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Volume X - Sufi Mysticism


East and West

In order to distinguish East from West, it is natural first to give the points in which they differ. The people of the East, in all ages, have had only one object in view, and that was to get in touch with the deeper side of life. Some came sooner to that point, some later; some had to struggle along, and for some it was very easy. The result naturally was that for both the wise and the foolish there was less contact with the outer world. By this I do not mean to say that there are no people in the East who are pursuing material gain and material things, and that there are no people who love wealth and all that belongs to the earth. There are earth-worshippers in all lands, and hell-worshippers too. But when, for instance, one is among the most learned people of the East, one finds that they have great knowledge of science and art, yet at the same time it all serves the purpose of gaining knowledge of the deeper side of life. In any work they are doing their whole motive is to understand this deeper aspect.

Even ancient Eastern politicians and warriors thought in the same way. We have as an illustration the history of the Prophet Muhammad, who was not only a mystic but a general of his army and a statesman, and who was the first of the history of the Orientals to set up a constitutional government, in Mecca. His people formed the first parliament in Medina, and every man and every woman in the city had the right to vote in that parliament; and this happened fifteen hundred years ago!

I have often come across a domestic servant, who had never had any education, but who, as soon as one began to touch his sentiment and his heart, showed that he knew as much about the worthlessness of material life as a great philosopher. A man like this may perhaps talk to one on philosophy for an hour, from his deepest sentiment and with a full understanding of life.

All this does not mean that the East did not make any progress in material things, for if one takes for instance the science of medicine, the books of Avicenna have been the foundation of medical study for the whole world. Besides, the music of the Vedas was not only music but a psychological expression of sound and rhythm; and therefore it was also a mystery, a science so perfectly formed that it was not only useful for worldly things, but for meditative purposes. In fact, music became the most essential part of religious practice. Today people come and tell the world about the repetition of some word that will cure people from illness. Both the scientific and the unscientific worlds believe this to be a new thing, but if one goes to the East any man in the poorest circumstances will say, 'We have always known this, we do it every day; we know what the power of the word means!' They will not be able to give a definition; one must ask that of a learned man; but it is a science that has always existed in the East.

As to the Western world, in the first place the race which came from the ancient Aryan sources to countries with difficult climates, giving rise to greater responsibilities, became naturally more active. Being obliged to concern themselves more with material things these people found the means of communicating with matter. The result of this is in itself a phenomenon. All these inventions that we see today are no less than a miracle, but a miracle which has come from communication with the things of the earth, as the product of earthly things, and it is as visible and tangible as the earth. It is like a father with two sons: one son produces something all the time, one day a rattle, another day a bicycle, a third day an airplane; he always has something to show his father; but the other son may sit quietly, and while perhaps his thoughts and feelings are developing, he has nothing to show. Something may be developing in him which he himself cannot very well define, nor can others see it. Therefore it is natural that progress made in the objective world is visible and tangible, whereas in the spiritual realm it is difficult to see how far someone has progressed.

However, with all these differences, human nature is always the same. Those who have developed in thought and in feeling are not only to be found in the East; there are many to be found in the West too. Also those who have a material inclination and produce things from matter do not exist only in the West; they exist also in the East. In the West there is more scope for producing what one has invented or discovered, while in the East there is much less scope; and this is the cause of many difficulties.

Nevertheless, the actions of East and West are directed towards two different poles. The material progress of the East has been hindered by the climate, a climate which makes part of the day useless for active work. One would prefer to sit in a dream rather than be active and work, and this also makes a difference in inclinations. Moreover very much of Western progress is due to the uniformity of the people, and much of the backwardness of the East is due to lack of uniformity. Every man in the East may have his own individual progress; but whenever there is individualistic progress, it may be very free, yet it will not be recognized by those who do not understand this particular way. It is like a scientist who comes up with a new invention that is not understood by another scientist, who then will be sure to oppose him. In the East, therefore, whenever an intelligent person progresses in his own line, he has to face great opposition, and he finds no one who can understand him. But in the West it is the contrary. There are academies and associations and people who understand things and who can give encouragement. Yet on the other hand, uniformity pulls people back from individual progress.

Now, owing to modern communications, East and West have been brought closer together, and this gives us great hope that East and West, which depend for their progress upon mutual exchange and understanding, will soon unite. In industry, in politics, in all things, they can unite and thus benefit each other. The greatest benefit that can come from the meeting of East and West is through the interchange of thought and ideal, through meeting in that light which is the light of intelligence and which is divine by nature.

The Sufi movement has directed all its efforts towards this goal, that the East may be able to appreciate all that is good and worthwhile in the West, and that the West may understand and sympathize with all that is worth understanding in the East. Words cannot explain to what extent the world would benefit by the realization of this ideal. Just now, the East is working in its own way and the West is working in its own way; this is like working with one eye open and the other eye closed. It is in the unity of East and West that the vision will become complete, and it is in this conception that the great disasters and troubles which have kept the world in such uneasiness will be rooted out. And by the unity of East and West in wisdom, one can look forward to real peace.

checked 18-Oct-2005