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Mainstream, VOL LII No 30, July 19, 2014

Sufi Message of Universal Love as Reflected in Urdu Poetry

Sunday 20 July 2014

by Naresh Nadeem

It was a long time back when Pope Gregory VII compelled the German king, Henry IV (1050-1106), who acceded to the throne in 1084, to walk barefoot all the way from his kingdom to Canossa in snow and stand in waiting for three days outside the Pope’s grand mansion for an interview with him. This was even though King Henry III, the father of Henry IV, had played a key role in the accession of Hildebrand to the papal seat as Gregory VII.

This was what went in history as the Investiture Controversy and was immortalised by great writers like William Shakespeare and Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936).

European Concept of Secularism and India

The power of the Pope in those days may be surmised from one single fact—that Gregory VII first divested Henry IV (Heinrich in original German; Enrico in Italian) of his throne and then made him the king again, both at his sweet will.

This type of dominance of the clergy in a country’s politics, which was what made most of the German princes line up behind Martin Luther when he revolted against Rome in the first quarter of the 16th century, has been by and large lacking in the Indian subcontinent for a large part of its history. To be sure, there have indeed been indirect references to the nobility-clergy tussles here. For example, it is said that Parashurâm, a Brahmin and considered to be one of the incarnations of Vishnu, exterminated the Kshatriya caste as many as 21 times; one is however at a loss to understand how and wherefrom the Kshatriyas were born again and again if they were exterminated lock, stock and barrel so many times! Another example is of Rishî Gâlav who in The Mahâbhârata tells King Yudhishthir that the Brahmins and Kshatriyas could be invincible if only they joined hands together, just as the coming together of fire and iron changes the latter into an all-cutting sword. What is not clear is: Against whom the Brahmins and Kshatriyas would have joined hands? Against the labouring population of this country?

There is also an opinion that the Brahmin-Kshatriya tussle was being fought out at the ideological level too; for example, if the Brâhmana grantha parts of the Vedas were written by the Brahmins, it is the Kshatriyas who composed the Upanishads, the concluding parts of the Vedas. According to a legend, a king had even to sit down the feet of a low-caste cart-driver Raikva, one of the less important philosophers of ancient India, to get the sacred but secret knowledge of the Upanishads in a bid to gain an upper hand over the Brahmins.

However, to repeat, such references are only indirect, and indeed there would have certainly been much more direct references to the nobility-clergy tussles if they had not been a low-key affair, if at all, in this country.1

However, it is this reality that may explain why not much necessity of secularism in the European sense of the term—as dissociation of politics from religion—was felt in the Indian situation in the past. The fact is that, despite the fact that people here were no less religious than those in Europe, religion was not a guiding or controlling force for the most part of Indian history, and therefore the question of separation of religion and politics has never been a burning question here.

True, instances of mobilisation in the name of religion were indeed there.2 For example, it was in the name of Vedic religion that Pushyamitra Shung mobilised a large following to put an end to the Mauryan dynasty through a bloody coup. But, yet, there is no indication that the matter went any further to become a principle of statecraft. About Pushyamitra Shung too, there is no evidence to suggest that after attaining power he did anything substantial to augment the glory of the Vedic religion.

Sectarian clashes too were there, for example, between the Vaishnavas and the Shaivas, or the wholesale destruction of Jainism in Kashmir at the hand of the Shaivas. If Tulsîdâs, in an episode in his magnum opus called Râmcharitmânas, makes Lord Ram say that anyone devoted to him but inimical to Lord Shiva could never hope to reach him (that is, Lord Ram) even in a dream,3 without a shred of doubt it reflected the poet’s own agony over the sectarian clashes in the middle of the 16th century. However, anything like the Crusades was not fought here and the state remained neutral, by and large, from whatever sectarian clashes that took place. One wonders whether the state would have been so neutral if the sectarian clashes had assumed any menacing proportions here.

In sum, the subcontinent has been mostly bereft of a theocratic state till the middle of the 20th century, so much so that despite all the glorification of Aurangzeb as zindâ pîr (living saint) by the Muslim clergy, and despite all the vilification of this emperor by another section of communal forces, historians do not recognise his period as a theocratic state.4

The Strength of Our Diversity

As for the influence of religion in social life of the people, a very large part of the subcontinent’s population followed their respective religions but without, undoubtedly, harming others. The fact is that a large number of peoples—the Âryans, Scythians, Shakas, Hans, Kushâns, Mongols, Turks and others—came here in waves at different times, got assimilated,5 and gave rise to a culture that is still known for its tolerance or for what we call rawâdârî. This was why Firâq Gorakhpurî said:

Qâfile âte gaye, Hindostâñ banatâ gayâ,

and this tradition became so strong in course of time that even the minuscule Pârsî community chose to adopt India as its home after the completion of Muslim conquest of Iran in 651CE, as did the followers of Âghâ Khân in the second quarter of the 19th century. Nay, an unverified legend even says that when besieged by the forces of Yazîd, an Umayyad ruler, in the desert of Karbalâ, Imâm Hussein made the entreaty that he was not after power at all and that he and his people must be allowed to go to India where they would spend the rest of their days in peace.

The strength of this diversity can be judged from the fact that the subcontinent remained unaffected even when great changes took place in the field of religion in other parts of the world. The fact is that our globe has witnessed three great waves of proselytisation so far, and each wave was, in the words of Frederick Engels, associated with a great historical turning-point.6

The first of these waves rose between the 5th century BCE and 2nd century CE when whole countries like Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Mongolia, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, many parts of Central Asia and the whole of South-East Asia turned Buddhist; Buddhism is the biggest religion in China even today, claiming more population than the Tao religion. Then came the second wave of proselytisation from the 3rd century CE onward when whole countries went Christian; these included Rome and later the whole of Europe as well as Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Abyssinia which were parts of the Roman Empire. And finally came the third wave from the 7th century CE onward when the whole Arab world, Mesopotamia, Iran, whole of Central Asia and even some erstwhile parts of the Roman Empire like Egypt and West Asia turned Muslim.

Yet the strange but true fact is that most parts of the Indian subcontinent remained unaffected by these waves of proselytisation and the cultural diversity of the region, evolved over several centuries, remained by and large intact. We can even say that if Allâmâ Iqbâl said

Yûnân-o-Misr-o-Romañ sab miþ gaye jahâñ se

Bâqî magar hai ab tak nâm-o-nishâñ hamârâ,

he was correct in at least one sense — that our syncretic culture did continue. It continues even today.

We feel a clarification is due here. A part of the subcontinent was indeed affected by the third wave of proselytisation, and this is the part which we know as Pakistan today. In an article on Bâbâ Farîd Ganjshakar, for example, Bhâî Vîr Singh (1872-57), an important Punjabi poet, talks of how Bâbâ Farîd by his personal example converted whole castes and comm-unities to Islam.7 Yet this exception only proved the rule, and the fact remains that even though Islam became the second major religion in the subcontinent, the latter by and large retained its composite culture which can still be seen in everyday life of the people here. In the field of religion, if the dominant voice here was

Bâ Musalmâñ Allah Allah, bâ barahman8 Ram Ram,

this could be possible only where both Muslims and Brahmins lived together side by side. Certainly this could not be the dominant voice in, say, Central Asia or Iran where one single religion pervaded the whole culture.

Sufism (tasawwuf) played a lead role in generating this kind of ethos which also prevented India from becoming a melting pot a la the USA. The most important point to note here is this: While our Sufi saints did stress the basic unity of Allah, they no less forcefully stressed the basic unity of mankind as well. Mîr Taqî ‘Mîr’ (1722-1810), an extremely sensitive poet and universally regarded as the “God of Urdu Poetry”, says:

Maiñ ne Kâ’be se kahâ: is ghar kâ mâlik kaun hai? Un ne dhîre se ye puchhâ: kaun is ghar kâ nahîñ!

[I asked the Kâ’bâ: who is the owner of this house?

It asked (me) in a low voice: Who does not belong to this house!]

This is the basic message of Sufism: Who does not belong to this house!

It was therefore not surprising that the great Sufi saints did not try to effect any conversion of religion, even though their example secured the conversion of a large number of people, more so from a religious group that has been notorious for its extreme and excruciating kinds of inequalities. Their main emphasis was on the right conduct of people, and this reminds us of the basic precept of the great Buddha.

Message of Love in Urdu Poetry

From its very beginning, Urdu poetry got its sustenance from this very syncretic cultural ethos characterised, among other things, by the Sufi saints’ message of universal love. So much so that Mirzâ Rafî ‘Saudâ’ (1711-82), a contem-porary of ‘Mîr’, went to the extent of saying that

Ishq wo shai jis se hai haftâd-o-do millat ko râh

Tang jûñ dair-o-haram kab dar hai is dargâh kâ! 

[Love is what shows the true path to the 72 sects;

When has the door of this hospice been closed like the temple and the mosque!]

Here the reference is to the 72 sects in which the world of Islam is supposed to be divided.9 But the point to note is that, to Sufi saints, tasawwuf was not to be regarded as one of these 72 sects; it is something beyond them.

In this connection, Saudâ is very clear that the path of love is beyond Islam as well as Hinduism —

Kahâ dil se ye maiñ ki ishq kî râh

Kis taraf mehrabân paøatî hai

Kahâ un ne ki nai ba Hindostân

Nai sû-e-Isfahân paøatî hai

Ye dorâhâ jo kufr-o-dîñ kâ hai

Donoñ ke darmiyân paøatî hai.

[I asked (my) heart: O benefactor, where is the path of love? Said he: It is neither towards India nor towards Isfahan (an old city in Iran). Here is the crossroads of infidelity and religion, and it lies between the two.]10

Do the temple and the mosque have anything worthwhile to give us? Saudâ says: “I got tired while searching through the temple and the mosque; I found nothing except darkness in either. But a spot illuminated (my) heart when, just like a candle does, I sacrificed my body and soul at my own feet.” In fact, Saudâ says, the sheikh’s going to the mosque is just like the repetitive circular motion of a weaver’s warp and weft: “I am astonished how wilt thou recognise Him there, whom I could not recognise in the holy place of my heart!”

Therefore he is very sure that while a Hindu worships idols and a Muslim worships Allah, he would worship one who takes care of the people. Moreover, this path is something that is open to one and all, without any discrimination. The poet is very clear that a king and a beggar stand equal in this philosophy of universal love.

To Mîr Taqî Mîr, what matters is the end, not the means:

Kabhî mandir meñ ho âo, kabhî masjid meñ ho âo,

Agar maqsad use pânâ hai, jis mehfil meñ ho, pâo.

[Go to a temple or go to a mosque;

Find Him in whichever congregation you can, if the aim is to find Him.]

One important aspect of this philosophy is the insistence that the path of love does not need any outward manifestations. One of the finest products of our syncretic culture was Kabîr Sahib, a 14th century saint poet, some of whose poetry is included in Guru Grantha Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs. In one of his poems, he makes the Creator say: “Where are you searching me, O devotee; I am all along with you. I am neither in the temple nor in the mosque, not in the Kâ’bâ and not in Kailâsh either.” And it is this Kabîr whose echo we hear from Saudâ:

Kâ’bâ jâwe pûchhtâ hai kab chalan âgâh kâ

Uþh gayâ jîdhar qadam rastâ hai baitullâh kâ

[When does a conscious person ask for permission to go to thre Kâ’bâ; It is the abode of Allah whichever way his steps take him.]

Mîr too echoes the same Kabîr:

Kâ’be ko jâne wâle khud apne qadam pe jhuk

Tû hî hai itnî dûr pe Kâ’bâ banâ huâ.

[O you, who are to go to the Kâ’bâ, bow down at your own feet;

You are yourself the Kâ’bâ at such a distance.]

Saudâ says quite forthrightly that he watched the temple and the mosque, and found both to be useless; he wonders: “Were these at all needed when a house like heart had been built!” Therefore: “The brahman is devoted to the abode of idols and the sheikh is devoted to the abode of Allah, but the fellow who is called Saudâ is devoted to the heart that has the true consciousness.”

Saudâ is also aware of the perils of this path of love. He asks: “O sheikh, tell me whose sect I should say I belong to. You say I am an infidel (gabr), while the infidel calls me a Muslim!” He wonders why both are inimical to him even though he is not causing any harm to either infidelity or religion.

The Urdu poet’s attitude towards the establis-hed religions generated in him a bitter enmity against the clergy. Riyâz Khairâbâdî, a junior contemporary of Ghâlib, expressed this enmity in an excessively forceful way—

Zâhid11 ke sar pe ek lagâî taøâk se

Ab hâth mal rahe haiñ ki achchhî nahiñ paøî

[With an open palm, I hit the zâhid’s head with full force,

Now I repent that the hit was not so good after all.]

And Saudâ says: “O Zâhid, didn’t I tell you that you should have wine instead? O you ass, see how opium has grazed all your wisdom!” At another place he says the sheikh won’t have needed to ride a donkey if only he had not decided to go to Kâ’bâ.

Stress on Purity of Heart

From medieval India, we now come to the modern period where our representative poet would be ‘Akbar’ Allahabadi (1847-1921), a leading poet of satire and humour. Though the strain of Sufism is not very prominent in his poetry, it is indeed there and he explicitly says he always remains intoxicated with the voice of Sarmad.12 Just like the Sufi saints, Akbar too stresses the basic unity of mankind, though in his own, unique, humorous way—

O brahman, you and me have the same plight;

While we see a khwâb, you see a sapnâ,

and the funny-looking but meaningful thing is that both these words, khwâb and sapnâ, have exactly same meaning—a dream.

However, while Akbar is very much concerned about the spiritual life of the Indian people, he firmly believes that the Hindus and the Muslims could very well live in harmony.13

Even though the two communities mutually fight sometimes, Akbar’s advice is clear —

“I tell the Hindus and Muslims only that

You scrupulously follow your respective paths;

The way of the world (hawâ-e-dahr) is like a laþhî and so you must better become water;

Do fight, but fight like waves and remain one.”

The idea is clear: no assault of the worldly life should be able to drive a wedge between the two communities.

In an untitled poem, Akbar very clearly advises his co-religionists, in the same humorous but meaningful way: “If you join hands with the Hindus in the country’s affairs, you won’t get a title from the Lâþ Sahib (Viceroy) or an elephant (reward) from the Raja Sahib, but yet you must remember that these high-ups are not going to share their spoils with you. On the contrary, the Hindus are your neighbours and companions”, meaning that it is they who would come to your help whenever needed. Akbar then asks: “What is the difference between them and us? If there are ahîrs among them, there are ghosîs among us.”14 Further still,if you ask for a whole fruit, (the rulers) would give you only a small piece and if you still insist on more, they would drive all of you away with the same laþhî.”

That is why Akbar frankly declares—

Why we should fight against the Hindus, we are after all nurtured by the grains of this land;

We too only pray that Gangâ Jî must grow further in strength.

The value of such advices and such prayers may be better grasped if we remember how in the first decade of the 20th century the newly formed Muslim League was trying to take the Indian Muslims along a separate path and demanding a separate electorate for them.

The discussion would remain incomplete if we do not refer to a unique feature of Sufism, though here we have only to explicitly put forward what is implicit in the paragraphs above. In several couplets of Akbar Allahabadi, we see him making a distinction between mazhab and îmân: while the former is taken to mean the outward aspects of religion, the latter signifies adherence to the true faith. Ghâlib had once said that when sects disappear, they become parts of îmân, that is, true religion, and Akbar makes the same distinction but in his own unique, humorous way—

“There is not much trouble in the new civilisation;

Religions remain intact; only îmân is lost.”

At another place he seems ready to say good-bye to all the clergy—

“Salâm to the pundit (Brahmin) and salâm to the Maulvî too,

I don’t need mazhab; I need îmân.”

And that is why his firm belief is that—

“Even if two seekers of truth speak different languages,

They very well go together; the purity of intention (nîyat kî khûbî) does its work.”

It was this aspect—purity of heart—that we find upheld and emphasised in the whole Sufi tradition and in the whole of Urdu poetry.

(This paper was presented at the International Conference on Peace, jointly organised by the World Punjabi Congress and International Sufi Council, at Lahore on December 21-23, 2013. The author was on the seven-member committee that drafted the Lahore Declaration for the conference.)

Notes and References

1. This is, however, not to deny that these two castes are sometimes still seen mutually clashing. For example, the Brahmin and Kshatriya segments of the management of the college from where the present writer did his graduation, once fought with guns their battle for supremacy in the managing body. Similarly, not very long ago, the two dreaded mafia gangs of Gorakhpur in Eastern Uttar Pradesh were led by a Brahmin and a Kshatriya till the former decimated the second group almost entirely. The rivalry of these caste groups in electoral politics of today is also evident in numerous cases.

2. Kalhana tells in his Râjtarangiòî that a number of temples were demolished in Kashmir because they were being used as centres of religious mobilisation. There were similar examples in Rajasthan too, which has been known for internecine wars among the Rajput clans.

3. Shiva drohî mam dâs kahâvâ; te nar mohi sapanehu nahi pâvâ.

4. In fact, the only instance of a theocratic state in the subcontinent was the so-called Hindu Raj in Nepal, which Prithvi Shah, a fugitive from Rajasthan, established after killing the reigning king of the country. According to late Bhikkhu Dhammaratana, a revered Buddhist monk of the last century (Buddha and the Caste System, Sarnath Publications, Sarnath, Banaras, 1955), the coup in Nepal was followed by the killing of a large number of Buddhists in the kingdom. So much so that today the small Buddhist minority of Nepal is found only in the extremely inhospitable northern parts of the country, where one cannot go even on a bicycle because of lack of roads, steep mountains and fast-moving streams and rivulets.

5. A major exception to this process of assimilation was that of the British who deliberately kept aloof from the indigenous people; otherwise there were indica-tions that the people here were willing to accept them as their own part and also had high expectations from their rule. An example, pertaining to a very early part of the British rule in India, is the description of Warren Hastings’ durbar in Lucknow, in Zikr-e-Mîr, the autobiography of Mîr Taqî ‘Mîr’. It is another thing that the British, unlike the earlier incomers, had come here for what an economist would call primitive capital accumulation, and never considered India their home.

6. F Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (1888): “Feuerbach’s assertion that “the periods of humanity are distinguished only by religious changes” is decidedly false. Great historical turning points have been accompanied by religious changes only so far as the three world religions which have existed up to the present — Buddhism, Christianity and Islam — are concerned” (Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works, in three volumes, Vol 3, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977, p 355, italics in original).

7. Bhâî Vîr Singh thus acknowledges, albeit implicitly, that Islam spread in India not by sword but by the benign influence of Sufi saints.

8. It must be noted here that the word Brahmin (brahman) does not denote a caste in Urdu poetry; rather he appears as theface of Hindu religion, the probable reason being that he was taken to be the custodian of this religion.

9. A common belief in this regard is that the Holy Prophet, PBUH, himself had once said that his followers would get divided into 72 sects after his demise. So far we have not found any such saying in print.

10. Here we have referred to Saudâ several times, but it must not lead one to think that he is alone among Urdu poets in propounding this philosophy of love. The fact is that these views permeate the creations of all the pre-modern Urdu poets.

11. One who has renounced the family and household, and has begun to live in a mosque.

12. He was a Sufi saint settled in Delhi, and was martyred during the period of Aurangzeb.

13. In fact, Akbar, whose poetry was nurtured by the post-1857 conditions, seems to be a votary of the common idea that the defeat of the Great Uprising of 1857 was very much a result of deviation of the two major communities from their respective religions. This is what gave rise to the philosophy and movement of revivalism in Indian politics. See my article “Urdu Literature in the Context of the Great Uprising” about the impact of this trend.

14. Just as Akbar played upon the words khwâb and sapnâ, here too he did the same thing with the words ahîr and ghosî: both mean the milkman caste.

Naresh Nadeem is a veteran writer, journalist and intellectual.