As millions of Bhaktas and devotees return from Ajmer to their native lands after a spiritual sojourn at the annual Urs at the shrine of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti (1142-1236), the Khwaja Gharib Nawaz (Benefactor of the Poor) of millions across South Asia, they have a great challenge: to keep alive the spiritual heart green in an arid desert of strife and disharmony.
In the chaos that prevails around us the most authentic hope comes from Sufis whose poetry and philosophy combine the virtuous message of formal religion with the transcendental values of love and harmony.
Sufism, the source from which the mystical world springs, enables an individual to purge his mind of all toxic emotions and helps restore balance and harmony. As the acclaimed modern Sufi Inayat Khan says: “The secret of life is balance and the absence of balance is life’s destruction.”
The Sufi king of Ajmer, also known in the sub continent as Sultan-ul-Hind, was born in Afghanistan in 1142 AD. He is believed to have studied at the great seminaries of Samarkand and Bukhara before choosing Ajmer as his home in 1192 AD. His most famous devotee was the Mughal emperor, Jalaluddin Akbar, who paid homage often for sons and conquests and on occasion came on foot from Agra.
Khwaja Gharib Nawaz was one of the early patrons of Sufism, the source from which the mystical world springs. Khwaja’s school laid stress on seven principles, notably the renunciation of material goods, financial reliance on farming or alms, the sharing of wealth, and respect for religious difference and independence from economic patronage from the established political order.
His doctrine of “service of poor as highest form of worship” led to the saint gaining the unique appellation of “Gharib Nawaz,” or emperor of the poor. Several of the most famous Sufi shrines in South Asia – notably that of Fariduddin Ganj-i Shakar at Pakpattan in Pakistan, and that of Nizamuddin Auliya in New Delhi – bear the stamp of his teachings.
He founded the Chishti Silsila (order) of Sufis in India. The other major Silsilas are Qadaria, Suhrawardy, Naqshbandi and Mawlawi. Sufism, especially its Chishti order, enriched us after Gharib Nawaz died in 1236.
Jaffer records in The Book of Muinuddin Chishti:
“The Chishti Sufi order was originally founded in Central Asia and Moinuddin was the first one to introduce the Chishtiya way of life in India, where he lived for over four decades. His disciples, Qutbuddin Bakhtiar Kaki, Baba Farid Ganj Shakar, Mubarak Hamiduddin Nagauri, Nizamuddin Auliya and Nasiruddin Chiragh-i-Delhi later fanned out into different parts of the Indian subcontinent and spent their lives trying to match their deeds to their words.”
The primary teaching of Khwaja Gharib Nawaz, as also of other Sufis, is love. Sufis believe that the heart is the most important centre governing our spiritual consciousness. With diligent practice, teachers of Sufism perfected techniques that activate the heart, cultivating profound intuition and realization. The polished heart becomes a mirror that catches the light of truth and reflects it in one’s consciousness.
The finest exponent of this luminous philosophy was Rumi (which means daylight), the great 13th century Sufi mystic and the patron saint of Sufism. Rumi sought freedom for his soul through a mystical connection with the divine and the expression of that relationship through art.
Rumi considers a human heart like a mirror. When a mirror is stained with dirt, it cannot properly reflect the image that appears in it. The human heart is the index of the purity of the individual’s spiritual system. It is its hologram. Everything that we experience as a problem is within ourselves. Consequently the solution to the problem is also within us. We can heal. We can forgive. We can bless. We can create abundance. All of this is possible through the positive action of polishing, purifying, clearing, cleaning what is within us.
These have the power to neuter these toxins that are a byproduct of our unholy pursuits. The heart is capable of becoming rusted by impressions of immoralities and by depletion of God consciousness and requires regular polishing. As Rumi famously put it:
“Do you not know why your mirror does not glitter?
Because the rust is not cleansed from its surface.”
The foundation of Sufism is life-determining belief in God. Sufis are touched and moved by Him, pervaded by the awareness of God. Their lives are centred entirely on God. They have unlimited faith in Him who cares for everyone. Sufism has been concerned with building bridges, not least between communities whose contact can be of mutual benefit. Through years of effort, Sufi masters have developed a scientific approach to achieving such refinement.
Sufism has become a kind of New Age amalgam of spiritual practices, but its roots reach back to the earliest days of Islam. As the early Muslim conquerors took their faith to different lands, Sufism began to borrow from different traditions, including Greek and Hindu philosophy and Christian theology. Hence, many of the early Sufis believed that all faiths were equal, and that to privilege one religion was to deny the existence of the divine elsewhere. As Ibn al-‘Arabi, another 13th-century Sufi, says :
“My heart can take on
for gazelles a meadow,
a cloister for monks,
For the idols, sacred ground,
Ka’ba for the circling pilgrim,
the tables of the Torah,
the scrolls of the Qur’an.
I profess the religion of love.
Wherever its caravan turns
along the way, that is the belief,
the faith I keep.”
According to Sufi teachings, the path to experiencing the Divine Presence starts within. It is said that one who realizes oneself realizes the Lord. God is present, but individuals cannot see Him because curtains of ignorance veil their eyes and rust encases their hearts. A common individual is ego-centered. Only when he has polished the heart and purified the self will the curtains lift, the rust fall away, and the eyes attain the vision to see God. Sufism connects us to the deeper layers of our authentic self and explores it. Rumi says we should look for God in our hearts, rather than in a church, temple of mosque.
Several Sufis feel that the time was approaching when their esoteric knowledge, their maps of the unconscious, accumulated over centuries, would spread to the West, which was now a spiritual desert. While the West has been developing its technological prowess, the mystics have developed a sophisticated type of inner technology in the form of their practices – a way of moving towards self-realization. Dr. H.J. Witteveen, the former Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund and himself an accomplished Sufi, says that we all have a divine spark in us and we can experience glimpses of the divine when we forget our limitations in the beauty of nature, or art, or in deep love. Pursuing such experiences, and letting them grow deeper, he says, can lead us into the cosmic realm and enable us to celebrate celestial love.
The Sufi ideal is to combine the inner and outer life to be active in the world, for example, as an economist or a politician, and at the same time to be inspired by attuning to the divine ideal. The important thing is the balance between these two aspects of like so that the inner light can motivate and shine through worldly activities. Sufism is the message of digging out that water-like life which has been buried by the impressions of this material life. There is an English phrase: a lost soul. But the soul is not lost; it is only buried. When it is dug out divine life bursts forth like a spring. The well known Sheikh Muzaffer says, “Keep your hands busy with your duties in this world, and your heart busy with God.” Our faith has to be practiced daily within our everyday lives. As Sahi, an eminent Sufi mystic, exhorts us: “A man should be in the marketplace while still working with true reality.”
For Rumi, it is the Sufi path which offers the best potential for attaining true knowledge. What exactly does Rumi understand by Sufism and the quest? Rumi’s Sufism rests upon traditional practices like prayer, fasting and pilgrimage. There is great emphasis on the control of baser impulses. Rumi attempts to merge the spirit of the human with the ideal of a God of love, whom Rumi locates within the human heart. Because God can best be reached through the gateway of the heart, Rumi believes you do not necessarily need ritual to get to Him, and that the Divine is as accessible to Christians and Jews as to Muslims: “Love’s creed is separate from all religions,” he wrote. “The creed and denomination of lovers is God.” All traditions are tolerated, because in the opinion of Rumi anyone is capable of expressing their love for God, and that transcends both religious associations and your place in the social order: “My religion,” he wrote, “is to live through love.”
For Rumi to be a lover of God was not to make some inflated claim for oneself, but actually to admit one’s vulnerability and even helplessness before this Love. Love in some way transforms lovers and makes them a blessing within creation. Love in its most basic expression is desire, or love of the loveable. We want to possess what we love. Rumi describes the highest stage of love with these words: “There is no greater love than love with no object.” When a human being matures or evolves to this level of love he or she simply radiates love because he or she is love.
How does one polish the mirror of the heart? The polishing of the heart is the act of invoking or remembering God (dhikr). In other words, the more one remembers God and burnishes the mirror of his substance, thereby cleansing it of the stain of forgetfulness that stubbornly clings to it, the more the heart becomes cleaner and clearer. Rumi explains it this way:
“Through remembrance and meditation, the heart is polished
until the mirror of the heart receives virginal images.”
The purity of the Sufi is due to his constant remembrance of God. The more he remembers God, the more he comes to know Him; and the more he comes to know Him, the more he comes to love Him. This is why the act of polishing the mirror of the heart is the key to entering into a love relationship with God. The Sufi’s heart, in other words, is like white snow because of its purity, which it has attained through remembrance of God.
It is only a clarified heart that can help us perceive the true beauty and harmony of the universe.
In one important tale, Rumi seeks to illustrate this idea in a more concrete way. He tells the story of a naked man who jumps into a pool of water in order to escape from being stung by a swarm of bees that have been chasing him and will not relent in their efforts to attack him. But since he cannot remain submerged for very long, he resurfaces for air only to find the bees waiting for him so they can resume their assault. The story sheds light on an important point, namely, that the bees represent our remembrance of things in this world, while the water represents the act of remembering God. Rumi explains that the heart that is pure not only heads towards the ocean, but also becomes part of it.
The Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing followed the Sufi path for a significant part of her life. She explains its attraction: “Sufi truth is at the core of every religion, its heart, and religions are only the outward vestments of an inner reality.” She writes further: “They will find the word mysticism has lost its bizarre associations and that the way of the Sufi reveals itself as a sophisticated view of life, embodied in people who through the centuries have always been in advance of their time.The