By Jawed Naqvi
20 December 2016
FIRAQ Gorakhpuri was the senior poet on the stage at a Lucknow Mushaira. A rookie versifier was on the mike. Firaq appeared to have dozed off, as his turn, the last usually, was still a few more senior poets away. He wasn’t really asleep though.
“That sounds like my verse you are reciting, sir,” he suddenly interrupted the young poet who was in full cry. The unhesitant accusation was padded with a grudging half smile. “Thank you indeed Firaq sahib, but this is obviously an accident,” the frazzled poet pleaded, waiting for the nod to continue. The reply, however, provoked a sharper reaction than was bargained for. “Young friend, we have seen bullock carts crashing into pedestrians. Accidents are known to occur between cars and trains,” Firaq wouldn’t stop. “But an accident between an aeroplane and a bicycle?” The auditorium was in splits and it was a while before the soirée could resume.
Imagine Gautam Buddha as the senior poet and the world of intellect that followed as his protégés. I must confess, I too felt like the rookie man the other day when I thought I had figured out how Buddhism may have impacted global religions and some great literature too in no small way. Existentialism, theatre of the absurd, pacifism, T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, they all flitted by. ‘Damyata’ (control), ‘Datta’ (give), ‘Dayadhvam’ (compassion) from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad are Eliot’s last words in the long poem. The words are thought to have come from the Buddhist reflection of the Upanishads.
It was humbling to realise soon enough that scholars had arrived at similar conclusions with far more diligence than I could hope to muster as a journalist. Sitting in 10 days of Vipassana silence recently, the mind leapt hither and thither.
The religious injunction came to mind in the reverie: travel to far away China to seek knowledge. Why be partial to China, why not Greece, for example, which produced great philosophers? Some more cogitation and a faint answer appeared. Could it have to do with Buddhism, which had travelled circuitously to China while it was being exiled out of India? Was that the wisdom Muslims were being counselled to partake of? Surely there was more than an outside chance that Buddha’s teachings had imbued Confucianism with greater moral and temporal sinews. The idea of the unstitched cloth worn by Haj pilgrims and Buddhist monks crossed the mind, and their shaven heads.
I noted that the focus on the inward gaze suggested by Buddhist contemplation was coursing through Allama Iqbal, possibly the greatest Muslim philosopher from Asia. “Apne Mann Mein Doob Kar Pa Ja Suragh-I-Zindagi/ Tu Agar Mera Nahi Banta Na Ban, Apna To Ban.” (Delve into your soul to seek life’s buried tracks; Will you not be mine? then be not mine, be your own at least!) Iqbal regurgitates Buddha again: “Mann Ki Duniya Mein Na Paya Mein Ne Afrangi Ka Raaj/ Man Ki Duniya Mein Na Dekhe, Meiney Sheikh-O-Barhaman.” (In the depth of my soul I have not allowed the white man’s rule/ In that world I have not seen Hindu and Muslim fight.)
Kabir was a popular pre-Mughal poet. Bulleh Shah came along from Bukhara with the Mughal arrival in India. Both learned poets divided by 1,000 miles between them and a couple of centuries apart spoke Buddha’s language. “Bulleya Ki Jaana Main Kaun’(Bulleya to me, I am not known). ‘Verhe Aa Varh Mere” (Do come to me). “Main Jaana Jogi De Naal” (I’m going together with Jogi). The last is so akin to the essential invocation: “Buddham Sharanam Gachhami.” (I’m off to surrender to Buddha’s care).
Kabir says: “Man Na Rangaae, Rangaae Jogi Kapda.” It was a direct indictment of the priestly class. The mystics colour their clothes when they were required to fix their thought. Buddha’s use of the human body as an implement to train the mind to deal with worldly traps is reflected in Kabir faithfully in his poem Jheeni Jeeni Beeni Chadariya. In this, Kabir likens the body to a woven shawl. “Jo Chaadar Sur Nar Muni Orhey, Orh Ke Maeli Kini Chadariya/ Das Kabir Jatan Se Orhi, Jyon Ki Tyon Dhar Dini Chadariya.” (The noble and the learned soiled the sheet. Kabir used it with care and left it spotless clean.)
Kabir’s simile for creation as a delicate work of threading shows up in Mir Taqi Mir a couple of centuries later with another Buddhist quest for treading gently. “Le Saans Bhi Aahista Ke Nazuk Hai Bahot Kaam/ Aafaq Ki Is Kargah-I-Sheeshagari Ka.” (Breathe but gently. Do not disturb the arrangement of resplendent particles that make up the delicate thread of life). “Hasti Apni Habaab Ki Si Hai/ Ye Numaish Saraab Ki Si Hai.” Mir may be using the Buddhist concept of Anichchya or impermanence here. (My life is like a bubble now/ Mirage-like it appears and how).
Any number of lines by Ghalib is infused with Buddhist meditation that may pass for Sufi influence. But was Sufism devoid of Buddha’s core beliefs? Khwaja Mir Dard the Sufi poet of the 18th-century Delhi offered an insight into his grasp of classical music and mysticism that came close to the voice of the Great Teacher of 600 BC. “Khalq Mein Hain Par Juda Sab Khalq Say Rahtay Hain Hum/ Taal Ki Gintee Say Baahar Jis Tarah Roopak Mein Sum.” (We belong to the world we live in, but we always stand apart/ Like the climax of the Roopak Taal uniquely aloof from the cyclical beat of the drum.)
From Turkey to Iran, the Buddhist thought had been woven into poetry. Take Rumi or Adam Sanai in the 12th century, Buddha’s presence is inescapable. “Someone who keeps aloof from suffering is not a lover,” says Sanai in a translation by Coleman Barks. Buddha would be smiling with joy, not the half smile of Firaq.
Jawed Naqvi is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.