A forceful source of Indian Heritage
Though begun earlier the Bhakti and Sufi movement and Poetry reached its climax in the fifteenth century India with the participation of several geniuses from different regions of India so much so that it lost the distinction and differences of tongue and tone, its music flooded the whole of India transcending the barrier of religion and languages. And it was exclusively an Indian festival of Bhakti movement in which both Hindu and Muslims including the hitherto neglected sectors of the society from both communities joined as participant performers and audience. In a sense it was an unified action in the whole of India flooding it with dance and music and love for the divine.
The source was Love for God
Love for the beloved, either the divine itself approached directly or through the human agency, culminating in an intense desire to bloom and merge in God; the movement and poetry were forceful enough to overcome all obstacles of orthodoxy and social resistance to grow up in the Middle East but the cue was already in India. May be the air blew from the East where it was born sometime in the sixth century to Middle East two centuries later to induce the imagination of men and women in love. Bhakti and Sufi movement and poetry grew up almost independently without a meeting between the parties and the poets involved, as if connected by an invisible thread of love relationship, by an inner heart connection, without the earth yet becoming a global village due to inconceivable development of communication. The movement and poetry of Bhakti and Sufi cult are not so powerful genres in modern time. Nevertheless, they continue in other forms.
The Indegenous Bhakti Current
Bhakti movement was born out of Hindu religion like many other offshoots of it in India. Its first emergence in the Tamil epic, Silppadikaram reached its zenith during the period of the Alvars, the wandering devotees of Krishna, between sixth and tenth century. The Bhagavata, a Sanskrit work which weaved the theory of Bhakti for Krishna and exercised great influence on the Bhakti movement was composed after the advent of the Alvars. This Bhakti was apart from the Gita. It is a devotional story of the cowherd Krishna which was already in vogue in the folk lore of Tamil Nadu. It is said that the Saiva Siddhanta, the doctrinal basis of Tamil Saivism, is more indebted to the passionate songs of the Saiva poets than to any other text. Virasaivas contributed significantly towards the emergence of Satasthala Siddhanta, a system of religious activities of the Bhakti cult derived from Sankhya and Vedanta tradition. Gaudiya Vaishnavism of Bengal, a Krishna cult, derived their doctrines and practices from the emotional experience of Sri Chaitanya Deva and the lyrics of Jayadeva, Vidyapathi and Chandidasa besides other Vaishnava poets. The Bhakti movement in India was indigenous, growing up from the native soil much before the advent of Sufi and it flourished in poetry, song and dance. It is said that when Sufism arrived in India with fana, dhikr and sama with its beloved-lover framework, it did not surprise Indians for such things were already in practice through them. It came as another dimension of many splendoured Bhakti movement. The forceful Vaishnavism and Saivism continued in their own ways.
Birth of Sufi
Derived from the Arabic word suf or wool, worn by the God-lovers, rising up from the Arabic world in the eighth century, Sufism or Islamic mysticism acquired a religious connotation by the tenth century. Rabia, the mystic of Basara (801A.D.) is usually considered as the first important saint of the Sufi movement. “It also grew because of the spiritless legalism as the Quranic thought was in the process of a slow systemisation leading to the rigidity of law and jurisprudence. Sufism, thus, grew as an attitude of protest against the ruling class and against the rigidity of law.” (Das 151) It was a direct process of link between the devotee and the divine.
Many artisans and workers joined the Bhakti and Sufi movement. Among the Indian exponents of Sufism and Bhakti movement, Kabir was a weaver, Ravidas a cobbler, Ramananda, a Brahmin but spoke against untouchability, Chaitanya, a Brahmin and great leader of the movement but repudiated the caste system. There are large numbers of examples from both the movements which included members from the lower strata of the society and from the upper limb of it who revolted against the rigid religious systems.
“Sufism, though rooted in the Quran, derived much of its inspiration from various sources, some of which were anti-Quranic, including the folk traditions of Arab and Persia. . . . Its approach to God through love, its dependence on God’s mercy and its idea of tawhid and dhikr, often appeared anti-Quranic in certain aspects.” (Das 153)
Sisir Kumar Das wrote that though Mohabbat or love has the Quranic authority, Ishq, an important Sufi symbolism for ardent love for the divine has no sanction in the script.
Besides Buddhist sources, “Zachner suggests a possible influence of Sankara on Abu Yazi al-Bestami, the Persian Sufi of the late ninth century. In one of his sayings one finds a striking parallel with the Upanisadic doctrine of Tat twam asi . . . . Abu Yazdi’s utterance subhami ma a’zma sha’ni (glory be to me, how great is my majesty) was considered as blasphemy, for which he was banished from his native place. Mansur Al-Hallaj was executed for similar offence, that of declaring anal haq, which looks like almost a verbatim translation of the Sanskrit so’ham.” (Das 153)
“Persian Sufi poetry too had its origin in the community of the Sufi lodge. While the ode (qasida) and the lyric (ghazal) were cultivated at the courts of the former Caliphal governors in eastern Iran, it was the quatrain (ruba’i) that was preferred for the expression of brief mystical insights. The language was often direct and simple, but paradoxical.” (Sufism 157)
“It was also perfectly possible to write poetry in a Sufi style without being a practicing mystic. It is no exaggeration to say that all of the major Persian court poets of the seventeenth century wrote poems that were loaded with Sufi imagery, though few of them had serious connections with Sufi orders.” (Sufism 164)
Persian Sufi Poets
Rumi and Abdul Latif
The greatest Persian poet, Jalal-u-din or Jalau’din Rumi who was a preacher at the beginning hence called Maulana, was born on 30 September 1207 in Balkh, Afghanistan and died on 17 December 1273 in Konya, Turkey. He is widely read in Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan besides in English speaking world through translation. More down to earth, more translatable than those of Hafiz, his poems, it is said were the best seller in US in 1997. He wrote more than 40,000 verses.
One of his great followers, Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai was born in Hyderabad, Sindh, now in Pakistan, in 1649. More reticent and indrawn from his childhood, Abdul Latif mostly lived in sand mound, hence called Bhittai. On maturity he followed many routes to find the truth. Moving with Yogis for years throughout the Indian subcontinent with his disciples to study Nature and beauty besides meeting the Munis and mystics, he died in 1752.
To both the master and devotee love is the central force of all human activities and woman is an essential part of this love. Shah wrote in one of his verses that fasting and offering prayers are good but they aren’t the ultimate path of seeking the lover which is love. And Rumi had written earlier,
Come, come, whoever you are,
Wanderer, idolater, worshipper of fire,
Come, and come yet again,
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
- (Latif / Roy 128-29)
They had no other religion than love on earth, the way to reach God. Rumi calls love a mirror through which God sees himself. “He sees himself, He himself is Beloved. He created the love and beauty and himself is Lover of that.” (Rumi /Roy /130).
Proceed one step more and find what another mystic poet, Tagore writes,
Thus it is that thy joy in me is so full. Thus it is that thou hast come down
to me. O thou lord of all heavens, where would be thy love if I were not?
- (Tagore /Gitanjali /Das 62)
Self sacrifice for the lover is the essence of this philosophy which is available aplenty in the philosophy of the subcontinent. Here ‘I’ and ‘We’ of the lovers are mingled and abolished and merged into God. Thus Rumi says,
O Thou Whose soul is free from “We” and “I”, O thou
Who art the essence of the spirit in men and women,
When men and women one, Thou art One.
- (Rumi /Roy 133)
Attar’s utterance is,
What you most want,
what you travel around wishing to find,
lose yourself as lovers lose themselves,
and you’ll be that.
- (Looking For Your Own Face /Poets 59)
Of this fierce glow which Love and You
Within my heart inspire,
The Sun is but a spark that flew
And set the heavens afire!
- (Strife / Poets 177)
Hallaj confirms the essential in direct terms,
I am he whom I desire, whom I desire is I:
we are two spirits dwelling in a single body.
If you see me, you have seen him,
and if you see him, you have seen us.
- (Sufism 153)
And Rumi confirms this conviction of Sufi, defining what makes a Sufi,
What makes the Sufi? Poetry of heart,
Not the patched mantle and the lust perverse
Of those vile earth-bound men who steal his name.
- The True Sufi /Poets139
Indian Sufi Poets
Born in 1254 A.D. at Patiali village on the banks of Ganga in UP, India, Ameer Khusro the nom de plume of Abul Hassan, born of a Turkish nobleman as father and Indian woman as the mother, was a genius; great musician, a spiritual personality, a courtier under as many as seven Sultans of Delhi and a Sufi poet. He was born later than Rumi but in the same century of Rumi’s birth. Ameer Khusro, a disciple of Saint Nizamuddin Aulia was loved for his poetry. Khusro was an accomplished spiritual personality. As a musician he shaped the great musical instruments like Sitar, Tabla and other types of drum from the existing olden instruments like Veena and Dhol. He was the inventor of Kwali and Tarana and led many musical sessions. With all qualities of a spiritual personality he transcended the religious boundary like a true Sufi poet. “It is recorded that apart from writing several ‘Divans’ or books of poems on spirituality inspiring Sufi subjects, Khusro had once written in a span of two and a half years, about two lakhs of couplets in Persian language, which is un-paralleled in the history of poetry in any country in the world. As such Khusro may be rightly acclaimed not only as a great Sufi but also as the poetical genius of India.” 1
I am a pagan and a worshipper of love
The traditional creed, I do not need;
Every vein of mine has become taut, like a wire 2
And few lines more from another poetry takes us to the core of his Sufi poetry:
I become you,
You become me,
I become the soul,
You the heart,
How can they claim,
I am apart, you are apart? 3
- Sant Kabir
The great Bhakti movement was flourished in India through some great presence during the fifteenth century like Narsi Mehta, Vidyapati, Umapati, Mira Bai and Ravidas (also known as Raidas or Ruhidas). Sant kabir’s life and work enriched this movement and made a synthesis with the Sufi movement and poetry which was akin to it. He was a Bhakti poet who collaborated with Sufi poetry and movement. He is the focal point of Bahkti cult, being steeped in Hindu philosophy and esoteric practices, as a disciple of the great Hindu pundit and preacher, philosopher-reformer Saint Ramananda. “Kabir’s finest poems have as their subjects the commonplaces of Hindu philosophy and religion: the Lila or sport of God, the Ocean of Bliss, the Bird of the Soul, Maya, the Hundred-petalled Lotus and the ‘Formless Form’.” (Underhill 494-97) But Kabir had immense mystic sensibility to grow independently out of all these to prove himself a Sant or Sainthood.
Let us taste from one of his immortal poems:
From the beginning until the ending of time, there is love between
Thee and me; and how shall such love be extinguished?
Kabir says: ‘As the river enters into the ocean, so my heart touches Thee.’
- (Kabir /Tagore 34/110/514)
Dance and Music are integral parts of the movement in poetry
The dance of the whirling Dervishes, a Turkish tradition and culture, now recorded by the UNESCO as World Intangible Heritage called Sama, represents the mystical journey of man’s spiritual ascent through love to a state of perfection. Rumi was the founder of the Mechievi Order of whirling dervishes. This dance has inspired large numbers of Sufi poets as the main part of Sufi performance like the Bauls dancing with one-stringed instrument in hand and singing full throated mystical songs full of love for the beloved through the meadows and fields in the country sides of Bengal from the medieval time till date. A prominent among the Bauls, Lalan Fakir sang,
How does the strange bird
flit in and out of the cage.
If I could catch the bird
I would put it under the fetters of my heart.
- (Chakraborty 250)
“Poetry is employed for esthetic effects, such as meter and rhyme, and for the emotional effect of its content; for Sufis, properly interpreted poetry in the ritual context of listening to music was particularly powerful.” (Sufism /164)
Manika Vachakar, the greatest Tamil Saiva Poet sang,
At other’s will I danced, whirled, fell. But me
He filled in every limb
- (as quoted in Das 154)
And the greatest of the Muslim mystic poets, Maulana Rumi sang,
The truth we have not found
So dancing, we beat the ground
- (as quoted in Das 156)
Greeks too knew of this madness and mad-dance as in Euripides’ The Bacchae and in the maddening trance of Dionysus. Guru Nanak sang, “Some call me wild, while others that I am out of step” (Das /155).
The Vaishnav Poet of the eighth century, Andal, wished only God Krishna as her beloved, to be possessed by him as did Radha of the myth and Mira Bai of Rajasthan later aspired. Mahadeviyakka, a twelfth century sadhika and poet, wanted Lord Siva in the same vein to marry her. Sant Kabir married God,
The Everlasting One
Has wed me, O Kabir;
And he is taking me Home with Him.
- The Wedding /Sethi 530-31
Sant Kabir and the great Vaishnava saint Chaitanya sang songs of madness, infused in them by the God, both of them reached Godhood. Kabir asserted, “I have ascended the divine throne and met the Lord. God and Kabir have become one: no one can distinguish who is who.” (Adi Granth. Ramkali. Kabirji. p. 969. Sethi 39).
Doctrinal difference between Islam and Sufism
The idea of total identity or even complete merger with God is a common phenomenon in Indian religious poetry but it is taboo as per Quranic tradition. It has been debated whether the idea of fana has been derived from Indian sources or from Quran. Suggestions have been made that it is akin to Nirvana. But Syed Amir Ali writes, “Even when the Sufi talks of fana-fil-Allah (Annihilation in God) he does not mean to imply that human soul becomes merged in the universal soul.” 4
“According to a strict interpretation of the Quran, total merger with God is anti-Islamic. The relation between God and man can be either of Rabb (Lord) and Marbub (Slave), or Ilah (to be worshipped) and Maluh (worshipper), or Malik (master) and Mamluk (servant). The devotee can never claim a complete identity with Him though he tries to feel, and indeed feels a nearness to Him.” (Das 172)
“Sufi poetry drew its interpretation from the idea contained in Ana’l Haq and continued to receive support from the exponents of Sufi doctrines. Sarias-Saqati, a younger contemporary of Rabia, for example, defined the mystical love as ‘real mutual love between man and God’. . . .It must be remembered that Sufi doctrines as formulated by Al-Qushairi, the classical authority of Sufi doctrines, recognizes the importance of taqwa (the awe of God), khushu (fearfulness) and ubudiya (servant-hood) in the life of a true Sufi.” (Das 173)
The Essence of Bhakti and Sufi
Another interpreter of Sufi Poetry writes, “It is also noteworthy that the practice of Sufism has close resemblance with the ancient Indian philosophy of Yoga, which aims at the union of the soul (atma), with the Supreme Being (Paramatma)”5
Though Sufis did not comply with the religious dictate, there were restrictions and watch over them whereas in India it was spontaneous. So Indian Sufis or poets akin to Sufi like Kabir of Benares sang,
“Like oil in sesame seeds
fire in flint,
your Lord lies within you,
awaken him if you can 6
And Guru Nanak sang,
Like scent in a flower
and our reflection in a mirror
does the Lord dwell eternally within us,
Seek Him within, brother 7
In such poetry only the lover-beloved relationship remains. In both the Sufi and Bhakti poetry the subject is the longing for God and the journey with all perils, waiting for him. Once the true meeting is achieved the poetry ceases to move. One of the finest examples of such poetry of longing and waiting is found in Rumi:
Hearken to this Reed forlorn
Breathing ever since ‘twas torn
From the rushy bed, a strain
Of impassioned love and pain.
. . . .
‘Tis the flame of love that fired me
‘Tis the wine of love that inspired me
Wouldst thou learn how Lovers bleed
Harken, harken, to the Reed.
- (Das 173-74. Translated by R. A. Nicholson)
“Shah Latif says, ‘The seas of separation roll / And draw each single separate soul’ . . . . And this is why Radha goes out in abhisar in dark rainy nights. Sassi is perished in the trackless deserts and Sohni plunges herself into the rushing tide to meet death. And this is why, Lalla danced nude, Mira left her home, Chaitanya wept, trembled and rolled on the ground of Vrindavan in ecstacy and al-Hallaj danced in his fetters to the place of execution and Rumi celebrated the incident in haunting rhyme.” (Das 174)
Further Spiritual Thrust
All serious Sufi Poets were God loving Sadhaks. Here are some more words about Sufism telling it in terms of infinity beyond any religion, pushing it towards futurity with newer dimension for embracing truth.
“We are stepping into an era of oneness that will bring together matter and spirit, feminine and masculine, and our spiritual practice must reflect this new alignment. We cannot renounce the earth or follow a patriarchal model of spiritual progress. Our soul’s journey is part of the journey of the whole of creation. Our heart is connected to the heart of the world. Our remembrance is the remembrance of the world. Through our awakening the world can awaken . . . .
“Who is the appropriate person to speak about fanâ (annihilation) and baqâ (permanence)?” He answered, “That is knowledge for the one who is suspended by a silk thread from the heavens to the earth when a big cyclone comes and takes all trees, houses, and mountains and throws them in the ocean until it fills the ocean. If that cyclone is unable to move him who is hanging by the silk thread, then he is the one who can speak on fanâ and baqâ.” 8
This leads us to the Supramental light and consciousness as Sri Aurobindo introduced to us decades back, giving us assurance that the world is moving towards its spiritual goal in spite of all apparent contradictions. The ultimate truth consciousness embracing the earth depends on man himself, his attitude towards collaboration with the Divine plan.
“The creative truth of things works and can work infallibly even in the Inconscient: the Spirit is there in Matter and it has made a series of steps by which it can travel from it to its own heights in an uninterrupted line of gradations: the depths are linked to the heights and the Law of the one Truth creates and works everywhere. . . .
“This Knowledge is the covert Supermind which is the support of the creation and is leading all towards itself and guides behind this nultitude of minds and creatures and objects which seem each to be following its own law of nature; in this vast and apparently confused mass of existence there is a law, a one truth of being, a guiding and fulfilling purpose of the world-existence.” (Sri Aurobindo 73)
Let us end with wonderful hope in an age of nightmarish violent ambition for religious, racial and imperialist domination of the earth wishing them to be vanished like bad dreams.
Notes and References
1. “Ameer Khusro-The Sufi Poetical Genius of India” by Dr. K. Hussain. Poets International; Bangalore. May, 2010
2. “Ameer Khusro and Spell of Sufism” by Dr. K. Hussain in Poets International; Bangalore. April 2007
3. Hussain-May 2010
4. Amir Ali Syed. The Spirit of Islam. London. 1922. Reprint 1964. pp.473-75. As quoted in Das /172
5. 1. “Ameer Khusro and Spell of Sufism” by Dr. K. Hussain. Poets International, Bangalore. April, 2007
6. Kabir Sakhi Sangraha 106: 8 / Sethi V. K. Kabir the Weaver of God’s Name. Dera Baba Jaimal Singh, Punjab: Radha Soami Satsang Beas. Third Ed. 1998. Hard Bound. p.540
7. As quoted in “Kashi: In step with history” by Renuka Narayanan. The Hindu Mgazine, dated 31.5.2015
8. “Spiritual Maturity” by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee. Published in Sufi Journal, Issue 64, Winter: 2004 – 2005.
1. “The Mad Lover” by Sisir Kumar Das. Indian Literature: 215; Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi.
2. Ernst Carl W. Sufism. Shambhala South Asia Editions. Boston: 1997. Paperback
3. “The Concept of Love: A Comparative Study of Maulana Rumi and Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai” by Mubarak Ali Lashari and Muhammad Safeer Awan in Comparative Literature- Critical Responses. Ed. Tribhuwan Kumar and Vijay Kumar Roy. New Delhi: Alfa Publications. 2014. Hard bound.
4. The English Translation of Rabindranath Tagore. Ed. Sisir Kumar Das. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi. 2004. Reprint.
5. Persian Poets. Edited by Peter Washington. New York: Everyman’s Library. 2000. Third print. Bardbound
6. (Evelyn Underhill. Introduction in Songs of Kabir translated by Rabindranath Tagore and published by The Macmillan Company, New York (1915) – and also in One Hundred Poems of Kabir by Rabindranath Tagore, published by Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi. 2004)
7. One Hundred Poems of Kabir Tagore Rabindranath in The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore. Ed. Sisir Kumar Das. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi. 2004. Reprint. Hardbound
8. Chakraborty Sudhir. Bratya Lokayata Lalan. Kolkata: Pustak Bipani. 1992. Hardbound.
9. Sri Aurobindo. The Supramental Manifestation and Other Writings. Pondicherry: SABCL; Sri Aurobindo Ashram. 1972. V.16. Hardbound.