Very little is known about the life of Kabir if we exclude the huge corpus of legendary biography of either Muslim or Hindu origin. He was born in Varanasi (Benares) around the end of the fourteenth century into a family of weavers recently converted to Islam. He probably joined a Hindu guru (Ramananda, according to tradition), who instructed him as a bhakti (devotee) to the god Ram, not the popular divine hero of the Ramayana, actually an avatar of Vishnu, but the sacred sound (mantra) that consists of the two syllables (one short, one long) “Râ-ma.” Although he became a guru himself, he still practiced weaving, and many metaphors or figures of speech in his poetry are obviously taken from this craft. He imparted his teaching exclusively by word of mouth, given his alleged illiteracy: “I don't touch ink or paper” (Bijak, trans. Hess and Singh, 111).
There are many legends concerning Kabir's life. It is said that he was generated by a Brahmin widow (or by a Brahmin woman of immaculate condition) who placed him in a basket set afloat on a pond, where a Muslim couple discovered and adopted him. Different versions of the legend narrate that he was born as the miraculous result of the words spoken by Ramananda to his virgin widowed mother. His supposed birth from the palm of his mother's hand suggests the fanciful etymology of his name, from the Hindi words kar (hand) and bir (the Sanskrit vir, meaning hero). However, the name Kabir is clearly of Muslim origin. In the biographical text Kabir Kasaut, a Qazi (judge) was summoned to give a name to the child. Four names (Kabir, Akbar, Kubra, and Kibriya) were found on opening the Koran, all these being titles of God. All were deemed unsuitable for a low-caste Muslim, and fresh attempts were made, with the same result. Thus the Qazi insisted that the child be killed forthwith, but the baby Kabir spoke: