Let’s take a break from the Enlightenment of the West and have a look at our Eastern enlightenment in Punjab and its practices. We have Syed Abdullah Shah, also known as Bulleh Shah, who was born in Uch, Punjab. Raised in a noble house of Syeds in 1680, Bulleh’s father was also a scholar and hence transferred his intellect to his son. When he was a young boy, his family moved to Kasur. The city, like its name, bore the condemnation of no pious deeds and no flexibility. Such was the social and political atmosphere at that time, but there was going to be a rift by the arrival of Bulleh, a social rebel.
Bulleh tended to work as a herder, as it was difficult to make ends meet. He mostly wrote pastoral poetry at that time, and so began his search for meaning. Bulleh’s spiritual journey began when he met Shah Inayat, who resided in Lahore. He had great devotion for his ‘murshid’ and shared a spiritual bond with his master. Here I shall mention some of the lessons which we get from Bulleh Shah. Let’s look at the political lessons first.
During the times of Bulleh Shah, Aurangzeb was the ruler of India and he had wreaked havoc on Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims alike. He was rigid in his religious beliefs. Distressed from the political and social policies of Aurangzeb, the Khalsa movement was in motion. Two Sikhs were killed which created a sense of vengeance for the ruler. Bulleh asked Sikhs for peace amidst this chaos and pleaded not to take revenge as it will lead to more bloodshed. Similarly, he asked Muslims to be tolerant towards other religions and vehemently criticized the rule of Aurangzeb.
Bulleh’s religious views earned him criticism. This phase of Bulleh’s life is more evident in his meeting with Shah Inayat. Shah Inayat was a revered religious figure in Lahore. Bulleh went to him and under Shah’s apprenticeship, his intellectual and spiritual horizons widened. The whole legacy of Bulleh Shah is inspired by Shah Inayat and both shared a devoted bond. His poetry, his understanding of love, mysticism, and social insight, all reflect the teachings of Shah Inayat. But this ‘murshid-mureed’ relationship had its ups and downs. In the beginning, Bulleh Shah was highly criticized for studying from an Arain (lower caste) as Bulleh belonged to a noble class of Syeds. Upon hearing this, Shah Inayat got furious and said to Bulleh:
“Tu Bullah nai tu bhulliyan ann” (You are not Bulleh, you are lost)
After this, he began a long penance of 12 years to appease his master. From “tere ishq nachaya” to “Kanjari Baniyaan Meri Izzat Na Ghat Di Mainu Nach Ke Yaar Manaawan De”, the poetry of Bulleh Shah went from three phases. First, it was about conjugal love, then worldly love, and finally the union of Heer and Ranjha where the lovers become one. Bulleh learned kathak dance from a female dancer to express his love for Shah Inayat as his murshid loved dance. He became a Jogi as the rounds he make depict human life. For his dance, he used to wear a woman-like red dress and ghungroos. He chose such attire when he saw a woman waiting devotedly for her husband. So, Bulleh considered him the woman in waiting for Shah Inayat. He described the Punjabi seasons of Sawan, Bhadon and Chet etc. to describe the forlorn state and union of the woman with her love. Similarly in another poem, he draws a complete sketch of marriage and made the preparations and departure of a woman analogous to the departure from this world and union with his friend, yaar. There is a consistent mention of Heer and Ranjha, who are separate in the eyes of society but are one for each other.
Bulleh Shah was ostracised by society due to this very feminine behavior and poetry. He was from a Syed family, but he went against all and refused to show conformity with society. He said “Bulleh ki jana mein kaun” (To me, Bulleh is not known). In another aspect, Bulleh has feministic writings in his work because he fits his identity neither to any gender nor to the expectations of society. There was acceptance of both genders in Bulleh and he was not contemptuous of dancing like a “tawaif”.
But today, we see some so-called “religious influencers” and society as a whole who castigate transgenders because of their identity. They call transgenders male pretending to be females and females pretending to be males! They want a Talibanised version of society for women too. For them, woman is too emotional and fragile to understand things but for Bulleh woman deserves rights and praise for her very affectionate nature. They haven’t read their history, culture, and literature to know such things, just copy-pasted the right-wing Republican propaganda of West. The same West which introduced this thinking in the first place and made the lives of khawajasira or transgenders miserable. But Bulleh lived among them, ate with them, and became like them. Only if these wannabe Westerners stop pretending to know the “true version of religion” and history. What would they say about the love between Shah Inayat and Bulleh Shah? They would have put a fatwa on him now like the ones in Bulleh’s time.
In addition to that, Bulleh also preached religious harmony. He praised the pluralistic culture of the Indian subcontinent and included multi-religious themes in his poetry. He praised Krishna and included the Vedantic teachings in his poem. He said, “God is seen everywhere and in everyone, in Krishna and Fateh Mohammad”. He puts tilak on his forehead and wrote letters to Sham. He praises the flute of Krishna and goes mad by the sonority of his tunes. In this way, Bulleh Shah was the proponent of religious harmony in his times. He believed in Wahdat and for him, there was no kafir and no momin. Because each had his own God. Bulleh himself had many names for God such as Allah, Guru, Har, Hari, Kanhiya, Maula, and Rab.
There are two lessons in the religious understanding of Bulleh. He gave the lesson of living peacefully and accepting the religious identities of other people. He denounced all pseudo-religious preachers who claim to be well-read but are actually ignorant. If we see our society today, then we are faced with the same conflict. Religious minorities and ethnicities are persecuted. There is only a veneer of accepting and boasting that our religion, Islam, is a source of harmony, but when it comes to practically treating them as equals or constructing their religious places or legislating for their rights, then these “hybrid moulvis” come out crying that “Islam is under threat.”
The eve of Independence Day saw the same divided spirit. A whole narrative is built on Hindu and Hindustan hatred. Only if Pakistanis knew that they were once Indians too and both sides share the same history of the Indus civilisation. But unfortunately, a new identity was formulated and the past was seen with contempt as ‘Hindu.’ The result is we are neither here nor there.
For our time, Bulleh Shah has some insightful lessons in his teachings. Some rationalists would argue about losing one’s identity, self-negation, and the qawwali tradition of Sufism. Qawali nights today are play like hard metal, rounds of alcohols, drugs, and pouring money over the qawwal. The qawwal is more like a pop singer also takes millions to hold his “qawncert.” This was not the tradition nor the message. Regardless, we should acknowledge that some spirit was there of religious harmony, understanding, and cross-communal appeal. There was ruminative and philosophical wisdom in the works of Bulleh Shah. We should take lessons and revive this spirit that existed before, but sadly in a quest to find a new identity and shapeshifting, we have done everything except accepting ours!