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Among mystics

I confess I am as out of my depth with this kind of dogma as I am with the writings of our own mystics, the Bhaktas, writes Khushwant Singh.

india Updated: Apr 01, 2006 05:02 IST

Professor Coleman Barks who teaches poetry in the University of Georgia (US) is today regarded as the authority on the poetry of Jelaluddin Rumi (1201-1273). When starting on his translations Barks thought it wise to seek the guidance of the best-known Sufi teacher of the time, Bawa Muhaijudeen of Iran. As he introduced himself, his mentor asked him what his name meant. Barks told him. Whereupon Bawa started howling like a dog and then laughed.

The professor was not in the least offended because he knew that childlike behaviour is part of Sufi character. Howling is both an expression of pain and a cry for help. Rumi had written “the grief you cry out from draws you towards union; your pure sadness that wants help is the secret cup. Listen to the moan of a dog for its master, the whining, is the connection. There are love dogs no one knows the name of. Give your life to be one of them.”

I confess I am as out of my depth with this kind of dogma as I am with the writings of our own mystics, the Bhaktas. However, I persisted in my reading of Rumi for two reasons. The Essential Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks and John Moyne, was gifted to me by a close friend, Samia Moosa, an attractive Afghan lady who spends her time equally between Kabul and California. I wanted to know what was so great about Jelaluddin Rumi after whom a cult of dancing dervishes has been established.

I was fully rewarded. There are gems of wisdom strewn in a lot of tales, some as bawdy as lowly-minded people like me read with relish. There is one about two young ladies who wanted to copulate with donkeys. One was wise enough to design a contraption that prevented the donkey going full tilt; the other was foolish enough to go the whole hog with fatal consequences. I was left guessing about the lesson the learned Rumi was trying to convey.

More interesting was of a young, handsome army commander who was ordered by the Caliph of Egypt to capture a ravishing beauty from the harem of the Mosul ruler. The commander succeeded, but on his way back decided to taste the girl’s beauty. While he was at it, a lion attacked his stables. He rose from his pleasures, drew his scimitar, went out naked with his member erect, slew the lion and resumed love-making. He presented the beauty to his master. The Caliph was not up to the task and had to give up half-way. Being a wise man he presented the girl to his commander.

Once again, though I enjoyed reading the tale, I was unable to decide on the moral Rumi wanted to convey. Perhaps it was that only the brave deserve the fair. When Rumi died in December 1273, representatives of every major religion came to his funeral. On his death bed, he proclaimed: “I go into the Muslim mosque and the Jewish synagogue and the Christian church and I see one altar.” I am determined to read this book till wisdom dawns on me.

Don’t kill

The first reaction of every person on seeing a cockroach is to stamp on it and kill it. It is the same with flies: swat them; mosquitoes, squash them between our palms. We extend our killer instincts to mice, rats, snakes, scorpions and many other living species. There are good reasons for humans to keep their distance from insects that spread disease and animals that endanger our life. But instinctive taking of lives must be curbed. The prime example of senseless killing is of snakes. By all means don’t let them get into your homes but there is no justification for seeking them out of their habitats and beating them into a gory pulp. If you leave them alone, they will leave you alone.

We don’t know enough about insects and serpents because we are brought up on baseless myths. The most common is about cobras drinking milk and swaying to the notes of a charmer’s been. Cobras do not drink milk and live on mice, frogs and smaller reptiles. They are stone deaf: they appear to be swaying to the been when actually they keep their eyes on it lest it be used to hit them. Yet, every Nag Panchmi, thousands of gallons of milk is wasted on worshipping them.

Zai Whitaker who played a major role in setting up a snake farm in the Madras Zoo and replenishing stocks of crocodiles, alligators, gharials in a breeding centre between Chennai and Mahabalipuram, has published a delightful children’s book to set the record straight. The Boastful Centipede and Other Creatures in Verse, illustrated by Uma Krishnaswamy (Puffin) is a must read. This is A Cobra Speaks His Mind:

I am heading back to my forest home,
Circled by rice fields green:
In any case I’m unable to hear
A single note from this been.
My food was rats but now it’s milk
Quite strange and new to me:
Life in a basket’s not much fun —
Not a good place to be!
People think that I do a dance,
To sounds of Master’s flute:
But such is not the case at all —
If you want to know the truth!

Early to rise

A son is lectured, “Why do you get up so late? Getting up early brings good luck. I was told just yesterday that a person who had gone out very early found a wallet with Rs 2,000.” The son replied: “That just shows that the poor fellow who lost the money got up even earlier.”

(Contributed by Reeten Ganguly, Tezpur)