Monday, 15 October 2007

Kabir: the weaver of mystic

Where do you seek me O devout?
I reside neither in the temple or in the mosque
neither Kashi or in Kaba
Neither in rites or in ceremonies
Neither in Yoga or in renunciation......
the true seeker shall find me in a moments realisation

for I reside in the very breath of your being....

(translated from the ‘Bijak’ collection of Kabir sayings)

Sometime in the 15th century lived a julaha – a ‘low caste’ muslim weaver, who preached the oneness of all men and all beliefs, the futility of all religions and rituals and the eventual passing away of all that is of flesh or of material in this phenomenal world. His name was Kabir.

He claimed no sainthood or a personal philosophy. He taught the religion of love, in a language that could be understood by all – the twilight language of the mystic poets, bhakti saints and sufi poets. Kabir was the first, the first to imbibe a pluralistic tradition in his teachings and poetry, the first to transcend both Hinduism and Islam. Many were to follow in his foot steps….Akbar, Dara Shikoh, Amir Khusro…., but Kabir was the first to win the hearts and souls of the people who mattered – the common people of this land.

An illiterate, he spoke of the highest esoteric truths in a simple language. A simplicity that the ‘learned’ pundits and maulvis are incapable of. One can see the synretistic reflections of Advaita theology and intense and personal passion of Islamic mysticism in his spontaneous compositions.Indian sufis in Delhi, Agra and Kashmir were reading his poetry during the rule of Jehangir and Shah Jahan. He was a predecessor of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikh religion and the sacred Guru Granth Sahib contains a substantial number of Kabir's verses.

Kabir is believed to have been born around 1398 and died around 1448. Most of his life was spent in the Banaras-Magahar region of present Uttar Pradesh . He was a family man and did not retire from the world to pursue a life of contemplation. He lived the simple life of a Julaha and died like one, earning his living at the loom and spurning the company of the 'learned' and royality alike. He beleived that the simple and hardworking life of an ordinary man was the world in which the quest for Higher Reality could be fullfilled.

According to Kabir, every individual has to find his own Path and seek liberation from this illusory world of Maya. This, he says, can be achieved through unwavering love for the Higher Reality or God and compassion for fellow humans. He compares the individual soul or atman to the Hansa or swan, who will leave the cage of this body and fly away into the vastness of the limitless sky:

Ud Jayega Huns Akela,

Jug Darshan Ka Mela

Jaise Paat Gire Taruvar Se,

Milna Bahut Duhela

Naa Jane Kidhar Girega,

Lageya Pawan Ka Rela

Jub Howe Umur Puri,

Jab Chute Ga Hukum Huzuri

Jum Ke Doot Bade Mazboot,

Jum Se Pada Jhamela

Das Kabir Har Ke Gun Gawe,

Wah Har Ko Paran Pawe

Guru Ki Karni Guru Jayega,

Chele Ki Karni Chela

this can be loosely translated as :

Alone you shall fly O Swan

This world is a brief fanfare

Like a leaf that falls from a tree

where to it will fall,

where to the wind will carry it

no one can tell

once your life is over

servitude and slavery is over

the omens of Yam (Death) are strong

it is Yam (Death)you will encounter

Kabir had immersed himself in the praise of God

and God he will attain

the Guru will reap his karmas

and the desciple his.

Kabir's another composition addresses the Swan thus :

O Swan let us talk of ancient tales

where from have you come

and what dark shores do you seek ?

wake ! arise!

the morning is upon us

follow me

and I will take you to a land

where there is no sorrow

no fear of death

where the wind blows

with the fragrance of

"I am thou''

in Whose nectar the bee of the heart

is deeply immersed

and yearns for no other joy...

Ironically, after his death, by building a Hindu samadhi and a Muslim shrine in his honour , his Hindu and Muslim followers re-created the very barriers that Kabir sought to destroy in his life time.

Sunday, 7 October 2007

Fasting among various faiths

There’s a hidden sweetness in the stomach’s emptiness.
We are lutes, no more, no less. If the sound box
is stuffed full of anything, no music.
If the brain and the belly are burning clean
with fasting, every moment a new song comes out of the fire.
The fog clears, and new energy makes you
run up the steps in front of you.
Be emptier and cry like reed instruments cry.
Emptier, write secrets with the reed pen…….

-Rumi (translated by Coleman Barks and John Moyne)

Fasting has been in practice for a long time in the religious and spiritual history of mankind. It finds mention in the Mahabharat, the Upanishads, the Old and New Testament, the Bible and the Quran and various other sacred texts. Among the Hindus fasting takes on many variations from complete abstinence from food and water to selective eating or partaking of just one meal a day. The objectives too are many and varied. Various fasts are observed the year round to appease various deities, some married women fast for the well being and prosperity of their husbands, while the unmarried fast to gain a worthy husband. At another level fasts are undertaken for the purification of body and control of the ego (mann) and desires (vaasanaa). This is a preparatory phase for contemplation and meditation. Among the yogis, fasting along with other austerities is observed to attain various siddhis (supernormal powers). In the Bhagavad Geeta, Krishna tells Arjun:

Who so shall offer Me in faith and love
A leaf, a flower, a fruit, water poured forth,
That offering I accept, lovingly made
With pious will. Whate’er thou doest, Prince!
Eating or sacrificing, giving gifts,
Praying or fasting, let it all be done
For Me, as Mine. So shalt thou free thyself
From Karmabandh, the chain which holdeth men
To good and evil issue, so shalt come
Safe unto Me—when thou art quit of flesh—
By faith and abdication joined to Me!

Many Buddhists eat just one meal a day in accordance with the account given in the Mahayana Sutras, which mentions that Buddha ate just one meal a day, before noon. Buddha had realized that desire had its root in the mind and could be transformed in the mind. Fasting could help in subduing the body’s coarse desires and converting them to wisdom. Fasting is regularly practiced among the Buddhists to aid meditation and healing. In Uttarpurna, on of the religious texts of the Jains, it is mentioned with reference to Lord Mahavir:

"After fasting for two and a half days, taking not even water, engaged in deep meditation, he (the Venerable One) reached the highest jnana (knowledge) and darsana (intuition), called kevala, which is infinite, supreme, unobstructed, unimpeded, complete and full."

Among the Jains, fasting is usually observed during Puryushana, which is the period when the Jain Sadhus take a temporary break from their wanderings. This period falls during the monsoon months. Fasting for the Jains is an opportunity to follow complete non-violence and to meditate and pray.

For the Jews the major fasting days fall on the Yom Kippur and Tisha B'Av. According to the well known Rabbi Zvi Ish-Shalom:
‘In the Book of Vayikrah (Leviticus 16), the Torah says with regard to Yom Kippur: shabbat shabbaton hi lachem v’initem et nafshoteichem - “a shabbat shabbaton shall be for you, and you shall afflict yourselves”. And so on Yom Kippur we attempt to activate – to draw out of ourselves in some way – that deathless state of being, that awareness of our eternality, that angelic dimension that is typically asleep within us. We do this by fasting, praying, meditating and studying. We do this not in a spirit of sadness or mourning, but in a spirit of celebration and in a celebration of spirit; with the joy that accompanies the realization of our soul’s innate and direct connection with the Divine.’
It is noteworthy that among the Jews and the Shia Muslims, fasting is also a form of collective mourning for a past tragedy. For the Jews it is the destruction of their Temple in Jerusalem and the assassination of Gedaliah Ben Achikam, the Governor of Israel during the days of Nebuchadnetzar King of Babylonia. For the Shia Muslims it is the martyrdom of Imam Hussain at Karbala, which falls on 10th of Mohorrum (Ashuraa). Moses is believed to have fasted for forty days and nights while he was on Mt. Sinai communing with God.

In Christianity, fasting metaphorically means refraining from satisfying hunger, thirst and other lustful desires. Fasting is believed to be a kind of self purgatory to drive away all the demons (negativities) from your body and soul. Certain Christian groups, such as the Anglicans observe a forty day partial fast in memory of Christ who fasted for 40 days in the wilderness before facing Satan (temptation).The Bible says:

But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth; I humbled my soul with fasting; and my prayer kept returning to my bosom. (Psalm 35:13)

It further says:

"And whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance in order to be seen fasting by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. "But you, when you fast, anoint your head, and wash your face so that you may not be seen fasting by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will repay you. (Matthew 6:16-18)

Prophet Mohammad is believed to have said something similar with regard to fasting:

"Every good deed is rewarded from ten to seven hundred times over, but God says fasting is the exception; it is for Me, and My servant forgoes his eating and drinking for my sake, so I Myself will reward My servant for it."

Among the Muslims, fasting during the holy month of Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam – mandatory for all adult and healthy Muslims.
The Quran says:

“O ye who believe fasting is prescribed for that you will (learn how to attain) piety"

"Ramadan is the (month) in which Quran was sent down, as a guide to mankind, and a clear guidance and judgment (so that mankind will distinguish right from wrong). Whoever among you witnesses the month of Ramadan should fast through it..." (2:183)

In the month of Ramadan, forgetting their differences, Muslims all over the world, whether Shia or Sunni, Barelvi or Deobandi, Ishana’ashari or Agha Khani all observe this season of fasting and praying – together as one brotherhood.

Among the mystical dimensions of all major religions such as Advaita, Sufism, Cabbala, and Gnosticism, solitude along with fasting, not just of the body but of thought and speech are observed before and during prolonged phases of meditation to make one receptive to the higher Truths.

It is apparent that most religions share similar beliefs with regard to fasting. It is rather unfortunate that instead of cherishing the similarities among various faiths we continue to focus on the differences.
(This article has also been published by

Sunday, 2 September 2007

Sufism: Being in love with Love

As I navigated my way through the maze of lanes in Nizammudin West (Delhi), that led to the durgah of Amir Khusro, I was appalled by the filth, and crass commercialization that seem to ooze from every corner of those lanes. ‘Could these lanes really lead me to the shrine of one of greatest Sufi poets of this continent …?’, I wondered to myself, struck by the irony of the fact that the final resting place of such divine a soul was now surrounded by the most base of human passions.
I began to reminiscent as I trudged along - ‘Who were these beings called ‘Sufis’ …?’. They were of flesh but without its weaknesses, ever lost in the love of the Divine. Yearning, seeking and then, rejoicing in the union with their Beloved. One cannot define Sufism, or for that matter mysticism, it would be like trying to hold water in a clenched fist. A true Sufi is in love with Love. Love that is all encompassing and infinite, for isn’t love another name for God? The great Sufi poet Rumi describes this Love as “drinking without quenching”. The essence of Sufism is to be in love with God with such intense passion that it leads to the dissolution of the Self (fana) and the lover becomes one with the Beloved.
It is in essence similar to the Bhakti Yoga of Hinduism. Complete love leads to complete surrender to the will of God. With the ego no longer an obstacle ‘illusion’ is replaced by ‘awareness’ of the divine nature of all things. However one cannot be initiated into Sufism by reading about it or practicing the various rituals associated with it or by contemplation. It is a spontaneous process like falling in love. It just happens to you by divine grace or not at all.
Historians describe Sufism as the mystical core of Islam, tracing its roots to Prophet Mohammad who is believed to have received two fold revelations – the one embodied in the holy Koran and the other in his heart. The former was meant for all and the latter was to be imparted to a selected few through a line of succession. However according to Sufis the essential truths of Sufism exists in all religions. Sufism is like river which has been flowing through many lands, imbibing the culture and religious beliefs of the region it flowed through.
As I reached the durgah, waving aside the various hawkers selling all kinds of ‘religious’ trinkets, I was in for a disappointment. The durgah itself seemed to have been robbed of its sublime aura by the decades of decadence that had befallen the people in charge of its upkeep. The so called ‘custodians’ of the durgah had become scavengers of faith. I returned home to my collection of Khusro’s soul stirring compositions, they were now his only incorruptible legacy.
Notes: Nizamuddin, is a south-Delhi locality named after the dargah of the Sufi Hazrat Nizamuddin Awliya. Next to his grave lies buried his greatest desciple: Amir Khusro who was a poet, philosopher, musician, and linguist. Amir Khusro Dehlavi (1253-1325) brought music to sufism and made it sing, blending folk and calssical music Amir Khusro was the genius who through his love for the Divine, music and poetry defined the pluralistic tradtions of the Indian subcontinent.
It is noteworty that both Nizamuddin Auliya and Amir Khusro were against organised religion as they believed that the clergy were more interested in power than in spreading the word of God.
The image at the top is an artist's impression of Amir Khusro

Friday, 31 August 2007

The Path

This world they say is an illusion....a dream. Our thoughts and actions are like threads of a net that we weave around ourselves. A veil has been drawn over our mind's eye and we live out our lives bound and blind folded. Life, they say is a play of shadows through which most of us sleep walk.Few have awakened from this sleep and have tried to show light to the rest of humanity. They succeeded only partly, passing away, leaving behind empty forms to be distorted and misused by their followers.Holy books, sacred messages, rites and rituals, they say, are mere shells. The spirit within, having long departed, along with the Messenger. These shells and forms are mere signposts for those who seek the formless.....and only the true seeker, they say, will find the Path.

Buddha: the Awakened One

It is said that soon after his enlightenment the Buddha passed a man on the road who was struck by the Buddha's extraordinary radiance and peaceful presence.
The man stopped and asked, "My friend, what are you? Are you a celestial being or a god?"

"No," said the Buddha.

"Well, then, are you some kind of magician or wizard?"

Again the Buddha answered, "No."

"Are you a man?"

"Well, my friend, then what are you?"

The Buddha replied, "I am awake."

Thursday, 30 August 2007

Asho Dara

The image at top is that of the Bilingual edict (Greek and Armaic) by king Ashoka, from Kandahar, Afghanistan. (this edict has now disappeared ). Below it is an image of Dara Shikoh.