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Volume X - Sufi Mysticism


Poetry (3)

Very little of the ancient Egyptian poetry has come down to us. We can only trace some of it through what we know about the character of the Egyptians of those times, who expressed the mystical and musical aspects of the soul in a symbolical way. Hebrew poetry is little-known also, except for what one finds in the Old Testament. It was the Arabic lyrics that became best known to the Asiatic world as being the most inspired and beautiful. Also, the Arabs were a metaphysically and philosophically inclined people, and their poetry combined philosophy with lyricism and romance.

Poetry found its highest expression in Persia. The Persians had a natural gift for poetry and poetic inspiration, and their language yielded poetic form for the expression of their souls. When Firdausi wrote the history of Persia, he wrote it entirely in verse, showing thereby how the inspiration and language of the Persians blended with poetry. Sufis, especially from the time of   Fariduddin Attar, have given God's message and have interpreted religion to the people of Persia in the form of poetry.  Jalaluddin Rumi's wonderful work, the Masnavi, and the poetry of his teacher Shams-i Tabriz, all show that the spirit of poetry was incarnate in Persia at the time when Hafiz was born. This was also when Sadi wrote his Rose Garden and his Garden of Fragrance, in which he taught ethics from beginning to end. In this period great poets were born, one after another, but after that they ceased.

What gave rise to this subtle, deep, and symbolical poetry was the fact that the Persian rulers suppressed all free thought and free speech. Therefore, the great philosophers who felt a deep inspiration, and also an urge to interpret the secret of life by the means of words, had to look for some way in which they could express themselves. In the end they found it, and that way was by expressing their philosophical ideas in the form of lyrics. This gave birth to a new form of art. It was like painting; all poetry became a picture of life. With different lights and shades and colors, the poets composed pictures of the various aspects of human life. That is why Persian poetry has always been known as an individual, a unique, and a most wonderful and beautiful art. It is still considered to be so, though that inspiration seems to have vanished a long time ago.

The poetic wave from Persia came to India, and it was because of this wave that the poetry of India changed its character. The Hindus, who have always been exclusive, remote, and followers of tradition, did not at first adopt the Persian form. In India two different aspects of poetry were developed. One aspect was the poetry written in one of the Prakrits, the vernaculars that had superseded Sanskrit both as a spoken language and in some forms of literature. It is said that the Prakrit languages were formed by yogi powers and spiritual inspiration. The poets expressed wonderful ideas in Prakrit poetry, and they generally followed the same meters as in Sanskrit. They used many Sanskrit words, although the languages as a whole were Prakrits. Only in rhythm a new form was introduced, in which the vowels attached to different consonant letters were not heeded any more, and words and ideas were arranged so as to follow only the beat of the rhythm. In this way they were quite free to express themselves as long as they could beat the time in their minds, without being tied to the rigid system of syllables prevalent in Sanskrit poetry, as explained in the previous chapter.

There is an amusing story about two great Hindustani poets whose habit it was to speak in poetry. Poets who were able to do this were called Shighra-kavi. One of them came to the village where the other poet was living; and one was very thin while the other was very stout. The fat one asked the thin one, in verse, if he was well. And the other answered, 'The temple which is meant for God to live in does not need flesh; one must be thankful that there are bones!' And he added, 'But you look quite well.' Whereupon the stout poet answered, 'When I had not yet found my beloved I also was thin, but the moment my beloved had come to me I became fat.'

The other aspect was the poetry that developed later, written in Urdu-Hindustani. With the birth of this language, poets found a great facility in expressing their souls, for it was composed of many languages, and this gave them a vast scope of expression. There were perhaps ten words for the sun and about twenty for the moon, and there were a great variety of expressions for any idea. In one way this made poetry easier, but in another way more difficult. It was easy for the gifted ones, and difficult for those who wanted to make poetry mechanically, because the choice of words is not an easy thing. When there is a variety of objects in a shop it is difficult to make a choice; and to make a choice of words demands greater inspiration.

The poetry of Persia was enriched by the ideas of the Sufis, and Hindustani poetry was also developed by the same Sufi influence. Many of the great Hindustani poets were Sufis, and there was no end to their success; the whole country was in ecstasy over their poems. It grew to such an extent that in conversation, every literate man quoted verses from some well-known poet. This custom exists even today; an educated man, when he is conversing even for a short time with another of his kind, will always quote a few verses. In this way, he uses the words of the poets to support his arguments.

When we look at the other side of the world, the Greeks of ancient times were as great in their poetry as they were in art. Every race that reaches a higher consciousness shows signs of its development in the form of art, music, and poetry. Greek poetry, therefore, will always remain an inspiration for poets and lovers of wisdom. Latin poetry too contained a great deal of mysticism. And in spite of the great gap of years, Dante showed the flame of the same inspiration that was so apparent in antiquity. It is most wonderful to see that in the same period, on the one hand there should be such a wave of poetic inspiration in Persia, and on the other Dante should renew the art of poetry in Italy.

As we go further, we find that from poetry came dramatic art, which became so highly developed in the time of Shakespeare. In his work, we recognize the flame in spite of some passages of darkness. We can feel in the words of Shakespeare the ancient voice of the prophets. Whether people dwell in the East or in the West; in reality they come neither from the East nor the West. Nor do they go, in the end, either to the East or to the West. The source and goal are the same, and so is inspiration. Whoever reaches the truth and realizes the truth, whether in the East or in the West, realizes the same truth; the guidance comes from the same Spirit of Guidance. It seems as if there is weight in every word of Shakespeare, as if behind every word there is something else; and the more one thinks about it, the more one sees that his words are a kind of veil, hiding what is behind them. Added to this, there is great dignity in Shakespeare's work.

When we come to modern poetry, we see that there have been symbologists and expressionists and other schools, but it seems that it will take a long time before the poets will reach the real symbols, before they will become real symbologists. Symbolism is born of an unconscious feeling that springs from intuition. When this happens, then the symbolism which the poet or artist has expressed in words or in some other form, inspires even the one who has expressed it.

A poet was once reading a very deep poem, a symbolical poem, written by a friend of his. And when he saw his friend he said, 'What a wonderful poem! I was so impressed by its symbology. Will you explain to me what you meant by this line?' And the poet looked at him and said, 'Really, I cannot tell myself what it means.' When a poet writes mystical poetry, and he himself is unconscious of his mysticism, then his mind must be a machine. Indeed, an obsessed poet can do this; but then it is some other poet who composes and he is only the pen. The poet writes what his soul dictates, and he writes according to the evolution of his soul.

No doubt in modern times, much thought is given to rhythm, but on the other hand there are many poets who want to free themselves from rhythm. Both inclinations are right if they are used rightly. If rhythm binds one's thought and ideas and holds them back, it is just as well to be free from this bondage; but at the same time one should not forget that rhythm comes from the dancing of the soul. When the soul begins to dance, every word, every expression of a person becomes rhythmic. Rhythm, therefore, must not be forgotten, for rhythm inspires other souls to dance.

Modern writers have a tendency to seek the expression of power rather than of beauty. When birds turn into animals, which happens according to certain theories, they become heavy and dense; and in the same way people, after having sought beauty, may turn into pursuers of power. Seeking beauty means going upward, but pursuing power means going downward; and when the birds come down, the sparrows turn into barnyard fowls. It is owing to the materialism and commercialism of our time that poets are becoming denser. Also, nowadays there are so many writers and so few poets. This itself shows that instead of going upward, we are going downward.

One day, a friend introduced me to a very well-known poet, immediately after I had given a lecture. And this poet asked me, 'Is it really true that inspiration is required for poetry?' He, a well-known poet, did not believe in inspiration. And I met another poet who had made a great name for himself, but neither his expression nor his movements, words, or thoughts showed any sign of his being a poet. Why was this so? Because to become well-known and enjoy momentary success, a man nowadays has to come down to the lowest mentality, that is what makes him a great man in the eyes of the people today. But it is a mistake. Why must one impress the common people? It is better to impress the best people, the people with the purest mentality and highest spirit, and let the others appreciate what is shallow. In this way, one can raise the ordinary people to a higher standard, instead of stooping to reach them on their own level.

In New York, a newspaper reporter came to see me and asked questions for half an hour. These were questions on philosophy and mysticism, and I was so interested in the questions he asked that I answered them extensively. Finally, the journalist said, 'How shall I put all these things that you have told me to the man in the street?' I replied, 'If you have come here in order to put these ideas to the man in the street, please do not use any of them; just put what you like.' And so he did.

Poetry is the dance of the soul, and when, from a poet's heart, an inspiration wells up and he writes it down, even his prose will be poetry. But it is difficult for the writer of prose to write poetry, for it is not his line. Life has become so mechanical for us. We are thrown into this struggle of life from morning until evening; everywhere we turn, we are caught up in a certain mechanism. The depth of life, the high imagination, the lofty ideal, all seem to be missing. It is because of our everyday life. Under such conditions, what happens is that those who are really talented and worthy of praise are not noticed; only those who succeed in making an appeal to the most ordinary mentality are well-known. No doubt this will not last, and a change will come; but it can only come when the readers of poetry change. It seems that the general education conceals the beauty of the art of poetry, because education is principally given for commercial purposes: to fit a man to protect his own interests in his worldly struggles. How can such a man appreciate poetry? And it is not only so in the West; in the East, it is still worse. Poets have died of hunger for many, many years. Very few Rajas today have any appreciation of poetry, and the general public is not developed enough to appreciate it. Therefore, a good poet must die of hunger, and only those who can make an appeal to the general public are successful.

But by their success, the mentality of the whole race is being lowered. On the day when education takes another form, and is given with another ideal, the poetry of the world will change also. In order to write or appreciate poetry, the poetic spirit must be awakened. It is not that the human race has lost inspiration, but that it is not awakened. The spirit today is awakened to business; but when it comes to higher ideals and principles, beautiful imagery, wonderful symbols, depth of thought and feeling, then it seems that the race is not making any progress. And this should be remembered: that the day when poetry improves and becomes more appreciated and more instructive and illuminating, that day we shall see and feel the promise for the human race go forward once more.

checked 18-Oct-2005