Meet the theology professor reviving Kabir's verses for modern times

Umesh Kabir had never imagined that his interest in Kabir would lead him to a path devoted to the revered 15th century saint—both personally and professionally.

Published: 23rd January 2022 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 22nd January 2022 03:58 PM   |  A+A-

Umesh Kabir

The chatter settles down when a voice booms out from the stage, “Kabira khada bazaar main, liye lukhati haath. Jo ghar phoonke apna, chale hamare saath (Kabira stands in the market, flaming torch in hand. Burn down your home, then walk with me.)” It goes on to explain, “Am not asking you to burn your houses, but your egos.”

Umesh Kabir had never imagined that his interest in Kabir would lead him to a path devoted to the revered 15th century saint—both personally and professionally. For the 35-year-old native of Karchana, a small town on the outskirts of Allahabad, Kabir’s teachings are a way of life. So when he gives sermons on talking kindly or doing honest work, his audience could be anyone from a labourer in a factory in Jamshedpur to a professor from Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia. At this moment, it’s an eclectic gathering at the Mahindra Kabira Festival in Varanasi, an annual event where the Sufi saint’s life is honoured.

Ask him if he is a spiritual mentor, religious guru or a life coach, and Umesh quips, “I could be neither of them or all of that. I am merely putting a secular poet’s verses into a modern context—something all of us need in these difficult times. So for a corporate honcho, I may be a life coach and for a villager, am someone who interprets Kabir in satsangs.” His words resonate with all, as was evident for the next 40 minutes, when the audience sat in rapt attention, listening about the mystic poet. “Kabir remains relevant because you can interpret his teachings in a contemporary setting. He could be writing about a conflict in society or in a relationship,” he says. For the last 400 years, Kabir’s teachings about nirgun bhakti (worshipping the formless) has defined the holy city of Varanasi, where he was born. In his time, Kabir was mocked for his beliefs and faced backlash for criticising misguided rituals.

Umesh’s first brush with Kabir were the couplets his father used to share with him during his growing-up years. As destiny would have it, while pursuing English literature in Allahabad University, he chanced upon an ashram devoted to Kabir. Even though he continued his postgraduation in Computer Applications, Umesh’s heart was in carrying forward the great poet’s legacy that contains elements of both Sufi and Hindu traditions. Today, Umesh lives in the Kabir Chaura Math, Moolgadhi Ashram, where Kabir is said to have lived for 118 years. Shedding his birth surname was also another way of moving in the path of the revered saint, who opposed the caste system. “He earned his livelihood by spinning yarn. My aim is to take these values outside of our ashram,” Umesh explains.  

The theology researcher’s audience ranges from 14- to 84-year-olds. He conducts Kabir talks in schools, colleges, senior citizen platforms, corporates etc and holds online sessions for his international audience. “I would be talking about stress to a teenager and detachment to an 80-year-old,” he adds. For his audience, at the festival, he concludes, “Bura Jo Dekhan Main Chala, Bura Naa Milya Koyelo. Mann Khoja Apnaa, To Mujhse Bura Na Koye”. He translates it for the gathering, “I searched for the crooked, met not a single one. Then I searched myself and found the crooked one.” 


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