Sheikh Farid: The Great Sufi Mystic
By Dr. T.R. Shangari
Publisher: New Delhi: Science of the Soul Research Centre, 2015.
Sheikh Farid is a beloved 13th-century saint of the Punjab, the third Sufi master in the Chishti lineage in India. Sheikh Farid lived during a vibrant period in the history of Sufism, when the first wave of Persian-speaking Sufis moved into the Punjab, the beginning of the literary and spiritual expression that has been termed the “Indo-Persian cultural fusion”. He was highly educated in Persian and Arabic, graceful mystical verses in Persian spontaneously “rolling off his tongue” in response to any given situation. But he also reached out to the local population in their own language, which at that time had no written form, giving his teachings in simple verses laced with imagery from their daily lives.
In the section of this book called “Life & Teachings”, the author describes Sheikh Farid’s mystical teachings by combining what is known from the slim record of his sayings and actions (he never wrote anything himself) with what is known about the teachings in the Chishti lineage. The central pillar of his teachings was love for the divine, to be cultivated by constant remembrance of the presence of God and discipline in spiritual practice. Chishti saints taught an inner path, a “pilgrimage into the heart of man”, leading to the annihilation of the ego. An appendix describes the specific spiritual exercises taught by the Chishti sheikhs.
The book pieces together the life story of Sheikh Farid mostly from anecdotes recorded later by his disciples. These beautifully illustrate key aspects of his own discipleship: his extreme awe of his master and his chagrin when he felt he had fallen short of perfect obedience; and his gentle method of teaching his disciples: when a disciple hesitated to have his head shaved – the symbolic gesture marking one as a disciple in that lineage – Farid said nothing until later when, after the disciple had gained some experience, he begged to have his head shaved.
On Sheikh Farid’s way of life, the book weaves together incidents related by his disciples, such as how, though his own poverty was extreme, Farid was unstintingly generous, inaugurating the tradition of the free kitchen or langar. The author describes Farid’s attitude: “Whatever came to him, he understood it to have come from the Lord. And, having no claim on it himself, he gave it away to God’s creatures.” He welcomed all persons to his khanqah (gathering place) as equals, whether Muslim or Hindu, rich or poor, educated or illiterate, men or women. While he himself was a devout Muslim, rigorously following all the practices prescribed in Islam, he saw the Sufi path as open to followers of any faith. While giving Muslim initiates a repetition practice based on Arabic words from their own tradition, he gave Hindu disciples a mantra from Sanskrit sources. In anecdote after anecdote, we see Sheikh Farid helping his followers to overcome prejudice and to treat every human being – even those who were crude, insolent, or violent – as simply human beings to be served and loved. In a famous incident, someone offered him a pair of scissors and he responded, “Don’t bring me scissors; bring me a needle. I don’t cut apart; I sew together.”
The poetry of Sheikh Farid comes down to us through three separate traditions, to each of which the book devotes a special section. In a first section appear the verses attributed to Farid in the Adi Granth, a collection of hymns compiled by Guru Arjan (1563-1606 CE) including works by not only Guru Arjan and his predecessors in the line of Guru Nanak but also many other Indian saints. In a second section the book offers some of the Persian verses that Farid’s biographers over the centuries said he either composed or was fond of reciting. A third section includes selections from verses in the local language of Multani attributed to Farid and passed down in a local oral tradition.
The verses in the Adi Granth consist of four short hymns and 112 slokas, presented in the order in which Guru Arjun placed them. From these we easily understand why Farid is known as the “Treasure of Sweetness”: his all-encompassing love seems to overflow into his words. A hymn written in the musical measure called Raag Soohi Lalit says,
When I could build my boat, I didn’t.
And now, when the sea-waves lash,
how shall I be ferried across?
Love not the safflower, O life;
its colour will fade away.
My soul is weak,
the command of the Lord is hard to bear;
and life’s milk, once spilt, will be gathered no more.
Says Farid, O my mates, the Lord will call you all.
And this swan-soul will fly away, sad at heart,
and dust return to dust.
Because they use plain everyday language and imagery from daily life, Farid’s verses have clarity and unpretentious beauty, as in this example:
Farid, the bird is a guest
in the beautiful world garden.
The morning drums are beating –
get ready to leave!
The second section offers poems in Persian translated, the author believes, for the first time into English. These little-known verses add greater depth and scope to our understanding of Sheikh Farid. The author writes, “The voice and tone, the delicate sensibility, is quite different from the voice of the slokas in the Adi Granth or in the other Multani verses from the oral tradition.” An example:
Every dawn I alight at Your door
as a hopeful friend
who comes to beg and implore.
Like a bird trailing in the dust only half alive,
I flutter in Your presence
hoping to surrender my life.
The third group of poems, those in the Multani language, have been locally remembered, sung, and passed down orally, being written down only several centuries after Farid’s death. The authenticity of these verses is more questionable than that of either of the first two groups, especially the slokas in the Adi Granth. Yet, drawing on the opinions of scholars and also living native speakers of the language, the author claims that it is fair to speculate that Multani verses with characteristic patterns and messages derive in some degree from Farid himself. “Certainly, the Multani verses [have] … the stamp of his pattern of expression and his spiritual message.” Again, the poems employ images from everyday life, such as how Punjabi farmers shout to frighten birds from their fields:
O Farid, cry and cry you must,
like the keeper of the barley field.
Keep crying and wailing
till the barley ear ripens and drops.
Throughout all of Farid’s verses we hear the sweetness of his devotion and love for his Beloved. His disciples reported that he loved to recite the following poem:
I wish to turn into dust
And find my abode under Your feet.
I wish to live in union with You.
I am weary of both worlds
And my sole purpose here is You –
To live for You and die for You.
The words “to live for You and die for You” were said to have been constantly on his lips.
All interested in the Sheikh Farid tradition in Punjab will benefit from this book’s unique effort to assemble what can be known about Farid from several divergent traditions. And seekers of spirituality will draw much inspiration from Farid’s life story and his simple yet forceful poetry.
Book reviews express the opinions of the reviewers and not of the publisher.