Wednesday, 31 December 2008

The Kingdom Within

There is a kingdom of the spirit’s ease.
It is not in this helpless swirl of thought,
Foam from the world-sea or spray-whisper caught,
With which we build mind’s shifting symmetries,
Nor in life’s stuff of passionate unease,
Nor the heart’s unsure emotions frailty wrought
Nor trivial clipped sense-joys soon brought to nought
Nor in this body’s solid transiences.
Wider behind than the vast universe
Our spirit scans the drama and the stir,
A peace, a light, an ecstasy, a power
Waiting at the end of blindness and the curse
That veils it from its ignorant minister,
The grandeur of its free eternal hour.

- Sri Aurobindo

Sunday, 21 September 2008

When the Believers faced Jerusalem

At first, Ghogha looks like any small-time coastal settlement of Gujarat – not entirely a village nor a town, as if a village, bored by its own half hearted attempts at urbanization had fallen back into its old slumber. Clusters of mud houses interspersed with cement and brick structures – looking garishly out of place among mud and slate surroundings - dusty roads and by lanes, with puddles of stagnant water and stray dogs lingering at corners.

Closer to the sea stands a forlorn looking government rest house with an old tamarind tree standing in its large courtyard. From the stone wall skirting the courtyard you can see the rocky beach below. Waves loaded with mud and sand constantly lash the rocks. Riding these very waves, sailing in their sturdy ships, the first Arab traders landed at Ghogha around the early seventh century and built a masjid here. This was the time when Qibla (direction to be faced while offering namaaz,) of the Muslims was Jerusalem instead of Mecca. For a brief period of 16 to 17 months, between 622 and 624 A.D., after Hijra (migration) to Medina, the Prophet (s.a.v.) and his believers faced Jerusalem while offering namaaz. This ancient masjid, locally known as the Baarwaada Masjid or Jami Masjid, was built during this period and is one of the oldest if not the oldest masjid in India. Later the Prophet (s.a.v.) received Wahi (Revelation) commanding him to change the orientation point from Jerusalem in the north to Mecca in the south. This masjid, therefore, predates all the other masjids in India whose mehrab face Mecca. This ancient masjid also bears the oldest Arabic inscriptions in India. The masjid falls under the care of Barwaada jammat but in spite of its historical significance, it lies in ruins needing urgent repair.

This small town has over eleven masjids and dargahs, which were built later during the Sultatnate period in Gujarat (1401- 1572), including the old mazaar of Ashraf Shah Baba who made Ghogha his home. A copy of the Holy Quran hand written by him can also be seen here. There is a tunnel under his mazaar which is believed to go as far as Mecca!! A few adventurous youths did make an attempt to verify this belief but had to turn back after a few kilometers due to lack of oxygen !!
In its heydays Ghogha was the center for Islamic learning and a flourishing port which had trade links with Shri Lanka, Africa and Middle East and was appropriately called, Sher-e-abaad , the prosperous city. During the Moghul period, its yearly income was believed to be 1666 pounds. Later it became a major cotton exporting port. However with the passage of time, a decline in cotton prices and the development of railways brought about a decline in the commercial importance of ports along the Gulf of Cambay (Khambat). With the development of the nearby Bhavnagar port, the significance of Ghogha as a port diminished further.
Today this coastal town lies half-forgotten along with its inhabitants, the majority of whom are Muslims and identify themselves as Ghoghari Arabs. However their love for the sea continues with every Ghoghari family having at least one male working on a ship somewhere. Due to lack of local employment opportunities, most of the men folk have left their homes for work in places like Mumbai and Middle East. The locals believe that this is due to the curse of Ashraf Shah Baba. According to local folk lore the Baba cursed the men of Ghogha for casting an evil eye on his beautiful daughter. He cursed the men folk of Ghogha that they would never be able to live with their family and will have to wander away from home in search of livelihood.
A boat making unit started some years ago closed down due to some internal problems. A salt works trade started some time back, met with the same fate. The Ghogha – Dahej ferry boat service started by the State Government with much ballyhoo ended in a whimper. Only a few bentonite processing factories offer limited employment to the locals.
Today Ghogha and its ancient masjid bear a look of decadence. Perhaps the development planners can cast off the Baba’s curse and it would be a great loss to our cultural heritage if this ancient masjid is allowed to crumple to dust.

Monday, 18 August 2008

Waiting for the Saviour

Know that al-Mehdi (A.S.) must come, but he will not come until the earth is filled with injustice and oppression. He will fill it with justice and equity…..

- Musnad Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, Vol. 1, P. 99

When rigthteousness is weak and unrighteousness exults in pride, then my Spirit arises on earth for the salvation of the good and destruction of evil in men….

- Shri Krishna in the Geeta (4: 7-8)

Yesterday was Shab-e-Baraat and by a strange coincidence there was power cut in our locality. As dusk and darkness approached and the time for the ceremonial nazr drew close, numerous candles were lit. The soft glow of the candles and the fragrance from the incense sticks filled all corners of our house which had been immersed in darkness. Perhaps this was symbolic of what the Shia Muslims of the world expect once their ‘Mehdi’ (a.s.), their savior - their twelfth Imam reappears.

Nazr, in form of halwa, made from chana dal, was offered and Sur-e- Fahteha and Sur-e- Qul were recited, first, in the honor of Amir Hamzaa (the uncle of Prophet Mohammad s.a.v.), followed by all our ancestors and departed relatives. We prayed to God asking for forgiveness for the sins of our departed relatives and prayed for the safe journey of their souls to the here-after. It reminded me of ‘Pind Daan’ or ‘Shraadh,’ performed by many Hindus believing this will relieve their ancestors of all sins and help their souls attain salvation.

Later in the night, as there was a fire-work display to celebrate the birth anniversary of the twelfth Imam - Muhammad al-Mehdi (a.s). The halwa was then distributed among our neighbors and the poor.

Shab-e-Baraat also known as Lailatul Bara’at, falls on the 14th/15th of Shaban, the eighth month of Muslim calendar. It is variously known to mean, ‘the night of commission’, or ‘the night of emancipation, forgiveness or atonement’. There are various beliefs and traditions regarding this night among Muslims. Many Muslims believe that on this night God writes the destinies of all humans for the coming year by taking into account the deeds committed by them in the past year. People pray to God both in preparation for Ramazaan and for the forgiveness of the sins committed by them. Some believe this night to be the night of good fortune and a popular legend says that on this night the Prophet (s.a.v.) visits each house and relieves the pain of suffering humanity. Shia Muslims believe that the souls of their ancestors and deceased relatives visit them on this night.

While there is no mention of Shab-e-Baraat in the holy Quran, Sura Dukhan does mention about Laila Mubaraka, which, according to some Islamic scholars is Shab-e-Baraat. It is believed that, on this day, the Prophet (s.a.v.) paid a visit to the Jannatul Bak’i graveyard to pray for the salvation of the souls of the departed including his martyred uncle – Amir Hamza, who had embraced Islam and had become one of its bravest champions. Many observe fasting during the day and perform nafal (optional) namaz at night.
The Shia Muslims associate this night with the birth of their last Imam – Mohammad al-Mehdi and pray for his reappearance. In the Indian subcontinent, candles and fire-work displays light up Shia neighborhoods. The parallels between the Hindu festival of Diwali and Shab-e-Baraat are apparent. Diwali commemorates the home coming of Lord Ram after 15 years of vanvaasa, on Shab-e-Baraat the Shias pray for the home coming of their Mehdi (a.s) since he disappeared or went into vanvaasa several hundred years ago. Diwali symbolizes the victory of Good over Evil. The Mehdi (a.s.) is expected to do the same –vanquish evil and oppression from this world.

Shias consider Hazrat Ali (a.s), who was indicated by Prophet (s.a.v.) as his successor, as the first rightful Caliph and Imam of the Muslims, and that after his assassination the spiritual headship descended in succession to his and Fatima’s posterity in ‘the direct male line’ until it came to Imam Hassan al’Askari (a.s.), eleventh in descent from Ali, who died in 874 A.C. or 260 Hegira. Upon his death the Imamat passed on to his son Mohammad al-Mehdi – ‘the Guide’, the last and twelfth Imam. The story of the Imam’s of the house of the Prophet(s.a.v.) are rather tragic. The father of Hassan al’Askari (a.s.) was deported from Medina to Samarra by the tyrant Mutawakkil and detained there until his death. Similarly Hasan (a.s.) was kept a prisoner by the jealousy of Mutawakkil’s successors. His infant son, Mohammad al-Mehdi (a.s.), barely five years of age, pining for his father, wandered about in his search and entered a cave from which he is believed to have disappeared. This tragic story ends with hope and expectation in the hearts of the Shias that the child will return to relieve a sorrowful and sinful world of its burden of sin and oppression. This Imam bears, among the Shias, titles of the Muntazar- the Expected, the Hujja – the Proof (of the Truth), the Kaim – the Living. Great sufi’s and Islamic theologists like Attar, Rumi, Jami and ibn-Arabi have referred variously to the twelfth Imam as the ‘Seal of Sainthood, ‘the Hidden Imam’, or the ‘Imam of the Time’.

The belief in the appearance of a savior or avataar in not too distant future is common to almost all religious traditions and cultures. There are over 700 prophecies from around the world which promise the advent of a world savior pledging spiritual revolution and redemption. The Hindus await the incarnation of Vishnu in the avatar of Kalki, the Buddhists wait for the reincarnation of Lord Buddha as Lord Maitreya, the Zoroastrians foretell the second coming of Zoroaster as Saoshynt, the Jews wait for their Immanuel, and the Christians wait for the return of Christ. However the interpretation of all the prophecies suffers from ‘religious myopia’. All religious follower believe that there can be only one savior – theirs. The savior from their particular faith is the only true redeemer. But perhaps the hallowed concepts of organized religions and messianic traditions themselves need to undergo death and resurrection before this world can be saved from itself.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Quotes: Stillness, silence and the present moment

Be quiet. Quietness is the surest sign
that you've died.
Your old life was a frantic running
from silence.
The speechless full moon
comes out now.
- Rumi

" The discovery of the truth is the discernment of the false. You can know what is not. What is - you can only be. Do you understand that the mind has its limits? To go beyond, you must consent to silence."
- Nisargadatta

We can't listen and receive if we're constantly creating and projecting. We can't observe or be aware of what's behind us: Unconscious motivations, habits, energy blocks, knots, drains, etc., if we are busily creating more of the same. We need to learn and value the art of listening and observing. We find this place of Silence through surrender, after perhaps years of struggle to dis-cover the false self.
- Bob Fergeson

" There is a way between voice and presence where information flows. In disciplined silence it opens. With wandering talk it closes.
- Rumi

"It is, moreover, only in the state of complete abandonment and loneliness that we experience the helpful powers of our own natures."
- C.G. Jung

By learning to observe our thoughts rather than mechanically react on them only, can lead to a new level of being, one in which everything is possible, even our own becoming.
- Bob Fergeson

Only through staying in the present, and Being, can we be free of our mind and its misery, and access the power of Now.
Now - that intensely alive state that is free of time, free of problems, free of thinking, free of the burden of the personality.

" The whole essence of Zen consists in walking along the razor's edge of Now - to be so utterly, so completely present that no problem, no suffering, nothing that is not who you are in your essence, can survive in you. In the Now, in the absence of time, all your problems dissolve. Suffering needs time; it cannot survive in the Now."
- Ekhart Tolle

Free thinkers are generally those who never think at all.''
- Laurence Sterne

A listening which is attentive yet not reactive, and unaffected by circumstance and the constant changes of thought and mind.
- Bob Fergeson

Knowing that all thought is reactive and one step behind the present moment, we may begin to just listen, to observe without reaction. In this quiet, listening mind, something Real has the possibility of entering.
-Bob Fergeson

" The mind won't allow you to be in the moment...ever."
- Vicki Woodyard

"Any life, no matter how long and complex it may be, is made up of a single moment - the moment in which a man finds out, once and for all, who he is."
-Jorge Luis Borges

Friday, 11 July 2008

Flight of the Soul-Bird

Equating the human soul with a bird is found in myth and mystical literature all over the world. From Hallaj to Sanai and Rumi, Persian mystical poetry has used the symbol of Bird, beautifully. The human soul, like a bird can choose to remain caged in this perishable world or fly towards Liberation. Ibn Sinna (Avicenna) used this motif and Ghazali wrote the Risalat at-tayr, “Treatise on the Birds”. The nightingale of Sufi poetry, yearning for the rose, singing night and day of its unfulfilled longing and union, suffering without complain the sting of its thorns - is the soul longing for eternal beauty. It is this longing that inspires the soul bird to sing. Longing is the most creative state that the soul can reach.

Rumi often spoke of the soul as a white falcon, exiled amidst the black crows, or a nightingale in the company of ravens. Rumi’s pun on the word falcon or baz, which in Persian also means “again or return”, refers to the baz’s desire to come back to its Lord and Master.

However the symbol of the soul bird’s jouney to is final abode is ingenuously developed by Attar – the master story teller of Iran, in his epic poem, Mantiq u-tayr, “The Birds’ Conversation”, also known as “The Conference of the Birds”. Fariduddin “Attar” (= seller of essence and scents), a druggist by profession, is considered by many as the greatest of the Mathnavi writers of Persian mystical poetry after Rumi. He was born in Nishapur (north-eastern Iran) and died there most likely in 1221 C.E. The idea of traveling and ascension towards the spiritual home, so dear to the mystics of Islam, found its most poetic expression in Attar’s poetry. The Mantiq u-tayr was modeled on the, Risalat ut-Tayr, Treatise on the Birds composed half a century earlier by another Sufi master, Ahmad Ghazali (d. 1126 CE).

The “The Conference of the Birds” revolves around the decision of the birds of the world to embark on a journey to seek out their king, the Simurgh - their debilitating doubts and fears, and the knowing counsel of their leader Hoopoe. Each bird falters in turn, whereupon their leader urges them on with parables and exemplary stories, including numerous references to some of the early Muslim mystics such as Rabi'a al-'Adawiyya, Abu Sa'id ibn Abi'l-Khair, Mansur al-Hallaj and Shibli. The different birds represent the different personality types among humans as well as the complex characteristics that make up the human individual.

In these 4500 couplets, Attar speaks to all of us – to our inner being. We are all born with wings, but few of us discover them in our lifetime. Wings to fly back to our home – the abode of the mystical Simurgh – the Lord of all Birds, who lives on the world encircling mountain of Kaf. This journey ultimately is the soul’s progression towards inner perfection.

The different stages along this spiritual journey, which may take a different sequence in different individuals, are symbolized by Attar as seven valleys. Perhaps the series of valleys are used to denote that this journey is not that of a single ascension. It occurs in stages, and once you crossed one valley, you find yourself at the bottom of another. Valleys can be both enchanting and entrapping and the wayfarer may be tempted to linger on or get trapped in one of them. These seven valleys may be interpreted as follows:

The valley of Longing and Searching: This stage represents the longing and searching of all creatures, who unknown to themselves, long for their original home. It is the strange yearning that overcomes some of us when we listen to beautiful music or behold Natures’ beauty – its mountains and valleys, oceans and springs…… It is this longing that drives us from one desire to another. Not knowing what it is that will quench our thirst once and for all - it is the Trishna of the Advaita yogi.

The valley of Love: This refers to the all consuming Love which purifies and the lover is regenerated and altered by it to such an extent that his very being undergoes a change – his every fiber raised to a higher state, resonating to a higher tune. True loving surrender, irrespective of religious tradition, reputation, name or fame, like the Love of Majnu for Laila; like the Love of Sheikh Sanan for a Christian maiden for whom he gave up the rosary for the ‘infidel’s’ girdle, like the Love of Mirabai for her Giridhar Gopal - the Bhakti and Samarpan of Bhakti yoga.

The valley of intuitive Knowledge: Also known as the wisdom of the heart, marifa or gnosis, this is direct revelation of the truth as apposed to ‘ilm’ or discursive knowledge. This is the Atmagyana or Atmabodh mentioned in Advaita. This revelation leads to detachment from all things perishable (valley of Detachment) and the realization of the unity of all existence (valley of Unity) – of both the phenomenal and the causative world. All opposites melt, everything is renounced and everything is unified. All forms merge into one singular Essence.
According to Jami, ‘ Unification consist in unifying the heart, that is, purifying it and denuding it of all attachment to all things other then “The Truth”, including not only desire and will but also knowledge and intelligence’. These valleys or states lead to the valley of Bewilderment, this is the long dark night of the soul, referred to by many Christian Gnostics - a state of perpetual sadness, and consuming desire – the agony of being in Love but not knowing with whom.

Finally in the valley of Poverty and Annihilation, the thirty birds who undertook the painful journey in the search of Simurgh realize that they themselves - si murgh (=thirty birds in Persian) are the Simurgh. The story thus ends with one of the most inventive puns in Persian mystical poetry. This is the ultimate sought after state of fana - the nullification of the mystic in the divine presence, when the seeker finds his way into the ocean of his own soul, all longing ends. However, this is not the end. When the soul has finished its journey to God, the journey in God begins – the state that the Sufis call baqa i.e. the absorption and abiding life in God, the Sat -Chit- Ananda of Advaita. Here the soul traverses ever new depths of the fathomless, divine being - which no tongue can describe. Referring to this state Ghazali says ‘When I saw the rays of that sun, I was swept out of existence. Water flowed back to water’. The water drop finally falls back into the ocean, and the mortal form of the moth is reduced to smoke and ash in his Beloved flame’s embrace. It is the Nirvana and the moksha of the soul-bird which has finally returned Home.

Friday, 13 June 2008

The Baha'i Faith and Sufism

One look at the belief system and cosmology of the Bahai faith and one is struck by its simplicity and the willingness to accommodate all the religions of the world. The Baha’i faith appears to embrace the fundamental beliefs of all world religions without their excessive rituals and rites. The emphasis is on compassion, brother hood and universal unity. It preaches respect and acceptance of all faiths and makes no claim to exclusiveness. Just as you do not have to be a Muslim to follow the path of the great Sufi pirs, the follower of any faith could become a Baha’i without forsaking their original faith and members of many Sufi orders were Baha’is. However in the 1920s and ‘30s Shoghi Effendi (the appointed head of this faith from 1921 to 1957) attempted to wean Baha'is away from dual membership in other religious bodies, this led to the end of any membership by Baha'is in Sufi orders. Though individuals within the Baha'i community, with a strong orientation toward `Attar, Rumi, and Baha'u'llah's ‘Seven Valleys’ and other mystical works continue to exist.

The Baha’i faith was founded by Mirza Husayn Ali, in the nineteenth century Persia, who was later given the title of Baha’u’llah – meaning the Glory of God. His compatriot, Sayyed Ali Muhammad Sayyed, who later was given the title of ‘Bab’ or ‘the Gate’ prepared the way for the coming of Baha’u’llah – the Promised One. Baha’u’llah called upon his followers to be standard- bearers of unity based on love for their fellow men. He affirmed the belief in only one God whose essence is beyond the understanding of His creatures. The qualities of God such as His love, knowledge and power however are reflected in the Founders or Messengers of world’s great religions, each of whom established a religion that was suited to the needs of the time. The Baha’i faith considers Abraham, Moses, Krishna, Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus, Mohammad, and Baha’u’llah himself as among the Messengers of God. This particular claim appears to be the strongest point of contention between Bahai’s and the followers of other faiths.
Much of the early works of the Baha’i faith were in the form of letters to individuals or communities, mostly written by the ‘Bab’ or Baha’u’llah. These are termed tablets. Baha’u’llah’s Kitab-i-Aqdas or the Most Holy Book and Kitab-i-Iqan or The Book of Certitude are among his major writings or ‘revelations’.
The similarities between mystical aspects of the Bahai faith and Sufism is striking, which makes one wonder if the Bahai faith evolved from Sufism or is perhaps a consolidated form of Sufism without it’s numerous ‘tariqas’ and excesses which crept into its various orders with the passage of time. While Sufism focuses on individual spiritual growth, the Baha’i faith strives at spiritual unity of the entire humankind.
Baha’u’ullah interacted with many Sufis during his lifetime and also had Sufi followers who were called Baha'i darvishs or urafa, including the well known Darvish Sidq-`Ali, the Baha'i Sufi and companion of Baha'u'llah, Ahmad Yazdi, and Mishkin-Qalam (a member of the Ni`matu'llahi Sufi order). The Baha’i Sufis had community gatherings on the evening of May 22 to celebrate the declaration of the Bab, this involved prayers specifically revealed for this occasion and staying up most of the night, praying and chanting remembrances (dhikr) of God. In fact according to Baha’i sources certain teachings of Baha’u’llah called "Tablets of the Sacred Night (Alwah Laylat al-Quds)" were revealed by Baha'u'llah with the intention that Baha'i Sufis should treat that night as a festival and read these Tablets. The contents of this short Tablet, which is an extended prayer to God, has many parallels with Sufi thought and practice. However these customs, ordained by Baha'u'llah, were discontinued in the twentieth century Iranian Baha’i community, the reasons for which are unclear.

The mystical path in Sufism is characterized by a strong emotional component in worship. Baha'u'llah evokes this aspect of that path when he calls upon God to "fill their yearning with ardent passion." Another goal of Sufism is to attain a mystical knowledge (`irfan) of God. In the beginning of the Most Holy Book, Baha'u'llah makes attainment of such mystical knowledge of God one of two prerequisites for salvation.
Sufis emphasize achieving a powerful understanding of God's Unity (tawhid), which too is mentioned in the Tablets of the sacred Night. Moreover, Sufis often use ‘scandalous’ metaphors for the spiritual drunkenness they seek, and Baha'u'llah also evokes these literary themes in the Tablet when he says, "Yes, my Beloved: give them to drink of the cup of life from the hand of this Youth in this garden," representing himself as the wine-server or "saqi." He speaks of the worship of the Sufis, that they "may make mention of Thee at eventide and sunrise," and such practices are also expected of all Baha'is in the Most Holy Book.
Sufis tended to seek to focus all their concentration upon God, finding Him in all things and using breathing and other meditation techniques to heighten their awareness of the divine. These practices are mentioned by Baha’u’llah in his writings. Continual awareness of God, in every spoken word, in every breath, and in every sight one sees, is an aspiration of mystics in many religious traditions apart from Sufism and Baha’i mysticism.
However there came a time in the history of Sufism when its forms were used and the contents forgotten. This led, for example, to "dervishes begging and expecting to be cared for because they were the holders of special, spiritual knowledge. Another problem was a feeling of superiority to recognized laws and codes of behavior which came about because they felt they had discovered the "real" truth of life. One of the beliefs that had crept in was that it was possible to experience God (the Divine Essense) yourself without a Mediator.
In his treatise called the Seven Valleys, Bahá’u’lláh talks to the Sufis of his day in their own symbols and forms. He uses the oldest form of the Sufi literature, the Seven Valleys (or Cities, as it is also known), of the Sufi poet Attar, to present his vision to the Sufis. His also quotes copiously from the great Maulana Rumi. In this mystical treatise Baha’u’llah sifts the wheat of Sufi teaching from the chaff that had crept in over the years. He says that mankind can have an experience of the Divine (Valley of Love), can grow in understanding (Valley of Knowledge), can experience the unity of all things (Valley of Unity), be content (Valley of Contentment), and experience amazement (Valley of Wonderment), but there is a veil between the Creator and the created which can only be penetrated by a Being of another quality than man. In other words a seeker of the Divine Essence can develop his consciousness considerably in this world, true contact with the Essence is impossible. Full development can only come through recognition of the Messenger and obedience to His Laws.
In recent years, the spread of Baha’i faith to various countries has led to increased organization within the international Baha’i community and ironically, a faith whose founder strived to do away with the ills of organized religions of the world, is itself facing similar problems. There are allegations, especially within the Baha’i community in the U.S. that the followers of this faith have become more fundamentalist in the last four decades. There seems to be an increased emphasis on doctrinal and behavioral conformity as a result, what was initially intended to be a liberal and universalistic tradition is shifting towards exclusivism and sectarianism. There are allegations of key sectors of Baha’i administration being run by Baha’i fundamentalists who misuse their authority to exclude Baha’i liberals in key posts.
There was a time when the Baha’i faith came to the aid of Sufism, perhaps it is time now for Sufism to come to the rescue of the Baha’is.

(photo credits: RonAlmog, Eviljohnius and Diabolic preacher)

Friday, 6 June 2008

Bhakti Saint Poets of India

Saint Poet Namdev

They belonged to various castes and communities, spoke a varied language and dialiects and came from different professions. We had Kabir the weaver, Namdev the tailor, Akho the goldsmith, Goro the potter and Chokhmela the mahar who rebelled against the exploitative caste system and exclusiveness of organised religion. While Eknath and Gyandev, the Brahmins from Maharashtra, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu from Bengal, and Shankardev from Assam strived for bringing about reform and transformation of religion. Namdev, Tukaram and Chokhamela from Maharashtra, the Lingayat Basavanna, Akka Mahadevi and Allamaprabhu from Karnataka spoke of a novel tradition based on equality of all mankind. Then there was Mirabai and Narasinh Mehta - who, intoxicated with the love of God, faced pain and suffering by singing and dancing to thier beloved Lord. They belong to no one religion or tradition. They belong to this country and its people. They did not write high philosophies in Sanskrit, but preached and sang in the common dialect and their poetry survived hundreds of years of oral tradition. The Santvani (song of the saints) of this land still vibrates in its air and ether, if we could only tune in.....

These saint poets were the harbingers of the Bhakti movement which rose in the southern part of India and from there surged upwards into east, west and northern parts of India. Its philosophy was guided by a humanizing multiculturalism, an passionate fervor and a thirst for the the Beloved - the Divine essence, and experience. 
The Bhakti movement was a unique attempt, a first of its kind, of the marginalized part of the society i.e. the vernacular languages of the common people, their literature and folk motifs, the so called lower castes, at decentralizing the rigid class and caste hierarchy imposed by the Brahmins and the elite. 
The Bhakti movement began in the 8th century Tamilnadu with the Shaiva and Vaishnav Bhakti cults and continued into the 12th century by the Lingayats of Karnataka,  onto the 13th century  Warkari Panth of Maharashtra . From here it flowed into Central and North India's  Nirguna Bhakti in the 14th century initiated by Ramananda's school ; the Saguna Vaishnava Bhakti of Chaitanya in Bengal and Orissa which had a parallel stream flowing from the Saguna saint poets of  Gujarat. 
Sadarangani,N M. 2004. Bhakti Poetry in Medieval India: Its Inception , Cultural Encounter and Impact. Sarup & Sons. New Delhi

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Bhakti poets - Premanand, the Manbhatt of Gujarat

The tradtion of Brahmins (Bhatt) drumming on earthen or copper pots (mann) with their ringed fingers while narrating akhayans - melodious poetical compositions describing in detail, episodes from epics like Ramayana and Mahabharat is unique to Gujarat.

Born in Vadodara, Gujarat in the 17th century, Kavi Premanand was one such Manbhatt who raised the standard of Gujarati bhakti poetry with his akhayans to new heights. His simple yet vivid compositions reflected the life and culture of common people of Gujarat during the Mughal period. He travelled around Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh with his akhayans, narrating, with unique vivdness, episodes from Mahabharat and Ramayan.

to be continued......

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Derasar and Dargah

To the uninitiated, no two religions could be as far apart as Jainism and Islam. The former, carries the principals of non-violence to the extreme, wherein even the lowest life forms such as insects are not to be harmed; while in the latter consumption of certain birds and animals for food is a part of everyday life. But life style and diet do not make up a religion. Nor do rites and rituals. These are mere symbols to remind us of a higher Reality and tools to make us more receptive to this Reality. One has to rise above them in order to discern the common threads that run through all religions.

Perhaps Angar Pir, a sufi saint knew this when he protected these Derasars from the attack of Allauddin Khilji ; and so did Akbar when he granted the sacred Shetrunjaya Hill, in Palitana Gujarat, to the Jain muni Hiravijaya Suri to continue the construction of what was to become one of the largest complex of Jain temples (Derasar).

According to Shvetambara canonical books, Shetrunjaya was already a famous tirtha by the fifth century. Today, the entire summit of majestic mount Shatrunjaya is crowned with about 900 temples and shrines. The peak is a little over 3 km climb of about 3500 steps from the base. The Jains put all their devotional passion and considerable wealth into the creation of the most ornate marble temples; with exquisitely detailed relief carvings covering every inch of this temple complex. The entire complex was built and rebuilt over a span of 900 years. The act of ascending a path to reach a place of pilgrimage is a part of the Hindu and Jain consciousness, this is the reason why many of their holiest temples are located along hills and mountain ranges.

The Jains have five separate hill locations for their holiest clusters of temples and Shetrunjaya Hill in Palitana is considered the most important among them. Every devout Jain aspires to climb atop Shetrunjaya at least once in a lifetime, akin to the Haj of the Muslims, and as he makes this pilgrim bare footed, the Jain devout with a white coloured seamless cotton cloth wrapped around his body could be easily mistaken for a Haj pilgrim in an irham!!

Next to the Derasars, lies the Dargah of sufi saint Angaar Pir. Lured by the great wealth of the temple complex, Allauddin Khilji attacked these temples around 14th century and according to legend, Angaar Pir rose to the protection of these temples, and with the power of his prayer he hurled heavenly fire on Khilji’s army. Today, childless women visit the Pir’s Dargah to be blessed with a child. They offer miniature cradles to the Pir.

It is noteworthy that both Islam and certain sects among the Jains are against idol worship. The Jains are divided into two major sects, the Svetambar and the Digambar. Some sub sects among the Svetambar are apposed to idol worship and believe in internalization of the faith. Shri Mahavir, who was the twenty fourth and last Tirthankara (one who has attained enlightenment and shows the way to others) of the Jains, was himself against idol worship.

Both Jainism and Islam came in close contact with each other during historic times and influenced each others architecture and painting. This is apparent in a number of Masjids in Gujarat such as the Jami Masjid in Champaner.
During Akbar’s reign many Jain munis were invited to his court. Apart from Padmasundar, who is believed to be the first Jain monk to meet Akbar, we have a continuous flow of distinguished Jain saints to the court of Akbar and his successor Jahangir. The most famous Jain visitor to Akbar was Hiravijaya Suri who met him in 1582 C E.
Akbar was so impressed by Hiravijaya Suri that he conferred upon him the title of "Jagad Guru" or "the preceptor of the world." The faith of the Jain community in Akbar and the Mughal polity was strengthened when the ruler issued orders prohibiting the killing of animals on certain days sacred to the Jains. When Hiravijaya Suri left the court, he asked Bhanuchandra and his disciple Siddhichandra to stay back. They lived under the patronage of the royal court even after Akbar’s death, and Siddhichandra who had also learnt Persian, wrote "Bhanuchandra Gani Charit" a biography of his master.
There is yet another instance in Indian history when these two faiths came even closer. The Navayath community of coastal Karnataka are believed to be the descendents of Arab men and Jain women. Visiting Arab traders would marry the daughters of local Jain traders. Many of the Arabs would then continue on with their maritime trade travels living the women and children behind. As a result, the children grew up under a strong Jain influence of the mother, and the community today has retained many Jain customs like eating before sunset, dominance of vegetarian food and the dress and jewellery of the women of this community are similar to the Hindu-Jain traditions. This community has a unique language called Navayathi which is basically Konkani with a preponderance of Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic, and Marathi words and the script used is Urdu. The Navayaths claim that their Arab ancestors were of the Shaafi sects who were traditionally a trading sect like the Jains, and were peace loving, diplomatic and friendly. According to some scholars the abundance of Persian words in Navayathi indicates that some of their ancestors may be from Iran while some historians trace their origin to South Yemen.
The rest of Gujarat and India could learn a lesson or two from the Jains, for when flames of hatred were unleashed in Gujarat after the Godhra carnage, the Angar Pir Dargah at Palitana remained untouched and the credit for this goes to the Jain community of Gujarat.

Wednesday, 2 January 2008

Imam Hussain: The Spiritual Warrior

Black was the colour of pathos, and I was submerged in it. Women dressed in black sarees and salwar kameez were beating their chests to the chant of ‘Ya Hussain’. The chorus rose to a fevered pitch followed by a sudden silence. In that momentary silence was crystallized generations of mourning. The place – a Shia Muslim neighbourhood in Lucknow; the time – the tenth of Mohorrum. If grief has different shades, one can see it during Mohorrum.

While the rest of the world greets its ‘New Year’ with celebrations, the Muslims, especially Shia Muslims, begin Mohorrum, the first month of the Islamic calendar of Hijri, with mourning to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain – son of Hazrat Ali and grandson of Prophet Mohammad. Over 1200 years ago, in the desert of Karbala, in present day Iraq, Imam Hussain and his small band of relatives and supporters sacrificed their lives for Islam.

From the first to tenth of Mohorrum, and sometimes for a longer periods, majlises (the Mulsim counterpart of Satsang) are held day and night in Muslim neighborhoods and Imambadaas where zakirs and zakiras (male and female religious orators) give sermons which climax with the heart wrenching tale of Karbala.

History has seen numerous massacres of innocent people, but the tragedy of Karbala is one of the few where men, women and children voluntarily allowed themselves to be subjected to hunger, thirst, humiliation and death on the burning sands of Karbala because they believed that Imam Hussain stood for righteousness. Little wonder that for over 1200 years Muslims, have been nurturing the tale of Karbala in their hearts like an open wound, lest they should forget the supreme sacrifice of Imam Hussain and his followers.

Great spiritual leaders are known to make great sacrifices, but at Karbala, common men and women with infants at their bosom, their hearts and souls aflame with righteousness, chose death rather than evil and weakness. Such was the greatness of Imam Hussain, such was his spiritual power, which could uplift common mortals to heights of supreme courage and sacrifice.

The writings etched on the durgah of sufi saint, Khwaja Garib Nawaz, proclaims in Persian:

Shah ast Hussain, badshah ast Hussain
Deen ast Hussain, deen panaah ast Hussain
Sar daad, na daad dast dar dast-e-yazeed
Haqu-e-binney la ilaahaa ast Hussain

Which loosely transliterates as :

Hussain is the king, the king of kings,
He is righteousness; the guardian of righteousness is he.
Gave his head to Yazid, but his support gave he not,
For Hussain is the witness to the truth of God.
The tragedy of Karbala took place in 680 AD on the banks of the Euphrates in Iraq but Karbala has a universal appeal and in today’s climate of violence, it is more relevant than ever. The tragedy of Karbala and its spirit of non-violent resistance and supreme sacrifice has been a source of inspiration to the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru. The former’s first Salt Satyagrah was inspired by Imam Hussain’s non violent resistance to the tyranny of Yazid. Gandhi is said to have studied the history of Islam and Imam Hussain, and was of the opinion that Islam represented not the legacy of a sword but of sacrifices of saints like Imam Hussain. Nehru considered Karbala to represent humanities strength and determination. According to the great poet Rabindranath Tagore, Hussain’s sacrifice indicates spiritual liberation. Munshi Premchand, one of India’s greatest Hindi/Urdu writers, a visionary and reformer, eugolised the tragedy of Karbala in his famour play ‘Karbala’. Premchand’s Karbala was published both in Hindi and Urdu in the 1920s. This was the time when Hindu-Muslim relations were strained and the battle between Hindi and Urdu was raging. Premchand’s Karbala was aimed at both the Hindu and Muslim audience. This play was not just Premchand’s tribute to the martyrs of Karbala but also an attempt at reconciliation of declining Hindu-Muslim relations. In his introduction, Premchand drew parallels between Karbala, Mahabharat and Ramayan.
In the words of a famous Urdu poet Josh Mahlihabaadi:

“Insaan ko bedaar to ho lene do,
har qaum pukaraygi hamare hain Hussain
(Let humanity awake and every tribe will claim Hussain as their own. )

Another poet, Maulana Mohammad Ali Jauhar says

Qatl-e-Hussain asl main murd-e-Yazid hai,
Islam zindaa hota hai har Karbala ke baad”

Which loosely transliterates as:

In the murder of Hussain, lies the death of Yazid,
For Islam resurrects after every Karbala