Madhumalati: An Indian Sufi Romance
By Mir Sayyid Manjhan Rajgiri.
Translated by Aditya Behl and Simon Weightman.
Publisher: Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Madhumalati, written in the mid-sixteenth century, is an epic romance replete with mystical symbolism. Narrated in a poem of 539 stanzas, this tale of love, separation, intense yearning, and struggle is interspersed throughout with verses expressing insights on the spiritual path. The author, Mir Sayyid Manjhan, was a shaikh in the Shattari lineage of Sufism. Born in Bihar, India, he wrote the poem in Hindavi, a Bihari dialect of Hindi. Behl and Weightman have produced an excellent English translation of this Sufi classic, rendering the verses into simple and clear language while maintaining, as much as possible, the metre and rhyming patterns of the original.
The first forty-three stanzas comprise an introduction, beginning with verses in praise of God, the Prophet Muhammad, love, and Manjhan’s own shaikh, Shaikh Muhammad Ghaus. Of God, Manjhan writes: “How can I describe the One who pervades the universe in so many forms?”
In heaven, earth, and hell, wherever space extends,
The Lord rejoices in multiplicity of form.
The Maker makes the universe as He wills.
He came as Death, comes still, will always come.
Placeless, He is present everywhere….
One Light there is which shines alone,
Radiant in all the worlds.
Countless are the forms that Light assumes,
Countless are its names.
Speaking of his master, he writes,
Shaikh Muhammad is a matchless guide;
He is the steersman over seven seas.
Whoever comes in contemplation at his feet
Sees his face and is filled with joy.
The Shatarri Sufis, perhaps more than other lineages in Sufism, integrated aspects of Indian spiritual traditions into their expression of Sufism, even using yogic practices as a part of their spiritual discipline. Madhumalati includes references to such terms as “the lotus of Brahma”, the sound of Om, and the state of sahaj. Manjhan sometimes calls the spiritual master “Guru”, rather than “Shaikh”.
If you want the Guru’s grace,
leave aside all the mind’s whims to know him!
Everyone sees his manifest form,
but few recognize his secret nature.
Following these verses of praise, the story begins with the familiar scene of a childless king and queen longing for a son. Asking aid of a great yogi, the couple soon have a son, for whom a glorious destiny is predicted. When Prince Manohar is fourteen, a group of ethereal nymphs are so impressed by his beauty that they seek a princess beautiful enough to be his bride. While he is sleeping, they transport his bed to a far-off palace, placing it beside the bed of the sleeping princess Madhumalati, whose name means the night-flowering jasmine, ‘raat-ki-raani,’ or Queen of Night. The prince and princess open their eyes and fall madly in love. But the nymphs then whisk the prince back to his home before he can learn who Madhumalati is or where she lives. And so begins the dramatic tale of his search for his true love. While it is a story of high adventure, full of set-backs ranging from a shipwreck to magical enchantments, as well as temptations the lovers must overcome, the reader is never far from the spiritual teachings delicately woven into the story.
Central to this message is the importance of the pain of separation on the spiritual path. This vireh or yearning to be one with the beloved is understood to be not only the source of rankling pain and restlessness in the human heart, but also the “only hope for humans”. As Manjhan expresses it poetically:
I have heard that on the day the world was born,
the bird of love was released to fly.
It searched all the three worlds
but could not find a fit resting place.
So it turned and entered the inmost heart,
favoured it and never flew elsewhere.
Prince Manohar even says that the intense longing he feels for Madhumalati is, in reality, the love that has rankled in the soul since the beginning of time, equating it with the soul’s pain of separation from the Lord.
Suffering overwhelmed mankind
at the very beginning of the creation.
The lotus of Brahma was the home of grief.
The day that sorrow entered creation,
the soul learnt of its own existence.
The pain I feel for you was not born today,
but has been my companion from the beginning.
Now I carry the burden of this grief,
sacrificing all the pleasures of now and hereafter.
I have given myself to you and accepted this pain.
Through dying I have tasted immortality.
O Madhumalati, the pain of love for you
brings happiness to the world.
Blessed is the life of the man in whose heart
is born the pain of love for you.
Manjhan claims – and illustrates through this epic narrative – that this intense love is actually the key to dying while living and achieving the purpose of human life. In the second to last stanza he writes:
In this world no one can become immortal,
but death cannot destroy the one
who has died himself before the death.
Whoever suffers the burning fire of love,
escapes from death in his life on earth.
He who has saved himself by taking refuge in love
will never die no matter who kills him.
Once he has found his life in dying,
death will never come near him again.
Death has become the fruit of life,
through it, one’s body becomes immortal.
O Soul, if you are afraid of death, then
follow the path of taking refuge in love.
Now and hereafter, fear of death disappears,
for love is the sanctuary of the world.
Manjhan concludes with a final couplet:
The elixir of immortality will fill love’s sanctuary
wherever it is found.
As long as poetry is cultivated on earth,
so long will our lovers’ name resound.
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