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Incredible Mystic Chain That Made India Spiritually Rich


By Aftab Ahmad, New Age Islam

18 September, 2014

India is a spiritually and culturally rich multi-religious and multi lingual society. This richness and diversity was a result of different religions and cultures mixing together to produce a wonderful harmonious blend of spiritual values. At the core of the values has been the mystic tradition of India bridged by Islamic Sufism and Bhakti mysticism spanning over more than 5oo years. India was the land and centre for spiritual pursuits for a number of great mystics and Sufis that existed right from the 8th century till sixteenth century. Sufis and Bhaktivadi saints together formed a wonderful chain of mysticism throughout India. When we study their writings and ideology, we are overwhelmed by the fact that they were not isolated in time and place. They were not only aware of the poetic and spiritual ideas of their predecessors but also influenced by them, sometimes borrowing their ideas and sometimes extending their ideas with the help of their own spiritual ideas. Most of the teachings of the Sufis and Bhaktivadi saints are in the form of their spiritual poetry; mostly in the literary form doha, shabad, kafi or chaupai. Some of the Sufis did not render poetry like Hadhrat Khwaja Nizamudddin but his disciple Amir Khusrau wrote poetry to express his ideas in dohas, ghazals and other forms of poetry. Thus in his poetry, Amir Khusrau conveyed the teachings of Hadhrat Nizamuddin through his poetry.

When we look at these Sufis and Bhaktivadi saints and their poetry chronologically, we are surprised that each Sufi or saint was fully aware of the ideas and teachings of other Sufis and poets, not only of his own time but of his predecessors though they lived in far off places of the Indian subcontinent. For example, the poetic ideas, similes, metaphors used in the poetry of Nath Panth founder Gorakhnath resonates and reverberates in the poetry of Baba Farid or Amir Khusrau, the following generation Sufi poets. Similarly, the poetic ideas and themes found in the poetry of Amir Khusrau and Baba Farid are echoed in the poetry of Kabir which in turn influenced the poetry of Guru Nanak. Baba Farid lived in Punjab (now Pakistan) while Kabir lived in the northern India (modern day UP). Secondly, Baba Farid’s poetry was in Punjabi while the mother tongue of Kabir was either Maithili or Braj Bhasha.  Guru Nanak was impressed and influenced by the poetry of Kabir, Baba Farid and other Bhakti poets like Ravid Das and incorporated their hymns and Dohas in the Adi Granth.

This makes it all the more surprising that the Sufis and mystics transcended borders and broke language barriers to reach out to others to learn about the poetic ideas in an age communication was not as easy as it is now and books and journals were also not available so freely. Poetry was spread through word of mouth. There is a doha of Baba Farid

Rukhi sukhi khai ke thanda pani piu

Dekh parai chopdi, na lalchayen jiu

Kabir’s doha echoes the same idea with slight variation

Rukha sukha khai ke thanda pani pi

Dekh parai chopdi mat lalchae ji

This can be construed as plagiarism on the part of Kabir but Kabir himself admits in one of his doha that he takes words and ideas from here and there to compose his poetry. This was his humility because this reflects his simplicity and honesty. He composed the doha in his own language because he liked the theme of Baba Farid’s doha produced above. Kabir is known for his originality of ideas and force of his style. That is why he influenced later generation Bhakti poets and influences the poets of today.

Similarly, Kabir was also influenced by Amir Khusrau’s poetic ideas. One of the major and distinctive feature of Sufi poetry and Bhaktivadi saints is Ulat Bansi (upside down language) in which ideas apparently absurd are produced but they has a deep inner meaning. In this type of poetry, blanket rains and water is drenched. Amir Khusrau’s doha has the following ulat Bansi:

Khusrau darya prem ka, ulti wa ki dhar

Jo utra so doob gaya, jo duba so paar

In this doha, the one who drowns is believed to have actually crossed the river which apparently is an absurd idea. This ulat Bansi is not the invention of Amir Khusrau but Amir Khusrau borrowed it from Nath Panthis. Later Kabir also wrote such ulat bansi.

One characteristic feature of the Sufi and Bhakti poetry is the secular language of their spiritual poetry. In many of his dohas, Baba Farid calls God by the name Sahab which is a neutral word for God. It does not denote any religious affiliation. Since the Sufis were singing for all the communities and their spiritual message was for the whole humanity, they did not confine their poetic language to a particular religion. Later, the word ‘sahab’ for God was also used by Kabir under evident influence of Baba Farid’s poetic style. As Baba Farid also uses the word Khuda or Rabb in many other dohas, so Kabir too uses the word Ram to mean the supreme God not the Hindu deity Ram.

The actual founder of Nath Panth was Machhendra Nath (Matsyendra Nath). He was a fisherman by birth. So his poetry revolved round river, fish, net, crossing the river, storm, bait, swan, heron etc. In the course of time, these words and phrases were adopted by the successive Nath Panth poets as similes and metaphors. Later other Sufi and Bhaktivadi saints too adopted these similes, metaphors and symbols in the mystic poetry as these words aptly expressed their spiritual ideas and themes.

Lalan Fakir, born in the far eastern part of India, now Bangladesh and having lived for 118 years founded Baul sect that is based on Sufi and Bhakti traditions. He wrote more than three thousand Baul poems. Going by his poetry, one is surprised that he was well aware of the Bhakti poetry of Kabir and Bulhe Shah. It is all the more surprising because Lalan Fakir’s mother language was Bangla and he lived in the farthest eastern part of India while Bulhe Shah and Kabir lived in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh respectively. Apart from that, Lalan’s language was totally different from the language of either Bulhe Shah or Kabir. This may perplex researchers as to how Lalan could have had access to the poetry or poetic ideas or themes of Maithili or Punjabi or even Persian poetry of Amir Khusrau. Lalan uses the ulat bansi, the river riding the boat which is a common ulat bansi in Kabir’s or Nath Panthi poetry. Lalan also mentions the human body as a building with eight chambers and nine doors. This analogy has been used by his predecessor Kabir in his dohas and Shabad.

Yet another characteristic of mystic poetry is that the poet considers himself the wife and God his husband. The wife longs to meet the husband who is elusive and the wife burns in the fire of love. This theme is common in the poetry of Baba Farid, Amir Khusrau and later Kabir. Khusrau’s doha says:

Khusrau raat suhag ki jagi pi ke sang

Man mero tan piu ko dou bhaye ek rang

Lalan also uses this Vaishnav idea where the poet’s heart is Radha and God is Krisna, moner manush. In Baul ideology, Krisna or supreme God is the moner manush (Man of the heart) who resides in man’s heart. The poet longs for a reunion of the elusive God. In Kabir’s poetry too, this Radha-Krisna longing finds expression.

Thus, it is perplexing and at the same time very surprising that all the Sufi and Bhakti poets of India right from Gorakhnath, to Baba Farid, to Amir Khusrau to Kabir to Lalan Fakir including the lesser known Sufis and Bhakti poets were united by a common thread of spirituality though their languages were different. But their ideas and teachings broke the barriers of language and tied them together. That they were illiterate with no formal education of their time proves that they were talameezur Rahman (Students of God). They had divine knowledge which made them philosophers and intellectuals in their own right. Their teachings and poetry spread the message of love, harmony and brotherhood among the common masses contributing to the formation of Indian nationality.

Aftab Ahmad is a columnist for New Age Islam.  He has been studying the Holy Quran for some time