| Krishna talks with Yudhishthira at Hastinapur
| Rama slays the demon Trishiras. From the
Ramayana of Akbar’s mother dated 1594 AD.
I attended a Sufi festival recently and was pleasantly surprised to find that the first item was a bhajan by member of the tenth generation descendant of Sant Tukaram. This set me thinking (being member of a ‘minority’ community) as to what keeps me safe and secure in India.
There have been many large scale communal conflagrations in the country since independence; the most recent being the Gujarat riots in which over 2000 people died. Though immensely shameful, these riots do not compare anywhere to the genocide in Bosnia where 200,000 were killed, and in the Rwandan genocide between Huti and Tutsi tribes where 800,000 people were killed. Following these instances, fifteen percent of the population in India could be wiped out. Such a thing has not happened despite numerous instances of right wing provocateurs, some of whom even threatened to throw the entire Muslim population in the ocean. Muslims in India, in spite of occasional excesses, feel safer than in neighbouring Pakistan where there is no safety for even the ‘majority’ community, not to say the minorities as Shia Muslims, Hindus and Christians.
Foundation to this phenomenon was laid by the far-sighted Muslim and Hindu sages over seven hundred years back when they found the near simultaneous development of Sufi and Bhakti movements, both liberal incarnations of rigid religious doctrines.
Sufism grew as an offshoot of Islam in the ninth century. Islam’s emphasis on egalitarianism and justice made it acceptable to a large number of people in the Middle East. It spread swiftly and by mid seventh century, it had conquered the entire Middle-East and Persia. Prophet Mohammad’s successors such as Khalifa Umar did not require that non-Muslim populations convert to Islam. Instead, he allowed subject populations to retain their religion, language, customs and government relatively untouched.
By 700 AD, Islamic centre of power had shifted to Damascus, and the Umayyid rulers who brought stability after a long period of civil war. Later, the Abbasid dynasty laid the foundation of the golden age of Islam with profusion of science, medicine, astronomy, translation of books from Greek and other languages. With the caliph as patron, artists and writers begin to develop a new, partly secular culture based on Islamic ideas.
Khalifah Ma’moon (813 AD) energetically patronised Greek, Sanskrit and Arabic learning and altered the cultural and intellectual face of Islam. It was here that Hellenistic and Indian works made their way into Islamic culture through a series of translations. After Abbasids, Islamic nation fell from a unified cultural and political world into a myriad of independent cultural and political units. This political disintegration of Islamic world saw the rise of the spiritual philosophy of Sufism.
The term Sufi is generally derived from Arabic word Suf (wool), but it is probably a corruption of the Greek ‘sophos’ (wise). Many view that it derives from the words safa (purity), saf (row), or from ashab-i-safa (row of holy persons). Whatever its etymology, tasawwuf or Sufism essentially means “spiritual meditation for the purification of the immortal soul.”
Sufism is Islam’s tolerant, mystical and universal philosophy. It closely resembles other mystical movements such as Kabbalah, Christian mysticism, Yoga, Vedanta, or Zen. Its message of sulh-i-kul (peace with all) has endeared both Muslims and non-Muslims alike. It appeals to all Muslim sects and social classes, though its origin is unimpeachable, tracing back to the Prophet himself. The Sufi must first master the Shar’iah, the true path of Islam, before venturing onto the tariqah, the Sufi way.
Not Christian or Jew or Muslim,
not Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi or Zen.
Not any religion, or cultural system.
I am not from the East or the West,
nor out of the ocean or up
from the ground, not natural or ethereal,
not composed of elements at all.
I do not exist, am not an entity in this world
or the next,
did not descend from Adam and Eve
or any origin story.
My place is placeless, a trace of the traceless.
Neither body nor soul.
I belong to the beloved
have seen the two worlds as one
and that one call to and know,
First, last, outer, inner, only that
breath breathing human.
(An excerpt from the Coleman Barks’ translations of Jalaluddin Rumi’s ‘Only Breath’)
Divine worship, devotion to God, aversion from the world, abstinence from wealth, retirement into solitude for worship are essential characteristics of Sufis.
In general, the Sufis have looked upon themselves as those Muslims who take seriously God’s call to perceive His presence, both in the world and in the self. They stress inwardness over outwardness, contemplation over action, spiritual development over legalism, and cultivation of the soul over social interaction. On the theological level, Sufis speak of God’s mercy, gentleness and beauty far more than they discuss His wrath, severity, and majesty. In a broad sense, Sufism can be described as the internalisation and intensification of Islamic faith and practice.
Those who don’t feel this Love
pulling them like a river,
those who don’t drink dawn
like a cup of spring water
or take in sunset like supper,
those who don’t want to change,
let them sleep.
Islam spread from Arabia to Turkey and Iran where civilisations were hundreds of years old and had established religions and culture. Sufis interpreted Islam which was palatable to the non-believers, and for the first time demonstrated how two religions and cultures co-exist. By the time Islam came to India in the 11th century, Sufism was developed in the Middle-East and had a large number of teachers or ‘masters’ who travelled throughout the Islamic world spreading their faith of love and tolerance. Once again, in India, Islam came in touch with an older religion – Hinduism. Sufism showed the rulers and Muslims how to peacefully co-exist with the Hindu brethren.
The Sufis of the Chishti order, the predominant Sufi order in India have tried to relate to the Indian culture and music. They experimented and enriched various cultural forms. Some Sufis under the Chishtiyya order were not against absorbing ideas from the Hindu Bhakti movement and even used Hindi for their devotional songs. However, the orthodox Ulema with royal support insisted that the Sufis go ‘back to Shariat.’ It is believed that the Sufis may have begun the celebration of Basant amongst Indian Muslims as early as 12th century and they may have sung in Persian.
Or, Arab yaar tori Basantmanayi
| Sakal bun (or Saghanbhun) phoolrahisarson,
Sakal bun phoolrahi…..
Umbvaphutay, tesuphulay, koyalbolaydaardaar,
Aurgori karat singaar,
Malaniyangadhwa lay aayinkarson,
Sakal bun phoolrahi…..
Aur beet gayebarson.
Sakal bun phoolrahisarson.
|The yellow mustard is blooming in every field,
Mango buds are clicking open, other flowers too;
The koyel chirps from branch to branch,
And the maiden tries her make-up,
The gardener-girls have brought bouquets.
Colourful flowers of all kinds,
In hands everyone’s bringing;
But Aashiq-rung (the lover), who had promised to come
To Nizamuddin’s house in spring,
Hasn’t turned up – its been years.
The yellow mustard is blooming in every field.
They revived Basant by bringing sarson (mustard) flowers and saffron chadars to the dargahs. The great poet, Amir Khusro has written hundreds of Holigeets to his Guru, whom he compares to Krishna: Mohesuhagan, rang basanti rang de Khwajaji/ Aao, Sufiion sang Holikhelo.
Sufis have a long tradition of adapting to local culture and language to spread their message. The development of Qawalli was a major introduction to spread the word of Sufism in the musical minded India population. Chishtis successfully adapted themselves to the Indian conditions and local environment, both physical and social.
Sufism got a boost during the reign of Emperor Akbar, who propagated the new religion Din-e-Ilahi that did not distinguish between faiths. Starting with Akbar, Mughal rulers got Indian epics translated into Persian for greater understanding of Hindu scriptures. A Brahmin named Debi is known to have instructed him in the philosophy of Hinduism. Ramayana itself has twenty eight known translations and the one magnificently illustrated version commissioned on the orders of Akbar’s mother Hamida Banu Begum is presently in the collection of the Jaipur royal family. It shows the deep interest of not only the emperors, but their family members in Hindu epics.
At the same time, Bhakti movement started taking roots in India rebelling against the strict BrahminicalcCode, especially the condemnation of caste system. Like the Sufis, Bhakti saints such as Tukaram preached the unity of God, love for mankind, religious tolerance and importance of good deeds. Gradually, Sufism and the Bhakti cult became popular and created an atmosphere of mutual trust and peaceful coexistence between Hindus and the Muslims.
All men to me are god-like Gods!
My eyes no longer see vice or fault.
Life on this suffering earth
is now endless delight;
the heart at rest, full, overflowing.
In the mirror, the face and its reflection -
they watch each other; different, but one.
And, when the stream pours into the ocean… no more stream!
According to one legend, Lord Ram blessed Prince Dara Shikoh, eldest son of Shahjahan in a dream to translate the Bhagavad Gita into Persian. Bhagavad Gita reached the west and India’s Vedic history was rediscovered. Dara Shikoh was a great Sanskrit scholar and was loved by the Pundits of Kashi, the Sikh Gurus and the Sufis alike. He was murdered by his youngest brother Aurangzeb.
Goswami Tulsidas, the great devotee of Lord Ram wrote the Ramayana under protection of the Mughal Governor of Banaras and his best friend, Abdul Rahim Khankhana, (the great Krishnabhakt, famous for Rahim Kedohe). Goswami Tulsidas was harassed by the powerful Brahmin priests, who did not want him to compose the Ramayana in Jan-bani, but Sanskrit.
The Nawabs of Awadh used to spend thirteen days in celebrating Holi.Wajid Ali Shah’s court played Raslila for Lord Krishna. The most famous Hindu dharmic play, Indra abha was composed in his court by a Muslim writer.
Guru Nanak was a great saint of the Bhakti movement. He preached universal brotherhood, unity of God and religious tolerance. He also condemned caste distinction, idol worship and meaningless rituals. The foundation of the Golden temple was laid by a Muslim Sufi – Hazrat Mian Mir, a close companion of Guru Arjun Dev. He was also the teacher of Dara Shikoh, whose life the Sikh Guru, had saved as a child due to his great love for him.
That Guru Nanak’s lifelong companion was Mian Mardana, a Muslim rabab player. He is the first singer of Sikh gurbani and his descendants played the rabab in the Golden temple for 500 years till 1947.
Just like Turkish pilaf met Indian spices to create biryani, it was inevitable that Sufi and Bhakti movements too would converge. Sant Kabir and Guru Nanak are the finest examples of this convergence. Sant Kabir is believed to have breathed his last at the town of Maghar in UP. Hindus and Muslims fought over how his last rites should be performed. The legend goes – the body miraculously vanished with flowers taking its place. The Muslims took the sheet that had covered the body, the Hindus took the flowers. Today, the shrine at Kabir Nirvana Sthal, where people of both religions pay tribute, includes a mausoleum built by Hindus and a tomb by Muslims.
|मोकोकहाँढूंढेरेबन्दे मैंतोतेरेपासमें नातीरथमें , नामूरतमें नाएकांतनिवासमें नामन्दिरमें , नामस्जिदमें नाकाबेकैलासमें मैंतोतेरेपासमें बन्देमैंतोतेरेपासमें नामैंजपमें , नामैंतपमें नामेंबरतउपासमें नामैंकिरियाकरममें रहतानहींजोगसन्यासमें नहींप्राणमेंनहींपिंडमें नाब्रह्माण्डअकासमें नामेंप्रकुतिप्रवरगुफामें नहींस्वसनकीस्वांसमें खोजीहोएतुरतमिलजाऊं इकपलकीतलासमें कहतकबीरसुनोभाईसाधो मेंतोहूँविस्वासमें||MokoKahanDhundhere BandeMein To TerePaas MeinNa Teerath Mein, Na Moorat MeinNa EkantNiwas MeinNa Mandir Mein, Na Masjid MeinNa Kabe Kailas Mein Main To TerePaas Mein Bande Mein To TerePaas Mein Na Main Jap Mein, Na Main Tap Mein Na Mein Barat Upaas Mein Na Main KiriyaKarm Mein Rehta Nahin Jog Sanyas Mein NahinPran Mein NahinPind Mein Na Brahmand Akas Mein Na Mein PrakutiPrawarGufa Mein NahinSwasan Ki Swans Mein KhojiHoyeTurat Mil Jaoon Ik Pal Ki Talas Mein KahatKabirSunoBhaiSadho Mein To Hun Viswas Mein||Where do you search me? I am with you Not in pilgrimage, nor in icons Neither in solitudes Not in temples, nor in mosques Neither in Kaba nor in Kailash I am with you o man I am with you Not in prayers, nor in meditation Neither in fasting Not in yogic exercises Neither in renunciation Neither in the vital force nor in the body Not even in the ethereal space Neither in the womb of Nature Not in the breath of the breath Seek earnestly and discover In but a moment of searchSays Kabir, Listen with care Where your faith is, I am there.|
While the Brahmins and the Islamic theologians wrote in Sanskrit and Arabic, the Sufis and Bhakti saints wrote in their local languages. This helped in developing regional languages such as Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi and Bengali. In short, the Sufi and the Bhakti movements helped to establish communal harmony and lay the foundation of a composite Indian culture which was the synthesis of what was valuable from both Hindu and Islamic cultures.
Today, the strength of this intermingling of faith can be seen in thousands of samadhis and Dargahs throughout the country where both Hindus and Muslims continue to visit in large numbers, such as Ajmer Dargahand, Bababudangiri shrine in Karnataka for spiritual sustenance.
The Sufi festival ended with a qawwali. As long as bhajans and qawallis continue to enlighten us in the same festival, I can sleep with ease despite the occasional humdrums by Togadia and Owaisi.
Views expressed here are the writer’s own.