Great Personalities of India Indian Mystic and Poet

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Kabir

Indian Mystic and Poet

  • Born 1440, Varanasi, Jaunpur, India died 1518, Maghar

  • Iconoclastic Indian poet-saint revered by Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs alike.

  • The birth of Kabir (Arabic: “Great”) remains to this day shrouded in mystery and legend. Authorities disagree on both when he was born and who his parents were. One legend proclaims a divine virginal birth. His mother was reputed to have been of the Brahman caste and to have become pregnant after a visit to a Hindu shrine. Because she was unwed, she abandoned Kabir, who was found and adopted by a Muslim weaver. That his early life began as a Muslim there is no doubt, although he later became influenced by a Hindu ascetic, Ramananda.

  • Though Kabir is often depicted in modern times as a harmonizer of Hindu and Muslim belief and practice, it would be more accurate to say that he was equally critical of both, often conceiving them as parallel to one another in their misguided ways. In his view, the mindless, repetitious, prideful habit of declaiming scripture could be visited alike on the sacred Hindu texts, the Vedas, or the Islamic holy book, the Quran; the religious authorities doing so could be Brahmins or Qazis; meaningless rites of initiation could focus either on the sacred thread or on circumcision.

  • What really counted for Kabir was utter fidelity to the one deathless truth of life, which he associated equally with the designations Allah and Ram—the latter understood as a general Hindu name for the divine, not the hero of the Ramayana. Kabir’s principal media of communication were songs called padas and rhymed couplets (dohas) sometimes called “words” (shabdas) or “witnesses” (sakhis). A number of these couplets, and others attributed to Kabir since his death, have come to be commonly used by speakers of north Indian languages.

  • Kabir’s poetic personality has been variously defined by the religious traditions that revere him, and the same can be said for his hagiography. For Sikhs he is a precursor and interlocutor of Nanak, the founding Sikh Guru (spiritual guide). Muslims place him in Sufi lineages, and for Hindus he becomes a Vaishnava (devotee of the god Vishnu) with Universalist leanings. But when one goes back to the poetry that can most reliably be attributed to Kabir, only two aspects of his life emerge as truly certain: he lived most of his life in Banaras (now Varanasi), and he was a weaver (julaha), one of a low-ranked caste that had become largely Muslim in Kabir’s time.

  • His humble social station and his own combative reaction to any who would regard it as such have contributed to his celebrity among various other religious movements and helped shape the Kabir Panth, a sect found across north and central India that draws its members especially but not exclusively from the scheduled castes (formerly known as untouchables).

  • The Kabir Panth regards Kabir as its principal guru or even as a divinity truth incarnate. The broad range of traditions on which Kabir has had an impact is testimony to his massive authority, even for those whose beliefs and practices he criticized so unsparingly. From early on, his presence in anthologies of north Indian bhakti (devotional) poetry is remarkable.

Rabindranath Tagore

  • Bengali poet Bengali Rabindranath Tagore

  • Born May 7, 1861, Calcutta, India died Aug. 7, 1941, Calcutta

  • Bengali poet, short-story writer, song composer, playwright, essayist, and painter who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. Tagore introduced new prose and verse forms and the use of colloquial language into Bengali literature, thereby freeing it from traditional models based on classical Sanskrit. He was highly influential in introducing the best of Indian culture to the West and vice versa, and he is generally regarded as the outstanding creative artist of modern India.

  • The son of the religious reformer Debendranath Tagore, he early began to write verses, and after incomplete studies in England in the late 1870s, he returned to India. There he published several books of poetry in the 1880s and completed Manasi (1890), a collection that marks the maturing of his genius. It contains some of his best-known poems, including many in verse forms new to Bengali, as well as some social and political satire that was critical of his fellow Bengalis.

  • In 1891 Tagore went to East Bengal (now in Bangladesh) to manage his family’s estates at Shilaidah and Shazadpur for 10 years. There he often stayed in a houseboat on the Padma River (i.e., the Ganges River), in close contact with village folk, and his sympathy for their poverty and backwardness became the keynote of much of his later writing. Most of his finest short stories, which examine “humble lives and their small miseries,” date from the 1890s and have poignancy, laced with gentle irony, that is unique to him, though admirably captured by the director Satyajit Ray in later film adaptations. Tagore came to love the Bengali countryside, most of all the Padma River, an often-repeated image in his verse. During these years he published several poetry collections, notably Sonar Tari (1894; The Golden Boat), and plays, notably Chitrangada (1892; Chitra). Tagore’s poems are virtually untranslatable, as are his more than 2,000 songs, which remain extremely popular among all classes of Bengali society.

  • In 1901 Tagore founded an experimental school in rural West Bengal at Santi Niketan (“Abode of Peace”), where he sought to blend the best in the Indian and Western traditions. He settled permanently at the school, which became Visva-Bharati University in 1921. Years of sadness arising from the deaths of his wife and two children between 1902 and 1907 are reflected in his later poetry, which was introduced to the West in Gitanjali, Song Offerings (1912). This book, containing Tagore’s English prose translations of religious poems from several of his Bengali verse collections, including Gitanjali (1910), was hailed by W.B. Yeats and André Gide and won him the Nobel Prize in 1913. Tagore was awarded a knighthood in 1915, but he repudiated it in 1919 as a protest against the Amritsar Massacre.

  • From 1912 Tagore spent long periods out of India, lecturing and reading from his work in Europe, the Americas, and East Asia and becoming an eloquent spokesperson for the cause of Indian independence. Tagore’s novels, though less outstanding than his poems and short stories, are also worthy of attention; the best known are Gora (1910) and Ghare-Baire (1916; The Home and the World). In the late 1920s, at nearly 70 years of age, Tagore took up painting and produced works that won him a place among India’s foremost contemporary artists.

Indira Gandhi

  • Prime minister of Indian full Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi

  • Born Nov. 19, 1917, Allahabad, India died Oct. 31, 1984, New Delhi

  • Politician who served as prime minister of India for three consecutive terms (1966–77) and a fourth term (1980–84). She was assassinated by Sikh extremists.

  • She was the only child of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India. She attended Visva-Bharati University, West Bengal, and the University of Oxford, and in 1942 she married Feroze Gandhi (died 1960), a fellow member of the Indian National Congress (Congress Party). She was a member of the working committee of the ruling Congress Party from 1955, and in 1959 she was elected to the largely honorary post of party president. Lal Bahadur Shastri, who succeeded Nehru as prime minister in 1964, named her minister of information and broadcasting in his government.

  • On Shastri’s sudden death in January 1966, Gandhi became leader of the Congress Party—and thus also prime minister—in a compromise between the right and left wings of the party. Her leadership, however, came under continual challenge from the right wing of the party, led by a former minister of finance, Morarji Desai. In the election of 1967 she won a slim majority and had to accept Desai as deputy prime minister. In 1971, however, she won a sweeping electoral victory over a coalition of conservative parties. Gandhi strongly supported East Bengal (now Bangladesh) in its secessionist conflict with Pakistan in late 1971, and India’s armed forces achieved a swift and decisive victory over Pakistan that led to the creation of Bangladesh.

  • In March 1972, buoyed by the country’s success against Pakistan, Gandhi again led her new Congress Party to a landslide victory in national elections. Shortly afterward her defeated Socialist Party opponent charged that she had violated the election laws. In June 1975 the High Court of Allahabad ruled against her, which meant that she would be deprived of her seat in Parliament and would have to stay out of politics for six years. In response, she declared a state of emergency throughout India, imprisoned her political opponents, and assumed emergency powers, passing many laws limiting personal freedoms. During this period she implemented several unpopular policies, including large-scale sterilization as a form of birth control. When long-postponed national elections were held in 1977, Gandhi and her party were soundly defeated, whereupon she left office. The Janata Party took over the reins of government.

  • Early in 1978 Gandhi’s supporters split from the Congress Party and formed the Congress (I) Party—the “I” signifying Indira. She was briefly imprisoned (October 1977 and December 1978) on charges of official corruption. Despite these setbacks, she won a new seat in Parliament in November 1978, and her Congress (I) Party began to gather strength. Dissension within the ruling Janata Party led to the fall of its government in August 1979. When new elections for the Lok Sabha (lower house of Parliament) were held in January 1980, Gandhi and her Congress (I) Party were swept back into power in a landslide victory. Her son Sanjay Gandhi, who had become her chief political adviser, also won a seat in the Lok Sabha. All legal cases against Indira, as well as against her son, were withdrawn.

  • Sanjay Gandhi’s death in an airplane crash in June 1980 eliminated Indira’s chosen successor from the political leadership of India. After Sanjay’s death, Indira groomed her other son, Rajiv, for the leadership of her party. Gandhi adhered to the quasi-socialist policies of industrial development that had been begun by her father. She established closer relations with the Soviet Union, depending on that nation for support in India’s long-standing conflict with Pakistan.

  • During the early 1980s Indira Gandhi was faced with threats to the political integrity of India. Several states sought a larger measure of independence from the central government, and Sikh extremists in Punjab state used violence to assert their demands for an autonomous state. In response, Gandhi ordered an army attack in June 1984 on the Harimandir (Golden Temple) at Amritsar, the Sikhs’ holiest shrine, which led to the deaths of more than 450 Sikhs. Five months later Gandhi was killed in her garden by a fusillade of bullets fired by two of her own Sikh bodyguards in revenge for the attack on the Golden Temple.

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