Sunday, December 14, 2008

Ghalib on Difference and Unity

After a break of a few weeks we are back our series on Ghalib. This time we take a somewhat lesser known verse from a very famous ghazal. The verse is chosen to affirm our unity in the face of differences that threaten to overwhelm us. The Ghazal (#111), sab kahaaN, kuchh laala-o-gul meiN is deservedly one of Ghalib's most quoted, most sung, most recited ones. The verse is the following:

ham muva;h;hid hai;N hamaaraa kesh hai tark-e rusuum
millate;N jab mi;T ga))ii;N ajzaa-e iimaa;N ho ga))ii;N

1) we are monists, our practice is the renunciation of customs
2) when the communities were erased, they became parts of the faith

Translation and commentary on Desertful of Roses.

To see why we prefer "monist" to "monotheist" as translation of muvahhid, see companion commentary on The South Asian Idea.

This is a complex and densely packed verse with some heavy-duty Persian and Arabic vocabulary. Heavy-duty not only in the sense of difficulty (such as the arabic plural of juz, ajzaa), but also in the sense of using words that are multivalent and heavy with philosophical and theological meaning. For me this is an example of Ghalib in his erudite and didactic mood. Of course the beauty of Ghalib is that even in such a mood he retains a measure of poetic stature which a lesser poet would find difficult to attain. One way Ghalib does this is to rely on his quintessential sense of paradox or contradiction. So as S.R. Faruqi notes, the verse claims that "In our capacity as monotheist we know that the only true religion [مذہب] is not to have a religion [مذہب]." The second way he does this, also typical of his style is to exploit the formal structure of the Ghazal itself and to hold the powerful image for the very end. A third way, again something which I have commented on a few times before, is to mix high Perso-Arabic terminology with a few Indic words well chosen to accentuate the difference in consonants. Here the hardness of "mit jaanaa" amidst the other words, works very well, particularly if you recite the verse with dramatic effect, stressing the hard "t" in "mit."

Now for the meaning: FWP notes that "The terms here are a wild conceptual jungle, and surely deliberately framed to be so. All of them are notably broad and highly flexible." As proof I give below the Platts Discitonary entries on the key words.

A مؤحد muʼaḥḥid and muwaḥḥid act. part. of أحّد and وحّد 'to make, or to call, one; to declare God to be one,
P کيش kesh, s.f.m. Faith, religion, sect;—manner, quality (often used in comp.):—kāfir-kesh, adj. Prone to infidelity; (met.) a mistress, sweetheart.
A رسوم rusūm, s.f. pl. (of rasm, q.v.), Customs, usages, &c.;
A ترك tark, s.m. Abandoning, forsaking, leaving; setting aside; abandonment, desertion; relinquishment
P ملت millat (for A. ملة, v.n. fr. ملّ 'to turn; to convert,' &c.), s.f. Religion, faith, creed;—a nation, people
A اجزا ajzā (pl. of جز juz), s.m. Parts, portions, divisions, sections; sections of the Qorʼān; feet (of a verse); constituent parts (of a thing), elements; members; ingredients (of any compound or mixture).
A ايمان īmān [inf. n. iv of امن 'To be safe or secure'], s.m. Belief (particularly in God, and in His word and apostles, &c.); faith, religion, creed; conscience; good faith, trustworthiness, integrity:

You will see that "religion, faith, creed" appears as one possible meaning of three different words in the verse, kesh, millat and imaaN. But each time something different is meant. The first line is more straighforward. Since we are monists and we believe in the oneness of God or oneness of Being, our religion is the renunciation of particular rituals (note that rasm, of which the plural is rusuum, is here translated as customs, though in the context of the verse I think rituals would be a better translation. Even today we refer to rituals as rasm-o-rivaaj, e.g. shaadi is rasm and so on). The second line offers us a vision of what would happen if rituals and customs were indeed renounced. When distinctions between communities and creeds and nations who each have a distinct identity based on their customs and rituals are erased, the different parts become part of the Whole. Since the Whole in question here is God/Being, it is One and indivisible, and hence cannot consist of parts. So there is subtle wordplay here. They are parts (ajzaa) and yet not parts (because they have been erased). This is tight way of communicated a profound truth of Sufism. That when the one is lost in the One, individual identities are lost in the Whole, and Union (wasl) is achieved.

As Kabir would say:
mera mujhe meiN kucch naiN, jo kucch hai so teraa
tera tujhko sauNp rahaa, kyaa laage hai meraa

Nothing is mine in me, everything is yours
When I entrust you yours, what is left of me?

And speaking of Kabir tark-e-rusuum was a very important theme with him as well. Rituals are constantly attacked for getting in the way of true Union with the Beloved.

malaa to kar meiN phire jeebh phire mukh maahii
manvaa to chahuuN dish phire ye to sumiran nahii

the rosary turns in the hand, the tongue roams in the mouth
the mind roams the four directions, this is not meditation

topi pahire mala pahire chhap tilak anumana
sakhi sabade gavat bhule atam khabari na jana

wearing a cap, turning the rosary, adorning marks of the faith
singing hymns, they keep no knowledge of the soul.

Kabir and Ghalib offer fascinating examples of how similar ideas can be expressed in completely different idioms of expression. South Asia is heir to all these idioms and these thoughts are not foreign to us. Rather they are in the fabric of our being. Bringing them forward, affirming them and reaffirming them is our task for the times.

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