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Khidmat: Doing good to feel good

When there’s no evident or foreseeable way out of a bad situation, the human instinct is ‘to surrender’ to the Unseen and sublimate the unbearable into a ‘lightness of being’. Renuka Narayanan writes.

india Updated: May 29, 2011 00:02 IST
Renuka Narayanan

When there’s no evident or foreseeable way out of a bad situation, the human instinct is ‘to surrender’ to the Unseen and sublimate the unbearable into a ‘lightness of being’. In Sanskrit they called it the difference between proactive ‘monkey-faith’ (markata) and supine ‘kitten-faith’ (marjara).

The baby monkey on its mother’s back uses its own arms to cling to her as she leaps through the trees. But the kitten lies totally helpless while the mother cat gently picks it up in her jaws to take it elsewhere. Kitten-faith could be likened to ‘prapatti’, ‘surrender’.

As we know, it’s a big Bhakti vibe, popular since centuries for historical and cultural reasons.

Today it’s part of ‘who we are’. It also rocks Iran, whose best-beloved poet is Mevlana Rumi, whose translation into English by Coleman Barks in particular, interestingly made Rumi ‘America’s favourite poet’ years ago.

India is up and doing too as a stakeholder in Sufism, a recent international event being the Sufi conference at Johns Hopkins University, USA, where Syed Salman Chisty, a hereditary officiant of Ajmer Sharief, represented the darbar of Khwaja Gharib Nawaz, which all know is venerated as South Asia’s holiest Sufi shrine.

So I don’t know why I can’t leave well enough alone, a stubborn voice in my head says that perhaps the way we Indians sometimes approach ‘Sufism’ is not where they’re coming from?

All right, a stubborn Gandhian voice in my head says that some kinds of ‘surrender’ are for twilight, not dawn. Sufi quotes are indeed beautiful, peace-inducing thoughts.

But the hardcore Sufi praxis, more than chanting, singing or dancing, is ‘khidmat’, practical service to mankind: feeding the poor, tending the sick, healing the brokenhearted, keeping tyrants in place by sheer moral authority, enabling man to realise his one-ness with the One (I’d rather not talk about the ladies, it’s usually the wrong century for women).

So the way we ‘educated’ Indians in big cities sometimes talk about Sufism is worrisome. If everybody wanders away to the field between where our two souls will meet, who’ll wade into the muck and fight what must be fought?

I hear another voice from Persia, that of Zarathushtra: “Working hands are better than praying hands”. Same message, different bottle? What I’m saying is, isn’t it remarkable how the basic worldview endures across cultures? It’s not just about feel-good; it seems to be about doing good to feel good.

(Renuka Narayanan writes on religion and culture)