A Tribute to Dr Atamjit Singh
Presence of Love and Amity in Punjabi Literature
By Prof Mohammad Ashraf Chaudhry
It is close to six months that this gem of a man, Dr Atamjit Singh, departed from this world. The most endearing qualities of him were: his humility, meekness and gentleness, both in speech and in acts; his all-embracing affection and love that unreservedly transcended the barriers of faith, race and nationality; his assiduous avoidance of bitterness in life and his amazing ability to forget and forgive. Dr Atamjit was, indeed, a symbol of that spirit that is most elusive these days: namely the spirit of amity and love for all and malice for none, to borrow Abraham Lincoln’s famous phrase that he uttered at the end of the Civil War.
When you see my funeral, don’t say, “What a separation!”
It is time for me to visit and meet the beloved.
Since you’ve seen my descent, then do see my rising
Why complain about the setting of the moon and the Sun?
Which seed that went under the earth failed to grow up again? - Rumi
Dr Atamjit Singh was one such seed that last year went under the earth not to be fana or extinct, but for a fresh birth. “As long as the cloud weeps not, how could the garden smile,” says Rumi. I do not pretend to have known him well. But I am happy to confess that I was never away from his intellectual and scholarly sway.
I have also been asked to say a few words about the most embracing themes that run in Urdu and Punjabi literature. Poetry, as we know, is the most poplar genre in the Indo-Pakistan literary tradition as compared to fiction or drama because it ideally suits the emotional mindset of people living here. Besides, it can also be enjoyed even before it is understood properly. This happens because a good poet beautifully combines meanings with sounds in order to add music and rhythm to his ideas. Like any other literature, Urdu and Punjabi literature both allot human sensitivities, emotions and passions a prominent place. Punjabi is one such language, and this versatility and elasticity perhaps is its most unique feature. Even a rustic, simple villager in a Punjab village can comfortably talk in it by making extensive use of similes, comparisons and by employing a good amount of redundant words. In other words, every Punjabi walks, talks, eats, meets, snorts, and even beats his opponents in a rhythmical way. But it is a serious language too. Some of the best Divine and Sufi poetry has been written in this language. Some of the main themes that Urdu and Punjabi share are:
Love and its journey from the strong physical stage to the sublime, spiritual and divinely one; pangs of Hijr, or separation, heroism, jilting of the beloved; Yaas or despair; Mehroomian or deprivations caused by the belief in pre-destination, and by man’s own helplessness in a struggle -economic, social or emotional - that often appears futile, and that makes life less palatable; and, finally, an acute yearning for death, especially when young, ostensibly for three reasons: one as a final solution to the problems; second, to make the beloved feel the “peer’ or pang once he or she has kicked the bucket, and thirdly as a final exit to get united with the Divine Being of Whom we all are a part. These mainly form some of the main themes.
Of all the above, the theme of love in its various forms remains the most dominant one. Love is deemed as a quality innate in everything that has been created by God. “He who is blind to love, is lower than a dog,” says Rumi and the Qur'an. Climate and culture both are conducive in India and Pakistan to the promotion of love; be it the filial or the carnal or the spiritual. But the best form of love or Ishq that singularly emerges in the Punjabi literature is the perennial spiritual or Divine love. The Indian sub-continent is a land of different faiths; a land full of yogis, recluses and God-fearing farmers. It is a potpourri of different cultures, languages and castes.
It is thus natural that it should always remain in need of a universally applicable and acceptable panacea that could act as a healing balm, and be effective and helpful in removing friction, bitterness and tension whenever these elements appear. The cure has had to be sublime enough to transcend the barriers of division, created by human biases and by the hard logic of reason, knowledge, or that are caused by the castes or creeds, or even by the vocational pursuits that people follow. That magic cure lay only and only in love for all, and it came in abundance from the Sufi and mystic poets.
Thus, it is no wonder that in India, after the arrival of the Muslims, the Sufis found their precursors already present there in the form of yogis, sanyasis, recluses or sadhus.
The main essence of the teachings of these sufis, yogis, bhakhats and mystics has been to emphasize the presence of love and amity in all human transactions, and to make love as the basis of all relationship with God, and as the only way to a peaceful co-existence. The two big names that emerged in the 15 th century were of Kabir and Baba Nanak and both drew their ideas from the Islamic traditions established by Rabia, Al-Ghazzali, and Farid. Both viewed God not strictly through the eyes of a Muslim or Hindu but in more direct a manner. For example, Kabir told people not to fight over whose God was better or more true. For him, God was just there, sitting within the reach of each one of them, only what they needed to do was just to lower their heads.
O Servant, where dost thou seek Me:
Lo I am beside thee.
I am neither in Temple nor in Mosque: I am neither in Kaaba nor in Kailash
Neither am I in rites and ceremonies, nor in Yoga and renunciation
If thou art a true seeker, thou shalt at once see Me: thou shalt meet Me in a moment of time.
Kabir says, ‘O Sadhu, God is the breath of all breath”
Nanak goes a step further and describes God without any reference to either Hindu or Muslim conceptions, teaching that submission to God brings sublimation as it purges the devotees of the crude stuff, which we characterize as selfishness, or ego.
The True One was in the beginning, the True One was in the primal age
All are subjects to His order; none is exempt from it.
He who understands God’s order, O Nanak, is never guilty of egoism.
One reason that the Sufi poet Baba Farid, a 12 th century Sufi preacher, a Chaucer of the Punjabi language whose 116 hymns later became a part of the Adi Granth, Sikh religion’s holy book, was that he mirrored common people’s feelings in common people’s language. Punjabi language till then was deemed as less respectable. Raised as a weaver, he heavily employed similes and metaphors from that craft and spoke to people in their own vernacular. What Dr Atamjit Singh did in America in the 21 st century with regard to the introduction and promotion of Punjabi language, was in a way started by Baba Farid in the 12 th century.
“Galian chikar, door ghar, naal piraya nahi: Challaa te pijhay kamli, raha ate Jai Nahi
“The lanes are muddy, destination is afar and my dear-one is not with me either: walking soils my robe/shawl, and not walking makes me feel uneasy.
One reason that Sufis and mystics like Baba Farid, Meera Bhai, Kabir, Nanak, Warris Shah, Bhulle Shah and Madhu Lal Shah Hussain, or even religious saints like Nizamuddin Aulia, Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jilani and others became very popular and remained acceptable to people of all faiths in all ages was that they faithfully and boldly highlighted the conditions of the Indian society in which the abuse and distortion of the organized religions had kept people apart and had polarized them as human beings. Mere coexistence as separate entities was not enough for these saints and Sufi poets.
“Us naal yaari kaadi na layia: Jis noo apne te gharoor hoya : “Never befriend a person who is self-centered and is arrogant”. Says Bulle Shah: “Bulla Ke Janae Ma Kaun Bulla; Na mai Momen wich Masteeta: Naa mai wich Kufr Dia reeta aa: Naa mai Paaki wich Paleeta: Na mai Musa na Faroon: “I do not know who I am. I am not a momen found in a Masjid; nor am I a Kafir, non-believer. I am neither very clean among the dirtiest; nor am I a Musa or Pharaoh.
They aimed at cohesion achieved through peace, love and service, based on the egalitarian lines of amity and brotherhood existing in the teachings of all religions. Social equality and the concept of brotherhood was thus a strong point in their teachings. They wanted people to be less self-righteous, and more prone to discover goodness in others for that alone should form the true test of their sincerity to their own respective religions.
“Mainda ishq ve too, mainda yaar ve too: mainda deen ve too Imaan ve too: Mainda jism ve too Mainda rooh ve too; mainda qalb ve too, jind jaan ve too; : Shah Hussain.
( You are my love; you are my only friend; you are my faith and my religion. You form my body and my soul, my heart and my life).
“Na mai Shia na ma Sunni; mera doha too dil sarya hoo: ik such ate doha aoocha ; kufr doha wich varya hoo . “I am neither a Shia nor a Sunni. I am fed up with both. If one is true the other is mean. Kufr or falsehood is sitting in both of them. - Shah Hussain.
Love stories like that of Heer Ranja, Sassi Punnu, Laila Majnu became popular folk lores because they held love alone as a supreme uniting virtue, insisting that a true lover is one who is ready to rise above all mundane considerations, and even willing to make the ultimate sacrifice of his or her life for the sake of love. Warris Shah puts it beautifully:
Be thankful to God
For making love the root of the world
First he himself loved
Then he made the Prophets His beloved ones”.
One main basic Sufi principle in this genre of literature was to live in the world and still be able to pursue the highest mystical goals. To serve others , in a real sense, meant to serve God, and this service was considered by all saints and mystics as the highest form of worship. For them, love has to be motivational, functional and pragmatic. A true lover just could not be selfish, and the test of his or her love lay in their willingness to extend it to others most selflessly. If love did not meet this criterion , then it was not love but lust. Service for them was not a form of fatigue. Watering plants or extending a smile to the strangers or making others to feel that they are cared for were the different facets of true love.
Sufi literature that prospered in the world is rich in the symbolic use of imagery. For example, a ripened fruit is a common metaphor for patience as it is sweet, and its seeds have the potential for rebirth; while unripe fruit is bitter and may cause indigestion.
Punjab, in my estimation, is the only land that has been named, not after the language that is spoken there, but after the five rivers that flow there. In Sufi literature water often stands for life and for the Divine Grace that reveals itself in water. Rumi often uses the image of water in this sense. Water is essential for cleaning what is dirty and polluted. It purifies a person from within as well. What would the water do if there was nothing dirty or besmeared. Water as a source of life, and as a means of cleanliness needs dirt and filth in humans in order to prove its grace and merciful-ness. Thus with the Sufis, both, the dirt as well as the detergent, i.e. water are complementary to each other. The symbols of animals also abound in the Punjabi and Urdu Sufi literature.
An image of a camel or an elephant for instance is normally used as a means of transportation. Sufis put them to a different use. “Whereas intellect still seeks a camel for the pilgrimage; Love has already gone to the hill Safe (purity). - Rumi
Pure intellect and logic is viewed skeptically and is exposed in its limitations. “Jai ke deen ilm wich Honda, tai sir naizia te kuoi chardai hoo” - Sultan Bahu. ( If the essence of faith were hidden in knowledge only, then why would people get hanged? “Na mai ander wich Kaataba; naa wich bhang naa sharaba”- Bulle Shah. “I am neither in the books, nor am I in the intoxications induced through hashish or wine”. The Qur'an or the Evangelical parable of the camel and the needle’s eye are put to a new use in mystical poetry.
Love is that camel which does not fit into the narrow hole of human intellect. The cow or an ox symbolize the body. A donkey that gets stuck in the mire resembles that intellect which attempts to explain the vast scope of love. A man lost in the web of intellect is like that person who is sitting on a donkey and is asking, “Where is the donkey?”. Jesus Christ as a spiritual Master is intoxicated by God, but his donkey, though carrying such a sacred load, is bloating, because of the barleys or oats he ate. “When you have reached Jesus’ village, don’t say anymore, 'I am a donkey' ” - Rumi.
Transformation of man from the beastly or animalistic stage to a higher level of love, namely ecstasy, the ability to step out of one’s own self, and then finally to reach an intuitive or Marafaat state of mind when a direct link with the Higher Being is established is what the Sufis aim at.
The death theme or that of pre-destination is also very prominent in Urdu and Punjabi mystical literature. Rumi and Iqbal both view this concept of pre-destination somewhat differently as compared to Hafiz Shirazi. When somebody throws a stone at a dog, even the dog knows whom to chase. He does not go after the stone that had hit him, but after the hand that had held it. The plaintive and sad sound of the reed flute is an echo of its yearning to join its base, i.e. union with the Divine Being.
Listen to the story told by the reed, of being separated.
“Since I was cut from the reed-bed, I have made this crying sound,
Anyone separated from someone he loves understands what I say, anyone pulled from a source longs to go back”.
To conclude, from Meerabhai to Kabir to Shiv Bhattalvi to Dr Amatjit Singh; from Amir Khusro to Rumi to Kabir to Baba Nanak, Warris Shah and Shah Hussain, to Hafiz, to Iqbal, to Faiz or to Rajbir Gill, the message had been that true love of God eliminates hatred, and leads one to the love of mankind ... Dr Amritjit ‘s tribute to his brother, Dr Atamjit Singh that he was “both Blake’s Lamb and Tiger” is significant. The lamb and tiger, both are symbols of innocence and experience; of pure love and of Time and Judgment. Pure love stands for forgiveness and compassion and so was Dr Atamjit Singh. It was, indeed, a befitting tribute to this great man. I am grateful to Dr Agha Saeed that he invited me and provided me this rare opportunity to offer my humble homage to this great human specimen, namely, Dr Atamjit Singh.