Hear all men and women, this is the lesson of the true Guru
There are many fruits of poison of senses, never taste it anyone]

Kabir’s poetry is full of contradictions as far as gender identity is concerned. These contradictions are almost humanizing in nature. They reflect a journey. They make Kabir a man of flaws and wonders. While his work continues to mirror the medieval image of the women, it also looks beyond it. His poetry should be looked at in the spirit of quest and not in that of conclusions. In one of his brilliant poems, Kabir says I am man and I am woman. Probably his poetry is a voyage to the ajab shahar (city of wonders) where identities have no place.

In one of his most celebrated verses, Kabir says don’t ask the caste of a saint, rather seek his knowledge. What business does knowledge have with gender identity though?

Also read: The Bhakti Movement and Roots of Indian Feminism


Featured Image Source: The Hans India

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