The Dawn: Aug 22, 2014

Punjab Notes: Baba Bulleh Shah: In quest of human identity

Mushtaq Soofi 

‘Let us put our trust in the eternal spirit, which destroys and annihilates only because it is the perpetual source of life. The urge for destruction is, at the same time, a creative urge’, says Mikhail Alexandrovich Bakunin. From the socio-political rubble, the result of destruction wrought by ruthless invaders, Iranian Nadir Shah and Afghan Ahmed Shah in the 18th century Punjab, the ‘eternal spirit’ expressed its ‘creative urge’ in the eternally haunting verses of Bulleh Shah (1680-1757) and Waris Shah.

‘The gate of doomsday is flung open/the Punjab is in shambles/the hell with all its terror strikes us’ is how Bulleh Shah describes the carnage. Faced with such an extraordinary situation where human existence emerges as its negation and life appears as an invite to death, he is confronted with the perennial question of how to look at human destiny.

In his quest to discover what is fundamentally wrong with humans, he employs a dangerously creative tool: doubt. He starts doubting all that is given: organized religion, politico-economic institutions, societal norms and the prevalent moral values.

Consequently, the question of human identity with all its multiple shades becomes one of the recurrent themes of his poetic exploration. Society always faces an existential crisis when singular identity is held up as a tool of classifying man who by the very nature of life, is a product of different interacting strands.

We normally have plural identities which can be contrasting and non-contrasting. In the baffling world of multiple identities there always exist possibilities of ‘reasoned choices’ that prevent the things from falling apart, argues Amartya Sen convincingly in his book ‘Identity and Violence’.

But Bulleh Shah lived in unusual times when historical forces created a situation where identity lost all its meanings whether it was of singular or plural nature.

It mattered little whether you were a Hindu, a Muslim or a Sikh. Internal strife caused by the rise of the local forces suppressed long by the Mogul rule and general anarchy unleashed by Nadir Shah’s invasion rubbed off the veneer of all the things which seemed to have a modicum of sanctity.

The conditions in which ‘the thoughtless who never doubt meet the thoughtful who never act’ compels intellectually restless Bulleh Shah to question all that is taken for granted in a society which accepts human sufferings as divinely ordained rather than an outcome of a perpetual conflict between opposing social forces.

He first of all renounces his own tribal identity. Any one calling him ‘Syed’ (equivalent of Brahmin Pundit among South Asian Muslims), he declares, ‘goes straight to hell to suffer its fires’. Bereft of his respectable given identity, he attempts to discover what he actually is as a being.

As a result of intense philosophical thinking what he comes to know is what he is not! What he is not is exactly what he has been defined to be. ‘How do I know who am I/I am neither a pious one in the precincts of mosque nor given to the infidel rites/neither among the pure nor among the polluted/ neither a Moses nor a Pharaoh -- I neither know the secrets of religion nor I am born of Adam and Eve/unnamed, I am neither among the ones sitting (in transcendental meditation) nor among wandering ones (flaunting piety). He reminds us of Rumi who said: “Yesterday the Master with a lantern was roaming about the city, crying, ‘I am tired of devil and beast, I desire a man’ ”.

But man invariably appears in society as someone defined; defined by his race, gender, religion, profession and nationality along with other denominations. Hence man per se is an abstraction, an ideal. There is nothing wrong with the identity or ring of plural identities.

The problem arises only when the identity is exclusive or plural identities imply negation of others, causing social dissension. So the emphasis on pure human identity, however idealistic it may sound, functions a countervailing force that can create social equilibrium.

Man in fact is always more than what his defined identity stands for. Brecht in his ‘Ballad of the secrets of any man at all’ makes it easier to understand the reality of unrecognized and unrealized dimension of man, defined and bracketed: ‘--for he was never the man you knew/and he was the doer of more than his deed---/you who throw him into dirty-yellow seas or into the black earth dig him down/more than you knew will swim towards the fishes/ and more than you buried will rot in the ground’.

The real human endeavour has always been to discover this ‘more’ that man invisibly embodies.

Debunking of the exiting, for Bulleh Shah, is the way to what is this ‘more’, however amorphous it may be. What is ‘more’ may not be defined but can certainly be hinted at. “Here Ram Das, there Fateh Muhammad! The age old babble (what man is) goes on. The moment the bickering of both peters out into silence, someone else looms out”.

This ‘someone else’, neither Ram Das (Hindu), nor Fateh Muhammad (Muslim), is the new man, free from the mania of retaining all sorts of jetsam and flotsam of the divisive past; the undeciphered but decipherable sign of our future if we desire the future at all. —

Back to Mushtaq Soofi's  Page

Back to Column's Page