Ennobling Power of Sultan Bahoo’s Poetry
Dr. Aalia Sohail Khan | March 20, 2013
Sultan Bahoo Sahib (1629-1691) is revered by unanimous consent, as a great Punjabi Sufi poet. This paper argues that his poetry is not only a pinnacle of Sufi wisdom, it also enshrines antidote to the prevailing cynicism, uncertainty, pessimism, nihilism and consequent despair in the post-modern society that has lost its religious and spiritual bearings.
Looking Around: An Angle on Our Times - Reductive view of Reality
Modernity has made an accelerated movement away from the divine principles, the treasure of metaphysical and spiritual, non-human wisdom, which is perennial, because prior to all ages and therefore can never be lost (Nasr, 1999). Modernity has reduced the meaning of reality to physical and material world alone, experienced by external senses and discursive reasoning. Science has, no doubt, done great service to human kind, but its offshoots- naturalism, nominalism and positivism- have generated ‘scientism’, the belief that there is no reality save revealed by science, and no truth except the one delivered by science (Wilber,1998). This empiricist epistemology pronounces the spiritual, ethical, aesthetic, emotional and poetic spheres and truths to be worthless or non-existent. Contemporary Western intellectual thought makes formal denial of whatlies beyond human comprehension, for example, the idea of God and sacred (Guenon, 1999). Such a worldview reduces life to a skeleton without soul, a shadow without substance.
Sultan Bahoo’s World View - Affirmation of God
On the other hand, Sultan Bahoo’s Sufi poetry rests on the certainty, the firm belief that there is no reality except one God, that is, Allah. Bahoo Sahib’s poetry springs from love of Allah Almighty. He expresses divine Transcendence and Immanence in his vision of Oneness, when he echoes the Quranic verse “wheresoever ye turn, there is the face of God” (2:109). Wherever he turns his eyes, inside and outside, he sees Allah only. He does not see anything other than God. Therefore, his poetry does not give any description of physical objects. As his heart is emptied of everything other than God, likewise everything other than God is obliterated from his sight. This is expressive of the mystical experience of self-annihilation. His poetry is premised on the Quranic verse: “Everything perishes save God”. Allah is the only Absolute, Final Reality.
Sufi: Mirror of God
A Sufi is the most perfect expression of human nobility and dignity. A Sufi is not an ordinary person. He is a reflection of God, and plants his feet on the seventh heaven. Sufis have been compared to precious gems like pearls and rubies. Sultan Bahoo compares ordinary people to earthenware and looks at Sufis as crystals (Bahoo, 2002:46). There is unfathomable distance between the thought and imagination of ordinary poets and the thought and imagination of Sufi poets. As Maulana Rumi explains, “What is this talk of thought? There, all is pure light. The word thought is used for your sake, O Thinker, Saints belong to the realm where ‘all is pure light’” (1989, bk. 11:230)
Western Romantic Poetry
A Sufi’s consciousness and experience is different from the Romantic sensibility of Western poets.Western Romantic Poetry is a reaction to and protest against the positivist, insentient, impersonal world view. Shelley sees a larger Being pulsating in the universe, and voices the unifying vision in these words,
“The light whose smile kindles the universe,
The beauty in which all things work and move”
And Blake exclaims the idea of Oneness in these words, “To see a world in a grain of sand”
Likewise, Wordsworth expresses the idea of ‘One in all’ in the following words:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of thought
And rolls through all things
However, the Nature-mysticism of Romantic poets has a “profane”character, because the idea of God or sacred does not inform their insights or experience (Zaehner, 1961). The feeling of Oneness, the unifying vision for a Romantic poet is not a vision of God. Romantic poets do not construe the One ground which contains within it all creaturely existence as God.
Moreover, they “physically see” nature - flowers, trees, hills, grass blades and creeks - with physical eyes and “hear” the murmuring rivers and singing birds with physical ears (Stace, 1961). They rely upon human imagination to transform the mundane into a heavenly world. According to their epistemic stance, human imagination is the source of truth and meaning.
Sufi Epistemology: Heart as the source of knowledge
On the other hand, in Sufi epistemology, heart is the source of knowledge. Sufism has been called “heart wakefulness”, and Sufis are known as “men of heart” (Lings, 1983). Sultan Bahoo Sahib, like all Sufi poets, sees with an ‘inner eye’, the eye of contemplation, and the spiritual knowledge is revealed to his heart. In Sufi hermeneutics, the term “heart”does not mean the bodily organ or seat of emotions; it is a superasensory organ to which the vision of God is revealed. Sultan Bahoo says that heart isdeeper than the deepest sea, and it houses all the universes.
Impersonal View of God
As the truth and reality of God cannot be empirically or rationally proved, His existence is denied by the dominant intellectual traditions of West. The result is a shuddering collapse of all that defines our humanity. The world ceases to be a comforting place, created and governed by the Creator, God, Who cares for and loves His creatures. Modern Western poetry voices this crises of faith, feeling of cosmic alienation, that is, either God is a fabrication of ‘infantile fantasy’, a relic of humanity’s childhood, or a remote, non-caring, blind, impersonal, mechanical force. The American poet Stephen Crane (1871-1900) expresses this impersonal, insentient view of God in these words,
A man said to the Universe
“Sir, I exist!”
“However”, replied the universe
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation”
These lines show modern man’s isolation and the frightening darkness of his spirit, because there is no comforting answer to cure his loneliness, as the dark, unknown forces remain unreachable. When, in times of despair and fear, we, as humans, look to higher powers for comfort and enlightenment, then we feel more isolated.
The Idea of God of Love
On the other hand, to Sultan Bahoo, God is more near to him than his own jugular vein (Bahoo, 2002:32). He believes in a God of love. The relationship between a Sufi and Allah is one of love. The Sufi path is a path of love (Chittick, 2000). The Sufi is a lover and Allah is the Divine Beloved, who inspires Sultan Bahoo Sahib, the lover of God into poetry; without His radiance, Sultan Bahoo cannot speak, because as Maulana Rumi says, “the mystic is like mount Sinnai, which echoes the voice of the Divine Beloved; or like David burning in the heart’s fire and producing lovely psalms”. Sufi poets often compare themselves to flute, since the flute can only talk when touched by the musician’s lip. They call for the Divine Friend’s breath or hand to enable them to sing. Sultan Bahoo Sahib says that lovers of Allah, who are drowned in the Sea of Unity, are the happiest people. They enjoy the felicity of living in an ever green garden.
Modernity’s Reductive view of human nature
Scientific materialism reduces soul to either brain or behavior. This myopic view sponsors an attitude to life in which human beings are no longer seen as created in the image of God, stamped by the Divine imprint. In this view, the Divine Breath ceases to be the essence of humanity. The competitive individualism of philosophers like Hobbes and economists like Adam Smith and Malthus promoted a selfish model of human nature. Freud (1999) reduced human nature to libido, and Marx further reduced it to dialectics of class struggle for monetary profit.
Sultan Bahoo’s Optimistic view of Human Nature
As opposed to this cynical and pessimistic view of human nature is Sultan Bahoo’s optimistic view of human nature. He says that the desire to connect with the Divine is ingrained in human nature. Human beings are programmed to make a quest for God. It is what Plotinus called Nouse; Perrenialists call it Intellectus; Huston Smith names it the Sacred Unconscious and the Sufis term it as heart. It is capable of bringing more profound spiritual knowledge. This precious divine gift allows human beings to long for and know Godas the ultimate Reality, the Transcendent, the Principle of Love. This innate part of human consciousness is an echo, a reflection of the Divine consciousness, and therefore despite forgetfulness, it continues to be blessed with the possibility of connecting with God.
Sultan Bahoo Sahib’s poetry originates from soul’s separation from Allah. It generates from the longing to return to the Eternal Home. His soul’s restlessness and thirst can never be slaked, because Allah is infinite, therefore a Sufi’s soul always yearns and cries for union with Allah.
According to Sultan Bahoo, the soul in the fallen state is veiled and separated from its original Home, and the downward pull of base emotions, that is, nafas-e-ammara is strong, but the longing of the soul to reunite with Allah is always there. And Allah not only listens, He also responds, and responds with loving care. As one of the Quranic verses is “Call unto Me, and I shall answer”. Soul is separated, but not alienated from its Divine Source.
Sultan Bahoo’s intransigent belief in the reality and capacity of human beings to apprehend Transcendence and the highest truths inspires in the reader the optimism and faith that the world is in such dire need of today. The idea of the possibility of disciplining the wild impulses, forging a connection with the Divine, breaking out of impasse into an expansive realm, the abode of peace, fortifies heart from losing hope and plunging into despair. In this way, Sultan Bahoo’s poetry reanimates the dead heart and exercises an ennobling effect on human nature.
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This article was originally presented in International Hadrat Sultan Bahoo Conference arranged by MUSLIM Institute