By J.S. Neki
When I was at school, in Class 7, I had a classmate, Faquir Bakhsh, who was 22-years-old, 11 years elder to most of the other boys in the class. The reason was that he was unable to join school till he was already 15. He was tall and had a flowing beard. When he came the first day, most students thought he was a teacher. Many of them shunned him when they realised he was a student. I was one among the few who befriended him. He told me that the great Sufi mystic Rumi of Iran was among his distant ancestors and that now he himself studies Sufi lore at home.
One day we both were returning from school and on the way he asked me, “Do you believe in God?”
“Yes, I do”, I replied “What do you know about Him?” “He is very big.” “How big?” I spread out both my arms full length and said, “That big!” “Your arms make a straight line . Is God only a straight line?”
I circumrotated my arms around me, and joining my hands behind, I said, “God is that big”.
“You have now made a circle by circumrotating your arms. Is God bound in limits like a circle?”
I knew I was wrong, but did not know any other answer. I looked at him with questioning eyes. He smiled and said, “God is cypher”. “A cypher?” I asked sceptically. “Yes, a cypher. A cypher can neither be increased nor decreased. So too God.”
His logic was perfect. But I wasn’t convinced. “How can God be cypher?” I thought.
Years passed. I was then studying in a Christian college at Lahore where an American professor used to teach us Divinity. All of us used to feel that he taught us spirituality rather than Christianity. During one of his classes, he asked us, “Tell me boys, what is all there in this room?” “Besides you, Sir, there are 30 boys and the furniture.” He said: “Imagine that I go out of the room and you boys bring all the furniture out of the room. Then what will be left in the room?” “Nothing sir, the room will be completely empty.” “You are quite right; but we can also say that the room will be full of emptiness.” We shook our heads in affirmation. Then he said, “Emptiness is the basic stuff. Things will not find room for themselves if there were no emptiness.” We again shook our head in the affirmative. “Mind you”, he said, “emptiness not just surrounds things, it is also within them”. That perplexed some of us, but those who were science students again indicated their affirmation. “Now”, he said, “imagine that there are no walls around us and no obstacles even outside to block this emptiness. Would this emptiness not spread out infinitely?” “Yes!” we all said aloud. “Now imagine that within this infinite emptiness are located all the terrestrial bodies, the suns and the stars of the cosmos, and this emptiness also percolates into their interiors.” He paused and then asked us, “Do you know of anything else that surrounds all the bodies in the universe and even the entire universe, at the same time also pervading within all these bodies?” One of us got up and said, “God, sir!” “Thank you! Yes, God is the infinite emptiness.” I was then reminded of Faquir Bakhsh who had once said, “God is cypher”.
Sometime later, when I studied the Systems of Indian Philosophy, I happened to learn that in Vedanta, Brahman, the Supreme Absolute Reality is described as “neti, neti”, that is, “neither this nor that”. I then thought, “from wherever we may start, we come to the same conclusion that God is cypher”.
— J.S. Neki, a psychiatrist of international repute, was director of PGIMER, Chandigarh. He also received the Sahitya Akademi Award for his contribution to Punjabi verse. Currently he is Professor of Eminence in Religious Studies at Punjabi University, Patiala.