Volume - 4 : Issue - 2

Published : April - June 2005

Group : Spirituality

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by Saroj Butani

This is an edited and shortened version of the article by late Shri N. B. Butani written and published in 1937 in Volume IV of The Cultural Heritage of India published to commemorate the Birth Centenary of Parmhansa Sri Ramakrishna.

Sind seems to have been the chosen place where Sufism was first accepted when it came to India in the wake of the Muslim invasion of our country. Geographically Sind is accessible from all sides, and with the ocean on two of its sides, inroads by foreign culture become easy. When the Muslim military leader Mohammed ibn Qasim invaded India in the early part of the 8th century, he brought with him great men of religion and culture to consolidate what he had expected the arms of his generals would secure. The Muslim faith in the oneness of God and the brotherhood of man, the only basis for true democracy, touched men’s minds in India. The Buddhist influence had already broken the external and internal barriers created by Brahmanical thought, but the impersonal doctrine about the nature of God, held by Buddhist monks lacked the moving power that comes from the personal way of looking at Him. This helped the Muslim faith to prosper. Like Sind itself, the Sindhi mind appears to be ‘open’, and every new way of looking at things, spiritual as well as temporal, is effortlessly accepted in this area. Guru Nanak’s thought, similar to that of the Sufis, also later spread like wild-fire in Sind.

The first Muslim Sufis came to the ancient village of Sehwan where, in memory of their arrival, a flat platform with four pillars at four corners, has been constructed on top of a small hill with a cave inside, having a single pillar in the center, as if it were the support of the roof. Out of the four who are known to have come first of all, Qalandar Lal Shahbaz Sarhandi alone stayed on in Sehwan; the other three left to return to other parts of North West India.

Several places in Sind have acted as definite centers of Sufistic influence. There is the ancient village of Jhok near Tando Mahomed Khan, the place of Shah Inayet, also known as Shah Shahid, where an annual gathering takes place. There is also the place of Sachal near Ranipur, that of Bedil and Bekas at Rohri, of Dalpar and Kutub Shah at Hyderabad, and of others at Tando Saneendad, Kumber and other places. The work of great Sufis, men of spiritual realization, has been continued by their successors, after they left their bodies, having attained union, wisal as they call it, with God.

Sufism is the development of an all-embracing system of thought within Islam in which greater importance is attached to the activities of the inner self than to the observance of outward religious practices and rituals. It is an expression of dissatisfaction with the idea of a transcendent God. To Sufis God is pure Being and absolute Beauty. He is everywhere and in everything, ‘closer to us than even our neck-vein’. It is generally believed that seventy thousand veils hide the absolute Being and a Sufi, in his journey along the inward path of self-realization, tears off these veils and identifies the self with God. The Sufistic doctrine that God is the only Being and that He is the only real agent saves human beings from the pain arising out of the feeling of personal responsibility, the feeling that he has caused hurt to others. The great Persian Sufi, Jalalud-Din Rumi, expresses this idea beautifully thus:

‘If He makes of me a cup, a cup am I;
If He makes of me a dagger, a dagger I.
If He makes me a fountain, I pour forth water;
If He makes me fire, I give forth heat….
If He makes me a friend, I serve my friends.
I am as the pen in the fingers of the writer,
I am not in a position to obey or not, at will…’

Sachal, one of the greatest Sufis of Sind, has expressed the same idea in a beautiful song well known in that province. The charm of the original is impossible to retain in the translation which runs as follows:

‘Open your eyes; behold the show; all is a picture of the Lord.
Here, there, and everywhere is that heart-ravisher, all around.
In some places He is a nightingale; in some a flower;
in some a garden and springtime verdure…….
In some He wears the coarse cloth of a dervish;
in some He wears silk.
In some He speaks all tongues; in some He is dumb.
In some He is a Sunni; in some a Shia; in some He has the true insight.
In some He is a lover; in some a beloved; in some He is all blandishments and coquetry.
In some He shows Himself in one way; in others in some other; my beloved is a great deceiver.
He is like cloth of one name, with innumerable patterns on it.

The real difficulty in accepting the idea that God is the only agent is the problem that we have then to accept that He is the agent of evil actions also. But as evil is evil, we find it impossible to attribute that to Him. Actually, the terms in which the problem of evil has been stated, need revision. In asking for an explanation of the origin of evil, we have assumed that evil exists. But that assumption needs to be revised. Because your action leads to consequences that I do not like, or the social group in which you live does not like, it is described as evil. The term evil is, at the start, a mere description of a feeling on the part of a single individual or a group of individuals. That which in another strikes me as stupid or ugly, as long as he and I belong to different groups and are considered separate, becomes acceptable and beautiful as soon as we begin to associate together. If, even for one instant, one realizes the oneness of all life, the so-called evil of others becomes one’s own and wears another aspect.

Sufis give a beautiful illustration of how evil may become transformed. A pool of standing water becomes dirty when dirt is thrown into it, and remains so. It takes the colour of whatever it comes in contact with, and retains it. But if it can get connected with a perennially flowing stream, it becomes sooner or later purified. So long as an individual remains an individual and considers himself responsible for the activities that appear to flow from him, these activities leave their traces on him. But if, somehow, he is able to become one with the universal life, the activities become those of the universal life and cease to have a moral colouring.

Dalpat, a great Sufi who belonged to Sehwan, expresses the Sufistic attitude to good and evil thus:

‘In everything, Thou alone art living;
Why (then) hast Thou concealed Thyself?
Vicious and virtuous acts Thou Thyself performest;
Why (then) hast Thou built a heaven and a hell?…
Dalpat (says), even for an instant, separate from Thee I do not become;
Why (then) has Thou union and separation affirmed?

Acceptance of this doctrine colours one’s activities and slowly but surely leads to an inner realization of it. But if love for God visits an individual, all doubts depart and the realization comes considerably quicker. Sufis therefore think very highly of love. Rumi has the following to say on love in his Masnavi:

‘Through love bitter things seem sweet,
Through love bits of copper are made gold…
Through love stings are as honey,
Through love lions are harmless as mice.
Through love sickness is health,
Through love wrath is as mercy.
Through love the dead rise to life,
Through love the king becomes a slave.’

Because ordinary love for human beings removes fear of conventions, because it enables one to discard the normal scale of values, and because it secures freedom from the harassing considerations of duty, Sufis welcome even worldly love. Jami, one of the greatest poets of Persia where Sufism found special favour, has said in his Yusuf Zulaikha:

‘I heard a seeker went to a pir,
That he might receive aid in his company.
The pir said, ‘If your foot hasn’t moved on the path of love,
Go, become a lover and then come to me.’

Elsewhere it is stated that God plays hide and seek with His lovers. He vivifies a form and makes it appear more beautiful than the rest. We are drawn to it, but by the time we are there, He leaves it and goes to vivify another. And so the game goes on: form after form He makes us pursue in search of Himself, till, in our desolation we get a glimpse of the very spring of beauty. Shah Abdul Latif asks us to learn the way of love from a kiln that keeps burning inside and still never gives an indication of the fact.

Sufis think that real love for God is too dangerous a thing to play with. It means death at every instant, a death severer than that of the body. A fine Persian couplet on this point says:

‘The delicate ones must not practice love.
The lion-hearted, calamity-bearing ones alone place their foot in this dangerous valley.’

Another point about love that the Sufis state, and which is known to be true, is that love comes when it likes and goes when it likes. There is no knowing when and how it will come. No preparation can be prescribed for it for love is God and is as free as He. It is said that a person asked Sadik, a renowned Sufi, to fill him with love for God. Sadik sent for the potter of the place and asked him in the presence of that person if he himself chose the clay for the pots or was it the clay that insisted on being chosen for the purpose? The potter of course replied that he was the sole judge in the matter. Even so, Sadik said, has God the sole choice in this matter. Therefore, the blessing that a Sufi saint showers, if he be pleased, runs thus: ‘May God grant you His love! May God make you His own!’

Love is that immortal fire which, when it comes in full force, lays waste everything before it and burns up the ordinary body. The intellect stops working and one may go mad. Therefore the Sufis hold that the intellect and intellectual life in general are not only valueless, they are even a positive hindrance. In the words of Bedil, a great Sufi of Rohri in Sind, ‘He who gets entangled in letters and ideas climbs not at all the incline of love.’ Another great Sufi is reported to have said to the intellectuals of the city who went to become his disciples, ‘To be able to receive aid from me, you must go back to forget all that you have learnt.’ Thought is believed to lead to action, to guide and illumine it. But the Sufis do not accept this view. They feel that more often than not, thought spoils action and that thoughtless action is the best. They feel that thinking does not even help judgement which comes somehow directly.

In the case of development of moral qualities, if they are secured by the control and cultivation of thought, they become mechanical and their grace disappears. Humility adopted by thought becomes conscious and a subtler form of pride. But that humility which is unconscious, the fruit of an inner realization, which is known to Him alone who knows all hearts, is beautiful. It draws us all towards Him and makes our life fuller and sweeter.

We come now to the Sufistic explanation of the creative process. What is after all the purpose of creation? Really none whatsoever, unless play be a purpose. The way that the Sufi poets of Persia think of creation is as follows: God, who is all-powerful and all-beautiful, cannot stay quiet, and so starts to play with Himself. He is all-beauty, but the beauty must be enjoyed and so must be manifested. Just as a mother having a beautiful child, in order to enjoy its existence, especially her own share in it, holds it afar to have a loving look at it and then brings it back closer to herself and goes on repeating the process, each time observing new beauties in the child, so He too pushes out a portion of Himself, looks at it, enjoys its beauty and then sucks it in. This breathing-out and breathing-in process goes on without end.

In the creation of forms and the processes thereof, then, God is enjoying His own beauty and power. But the most beautiful power of His is this very power of creation, and so He must create a creator. And this creator is man with his intellect and intellectual processes. And that is why man has been described as having been made in the image of God.

Oneness of being, greatness of love and inadequacy of thought, these three are the corner-stones of the Sufistic edifice, the fourth being the relationship of murshid (teacher) and talib (disciple). Talib literally means a seeker, and murshid is the person who is able to satisfy the seeking impulse. Of all the relationships known to the human mind, this is the best, happiest and most perfect. Shah Latif has the following on this:

‘Guru and Govind, both are standing before me;
To whose feet shall I attach myself?
I am ready to be sacrificed for that Guru
Who made known to me the name of Govind.’

What happens to those who associate with saints is described thus:

‘By association with saints, the face becomes bright,
By association with saints, all filth is removed,
By association with saints, pride is effaced,
By association with saints, divine knowledge is revealed,
By association with saints, all enemies become friends,
By association with saints, man feeleth not enmity for any one.

Rumi has expressed a similar thought in his oft-quoted couplet thus:

‘One instant in the company of saints
Is better than a hundred years of prayers and piety.’

You go to a Sufi saint in a proper receptive mood and stay there for some time. Though nothing appears to have happened, you return somewhat changed, the change showing itself afterwards in your way of dealing with things as they arise. Something occurs between the two hearts behind the conscious part of yourself. And so we are advised when we visit a saint, or a place where saints have lived, that we pass a night there. Behind the veil, the alchemical process is gone through, without the talib knowing how it is accomplished.

The murshid acts as a perfect administrator. He arranges circumstances for your growth, for the development of the seeds he throws into your soil. Your weaknesses are made to expose themselves to your view and then drop off. And this is done not by word of mouth, but by circumstances arranged for that purpose. The Sufi knows that ‘The only good man is he who goes with every bad one’ and so, if he wants you to realize it, he does not say that to you. But in His name, there are sent to you persons of all sorts, good, bad and indifferent, with whom you must go, to do them service. And slowly but surely, without an effort and without a struggle, there is developed in you a feeling that all are alike.

He also knows that ‘all service ranks the same with God’ and so he may keep you occupied with work that you love to do in His name, but which otherwise you would consider unimportant, yielding no results, till at last, unconsciously the idea of relative importance and of results leaves you and you find yourself ‘without haste and without rest’ moving about as He wills it, with ‘hands in work and heart with God.’ The murshids say very little. Whatever they say implies always that you must place others above yourself. ‘Become your enemy’s friend’ is a common advice. So is the following, advocated by Shah Latif: ‘They rebuke you; you must not speak in return.’

And the one thing they insist on is that you do everything in His name. The only work that is really done, according to them, is the one done in His name. Even the silence they enjoin must be adopted to repeat His name, when it becomes a real silence that suggests solutions and brings comfort to others, and in the presence of which the very desire for undesirable conversations disappears. The murshids never argue. No proof is ever advanced. But they give you wonderful illustrations and beautiful stories to fix in you what they wish to. The conviction comes to you direct from their heart. These stories and illustrations probably help in the rearrangement of the mind with which we are hampered. On the relationship of God and man, for instance, they would say: ‘The hearts of men are like the boats on the ocean that is God. He moves them as He likes. He carries them with the rising tide and leaves them on the desert land where they must wait till once more He comes and takes them to a beautiful island. On the question whether it is right for a Hindu to go to a Muslim saint, or vice versa, they would ask, ‘Does the butterfly that loves the light inquire about the caste and the religion of the person in whose house it finds it?’

Regarding religious discussions, they would give you a pertinent story from the Masnavi. Four friends, a Persian, an Arab, a Turk and a Greek, while on an excursion, found a coin and quarreled over the fruit they must purchase with it. The Persian wanted angur, the Arab inab, the Turk uzum, and the Greek astafeel, and each went into raptures over the qualities of the fruit. A wise man passing by and hearing the cause of the quarrel, asked for the coin and brought, from a neighbouring village grapes, the one fruit they had all been wanting, only their terms for it had been different, owing to the difference of language.

The love of the murshid for the seeker is said to be greater than that of the seeker for his murshid. His love is the very essence of love and therefore, tremendous in intensity. But he releases only as much as the seeker-son can bear. He attends to all the details of his life, outer as well as inner. Sometimes he has to wait and watch from afar, but his irresistible love draws and keeps drawing, till the seeker-son whom he has chosen to make his own, accepts the murshid consciously. It is never true that we have to knock at the door in order to have it opened unto us. It is the murshids that keep knocking at the doors or our consciousness till we listen, turn back and open its doors. The ‘hound of heaven’ is always at our feet, once we have been chosen for grace. And until we learn to accept everything we want from His loving lap, our individual search after the fulfillment of our hearts’ desires always fails and, at each failure, however much we may try to run away from the ‘hound’, its barking becomes more and more insistent. Fortunate and happy are those that get attached to the murshids of the world. And happiest is that seeker that can say inwardly to his murshid. ‘As thou wishest, so let it be. Only let me remember all the while that thou wishest so!’

These then are the Sufistic truths and experiences prevalent in the Sindhi heartland with its absence of caste, creed and untouchability. In the villages more particularly, where the influence of intellectual development has not broken the hearts into bits, one can see everywhere a desire to prefer others’ comfort to one’s own. There is evident the hearts’ hospitality and openness to receive any newcomer and all social customs are observed with that geniality that makes them living and useful to all as one whole. All this is Sufistic in essence.

With Consent & Courtesy Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, Calcutta