Shamas Faqir - Religious Mysticism

Shamas Faqir - Religious Mysticism

Religious Mysticism: Some Observations on the Poetry of Shamas Faqir

by Prof. A. N. Dhar

[With the advent of Islam in India, Persian studies gained popularity among the literary sections of the society, that included the Hindus and the Muslims alike. This led to an interchange of concepts from Vedanta and Sufism between the two communities. The Bhakti movement in India provided an additional stimulus to this process of interchange. The mystical poems of Shamas Faqir, the Sufi poet of note from the valley of Kashmir, exemplify this cultural synthesis in a remarkable way.

Mystical poetry in Kashmiri (spoken by the natives of the valley) has a richness and variety of its own, traceable to the mingling of several cultural streams. This intermingling is specially noticeable in the poems of Shamas Faqir, a spiritually enlightening study of which is presented below by the author].

In this paper, I propose to discuss the religious mysticism with particular reference to Shamas Faqir, noted Sufi poet of Kashmir. We notice a pervasive mystical element in his lyrics (composed in Kashmiri) that is Sufi in content and inspiration, compatible with Islam and, at the same time, comparable in significant way, with other varieties of religious mysticism. In the introductory part, I shall first touch upon religious mysticism in general at some length and then give a brief account of Sufi mysticism in its bearing upon the poetry of Shamas Faqir.

Mysticism, of all shades, is not to be seen as something remote from religion. Essentially, it is a correlate of religion. The term 'religion' is generally taken to mean the observance of belief, which is commonly identified with mere ritual. The mystic, however, does not rest content with the bare externals of religion. He seeks to attain an intimate, loving relationship with the Divine - involving a personal 'encounter' aiming at 'union'. He is at once drawn to the ultimate Truth by a passionate curiosity and an ardent love. His pursuit, therefore, inevitably involves the religious feeling at its most intense. In this respect, the great mystics of all times and climes are closely akin to the very founders of various faiths.'

From the biographies of the renowned mystics of the world, supported by what has come down to us in the form of their sayings and writings, we gather that while some of them remained mostly absorbed in contemplation the majority also practised love and piety as the benefactors of mankind in general. Unlike religious zealots, tied to this or that creed, they quietly pursued their own ways (as lone adventurers) though they continued to stay within their traditions. Only a small minority of them chose to dissociate themselves from orthodox creeds, asserted their freedom and even professed heretical views. Some of these unfettered mystics, like the Persian mystic Mansur-al-Hallaj, had to pay a heavy price for their non-conformist views. The example of William Blake, poet and visionary, also comes to mind here as a unique mystic whose bold and unconventional pronouncements were not palatable to the orthodox Christians.

Across cultures, mysticism shares universal characteristics despite the variety it comprehends. That explains why the religious mystic is tolerant and accommodating as far as his attitude to other faiths is concerned. As the mystic advances in the spiritual path, whatever his affiliations, he realizes that all religions are one in essence and lead to the same goal. We, in India, are proud of being the inheritors of a rich culture, presenting a fine synthesis of diverse strands. The Hindu ethos itself has been largely responsible for this synthesis, conducive as it has been to free inquiry into the nature of Reality or Truth, and consequently to the flowering of the mystical sensibility.

The country has built up a rich mystical tradition going back to the Vedic times, which later absorbed the influence of the Sufi mystics (who in turn were themselves influenced by the cross-cultural interaction on the Indian soil). Having had a steady growth over centuries, our mystical literature involves a wide range of approaches to Reality. This is consistent with our cultural diversity. Of these approaches, Karma, Bhakti and Jnana are specially characteristic of Hindu mysticism. Interestingly, they correspond to the types of spiritual life respectively termed practical, devotional and philosophical mysticism by Christian scholars.

Another feature that is specially common to Christian and Hindu mysticism is the theme of love between God and the soul conceived as a spousal relation. Interestingly, this theme has been elaborately dealt with in our literature devoted to Krishna and the gopis. In fact, across cultures, human love has been a dominant motif in poetry of all hues including the mystical. Most mystics have looked upon earthly love itself as the root of spirituality, having in it the potential of transfiguring into divine love. This theme has been dealt with in a variety of ways in mystical literature throughout the world.

One more related feature common to most varieties of mysticism is the mystic's account of his advancement in the spiritual path - of the various states he experiences and the stages he goes through until he attains his goal. In Christian mysticism, the spiritual 'journey' is depicted as consisting of three distinct phases - called the Purgative, Illuminative and Unitive stages of the Mystic Way. The corresponding concept in Hindu mysticism is that of 'Ascent of the Self', particularly stressed in Kundalini-yoga. While mystical union is conceived in the Hindu scriptures, including the Upanishads, as the complete merger of the individual soul with God, for the Christian mystics it implies the soul's experience of the constant presence of God. We find parallel - if not identical - accounts of the Mystical Way and all that it involves in Sufi Mysticism, too.

Islam, as a world, religion, has laid utmost emphasis on the oneness of God. Thus thoroughly monotheistic, it has also stressed God's transcendence and man's creature-hood. This is something that does not seem compatible with mysticism - a dimension of religion that stands for an intimate relationship with the Divine. In actual fact, however, Islamic worship does not ignore the immanental aspect of God, including man's innate divinity. Those who uphold the Sufi path as the "mystical dimension of Islam" assert that in the Koran itself there are several passages which affirm God's immanence and quite suggest the possibility of a close communion between the Maker and man. It is on this account that they justify the doctrine of Irfan or Marifat (spiritual gnosis) as also the practice of Mahabba (the Way of Love).

As the spiritual offspring of Islam, Sufism had its fine flowering on the Persian soil. The Sufi orders that grew up in Persia and other Islamic countries evolved approaches that were mutually coherent and also consistent with the essential spirit of Islam. Eschewing 'high and dry intellectualism', the Sufis, like the Christian saints, practised poverty and penance, preaching their doctrine through love and gentle persuasion. Although Islam does not encourage monasticism or renunciation of household life, many Sufis spent their lives as wandering faqirs. The Sufi way had its impact not only on the Muslims themselves but it impressed the devout in other communities as well, leading to a healthy interaction and mutual accommodation, a thing borne out by what happened significantly in India. The receptiveness of the indigenous culture, specially characteristic of the Hindu ethos, and the liberal attitude of the Sufis have both contributed, in no small measure to the composite culture that continues to be our rich legacy.

Islamic mysticism in its literary form, largely Sufi in content and inspiration, found its adequate development in classical Persian poetry. The Persian poets showed remarkable ability in using the language of human love to convey mystical concepts related to the Divine. The terminology of erotic love, particularly used in relevant context, enabled them to give a hint of the 'rapture' (wajd) the mystic experiences within the deeps of his soul. The Persian lyric, called the ghazal, evolved as an appropriate form in their hands for unfolding experiences profound and esoteric in nature, rooted in their mystical craving for union with God. Maulana Rumi, the supreme exponent of the Sufi Way, and other poets like Attar, Saidi, Hafiz and Jami, wrote excellent poetry using highly suggestive images charged with significance, which gave superb expression to the theme of divine love. The profane and the sacred are seen to intermingle in Sufi poetry as they, for example, do in the metaphysical lyrics of John Donne. Written seemingly in a voluptuous vein, they evoke and suggest what touches our inmost Being.

With the advent of Islam in India, Persian studies gained popularity among the literary sections of the society, that included the Hindus and the Muslims alike. This led to an interchange of concepts from Vedanta and Sufism between the two communities. The Bhakti movement in India provided an additional stimulus to this process of interchange. The mystical poems of Shamas Faqir, the Sufi poet of note from the valley of Kashmir, exemplify this cultural synthesis in a remarkable way.

Mystical poetry in Kashmiri (spoken by the natives of the valley) has a richness and variety of its own, traceable to the mingling of several cultural streams. Its growth began in the fourteenth century with the famous woman poet and saint, Lal Ded. It was in her time that Sufism first came to Kashmir through Muslim saints and mystics. Consistent with her Saivite background, Lal Ded, in her vakhs, neither characterizes the world as illusory nor recommends external renunciation. She looks upon the objective universe as the Swarupa Itself (the Real Form) that parallels the Sufi view of the physical world as Wahadatulwajud.

The great Muslim saint, Sheikh Noor-ud-Din Rishi of Chrari Sherif (Kashmir), revered by all communities in the valley and popularly called Nund Rishi, is believed to have been blessed and directly influenced by Lal Ded. This is confirmed by the reverential tribute he paid her in one of his shruks (slokas). Mystical in thought and aphoristic in form, his shruks have impressed and influenced both the communities, Hindus and Muslims, in Kashmir as the vakhs of Lal Ded. Accordingly, in the mystical poetry that was produced mostly in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries (after a long gap, following the two saints), we notice an interfusion of parallel literary motifs and images drawn from diverse cultural sources. This intermingling is specially noticeable in the poems of Shamas Faqir (AD 1843- 1901). It is also to be seen in varying degrees in the poems of a number of other Kashmiri poets.

No authentic biography of Shamas Faqir, with full details about his life including what his literary antecedents were, has been compiled so far. What has, therefore, to be depended upon most in this context is the text of ninety-six of his poems included in the anthology of Sufi poems in Kashmiri brought out by the J&K Academy of Art, Culture and Languages, Srinagar. The perceptive reader can gather many facts and draw useful inferences from them about the life and literary background of the poet.

As we gather from the scanty biographical information available, through his upbringing at home and later under the influence of several seasoned teachers, Shamas Faqir was drawn towards divine contemplation during his early formative years. He got connected with the Qadri Sufi order and thereafter, around the age of twenty-five, he went to Amritsar in pursuit of spiritual knowledge. Here he came into contact with an accomplished Master, under whom he got fully conversant with the Sufi doctrine and practice. On his return to Kashmir, he got married and had four children. Yet he remained well set on the spiritual path and lived throughout in the true spirit of a Sufi saint.

An intensive reading of Shamas Faqir's poems reveals a lot to us about his religious background and the literary sources that must have inspired him. This in turn enables us to appreciate better his communicative skill as a mystical poet, precisely the tools he used to articulate his perceptions and experiences. As we get familiar with the linguistic tools and the kind of imagery he employs, we conveniently judge for ourselves the main sources of his inspiration.

Thus the poem 'Nat', the first in the group of his poems available, indicates immediately that he is a devout Muslim, well acquainted with the teachings of Islam based on the Koran and also with the life of Prophet Mohammed. The poem 'Merajnama' that follows recounts the story of the Prophet's spiritual journey to the abode of God. In a number of other poems there is unmistakable evidence of the poet's awareness of the Mystic Way - of the steps and stages leading to Union that the Sufi Masters are believed to have gone through.

To the discerning reader, Shamas Faqir's description of the Sufi path must appear suggestively similar to the spiritual 'adventure' given in other varieties of religious mysticism (including Hindu and Christian mysticism). In several poems, he makes use of the via-negativa and via-affirmativa approaches in his accounts of the Divine. Each of these approaches to Reality involves a characteristic language use, which the poet accomplishes so well; sometimes we find the two approaches deftly interwoven in the same poem. In quite a few poems, we come across direct allusions to the Persian mystic, Mansur-ul-Hallaj, and the doctrine of An-ul-Haq (I am Truth) that he boldly preached.

The Sufi concepts offana (annihilation), baqa (continuity), the terms zikir (remembrance of God) and fikir (contemplation), the symbolism of the 'diver' in search of 'pearls', the images of zulf (seductive curl) and khal (the mole on the cheek of the Beloved) are seen to recur in many a poem. The imagery of jam (wine cup) and mai-khana (wine house) associated closely with makhumur (the 'intoxicated' mystic) is also recurrent in Shamas Faqir, linking him with his distant predecessors, the Persian Sufi poets, in the background. It is they, in fact, who were the first to make innovative and creative use of language in starting the vogue of this imagery. At places, Shamas Faqir speaks of his experience of the inward music of the soul, of the 'vibrant string within', that reminds us of anahata (unstrung sound) mentioned in Surat-Sabda Yoga.

A striking feature of Shamas Faqir's poems is the diction: using largely the Kashmiri idiom current in his time, he also employs words from Persian, Arabic and Sanskrit. He can bend language to his needs, blending harmoniously words from diverse sources together - an achievement creative in a high degree. In some poems particularly, we notice that he makes a consistent use of terms (and related concepts) derived from the Hindu Sastras (including both Vedanta and Saiva texts) with remarkable ease and facility.

As examples we may mention terms like zagrat (wakefulness), sopan (dream), sushapt (deep sleep), turya (superconsciousness), terms relating to the four elements including pavan (air) and akasa (ether), words like soham (He am I), sunya (void), rav (the sun), shiv (Siva), anand (bliss), om, raza honz (King of swans). He handles the vocabulary and the related concepts so well that the poems acquire a distinctive Hindu tone. Of such poems the one that specially comes to my mind is titled 'Pad' (the first of the sequence). The interfusion of two cultures is indeed very conspicuous in the Sufi poet.

Several lyrics of Shamas Faqir centre round the theme of the mystic's quest for the primal cause of this universe. As an illustration, the lyric titled 'Agur Kami Manz Drav' repeatedly poses the question, 'what is the fountainhead of the stream?', which serves as its refrain. Here is my translation of some significant lines of the poem (attempted to convey the essential meaning):

Day and night does Pavan flow
Through the four Bhavans non-stop;
Whence did it come
And whither did it go?
It was even (all of one hue),
Whence did the stream come forth?
He who owns the sea
Is the Lord of water,
The river issued from the drop;
To get to the meaning,
Sacrifice yourself first;
O Shamas, to attain gnosis,
Throw open your heart's door;
Sun-like, roam the sky through
(To fathom the Secret);
What is the fountain-head?

We can see that the poem poses vital and thought- provoking questions regarding the First Cause. It instructs the seeker to pursue the spiritual journey inwardly to realize the Self. This would naturally call for annihilation of the little self. The answer to the imponderable question regarding the source of the Cosmos is provided through the intertwined images of the 'drop' and the 'river'. They parallel the images of the bindu and the sindu given in Hindu mystical literature, conveying what Swami Ram Tirtha does equally aptly through the phrase 'Infinite in the Finite'. In the concluding lines, that lay stress on cleansing the heart as a means to inward transformation, the tone of the poem changes as the poet addresses his own self. Without sounding the didactic, the changed tone stimulates self- introspection in the reader/listener.

The Persian Sufi poets have often used the word rinda in their lyrics. It refers to the true lover, a liberated soul (not tied to this or that school). With its rich associations, it has been absorbed into Kashmiri mystical poetry and has by now got into common usage among the Kashmiris. It occurs frequently in Shamas Faqir's verse too. One poem titled 'Rinda Sara Ho Sapdi Kunu Ye' is specifically addressed to the rinda. This is how the poet instructs the aspiring gnostic:

O rinda, in order to realize the One,
Learn to die while still alive.

Emphasis is laid in the poem on self-conquest as being the stepping stone to advancement in spirituality. Whether we call the aspirant a yogi or an arif, his sadhana has to consist in 'cleansing of the doors of perception', which involves a disciplining of the mind and the senses. He has to be discriminative and mentally alert throughout. Shamas Faqir is explicit about this quality required of the true aspirant:

Seemingly blind, look keenly for
What you seek, O rinda!
Sifting the pure grain
From the impure,
Winnowing the grains a hundred times
Will reveal the Precious One to you.

The poet draws our attention to the strenuousness and pains involved in the spiritual effort, in these lines:

Break the stones at the dead of night,
To take away the Gem guarded
by the cobra;
Feed the burning lamp
with your blood,
Eat up your own flesh;
Thus will you, O rinda, realize the One.

Special stress is laid in the closing lines on belief and divine grace:

Believe before you verify,
That's Shamas Faqir's gospel;
When you get the 'Word'
As a God-sent gift,
O rinda, you'll realize the One.

In one particular poem titled 'Walo Mashoka Deedar Hav', the poet employs 'dark imagery'
throughout, from the beginning to the end, and mentions 'black light' specifically in these lines:

The Elixir of life is hidden in the dark,
The light divine is dark, too;
Light itself is grounded in darkness,
Pray, meet me Beloved!

This poem reminds us of the images of 'darkness' that are so recurrent in St. John of the Cross, especially in his poem titled 'Dark Night of the Soul', there is a close parallel between the Christian concept of 'divine dark' and what Shamas Faqir conveys through his images. Similarly, the names of Hindu divinities such as Krishna, Shyama, Kalaratri, Megashyama, suggest 'the night of the great release into the oneness of Self', which is dark only to the senses, not to the spirit.

The 'human form divine', in its feminine aspect, is celebrated conspicuously in the poetry of Persian Sufis. Parallel motifs and images are seen to occur in both Hindu and Christian mysticism. The form functions as a wisdom figure, which is, in fact, a recurrent image in literature. It is also identifiable as the 'theophanic figure through whom the manifestation of God takes place'.

Shamas Faqir too follows this Sufistic tradition as a poet. In several poems, he introduces a lady as embodying 'Beauty' and 'Truth', but the images of woman that he employs do not suggest the flesh. In one such poem title 'Rov', the feminine form, described as 'ashqa sondar', recalls the Greek goddess Aphrodite. Her physical graces are rendered in fine detail - red lips, charming teeth, incomparable mouth (dahan), seductive locks (resembling coiled snakes) and the like. All these images are loaded with mystical significance in the Sufi tradition.

Another such poem of deep import, addressed throughout to a woman hailed as the 'esteemed lady', is titled 'Manareniye Pan Badlav'. It makes an elaborate use of the symbolism that we especially meet with in Christian mystical writings - depicting the soul as the spouse of God. In the poem under discussion, the 'honoured lady' is cautioned not to be remiss in 'throwing the precious stone away'. She is advised to undergo 'alchemical' transformation to deserve the rare gift and the elevation that she seeks as her goal - which is nothing short of Union with the Beloved.

In conclusion, I should like to reiterate that as a Muslim poet writing in Kashmiri, Shamas Faqir is outstanding in his grasp and assimilation of many mystical concepts and images that occur in the sacred Hindu texts. He owes this assimilation not only to his contact with the co-existing Hindu culture of his time but also to his own receptiveness and openness of mind. After Sheikh Nur-ud-Din Rishi of Chrari Sheriff, it is he (before others followed them) who paid glowing tributes to Lal Ded in a poem wholly devoted to her, titled 'Zan Mila Nav Bhagvanas Sooty'. The poem shows how high he held her in his esteem, how familiar he was with her story and how thoroughly acquainted he must have been with her vakhs. His poems deserve to be read with care, as a source of delight and spiritual instruction.

[Courtesy - Prabuddha Bharata]
1. William James, The Vaneties of Religious Experience (New York: The Modern Library, 1929), p. 31.
2. Saiyid A.A. Rizvi, A History of Suf sm in India (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Pub., Pvt. Ltd., 1978) vol. I, p.18.
3. See A.J. Arberry, Sufism (London: George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., 1950; rpt. 1956), pp. 17, 27.
4. See Cyprian Prince, O.P., The Persian Sufis (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1964), p. 28.
5. Quoted in B.N. Parimoo, The Ascent of Self (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2nd rev. edn., 1987), p.6 (footnote no. 2).
6. See Motilal Saqi, ed., Kashmir Sufi Shairi (Srinagar: J&K Academy of Art, Culture & Languages, 1985), vol. 1, pp. 311-439.
7. Onwards also, I have quoted a few more passages from Shamas Faqir's verse (rendered into English by me for illustrative support).
8. Jankinath Kaul 'Kamal', tr & annotator, Indrakshi Stotram (Srinagar, Kashmir: Sri Ramakrishna Ashram, 1995), p. 38.
9. E.B. Greenwood, 'Poetry and Paradise: A Study in Thematics', Essays in Criticism, 17 (1967), p. 19.

Source: Koshur Samachar

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