header pic header text

Volume III - The Art of Personality

Part II - Rasa Shastra - The Science of Life's Creative Forces

Chapter VII


Haya, or modesty, is not artificial in the sense in which; for instance, obedience to many of the social laws may be called artificial. Just as wisdom and morality are learned of nature, so also does modesty come from nature. It is a quality of beauty. It is the essential quality of beauty, which the great artist understands. By veiling his thought he conveys an impression many times more beautiful than does the artist who is unskilled in expression.

The poet dives into life, listening to that voice, which is inaudible to those, engaged on its surface. Not only poets sound the depths, for all men strive for beauty, which lies deep within each man's spirit. But if any, after sounding the depths of life have been able to convey something of their exaltation and their anguish at the touch of beauty, it has been the poets with their veils and clouds of language.

Consciousness in fact demands a veil. God and man are the two aspects of being, and man and woman are the two aspects of humanity. And a veil envelops that phase of each aspect where consciousness is most developed. In other words, the highest phase of each aspect of life is covered and veiled. Communion with God, the revelation of man's unity with God, and his recognition of God, have always been expressed in parables. Christ, like every great mystic, conveyed the beauty of his teaching in veiled words. Religious language has always been symbolic. Truth has ever been given through symbols, such as those of gods and goddesses, and the symbol of the cross.

For every tendency of man, nature seems to make a corresponding provision. It is this that reveals the intelligence working behind this world of names and forms. No man-made moral dictates modesty. It is the nature of beauty to veil and guard itself, and disclose itself but little. And very different customs among various races show this quality, but it becomes hardened and rigid in its external expressions in social life.

In America, a country of greater freedom than any other, of vast spaces and wide horizons, where men from all parts and of every class gather in the hope of finding larger opportunities and more liberal chances for self expression, this same quality is seen prevailing unweakened. Natural human characteristics in fact become stronger under freedom. Natural tendencies develop into customs which grow rigid and lifeless in time, and losing their meaning become in their turn fetters on the freedom of the very nature that produced them.

In some parts of the East, women of society and education dressed for social occasions veil themselves entirely, and out of modesty leave only the feet uncovered; whilst others clothe the feet and the whole body except the sides of the waist. These customs would seem offensive to women of the same position and distinction in Western countries, who through modesty cover all except shoulders, neck and arms. Though these customs differ, all express the same tendency to modesty.

A custom in a race called primitive by European society demands that a man shall not look at the mother of his bride. Out of respect for her he must not raise his eyes to her face. It is as if dignity veiled the face of the older woman from his gaze. And this custom seems but an extreme form of that same feeling which in countries far from this race demands that the bride herself shall appear veiled at the marriage ceremony.

The emotions which the human being, conscious of the beauty of humanity, veils in himself, he also desires to cover in others. It is this desire that the Prophet Muhammad described as the true religion, al haya wa'l iman. The veil of the widow is a covering of her sorrow from the gaze of the curious, but it is equally a warning sign to the stranger to avert his eyes and thus shield her. The same may be said of the veil of the nun. The desire to hide emotion, which is one of the highest attributes of humanity, cannot exist without a tendency to shield another. It is this shielding tendency which is the source of courtesy: courtesy which ennobles and exalts mankind, beautifying the relationship of the sexes towards one another and of class towards class.

To violate modesty is to develop coarseness, which breaks the ideal of humanity. But by preserving this inner restraining grace, man develops his perception of ideal beauty; and 'poor in spirit' he is indeed blessed, for he becomes conscious in human life of heavenly loveliness.


In the veiling and unveiling of beauty lies every purpose of creation. The Shah of Persia, who loved the beautiful Princess Zebunnisa for the thoughts she disclosed in her verses, once wrote to her, 'Though I bear your image in my mind, I would never permit my eyes to raise themselves to your face.' At another time he wrote asking her, 'What sort of love is yours that you do not unveil your beauty to me?' She answered, referring to the tale of Majnun and Laila, who are the Romeo and Juliet of the East, 'Though my heart is the heart of Majnun, yet I am of the sex of Laila; and though my sighs are deep, Haya is a chain upon my feet.' The fame of her learning and beauty spread far and wide, but Zebunnisa never married. A poet, a philosopher, she lived absorbed in her own meditations and studies. She never saw her lover, although for long they exchanged verses in an intellectual interchange of thoughts on life, truth, and beauty.

After many years, he wrote in passionate longing to her, that if he could see her but once, it would be to him a sacred vision; and in answer she sent a poem that said:

The nightingale would forget his song to the rose,
If he saw me walking in the garden.
If the Brahmin saw My face,
He would forget his idol.
Whoever would find Me,
Must look in My words;
For I am hidden in My words,
As the perfume in the petals of the flowers.

Thus she replied to his desire to see a sacred vision, describing the divine veiling of the divine Presence. Even in this way have all those who touched the divine Life and caught sight of the divine Beauty spoken of their inspirations. Remember the words of Krishna who said, 'Whenever religion (dharma) is threatened, then am I born.'

In the veiling and unveiling of beauty lies every purpose of creation. The lover is first of all dependent upon seeing his beloved and upon her response to him. But there comes an evolution in his love that changes his whole outlook; then his love rises above such earthly needs, and becomes independent and strong in itself. It is this independence that makes love secure and that shields love when faced with Haya, the very defense of beauty. Love, grown thus strong and independent, becomes that inviolable loyalty to the ideal and that indestructible constancy which Zebunnisa thinks of when she sings:

If the beloved face thou canst not see
   Within thy heart still cherish thy desire;
And if her love she will not grant to thee,
   In thy love never tire.

Although her face be hidden from thy sight,
   Within the sanctuary of thy heart
Still keep her image for thine own delight,
   Hidden apart.

And if the Keeper of the Garden close
   Before your face the inexorable gate,
O linger yet! The perfume of the rose
   Will float to you, and find you as you wait
   Not all disconsolate.


checked 18-Oct-2005