Kabir: The Bhakta’s Caste

In this song, Kabir apparently takes issue with the caste system, the inalterable sorting of people into groups (‘castes’) according to their birth that closely controlled society in his time.  Broadly speaking, there were four divisions (with numerous subdivisions):  the priestly or brahmin caste, the warriors, the merchants and tradespeople, and the untouchables, referred to in the poem as ‘scavengers.’ A ‘Bhakta’ is a devotee, a lover of the divine.  We may want to congratulate ourselves that our society is now free from such a conceptual classification of people, but are we ourselves free from the thinking that sustained this kind of labelling?

The Bhakta’s Caste

It’s your question, then,
that’s crooked.

O saintly men,

don’t ask the man
devoted to the God without qualities
what his caste is.

The brahman’s good,
the warrior’s good,
the trader’s caste is good

The thirty-six clans, they’re all good—
it’s your question, then,
that’s crooked.

The barber’s good,
the washerman’s good,
the carpenter’s caste is good.

Raidas, the saint, was good,
Supach, the seer, was good—
although they were scavengers.*

Both Hindus and Turks**
have demeaned themselves—
they can fathom nothing.

*Raidas, also known as Ravidas, was a deeply revered, mystical poet and saint of north India in the 15th-16th c. CE.  A number of his poems were included in the Sikh scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib.  Supach is a figure from ancient Hindu mythology; when the cataclysmic war of the Mahabharata was ended and the great kings and nobles wished to offer a sacrifice to the gods, it was only with the presence of Supach, a naked sadhu living in the jungle, that their sacrifice won divine merit.

**i.e Muslims

Tr. Vinay Dharwadker

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