Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Bhagat Kanwar Ram

We are gathered here today to commemorate the 61st anniversary of the
martyrdom of the Sindhi saint, Bhagat Kanwar Ram. I will speak
briefly about the land he came from and the life he led -- keeping in
mind that you await the excellent program of Sufi music that will be
presented in his honor.

Sindh is a country where mysticism has flourished since ancient times.
We find reports of the "naked sophists" and their mystical beliefs in
the chronicles of historians and philosophers who accompanied
Alexandar in his invasion of Sindh. In more recent times, the term
'Sufi' has been used in Sindh for these mystics. In the tenth
century, Mansoor Hallaj journeyed from Arabia to Sindh and returned to
proclaim a pantheistic consciousness. He was crucified for blasphemy
and heresy by the orthodox Islamic scholars of Baghdad. In the poetry
of the thirteenth century persian Sufi poet Jallaludin Rumi, we find a
reference to Sindh as an abode of mystic teachers:

"Men have left their own country, their fathers and mothers, their
households and kinsmen and families, and have journeyed from Hind
to Sind, making boots of iron till they wore out to shreds, haply
to encounter a man having the fragrance of the other world. How
many men have died of this sorrow, not succeeding in encountering
such a One!"
-- Jallaludin Rumi

The universally revered spiritual guide of the modern Sindhi people is
the sufi poet Shah Latif (d. 1751). Shah Latif taught that to find
God, one must renounce all attachments -- material or emotional.
Specifically, one must stay away from religious trappings and
ideological baggage in order to journey as a seeker.

And that, asked you my friend!
then away with the formalism;
Who saw the Love, in the end
put away they, all the religions.

--Shah Latif (translation by Abdul Ghafoor Alasti)

In the transcendentalist Sufi tradition, love is the path to union with
God -- a love that knows no bounds of caste or creed but extends
universally to all sentient beings. Echoing the ancient pantheism of
Sindh, God is to be found in all that exists, and not apart from it.

Bhagat Kanwar Ram was born in a Hindu family but was one who journeyed
beyond any narrow conceptions: he did not recognize any distinction of
caste or creed. In turn, he was accepted as a saint by all Sindhis --
whether they were Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, atheists, or whatever. The
Bhagat lived as a mendicant, generously giving to the needy whatever
was offered to him. He travelled the land, singing Sufi songs of joy,
and promoting love and harmony. The sufi poetry of Shah Latif was
perpetually on the Bhagat's lips, serving as the inspiration for all
he did.

Saint Bhagat Kanwar Ram was a man who recognized no one as an enemy.
I will relate one story from his life which speaks to his magnanimity.

In those days in Sindh, it was traditional in Sindh for robbers to
send a notice to a village to inform them of an impending robbery!
This was to allow time for the village to organize and avoid certain
chaos at the time of the robbery. The robbers lived by a kind of
'code of honor' where they did not harm women or children, did not
steal personal jewelry from women, and did not steal what was needed
for dowries. This served to minimize social disruption, though no
doubt robberies still caused great deal of fear and anguish.

One day, a band of robbers sent notice to a village informing them of
the date of an impending robbery. The village head, or Mukhi, was
very alarmed and came to Saint Kanwar Ram with the news. The saint
asked the Mukhi and everyone else to have no fear, but let it be a
reminder that attachment to material objects was for naught --
everything in this world is transitory. If the robbers really wanted
all these material objects, let them have them. Saint Bhagat offered
to talk to the robbers on behalf of the villagers as the Mukhi was
very nervous.

When the robbers arrived, they were greeted by the Bhagat. The chief
of the robbers was surprised to find the Bhagat very relaxed and with
his usual warm smile. The Robber Chief was startled and asked, "Why
are you so joyous? Have you set up a police ambush?" The Bhagat
responded, "The only police I call upon is God." The Bhagat then told
them that here are the riches of the village which the villagers have
collected, not including the personal jewelry and what is set aside
for dowry. The Robber Chief responded, "Bhagat, you are very famous
for your honesty. If you say so, this must be it. We needn't waste
our time searching the village and will be on our way."

The Bhagat said, "But you are our guests. It is not our custom to
send guests away without offering them something to eat, and some
sweets to 'sweeten their mouths'. So we have prepared a feast for
you." The Robber Chief was shocked. He responded, "Bhagat! What
kind of a trap is this? Have you poisoned the food?" The Bhagat
reassured him, "If you are worried, I will have some of it myself,
then the villagers, and then you and your comrades. But really, it is
not our custom to eat before our guests have had a chance to serve
themselves." The Robber Chief then said, "Ok, we will feed a village
dog first and, if he is not sickened, we will eat first."

Bhagat Kanwar Ram was a famous musician and singer. His voice was
very melodious and ranged over a very wide scale. His recordings were
famous all over Sindh. The Robber Chief asked, "We have heard some of
your recordings. Would you mind singing some songs for us?" The
Bhagat said he would be glad to. The Bhagat sang sufi songs of love
and kindness. One of the songs he sang was by Suleyman Shah, asking
the Beloved what would please him. "Shall I be a Muslim, say my
prayers? Or shall I be a Hindu and go to a temple? Or shall I be a
dancer, expressing my devotion through the pulsating rhythms." You
will hear a rendering of this song today.

The string put the city on fire
The queens and their maids were beside themselves
Then Beejal [musician] struck the primal chord
The Raja [Rai Dyach] heard it
And the secret was out:
The Raja, Beejal and the song became one:
"Oh Beejal, come along
This head is only a guest...
Come along, and it's yours...
Music is a cosmic force
It comes with its own brilliance..."
All the suns and the moons
began to shine inside of Rai Dyach.

-- Shah Latif (translation by Prof. D. H. Butani)

The robbers were intoxicated by the music. In the Sindhi sufi
tradition, music is an expression of cosmic harmony and a path to the
divine. The Robber Chief felt repentant for his deeds and asked the
saint for forgiveness, "O Bhagat, you have always given what you have.
And we have taken what others had. And today we have not even shown
respect for a saint like you."

But the Bhagat would have none of it -- for he believed that he too
was a sinner, and moreover, he was a person who never held a grudge or
an ounce of ill-will.

Make your heart in the manner of a tree
Bear no animosity to those who chop you
Though they break you, though they grind you
The axe falls on you, whimper not
Do not feel the pain, do not remember the sorrow
Those who burn themselves and reduce to ashes
In the end, it is they on whom the light shines.

--Shah Latif (my attempt at translation)

The robbers returned all the loot. They even brought the rest they
had looted in the past and gave it to the Bhagat to distribute among
the needy.

Bhagat Kanwar Ram was a man who kept his word. I will relate an
incident from his life which illustrates this. The Bhagat promised to
sing at someone's wedding. But as he was on his way to the town the
wedding was in, he received word that his young son had died. The
Bhagat did not want to ruin someone else's happiness by not keeping
his word. He went to the wedding and sang as though nothing had
happened. He returned only to find that he had missed the last rites
for his son, consoled his wife and went into a period of mourning.

The Bhagat's time was a time of turmoil as Sindh. Sindh, the last
country to fall to the British Empire, struggled for its rights. The
British encouraged religious divisions in a policy of divide and
conquer. The Bhagat symbolized Hindu-Muslim unity. Unfortunately,
even in the land of the Sufis, there were a few fanatics. A
conspiracy was hatched to assassinate the Bhagat.

News of the conspiracy reached Bhagat. The Bhagat took it with
equanimity. As he toured through Sindh one last time, he realized his
time in this mortal world was coming to an end. In one village
someone pleaded, "Bhagat, you come here once a year. We would love it
if you could come twice." The Bhagat responded that he was sorry to
part company, but this would be his last time for him, for his time
was coming to an end.

More information reached the much loved Bhagat: some fanatics in a
particular town planned to kill him. He had given his word to visit
that town. His companions tried to dissuade the Bhagat from going.
But the Bhagat would hear none of it -- he was going to keep his word.
One of them said, "Master, it would not be wise to go". The Bhagat
responded with a couplet of Shah Latif:

Lord! Wish that I never were worldly wise
The wise see sorrows
In my simplicity
Thou bestowed blessings.
-- Shah Latif (my attempt at translation).

The Bhagat was martyred. Before his death, the Bhagat had promised to
consecrate a new cremation and burial ground. Even in his death,
Bhagat Kanwar Ram kept his word. His last rites were performed on
these grounds and this was the first ceremony on the grounds.

The conspirators failed in their desire to ignite widespread communal
riots. The Bhagat continued to symbolize the love and harmony of
Sindhi sufi traditions. Sindhis in Sindh, and everywhere else, in the
world would continue to pay homage to him. And he will be remembered
by generations to come for his generosity of spirit, belief in
personal redemption, integrity of word and universalism.

At a time when Sindhis are in a fight for their cultural and political
survival, suffering as they are from political hegemony, religious
oppression, and a denial of other fundamental human rights, when they
are separated by the effects of a major diaspora, the message of the
Bhagat continues to shine as a beacon. I am sure following the ways
of the saint, Sindh will not only endure, the Sindhis will overcome.
And Sindhis who have scattered will bring the essence of the Bhagat's
immortal message to a world that is increasingly torn by hatred and

I invite you to join me in today's tribute to Bhagat Kanwar Ram by one
of Sindh's leading musicians and singers, Ustad Mazhar Hussain.


Dr. Gul Agha is Professor of Computer Science at the University of
Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a faculty affiliate with the
University's Program in South Asian and Middle-Eastern Studies.
Dr. Agha is one of the world's leading researchers in the field of
parallel and distributed computing. He also occassionally lectures on
Sufism and other aspects of Sindh's culture and history

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