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When mystics don the war paint

by Jawed Naqvi, 18 March 2015

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Dawn, 17 March 2015

Of late, everyone seems to want to sing and, worse, patronise “the Sufi ghazal” whatever that may be. The more brazen have also discovered a sufiana dance. From the little I have observed of the latter it appears to be a mishmash of Kathak and foxtrot. I suspect the surging excitement with Sufi motifs is linked to a pervasive fear of puritan Islam.

This fear has been instilled by a macabre new cult of suicide bombers and throat-slitting zealots. Their gory messianism has come as a boon though for publishers of its antidote, the poetry of Rumi and Hafiz in the West. The terror is responsible also for the genre of so-called Sufi music even if it subverts extant traditions in South Asia. The upstart cult is markedly distinct from the established mystical-musical traditions connecting Bulleh Shah with Kabir, for example.

The late Kunwar Mohammed Ashraf, a legend among Indian historians half a century ago, would have squirmed at the crop of commonplace assumptions about Sufis. He had famously found Sufis no different from puritan Muslims in their beliefs. They only made it more widely acceptable by adding music to the mix, he would say.

Many who see early puritans such as Wahabis and Farazis as leading the charge against colonialism in 1857 do not readily grasp the error of judgment. They mostly perceive their rival Sufi sects as inclusive and open-minded, which they are, with plenty of poetry and music thrown in. However, as the anti-colonial revolt in West Africa suggests, Sufi icons could be adept in the art of military tactics. They too could be spurred by clearly political objectives. But we don’t have to travel to Africa or Southeast Asia to discover a tradition of bonding between mysticism, poetry and soldiery. Our home-grown Ameer Khusro is as good an example as any of a soldier doubling as a mystic poet and vice versa.

Sufi leaders like Omar Mukhtar in Libya, Abdul Qadir al-Jazairi in Algeria and Imam Shamil in the Caucasus externalised their inner spirituality as armed jihad against real or imagined oppressors. In West Africa, Sufi brotherhoods expanded with French colonisation, where people turned to religious authority rather than the colonial administration. French rulers feared Sufi orders such as Tijaniyyah and Mourides, the main challengers to colonial authority.

It must be a coincidence that I travelled to Senegal on the westernmost tip of Africa recently with an unusual book recommended by a Pakistani journalist. Warrior Ascetics and Indian Empire by historian William R. Pinch deals mainly, as the title suggests, with Hindu mystics and their frequent military interventions. Often the mystic-ascetics also determined who ruled India or its growing clusters of independent provinces that came with the fall of the Mughal empire. Being Hindu did not necessarily mean siding with a Hindu challenger against, say, a Mughal quarry. On many occasions, the equation could be the other way around.

Hinduism is widely and erroneously seen as a religion of non-violence, a notion that gained ground when Gandhi took charge of India’s freedom movement. It may be argued that Gandhi’s garbled notion of Hinduism may have been dictated by his proximity with Christian anarchists just as his mentor Leo Tolstoy was shaped by a combination of Christianity, pacifism and anarchism.

Pinch’s subject matter is entirely different though. His book illustrates just how wrong the assumption of Hindu non-violence is. To explain this he examines the life and adventures of the ascetic legend Anupgiri Gosain, also known as Himmat Bahadur. Gosain lived at the end of the 18th century, following and also spawning a tradition that militarily tilted unequal fights or palace intrigues to favour a chosen man of the moment. That could mean an abbreviated Mughal ruler or even his rivals, depending on Gosain’s political exigency.

“More generally this book is about Hindu ascetics who kill — and of the slow rise and demise of those ascetics between 1500 and the present,” writes the author. There were earlier attempts by colonial scholars to explain the phenomenon, Scottish-missionary scholar J.N. Farquhar being among them. He wrote The Fighting Ascetics in 1925 in which he discusses the 9th-century sage Shankaracharya’s attempt to create a peaceful ascetic order. How did the peaceful ascetic order evolve into “a numerically dominant military wing that would have been on prominent display” during Farquhar’s visit to the Allahabad Kumbh Mela in 1918?

Farquhar’s explanation as could often happen seems borrowed from what Pinch believes could be a sectarian legend. Farquhar links the rise of ascetic militancy to the apparent persecution of non-violent Hindu sanyasis by “fanatical Sufi-warriors”. Whatever the cause, the fact is there were militant Sufis and there were ascetic warriors. Was the rise of the current crop of fire-breathing sadhus from the right-wing militant corner a morphed legacy of the old ascetic order?

As already stated, Hindu ascetics were not always at war with an existing political order. Pinch cites the role of jogis, a variant of ascetics in nudging if not directing Akbar’s political trajectory.

“One fixed night, which came once a year, a great meeting was held of jogis from all parts,” Pinch quotes Badauni, one of Akbar’s leading chroniclers, as observing. “This night they called Sivrat. The emperor ate and drank with the principal jogis, who promised him that he should live three or four times as long as ordinary men. His Majesty fully believed it, and connecting their promises with other inferences he had drawn, it became impressed on his mind as indelibly as though it was engraved on a rock.”

Badauni was a puritan Muslim who censored portions of the Mahabharata which he translated for Akbar. The emperor was furious at the deletions, and got him to restore every story of the epic he had heard as a child. Akbar, eclectic, thus showed a way to deal even-handedly with mystics and puritans alike.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

Published in Dawn March 17th , 2015


The above is reproduced here from Dawn for educational and non commercial use