FOR about three centuries after his death, Baba Farid’s verses had been alive in Punjab, with the mureed and the mystic passing on his message, from generation to generation. Then came Adi Granth, the first official Sikh scripture, which expanded and came to be known as Guru Granth Sahib. Guru Arjan included in it the writings of Sheikh Farid, preserving his message for the times to come. This year marks the 850th birth anniversary of the Sufi mystic and scholars are still trying to reimagine his times, understand his text, translate his verses and apply his lessons to our cacophonic times.
Baba Farid, also known as Fariduddin Ganjshakar, was born at Multan in 1173 and died at Pakpattan in 1266. These were times of utter despair. Devastating invasions were leaving Punjab bleeding and its people in a wretched state. Farid’s verses were the balm the region needed and what’s more, he spoke in their language, their idiom.
Farid, my dry body hath become a skeleton,
Ravens peck at the hollows of my hands and feet
Up to the present, God hath not come to mine aid
Behold His servant’s misfortune
O, ravens, you have searched my skeleton
and eaten all my flesh.
But touch not these two eyes, as I hope to
behold my beloved
Translation by Max Arthur Macauliffe
My bread is made of wood, my hunger is my sauce
Those who eat rich meals shall come to grief
Says Farid, you must fathom the ocean which contains what you want
Why do you soil your hand searching
the petty ponds;
Says Farid, the Creator is in the creation and the creation in the Creator
Whom shall we blame when He is everywhere?
Translation by Sant Singh Sekhon
Almost all forms of poetry, especially Sufi poetry, have an inherent flow and singabilty. These qualities play a pivotal role in strengthening our centuries-old vocal tradition. This is the reason why not only Baba Farid but all Sufi saints continue to shape our lives. ‘Naadaan Parinde’ in the movie ‘Rockstar’ encapsulated Baba Farid’s ideas (and a part of his verse ‘Kaaga re’), wherein the foundation for the bridge connecting the film character’s soul to the Almighty is laid. Irshad Kamil | Lyricist
Literary critic Tejwant Singh Gill says that being a frontier region, Punjab would bear the brunt of foreign invasions. “Geographically, it was almost a desert and there was utter poverty. He brought a sense of sobriety and serenity to the life of the people harassed by invaders. He coaxed them to keep aloof from the disastrous influence of those various factors. He didn’t preach a sense of revolt, but a sense of contentment. He asked them to not be carried away into rejection. He gave moral strength to people,” says Gill, who feels Farid’s spiritualism led him to disillusionment with his ancestors, invaders themselves.
It is this calming effect on Punjab that poet Waris Shah paid tribute to in his seminal work ‘Heer’, written in 1766:
Shakarganj ne aan mukaam kita / Dukh darad Punjab da dur hai ji
(Shakarganj’s grace dispels all Punjab’s sorrows; and makes her peaceful ever more)
Waris Shah eulogised the mystic, writing that Farid’s advent to Punjab proved a boon for the land and its people. The beauty of his message was contained in delicate poetry and in a dialect similar to present-day Punjabi, earning him the sobriquet of the ‘father of Punjabi poetry’.
Not much is known about the literary traditions of the time. What is known, says historian Prof Indu Banga, is that Sufism — which fully emerged in the 8th century — had come to India by this time. “We know of a work written in Persian at Lahore in the 11th century, ‘Kashf al-Mahjub’, by the Persian scholar Ali al-Hujwiri. It talks about a dozen chains or silsilas and leading Sufis and their schools.”
These silsilas owe themselves to Ghaznavids, who had established their rule over Punjab, making it the first region in India where Sufism found its roots, she points out. “Ali al-Hujwiri came from outside but decided to settle in Lahore and write about Sufism.”
Prof Banga says people were turning to Islam by now and responding to Sufi ideas. But, so far, these Sufi mystics had been coming from outside. What set Farid, one of the founding fathers of the popular Chishti Sufi order in India, apart was that he was using the local idiom. “This means he had internalised the Sufi ideas to the extent that he could present them clearly in people’s language, his metaphors being largely related to the life around. Prof JS Grewal called it indigenisation of Sufism,” says Prof Banga.
In ‘A History of Punjabi Literature’, litterateurs Sant Singh Sekhon and Kartar Singh Duggal note: “His (Farid’s) available compositions, though written in a dialect, amply suggest a learned mind behind the sensitive idiom, a mind that has steeped itself deep in the tradition of his age and creed and is capable of absorbing the influences of his environment.”
Despair, separation and death are a potent presence in his writings. Critiquing his writings, Sekhon and Duggal say that Farid laid stress on the love of man as a means of attaining the love of God. The world appeared to him an obstacle in the way of union with God. Death is illustrated as a bridegroom and impermanence of life on this earth by the figure of a bird coming to play on the bank of a pool.
Sekhon and Duggal say that his writing never smacks of superiority. He comes down to the level of the poorest of the poor and calls himself a sinner. This endeared him to the people and this endearment, they insist, might have been responsible for his inclusion in the Sikh scripture.
Fine and poetic at the same time, his verses marked a great departure from the prevalent times and led to the foundation of Punjabi language, says Prof Gill. “Earlier dialects didn’t have much importance of their own except for conversational importance as Persian was the medium of official work. He created a poetic language,” he adds.
“Baba Farid is to Punjabi language what Chaucer is to English,” says musician Rabbi Shergill, whose oeuvre includes the composition of Farid’s ‘Birha tu Sultan’, among the mystic’s several other verses, most of which Rabbi knows by heart. “He was the foundation. He sets the tone for both Punjabi spiritual literature and also Punjabi language. Everything springs forth from these verses. He is pretty much the fountainhead of everything Punjab.”
For several centuries after his death, his successors spread his writings. One of them was Sheikh Ibrahim, whom Guru Nanak met in the 16th century. Guru Nanak recorded Farid’s poetry and his four hymns and 130 couplets were later recorded in Guru Granth Sahib.
Prof Gill says the beauty of the inclusion in the holy Granth lies in the fact that wherever the Gurus differed with Farid in terms of doctrine, they put their own couplets alongside. “The idea was not to controvert Farid but to qualify. If it were not for Gurbani, his hymns could have been lost. Guru Nanak also saved the content of the idiom from adulteration.”
Eight centuries after his death, Baba Farid remains a giant and his Faridi langar is a tradition well adopted by Sikhism. Yogesh Snehi, author of ‘Spatialising Popular Sufi Shrines in Punjab: Dreams, Memories, Territoriality’, says Baba Farid acquires a prominent position because of his attitude towards non-Muslims. “His Jamaatkhana was frequented by Hindu jogis. His langar was open to everyone, irrespective of religious affiliation. Several Jatt tribes of Punjab, like Siyals, attribute their conversion to Islam to the influence of Baba Farid. His shrine was endowed by both the Tughlaqs and the Mughals. Popular lores around his miracles and travels were also widely circulated in Punjab. The establishment of Faridkot is, for instance, attributed to his miracles.”
Prof Banga says that unlike other Sufis in the Suhrawardi order, who would receive grants from the nobility and live comfortable lives, Baba Farid did not approve of patronage. However, for her, his enduring legacy would be his humanistic approach, his concern for the poor and the slaves. “Even though he regarded women as subordinate to men, he conceded some kind of autonomy to those who chose to devote themselves to God or spirituality.” It is this all-embracing attitude of Baba Farid that makes him relevant even today, says Snehi. “He is deeply linked to spiritual lineages of Sufi mystical traditions of South Asia — his spiritual mentor was Qutubuddin Bhakhtiyar Kaki of Mehrauli, Nizamuddin Auliya was his disciple and Sabir Pak of Kaliyar his nephew. All these Sufis are known to have woven a unifying thread of mystical traditions in India.”
US-based Sikh historian Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh says Sheikh Farid’s poetic gems are extremely relevant in our divided society today. “They pull us out of our narrow selfish existentiality, and open up a larger world bustling with diverse religions, races, and cultures. Just as they fill us with empathy for fellow beings (“every heart is a delicate jewel”), they urge us to enjoy the divine One we all have in common.”
Authorship and cloud of doubt
Historian of early Sikhism, Max Arthur Macauliffe waged a debate when, in his voluminous history of the Sikh religion, he cast doubts about the authorship of some verses attributed to Baba Farid. Prof Indu Banga says that medievalists like Khaliq Ahmad Nizami like to believe that Sheikh Farid did not write this kind of poetry. “However, scholars and historians of Punjabi literature have come to the conclusion that this was written by Sheikh Farid himself. What else gives us some information about Sheikh Farid is the malfuzat or the sayings of the Sufi sheikhs recorded by their disciples. His best disciple, Nizamuddin Auliya, has also left several experiences and statements about Farid,” she says. SS Sekhon and KS Duggal note that “…both Nanak and Arjan were too discriminating scholars of the lore of their time to have been deceived into believing the compositions of a contemporary to be those of his illustrious predecessor of three hundred years earlier,” they write in ‘A History of Punjabi Literature’. Historian Yogesh Snehi says the debate has more recently been settled by Carl W Ernst. Basing himself on a Deccani Sufi Zainuddin Shirazi’s discourses compiled a 100 years after the demise of Baba Farid, Ernst argues in favour of the oral tradition of the Punjabi poetry and the continuity of the Sikhs’ collection of Farid’s poetry in Punjabi with the older poems of the Sufi tradition.
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