Volume X - Sufi Mysticism
The Persian Poets
At all times Persia has had great poets and it has been called 'The Land of Poetry.' This is because the Persian language is so well adapted to poetry and also because all Persian poetry contains a mystical touch. The literary value of the poetry only makes it poetry; but when a mystical value is added, then this makes the poetry prophecy.
The climate and atmosphere of Persia have also been most helpful to poetry, and the very imaginative nature of the people has made their poetry rich. At all times and in all countries, when the imagination has no scope for expansion, then poetry dies and materialism increases.
There is no poet in the world who is not a mystic. A poet is a mystic, whether consciously or unconsciously, for no one can write poetry without inspiration. When a poet touches the profound depths of the spirit, struck by some aspect of life, then he brings forth a poem, as a diver brings forth a pearl.
In this age of materialism and ever-growing commercialism, man seems to have lost the way of inspiration. During my travels I was asked by a well-known writer whether it is really true that there is such a thing as inspiration. This gave me an idea of how far nowadays some writers and poets are removed from inspiration. It is the materialism of the age that is responsible for this. If a person has a tendency towards poetry or music, then as soon as he begins writing something his first thought is, 'Will it catch on, or not? What will be its practical value?' Generally, what catches on is that which appeals to the average man. In this way, culture is going downward instead of upward.
When the soul of the poet is intoxicated by the beauty of nature and the harmony of life it is moved to dance, and the expression of the dance is poetry. The difference between inspired poetry and mechanical writing is as great as the difference between true and false. For many ages, the poets of Persia have left a wonderful treasure of thought for humanity. Jalaluddin Rumi has revealed in his Masnavi the mystery of profound revelation. In the East, his works are considered as sacred as holy scriptures. They have illuminated countless souls, and the study of his work can be considered to belong to the highest standard of culture.
The poet is a creator, and he creates in spite of all that confronts him. He creates a world of his own. By so doing, he rises naturally above that plane where only what is visible and touchable is regarded as real. When he sings to the sun, when he smiles to the moon, when he prays to the sea and when he looks at the plants, the forests and at life in the desert, he communicates with nature. In the eyes of the ordinary person he is imaginative, dreamy and visionary, and his thoughts seem to be in the air. But if one asks the poet what he thinks of these others, he will say that it is those who cannot fly who remain on the ground. It is natural that creatures who walk on the earth are not always able to fly. Those who fly in the air must have wings. Among human beings one will find that same difference, for in human beings, there are all things. There are souls like germs and worms, there are souls like animals and birds, and there are souls like jinns and angels. Among human beings, all can be found – those who belong to the earth, those who dwell in heaven, and those who dwell in the very depths.
Those who were able to soar upward by the power of their imagination have been living poets. What they said was not only a statement, it was music itself. It not only had rhythm, but it also had tone. It made their souls dance, and it would make anyone dance who heard it. Thus Hafiz of Shiraz gives a challenge to the dignified, pious men of his country when he says, 'Pious friends, you would forget your dignity if you would hear the song which came from my glowing heart.' It is such souls who have touched the highest summits of life so that they have been able to contribute some truth, giving an interpretation of human nature and the inner law of life.
It is another thing with poets who have made poetry for the sake of fame, name or popularity, or so that it might be appreciated by others – for that is business, not poetry. Poetry is an art, an art of the highest degree. The poet's communication with nature brings him, in the end, to communicate with himself. By that communication he delves deeper and deeper within and without, communicating with life everywhere. This communication brings him into a state of ecstasy, and in his ecstasy, his whole being is filled with joy. He forgets the worries and anxieties of life, he rises above the praise and blame of this earth, and the things of this world become of less importance to him. He stands on the earth, but gazes into the heavens. His outlook on life becomes broadened and his sight keen. He sees things that no one else is interested in, that no one else sees.
This teaches us that what may be called heaven or paradise is not very far from man. It is always near him, if only he will look at it. Our life is what we look at. If we look at the right thing, then it is right. If we look at the wrong thing, then it is wrong. Our life is made according to our own attitude, and that is why the poet proves to be self-sufficient, and also indifferent and independent. These qualities become as wings for him to fly upward. The poet is in the same position as anyone else in regard to the fears and worries that life brings, the troubles and difficulties that everyone feels in the midst of the world. Yet, he rises above these things so that they do not touch him.
No doubt the poet is much more sensitive to the troubles and difficulties of life than an ordinary person. If he took to heart everything that came to him, all the jarring influences that disturbed his peace of mind, all the rough edges of life that everyone has to rub against, then he would not be able to go on. On the other hand, if he hardened his heart and made it less sensitive, then he would also close his heart to the inspiration which comes as poetry. Therefore, in order to open the doors of his heart, to keep its sensitiveness, the one who communicates with life within and without is open to all influences, whether agreeable or disagreeable, and is without any protection. His only escape from all the disturbances of life is through rising above them.
The prophetic message which was given by Zarathushtra to the people of Persia was poetic from beginning to end. It is most interesting to see that Zarathushtra showed in his scriptures and all through his life how a poet rises from earth to heaven. It suggests to us how Zarathushtra communicated with nature, with its beauty, and how with every step he took he touched deeper and deeper into the depths of life. Zarathushtra formed his religion by praising the beauty in nature and by finding the source of his art which is creation itself in the Artist who is behind it all.
What form of worship did he teach? He taught the same worship with which he began his poetry and with which he finished it. He said to his pupils, 'Stand before the sea, look at the vastness of it, bow before it, before its source and goal.' He said to them, 'Look at the sun and see what joy it brings. What is at the back of it? Where does it come from? Think of its source and goal and how you are heading towards it.' People then thought that it was sun worship, but it was not. It was the worship of light which is the source and goal of all. That communication within and without sometimes extended the range of a poet's vision so much that it was beyond the comprehension of the average man.
When the Shah of Persia said that he would like to have the history of his country written, for one did not exist at that time, Firdausi, a poet who was inspired and intuitive said, 'I will write it and bring it to you.' He began to meditate, throwing his searchlight as far back into the past as possible; and before the appointed time, he was able to prepare that book and bring it to the court. It is said that the spiritual power of that poet was so great that when someone at the court sneered at the idea of a man being able to look so far back into the past, he went up to him and put his hand on his forehead and said, 'Now, see!' And the man saw with his own eyes that which was written in the book.
This is human; it is not superhuman, although examples of it are rarely to be found. For in the life of every human being, especially of one who is pure-hearted, loving, sympathetic and good, the past, present and future are manifested to a certain extent. If one's inner light were thrown back as a searchlight, it could go much farther than man can comprehend. Some have to develop this gift, but others are born with it. Among those who are born with it, we find some who, perhaps, know 10 or 12 years beforehand what is going to happen. Therefore, a poet is someone who can focus his soul on the past and also throw his light on the future. He makes clear that which has not yet happened, but which has been planned beforehand and which already exists in the abstract.
It is such poetry that becomes inspirational poetry. It is through such poetry that the intricate aspects of metaphysics can be taught. All the Upanishads of the Vedas are written in poetry. The surahs of the Quran and Zarathushtra's scriptures are all in poetry. All these prophets, whenever they came, brought the message in poetry.
The development of poetry in Persia occurred at a time when there was a great conflict between the orthodox and the free thinkers. At that time, the law of the nation was a religious law and no one was at liberty to express his free thoughts, which might be in conflict with the religious ideas. There were great thinkers such as Firdausi, Fariduddin Attar, Jalaluddin Rumi, Sadi, Hafiz, Jami and Omar Khayyam, who were not only poets, but were poetry itself. They were living in another world, although they appeared to be on earth. Their outlooks on life, their keen insights, were different from those of everyone else. The words which arose from their hearts were not brought forth with effort, but were natural flames rising up out of the heart. And these words remain as flames enlightening souls of all times, whatever soul they had touched.
Sufism has been the wisdom of these poets. There has never been a poet of note in Persia who was not a Sufi, and every one of them added a certain aspect to the Sufi ideas. However, they took great care not to affront the minds of orthodox people. Therefore, a new terminology had to be invented in Persian poetry. The poets had to use words such as 'wine,' 'bowl,' 'beloved,' and 'rose,' words which would not offend the orthodox mind and would yet at the same time serve as symbolic expressions to explain the divine law.
It belongs to the work of the Sufi movement to interpret the ideas of these poets, to express their ideas in words that can be understood by modern people; for the value of those ideas is as great today as it ever was.