Well-known Telugu poet, writer, critic and translator Mukunda Rama Rao (from Hyderabad) with 11 books to his credit, has considerably worked on Sufi poetry and translated 51 Sufi poetsII into Telugu right from the 8th century to the present times – under the title – Shatabdala Sufi Kavitvam1 (Centuries of Sufi Poetry). U Atreya Sarma, Chief Editor engages him in conversation in Telugu over the various angles of his Sufi translation, and translates the interview.
Atreya Sarma (Atreya): It is one of your literary landmarks to have presented 51 Sufi poets right from 8th century down to the present times along with your translation of their poems for your compilation – Shatabdala Sufi Kavitvam (2011) (Centuries of Sufi Poety). How did you get into it? How did it happen?
Mukunda Rama Rao (Mukunda): It happened in 1996 when I read and relished the poetry of Rumi, and it later on got me attracted to the poetry of Hafiz, Attar, Rabia, et al one after the other. It further whetted my inquisitiveness and led me to deliberate on what is Sufi, what is Sufi poetry, how it originated, and how many more Sufi poets are there. This exploration gave me a golden opportunity, and everything that I read – on Sufism or Sufi poetry – became unputdownable. A feeling nagged that still there was a lot more to be read; and whatever I had read looked new and refreshing; however much I had read, the quest wasn’t quenched.
Atreya: How could you get the sources? What is the corpus of Sufi poetry available?
Mukunda: For my work I have relied on English versions – though the original poets come from a host of languages, including Punjabi, Sindhi, Tamil, French, Avadhi and Deccani.
The Sufi poetry was originally oral – coming down from generation to generation, by word of mouth. It pained me to know that a lot of the Sufi literature had got lost with the passage of time, until it came to be recorded in the written form. Even those preserved in the written form came to light thanks to the dedicated efforts of a number of scholars. Whatever I have read is only in translation. When I realised that the Sufi poetry was so captivating even in its translation, I brooded - How much more edifying would it have been in the original versions?
Whatever Sufi poetry I had read and whatever had appealed to me, it prompted me into my humble attempt to share it, and the result is the outcome of the Sufi poetry I translated into English – under the title – Shatabdala Sufi Kavitvam – literally meaning, Centuries of Sufi Poetry. I have covered 51 poets right from the 8th century to the present times. I know that there is much more to be read than whatever I have read. The more I dug into it, the more it sparkled.
Atreya: Who are the other Telugu scholars who have acquainted the Telugu readers with the beauty and nobility of Sufi poetry?
Mukunda: Prior to me, a good number of Telugu writers conveyed the beauty of Sufi poetry to the Telugu readership. They included Duvvuri Rami Reddy, Dasarathi, Samala Sadashiva and Deevi Subba Rao. They had taken the Telugu readers along on the way to some extent, and I took that mission forward by taking them along a little more ahead. The work done so far in this direction is not comprehensive; but I am sure that there won’t be dearth of scholars who would show more and more depths of Sufi poetry to the Telugu readership.
Atreya: What exactly is Sufi, what is Sufi poetry?
Mukunda: Sufism, according to the Sufi poets-mystics is travelling from solitude to solitude on the path of love. The language, tradition, and customs of humans may undergo changes on account of adventitious circumstances like clime and time, but the way of the human heart remains inherently the same. The ways to reaching God are as many as the people and their breaths.
For example, Jalaluddin Rumi has gifted us so many pearls of wisdom that throw light on the core of Sufism – which is unity between human and human, between the human and the cosmos, between the human and the Almighty. He says:
“The minute I heard my first love story, I started looking for you, not knowing how blind that was. Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere. They’re in each other all along.”2
“Not only the thirsty seek the water, the water as well seeks the thirsty.”3
Atreya: It is understood that Sufism stands for love, harmony and peace at every level of human existence. What in fact is the practical quintessence of Sufism according to the Sufi poets, masters, saints, and mystics?
Mukunda: A galaxy of them have lucidly explained the Sufi philosophy; and its importance lies in the actual practice and way of life. Here is how Farid ud-Din Attar shares the distillate of the four essential ingredients of divine wisdom that he learnt.
“The first is this: I know that my daily bread is apportioned to me and will neither be increased or decreased, so I have stopped trying to add to it.
Secondly, I know I owe to God a debt which no one else can pay for me, so I am busy about paying it.
Thirdly, I know that there is someone pursuing me – Death – whom I cannot escape from, so I have prepared myself to meet him.
Fourth, I know that God is observing me, so I am ashamed to do what I should not.”4
Atreya: There are a number of Hindu saints who have put a premium on unqualified love for and devotion to God. Do you find any differences in their approach vis-à-vis the Sufis?
Mukunda: Most of the Hindu devotional poetry is focused on extolling God, petitioning God, and praying to God. It is also seen as personal/individual adoration of God. The Sufi poetry, right from the beginning, has been attuned to merging into God and to establishing a bond of love between human and human, and between humans and God, transcending every obstacle. That’s why the Sufi spirit has been flowing across the borders, creeds and languages – like the flow of a number of rivers with their tributaries until they lose themselves into the ocean of humanity.
Atreya: What is the global influence of Sufism? And what exactly is the etymological meaning of Sufi?
Mukunda: The poetry books that sold most in the USA in 2006 were not those of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost or Emerson – but of the 13th century Sufi mystic poet, Jalaluddin Rumi, who was born on the Iran-Afghanistan border. After coming to know of him, everyone began to investigate the marvellous Sufi poetry he wrote in Parsi. Its universality, its ability to stand the test of time, and its overall appeal has drawn the attention of the entire world toward it.
The essence of Sufism is the path of loving God. It is an approach to seeing God in everything by coming out of fetters of every type. Most of the Koran, wherein it has its origins, sounds like poetry. In fact, what we find in the Sufi poetry is nothing but the mystic aspects preached by every religion. Some critics look upon Sufism as the mystic branch of Islam. There are others who counter this observation by tracing the roots of Sufism prior to the birth of Islam. It’s said that the word Sufi has more than two thousand definitions but none of them is an integral whole. They all just indicate a way. The ideological mainstay of Sufism is the resolution to get closer to God and the understanding that deriving spiritual pleasure is as important as adoring God. It is generally accepted that the word Sufi is a derivative of Suf, meaning wool. The mystics who were called Sufis used to be clad in woollen garments.
The philosophy of Sufism is called Tasawwuf, in Arabic. It means mysticism of Islam; a Sufi is a mystic. A mystic is one who relentlessly craves to reach and dissolve in God, by constant contemplation, inward look and meditation.
Atreya: It is said that many of the Sufi mystics were persecuted. Why? And did it diminish their influence and the spread of Sufism?
Mukunda: The seed of Sufism was sown during 620-1100 AD. The Sufi saints during that period were called Sheikhs in the Arabic language. It can be noticed that the Sufi poets and Sufi poetry came up at a time when religious fanaticism was much rampant. The ordeals and troubles they went through were countless. Some of them were blackballed, and some slaughtered. Prominent among such victims was Mansur al-Hallaj who hailed from Basra of Iraq. Yet the veneration and love for such martyrs did not diminish among the people – and it can be counted as the justification and success of Sufi poetry.
Atreya: What were the methods, approaches and styles of the Sufi saints and poets?
Mukunda: While some of the poets spoke out their devotion of love for God in a straightforward manner, others did in a terse, subtle, mysterious and symbolic way. It is under their influence that we see God as a friend, as a lover, as the most beloved, as father, as mother, as wine-server, as problem creator, and as problem resolver. These shades are discernible in all the schools of spiritual-mystic poetry across the world and religions. Even when a poet is confronted with things or notions that are indefinable, he still tries to describe them in various words and in words that are known to him. Some of such interpretations even cause a doubt whether the poet is making an illusory or deluding attempt to reveal a mysterious situation other than the Divine.
No creed is worthwhile unless it cleans one’s conscience, according to the Sufi poets. They used to mock the religious pomp and superstitions. They delicately exposed hypocrisy, pride and arrogance and tried to speak out how humans would stand to lose on account of such negative qualities. ‘Oh, cheat! Why criticise you who are perfect and a lover of the wine of spiritualism? Worry not, for their wrongs would not reflect in your account,’ exhorts a Sufi poet.
The Sufi literature – teachings, mystic tales, anecdotes, mystic poetry and songs – has spread because of the innate strength of Sufi philosophy. It contains directions on the relationship between the master and the disciples, the methods of Dhikr (meditation), the paths leading to merger with God, and the like. The book – Journey of the Lord of Power – by the 13th century writer Ibn Arabi has become a sacred text. Tales, anecdotes and discussions are meant to promote Sufism. Noteworthy among them include – Conference of the Birds by the 12th century Sufi master Attar; and Gulistan (The Rose Garden) by the 13th century Saadi. Sufi poetry came about with an intent of broadcasting mystic awareness. The muse of the likes of Ibn al-Farid – an Arab poet, and Rumi, Saadi, Jami and Hafiz, the Persian poets – has acted as an intoxicant on whoever have tasted it. Concepts like separation from the Most Beloved and the unity of the individual self with the Cosmic Self are the concerns in these works. Sufi poetry has become extensively popular from South Africa to the East Mediterranean to the Indian Subcontinent to Indonesia. As regards the West, Sufism captured its imagination just two centuries ago, thanks to the Christian missionaries.
Atreya: Can you further elaborate on the concept of love in Sufism?
Mukunda: The entire trend of the Sufi poetry revolves around the bond of love between the Divine Beloved and the human lover. This love could be of any shade – ineffable distress, a feeling of ecstasy, lovesickness, resentment, or vexation – but every aspect of it is entangled with Him. We see a similar tendency in our Hindu devotional poets as well. Sufi poetry’s facile rhythm and its ability to warm the cockles of the reader’s heart – amazes anyone who is a seeker of truth and beauty. Rumi says that the Sufis are intoxicated by love and bubble with universal love.
“Love’s nationality is separate from all other religions,
The lover’s religion and nationality is the Beloved (God).
The lover’s cause is separate from all other causes
Love is the astrolabe of God’s mysteries.”5
Atreya: What is the trajectory of Sufi literature into the non-Arabic and non-Persian languages?
Mukunda: It is only after 1000 AD that we have Sufi literature in the written form. Earlier it was all oral, passed on by word of mouth from generation to generation. Whatever could be recalled, came to be passed off as Sufi literature. The Sufi poetry that began with Rabia in the 8th century has been incessantly flowing until now. Originally written in Arabic and Persian, it later on forayed into Turkish, Punjabi, Sindhi, Urdu, Hindi, Tamil, French and English. While the poetry by some resonates like real Sufi poetry, that by others reflects like its shadow.
Atreya: What is the connection between Sufi poetry, music and dance?
Mukunda: Most of the Sufi poetry is based on and compatible with music; and Sufi music is as prominent as Sufi poetry. As Rumi observes, both these forms are pathways to reach God. There are any number of Sufis who lose themselves in rapture by singing the Sufi lyrics and simultaneously dancing to it. A distinct dance form blended with Sufi songs was introduced by Rumi in the 13th century. It is a rhythmic dance performed by the Sufi minstrels, in the presence of their master – symbolising a spinning universe.
Atreya: What about the various Sufi orders?
Mukunda: By 1200 AD the Sufis began to branch out into orders. The Qadiri order set up by the Iraqi Sufi master Abdul Qadir Gilani diversified into further orders, and now there are as many as 40 separate orders in the world. The period 1200-1500 AD was the golden age of Sufi philosophy and poetry.
Atreya: Can you mention a few prominent non-Muslim Indians who have been influenced by the Sufi stream of thought?
Mukunda: Saint Kabir (1440-1518) is one and he was a poet himself. Though his poetry may not be strictly classified as Sufi, the Western scholars do consider him a Sufi poet. Celebrated Indian godmen like Meher Baba (1894-1969) and ‘Osho’ Acharya Rajneesh (1931-1990) had frequently quoted the Sufi poets during their discourses; and Osho was a Sufi poet himself.
Atreya: What about Sufism in the Deccan plateau of which Hyderabad is a part that you come from?
Mukunda: The Deccan plateau of India comprises the present Vidarbha, Latur, Nanded, Ahmednagar, Beed and Aurangabad (in Maharashtra); Bijapur, Bidar, Gulbarga, Raichur and Bellary (in Karnataka); and Telangana. Though the Deccani dialect is not the mother tongue of any particular people in this region, the number of its users is not insignificant. At least 30 per cent of the Urdu vocabulary comes from Deccani which owes its origin to the Persians and Arabs who had come via the sea route and the Muslims that came down from North India. But Deccani used to be written in the Persian-Arabic script. It flourished during the times of the Bahmani-Deccan Sultanate (1347-1686) and continued even after. The Hindu saint-poet Namdev (1270-1350) composed his poetry in Deccani itself; and as many as 50 of his poems form part of the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy scripture of the Sikhs. His son Govinda also wrote in Deccani.
It is worth noticing that most of the Deccani literature is in the Sufi tradition.
The first long poetic work in Deccani was Kadam Rao Padam Rao (1421-1434) by Fakhruddin Nizami of Bidar but most of its diction was drawn from Sanskrit. The Chakki-nama songs sung by womenfolk while grinding the food-grains during the times of the Bijapur Sultanate have been identified as Sufi lyrics.
Poetry texts were written in Deccani Hindi too, to spread the Sufi tenets. But most of them are in story form. The tombs of the characters mentioned in Chandar Badan Mahiyara written by Makhimi (1579-1628) lie in the Qadri fort of Kurnool. And the composition Gulshan-e-Ishq by Mulla Nusarati is also of the same type.
Atreya: Coming to the tombs you have mentioned, please throw some light on the Dargahs in India.
Mukunda: The famous Dargahs in North India are – Hazrat Khawaja Moinuddin Hasan Chishti (1142-1236) in Ajmer; Salim Chishti (1472-1572) in Agra; Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya (1238-1325) in Delhi.
The presence of a prominent Dargah in every district in Deccan reveals the level of propagation of Sufism in the medieval times. People across religions visit them with the same piety and devotion.
In the annual Urs festivities at the Khwaja Bande Nawaz Gesu Daraj (1321-1422) in Gulbarga (Deccan, Karnataka) the devotees sing the Sufi songs with absorption.
Atreya: How come, despite the universal nobility and peace-loving nature of such a widely spread Sufism across centuries and countries, the present day world is torn with frightening conflicts, more so in the lands where it originated and flourished greatly?
Mukunda: In the olden days, Sufism, though unnamed, was the truth pursued; now, though named, the truth remains only in theory. The only way is to spread and live its ideals – letter and spirit – on the part of every sensible and responsible human being.
Atreya: Thank you for the time. And hats off, once again, for the efforts you had put in into your Sufi translation work. Would you like to quote one of the favourite poems you have translated, to serve as a salubrious Sufi message, before signing off?
Mukunda: Thank you, for the opportunity. There are many impacting poems, but I would like to quote the ‘Sufi Way’ by the famous 17th century Sufi poet Seyh Ibrahim Efendi (1591-1651 AD) that effusively captures the Sufi approach and philosophy.
They say the Sufi way
is to give one's life away.
The Sufi way is to become a sultan
on the throne of the soul.
In the station of the Path,
it is to destroy appearances.
In the station of Reality,
it is to become a guest
in the innermost palace of the heart.
They say it is to be pure of body,
the light of the Beloved.
The Sufi way is to gradually take off
the dress of earth and water.
They say it is to burn up in Love's fire –
The Sufi way is to be utterly inflamed
with the light of the Beloved.
They say it is to believe and follow the rules –
The Sufi way is to discover the rules
of the multitude of heavens.
They say it is to become a medicine for every ailment –
The Sufi way is to know and become all the secrets
They say it is to destroy the illusion of bodies –
The Sufi way is to open the secrets of the body
with the key of the Divine Names.
O Sufi, to comprehend it, one must be it.
The one who gets lost in words
will never be their meaning.
They say it is to become the secret of God
within one's innermost heart –
The Sufi way is to read the outer signs
and know the inner meanings.
They say it is to be in wonder
at the greatness of creation –
The Sufi way is to be constantly amazed
by the nature of Reality.
They say it is to make each heart
the throne of God –
The Sufi way is to remove all else but God
from the heart's dwelling.
They say it is to watch over all humanity –
The Sufi way is to cover East and West
with every breath.
They say it is to shine as brightly as the sun –
The Sufi way is to perceive God
in every minute thing.
They say it is to be in harmony
with every kind of person –
The Sufi way is to appear
in a hundred thousand forms daily.
They say it is to be like Solomon
to the whole universe;
The Sufi way is to understand
and speak in every language.
They say it is to become an ocean
from a single drop –
The Sufi way is to make your heart a cellar
to hold the wine of the Truth.
They say it is to become a human being
illuminated with the light of Being –
The Sufi way is to destroy Being utterly
in the light of Non-Being.
They say it is to become a life
for each particle of life –
The Sufi way is to die a thousand times
and return to life each moment.
They say it is to become a master
of wisdom and eternal justice –
The Sufi way is to become an eye
looking out from every hair.
They say it is to surrender
your soul to the Beloved –
The Sufi way is to become
the soul of the Beloved.
They say it is the proof
of Muhammad's message –
The Sufi way, O Ibrahim,
is to embody God
as one's own self.6
- Shatabdala Sufi Kavitvam (Centuries of Sufi Poetry) by Mukunda Rama Rao, Palapitta Books (2011), Pages 112, ? 20, Available at: http://kinige.com/
- https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/r/rumi676253.html (Date of access: 04 May 2017)
- https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/95754-not-only-the-thirsty-seek-the-water-the-water-as (Date of access: 04 May 2017)
- https://lovepoppies.wordpress.com/sufi-poetry-2/attar-of-nishapur/ . Farid ud-Din Attar, Translation by Andrew Harvey & Eryk Hanut – Perfume of the Desert. (Date of access: 04 May 2017)
- Majid M Naini, The Mysteries of the Universe and Rumi's Discoveries on the Majestic Path of Love. (Universal Vision & Research, 2002. ISBN 0971460000)
http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Rumi (Date of access: 05 May 2017)
- The Sufi Way: English version by Jennifer Ferraro & Latif Bolat. http://www.poetry-chaikhana.com/blog/2009/07/13/seyh-ibrahim-efendi-the-sufi-way/ (Date of access: 04 May 2017)
II. LIST OF THE 51 POETS
1. Rabia Basri (713-801)
2. Mansoor al-Hallaj (858-922)
3. Dhun-Nun al-Misri (796-859)
4. Naphari (? – 965) (sic)
5. Abu Sa’id Abul-Khayr (967-1049)
6. Qushayri (? – 1074)
7. Baba Kuhi (980? – 1050)
8. Khwaja Abdullah al-Ansari (1006-1088)
9. Hakim Sanai (1044-1150)
10. Ahmad Jameel (1048-1141)
11. Mahsati Ganjani (1159-?) (sic)
12. Ayn al-Quzat Hamadani (1098-1131)
13. Farid ud-Din Attar (1120-1220)
14. Najmuddin Kubra (1145-1221)
16. Baba Afzal Kashani
17. Mohiddin Ibn-Arabi (1165-1240)
18. Baba Sheikh Farid (1173-1266)
19. Umar Ibn al-Farid (1181-1235)
20. Gharib Nawaz (1142-1256)
21. Hamid al-Din Kirmani (?-1238)
22. Fakhruddin Iraqi (? – 1289)
23. Moulana Jalaluddin Rumi (1207-1273)
24. Sa’adi (1184-1283)
25. Yunus Emre (1240-1321)
26. Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya (1238-1325)
27. Sultan Valad (1240 – 1312)
28. Ibn Ata Illah (1250-1309)
29. Mahmud Shabistari (1250?-1340)
30. Amir Khusrow Dehlavi (1253-1325)
31. Alal Davla Sindani (?-1336) (sic)
32. Shah Nematollah Vali (1330-1431)
33. Sharfuddin Maneri (1263-1381)
34. Hafiz Shirazi (1315-1390)
35. Muhammad Shirin Maghribi (1349-1406)
36. Imaduddin Nasimi (1369?-1418) (sic)
37. Jaynep Hatoon (sic)
38. Ummi Sinani (?-1657) (sic)
39. Sarmad (?-1659)
40. Niyazi Misri (1616-1694)
41. Sultan Bahu (1630-1691)
42. Abdul Quadir Bedil (1642-1720)
43. Rahman Baba (1653-1711)
44. Bulleh Shah (1680-1758)
45. Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai (1689-1752)
46. Sachal Sarmast (1739-1829)
47. Seyh Galip (1757-1799)
48. Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869)
49. Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882-1927)
50. Moulana Shah Maqsud (1914-1980) (sic)
51. Dr Javad Nurbaksh (1926-2008