The Dawn: May 2, 2015

Punjab Notes : Shrines: Public spaces with spiritual ambiance

Mushtaq Soofi 

Shrines in Punjab have been and are informal spiritual and cultural centres visited by teeming millions every day with the expectation of gaining some kind of spiritual or material benefit from the divine through the intersession of saints. Whether this is all superstition or not is a matter of an unending debate.

Your view will depend on the intellectual/religious framework you employ to analyze the issue. But what can be asserted with certainty is the fact that the visitors in distress do get a sort of solace if nothing else; the solace that imperceptibly becomes a source of psychological and psychic strength for the visitors; thus enabling them to cope with the situations with a new vigour which may seem unmanageable. Man still carries in the deep recesses of his subconscious the fear of unknown born of phenomenon natural and supernatural that he finds beyond his strength to control.

The natural observed as having a certain pattern with certain effects because of its repeated occurrence no longer remains natural when it produces results other than expected under the influence of unforeseen forces that seem unexplained and at times unexplainable.

The gulf between what we know and what is there to be known is so huge that uncertainty or superstition becomes inevitable, shaking the fragile foundation of our life based on the past experiences and apparently rational assumptions.

Predicament of human situation in ways more than one is the origin of human belief in supernatural i.e. the phenomenon which human beings are unable to grasp with the given tools of logic. The supernatural may be quite natural and thus explainable if human beings are equipped with better intellectual tools.

It is not a contradiction to hold the view that though we are all born equal, some among us have exceptional qualities in terms of human potential. There is no doubt that conditions make individuals what they are. But at the same time history is replete with examples of exceptional individuals in all fields who transcended the confines of their historical times.

Such a fact baffles our mind that usually relies on the accepted cause and effect theory. We gladly accept the role of exceptional individuals in arts, sciences and politics but we have our doubts when it comes to what is called spiritual science or discipline because the spiritual practices deal with the phenomena which are not only intangible but also remain unexplained with our traditional tools of reasoning.

A mystery surrounds the intangibly tangible experience called mysticism which has been a part of our historical experience since time immemorial.

Tilla Gogian (the mound of Yogis) in the hills of Jhelum is one of the most ancient shrines in Punjab associated with mystic thought and practice that is believed to have been initiated by Lord Shiva who is considered to be the supreme Yogi, Adiyogi (the first Yogi).

He, in his ecstatic dance on the Himalayas, discovered the secrets of cosmic life in its movement and stillness. Tilla is the same sacred place where legendry Muslim Ranjha was initiated into the Yogic Order in order to regain Heer, his lost love, effacing the difference between mundane and spiritual, human and celestial.

Muslim mystic tradition in Punjab spans over one thousand years. The luminaries include the giants like Data Ganjbuksh Ali Hajweri, Baba Farid Ganj Shakar, Bahauddin Zikaria Multani, Sakhi Sarwar, Madho Lal Hussain, Mian Mir, Bulleh Shah, Sultan Bahu, Khawaja Ghulam Farid and Pir Meher Ali Shah.

Besides being spiritual personalities, they were men of letters whose intellectual output in the shape of poetry and prose is a testament to their creative genius that remains unsurpassed.

Data Ali Hajweri was perhaps the first in the non-Arab Muslim world to analyze the Muslim mystic experience and provide it with a conceptual framework which is relevant even today.

Baba Farid happened to be the pioneer of Punjabi literary tradition which embodies the soul and soullessness of Punjab.

The shrines have traditionally been public spaces with spiritual and cultural ambiance open to all irrespective of caste, class and creed as a consequence of inclusive world view of the saints informed by holistic approach to life pervaded by secret forces that defies the rationalistic straitjacket.

The shrines are also people’s hideout as they are public dining tables where anybody and everybody are offered free meal. So the shrines fill your soul with spiritual illumination as much as they fill your empty stomach with food that highlights the unity of flesh and soul, material and immaterial at a symbolic level, urging us to transcend the mundane nothingness we live surrounded by.

The flip side of the shrine culture is that instead of learning from the ways of the wise the fickle minded believed that appealing to saints is a substitute of individual initiative in solving the problems they face.

Most of the prominent shrines are managed or mismanaged by the state. The State/Gaddi Nashins collect income in billions in the shape of offerings and rental from the agricultural and commercial properties attached to the shrines.

One wonders where the money goes. The shrines barring few are poorly maintained and lack modern civic amenities such as rest rooms and proper dining areas. The most deplorable aspect of the thing is that creative side of the saints is deliberately ignored. Most of the saints were poets and scholars of high caliber whose writings continue to inspire people generation after generation.

If you visit Data Dabar you will not find a single copy of epoch-making ‘Kashful Mehjub’ available. So is the case with the shrines of Madho Lal Hussain and Bulleh Shah where you can have anything but collections of their verses.

What the management has done so far is little more than adding religious colour to the spiritual spaces and banning the entry of women into the inner areas of the mausoleums. The best use of the income would be if the management spends it on setting up modern libraries and making the books of saints available in all Pakistani languages and English at a nominal price. Two, the management must build auditoriums equipped with modern gadgets to have live performances of the saints’ Kalam (poetic work) that can make people at peace with themselves.Our saints loved people and consequently became beloved of the people. The saints’ love for people is premised on the notion that they are receptacle of the divine. In the words of Baba Farid ‘the divine manifests itself through the people’.

The relationship between the saints and the people is reciprocal. Such reciprocity has created what can be described as ‘Shrine culture’ which is inclusive and pluralistic reflecting the spirituality of the mundane and the mundanity of the spiritual. Such culture does not discriminate, in the words of Bulleh Shah, between ‘Ram Das and Fateh Mohammad’ as both carry the mark of the divine. —

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