98 When a Sufi Chooses to Travel

When a Sufi Chooses to Travel

Two South Asian Pilgrimages


When a dervish chooses to travel…his object in traveling must be either pilgrimage or opposing injustice or to see a (holy) site or to derive instruction or to seek knowledge or to visit a venerable person, a Shaykh, or the tomb of a saint; otherwise his journey will be faulty.

—Data Ganj Bakhsh

When our Sufi teacher, Syed Mumtaz Hussain Shah, or Shah Jii, traveled away from his Sufi center, a cave and complex of small buildings in the hills near the city of Islamabad in Northern Pakistan, he carried a small satchel. In this satchel was the one book he owned, an Urdu translation of The Unveiling of the Veiled by the famous 11th-century Sufi Saint, Hujwiri, or Data Ganj Bakhsh. When we discussed the passage above from Data’s book, Shah Jii said to me, “These principles are quite correct and I appreciate all of them. However, one more rule needs to be added—We only travel under the instructions, guidance, and blessing of our Murshid, ‘Spiritual Master,’ or, as we shall see, ‘Spiritual Masters.’”

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Later, one day in June, 1977, Shah Jii informed me and the rest of the disciples that his Murshid had instructed him to travel next week to the tomb of a Saint high in the hills of Murree. The disciples were pleased. They told me that the mountain site was beautiful, that we would arrive before sunset, enjoy the evening’s activities, and participate the next day in the Urs, death day celebration, at the tomb of Baba Lal Shah. The drive up they said would, “only take about two hours.” However, as it turned out, the trip was a long, intense, and challenging series of difficulties and openings that took almost eight hours.

About two in the afternoon, when we were expecting to set out, Shah Jii came down the trail from the Sufi Center to the bus stop and parking area at the edge of the village of Nurpur. There he found several of his followers arguing with the driver who was supposed to take us to Murree. We had obtained an old white van but given that 14 of us were going —Shah Jii, several senior disciples, two young disciples, and some worldly followers and family members, we needed a car as well. It had been sunny in the morning, but now the weather was turning dark, ugly purple and gray clouds rolled rapidly past overhead and fierce gusts of wind whipped up dust around us. The driver was concerned about the weather and our plan to take back roads. Becoming surly and rude, he loudly demanded more money. Shah Jii stepped in and patiently tried to persuade the driver but he refused to listen, turned, and stalked off angrily. Shah Jii remained completely at ease, calm and unperturbed. As the driver walked off, Shah Jii happily joked and laughed with a friend who had just arrived.

Up on the hills. lightning was playing and we could hear distant thunder. One of the disciples said, “The weather does look really bad.” “No matter,” Shah Jii replied serenely and he sent two of the disciples off to the nearby city of Rawalpindi to seek another driver. As we waited, a thunder storm hit with crashing thunder, wild strikes of lightning, and a downpour of rain. Finally, about 3:30 the disciples returned with another driver and his car, a battered 1967 Opal. Our spirits lifted and we attached green flags to the car, signalling that we were Sufis on pilgrimage. It was still raining but everyone seemed glad to be leaving the routines of ordinary life and happy to be finally setting out together for the celebration ahead. Shouting religious slogans, both drivers gunned their engines and we roared off together. Splashing along the wet road, the van pulled up even with our car and laughing and shouting we raced down the road side by side. The van went on ahead when we stopped for gas. When the tank was filled, the car wouldn’t start. As the rain poured down, we got behind the car and pushed. Finally the engine coughed into action and we drove on, beginning our long slow climb up into the steep hills. The car was humid, one of the windshield wipers was broken, and the visibility was poor. The driver often had to lean out the side window and wipe the outside of the windshield with a rag. He was also concerned about an official check point up ahead because we did not have the appropriate official papers. Darkness fell and the twisting mountain road was slick, dark and narrow with deep drops down into the valleys below. We slowly passed though dark pine forests. In several places the road was partially washed out and we had to inch past dangerous drops. Shah Jii remained as serene as ever and he too chuckled when the driver jokingly asked, “Wouldn’t one of you like to drive?”

Stopping for tea at a candlelit café, we were told that there had been several accidents on the road. In one crash a truck overturned and one of the passengers, a young boy, mysteriously disappeared. As we discussed the road ahead, one of the disciples complained about all the troubles we were encountering, the delays and dangers, the bad roads, and the terrible weather. Shah Jii smiled and calmly said “What ‘difficulties?’ Difficulties are what make travel amusing.” When we came to the checkpoint the armed guards, seeing our Sufi flags, waved us on through. But the challenges continued. Given the poor visibility and bad roads we drove slowly. Mostly there was no other traffic but occasionally, a huge painted truck or large rickety bus suddenly appeared around the turn ahead. We narrowly avoided several crashes as we drove along the very edge of the road. Two or three times we had to slam on the brakes, stop, and back up to allow a truck to squeeze by.

When we finally reached the entrance to Baba Lal’s shrine it was 11:30 pm, about eight hours after we set out. We turned off the highway and started down the dirt entry road. Because of the rain it had turned to mud as slick as ice and the car—impossible to control—slid alarmingly from side to side. Eventually we had to leave the car and set out on foot, carrying our gear towards the shrine in the dark, rain, and mud. Arriving, we found that the shelters were crowded and completely full and there was no place for us out of the rain. “No matter,” said Shah Jii. So we walked out onto a wet grassy field, spread a heavy carpet down on the ground, lay down, and pulled another carpet up over us. The five of us lay side by side with the rain pattering down on the top carpet just above our heads. Soon the rain stopped and despite the discomfort, we were fairly dry. It felt surprisingly good to be lying there together with our Teacher. We were happy to be with him and there was a pleasing sense of spiritual camaraderie. Shah Jii seemed totally content, happy and at ease. I fell into a peaceful sleep. When we awoke, the scene was wonderful. The rain and clouds were gone and the sun was shining warm and bright. The sky above was beautifully clear, the mountain air fresh, and up here on this high meadow we could see ridge after ridge of blue mountains falling away towards the Indus plain in the distance far below. Cooking fires were already going, someone was beating a huge drum, and several men and women were beginning to dance. It was a happy time, this was the anniversary of Baba Lal Shah’s union with the divine.

When we awoke, the scene was wonderful. The rain and clouds were gone and the sun was shining warm and bright. The sky above was beautifully clear, the mountain air fresh, and up here on this high meadow we could see ridge after ridge of blue mountains falling away towards the Indus plain in the distance far below.

So Shah Jii and the Sufis quite remarkably transformed our long, arduous, challenging eight-hour journey and difficult arrival into an interesting, enjoyable, and “amusing” spiritual experience. Through their teachings; “no matter,” “difficulties are what make travel amusing,” their general orientation and demeanor, and their responses to what occurred, Shah Jii and his senior disciples taught us about the Sufi way of travel. If you can rise out of the nafs, the whining complaining lower self, and stay with and be guided by the Ruh, or True Self, the difficulties and opportunities of travel can become “amusing,” interesting, and entertaining opportunities to practice the art of the Sufi way. Along with prayer and meditation, the Sufis accomplished this transformation through how they related to their companions. There was a strong feeling of spiritual camaraderie, responsibility, affection and connectedness. The Sufis seemed always to be relating to each other through relaxed, leisurely, friendly conversing. Chuckling and laughing, they kept and regained composure by centering, staying in the Self, and relating from there. Helping to lift each other up, they reinforced the happiness and power of being together on a spiritual journey. Our Teacher, Shah Jii, played the key role in this, his affection for us as his students, his words, suggestions, laughter, serenity, charisma and unshakable good humor were contagious and called us back to the way. Through his presence and guidance we experienced a peculiar sense of contentment—satisfied and happy to be right here on this journey willingly accepting whatever was happening.

Our support from Shah Jiii was amplified by the principle he added to Data’s rules for Sufi travel. On this journey it was not just the five of us riding in the car or sleeping under the carpet. We were accompanied by a powerful set of invisible companions, our Spiritual Allies, or “Murshid.” For these Sufis, the Murshid was not one singular Teacher but a collective who were mainly understood to be the spirits of the Sufi teachers with whom we were connected. Most important was Shah Jii himself—in his physical presence and also as a figure in our minds. The Murshid also included Shah Jii’s teachers and several Sufi Saints like Buri Imam, Data, Zinda Walyi, and Baba Lal Shah, all of whom were very much with us on the pilgrimage. Shah Jii’s decision to travel was based on a spiritual intuition he received from his Murshid which gave him “the blessing and permission to make the trip.” Sometimes the Murshid were experienced as external spirits. When any kind of help occurred, when the new driver finally arrived at Nurpur, when the car started, when we successfully squeezed past a truck, when we passed though the check point, when the missing boy was found on the shrine, when we awoke in the morning to a beautiful day, the Sufis attributed these occurrences to the spiritual assistance we drew from the Murshid.

The Murshid were also experienced as images within the mind in dreams and waking consciousness. As disciples, we were expected to cultivate this inner guidance. As Shah Jii said to me, to attain spiritual help, “You must form an image of your teacher/Murshid in your heart” and “You must seek to keep the Teacher always with you in your heart.” This is the basic principle, calling up the image of our Teacher, we become centered and can draw on all the “help” or spiritual power they give us. Often the Sufis gave thanks to the Murshid in the midst of the journey by calling out their names. Happily racing our car down the wet road near Nurpur, passing safely through a dangerous place, experiencing the beauty of the morning, the Sufis would call out the name of one or more of their Teachers or Saints, as by shouting out the name of Buri Imam as “Buurriii!” Even the difficulties we encountered came from the Murshid. Just as one’s Teacher presents one with difficult practices during the initiation process, the Murshid, they say, “love to test and thereby strengthen” the spiritual power of their followers. By orienting to all the ups and downs of pilgrimage this way, the Sufis transmuted the experience of travel into an ongoing spiritual drama.

As anthropological scholars like Victor Turner suggest, an important part of pilgrimage is the special connectedness, the feeling of “communitas” that develops among those who are traveling together. What the Sufis show us is that this community is much wider than the real people actually with us on the trip, and that pilgrimage can be made more spiritually powerful by using creative imagination to consciously connect with the allies that ride along with us. In suggesting that we develop an image of our teachers or Murshid in our minds and hearts, the Sufis are not asking us to do something very difficult. Although many of us are only dimly aware of this, and although our Western culture leads us to downplay it, every one we know well, our family members, friends, and our teachers not only exist out there in the real world, they also exist as doubles within, as images in our minds. At night we see and interact with these images in dreams. In our waking experience of the stream of consciousness, they regularly appear to us as we re-experience past interactions or anticipate what may happen next. What the Sufis emphasize is that the practice of consciously relating to images of our spiritual teachers is a powerful dimension of the spiritual journey. When we see one of our teachers in the real, her or his presence calls us back to the Self. Similarly, when we see our teachers in our mind’s eye, they help us as well, calling us back to the Sufi way. Connecting with our teachers through the heart, we feel the love and gratitude we have for them. Connecting through our understanding, we recall what they taught us and continue to teach us about how to live.

After I left Pakistan in 1977, I never saw Shah Jii again—in the real. When I returned in 2007 he had already passed away. But given what he had invited me to do during our time together, I remain in touch with him. I can “see” him in my mind’s eye. I continue to interact with my image of him through memories and waking dreams. I remember the example he set for me on occasions like the pilgrimage to Murree. I recall things he did and said, and continue to ponder and learn from these, as when I seek to apply his teachings to some aspect of my life. And our “relationship” has also developed over time. In the beginning I was very much his muriid, his student. But as I have matured over the years this has changed. Eventually the Teacher lets his disciple go as a student—and welcomes him as a companion. Now it is less like I am listening and more like we are conversing. Now I feel more independent. I feel like I have my own source within, and to an extent I do. But it is useful to remember that this inner guidance is not just “I” making choices. If it was not for our Teachers, we would not have learned how to tune to the Teacher within—and the petty ego might have become our Murshid. All these years later, Shah Jii is with me but he is not the only one. In the decades since 1977, I have worked with other teachers. My Murshid is plural and includes, for example, my American Sufi teacher, Ruth, her teacher’s teacher, Inayat Khan, three Tai Chi Masters, and several other teachers I have worked with and continue to meet.

Encounters with various Murshid occurred on a “pilgrimage” I made earlier this year with my wife and a Hindu friend, both of Indian origin. We traveled to ashrams, Hindu temples, and sites of natural beauty in Tamil Nadhu in the south of India. While it was just the three of us traveling together, in our minds and hearts we each brought with us a variety of spiritual figures. We carried images of teachers we have learned from, and also images of Hindu gods and goddesses to whom we are connected. My wife has a longstanding interest in Shiva, Lord of Awareness, and in the warrior goddess, Durga, who she relates to as a symbol of female empowerment. Back home on my desk I have a small painting of the goddess Saraswati that my wife once gave me. But her image as a symbol of spiritual beauty and learning is also with me in my consciousness. For all of us the trip was a meaningful opportunity to visit some of the most sacred and renowned Hindu temples in South India. Out of the heat and sun, in the mysteriously powerful semi-darkness of the Chidambaram Nataraja Temple, we contemplated dozens of wonderful images of Hindu gods and goddesses including that of Shiva in his manifestation as Nataraja, Lord of the Dance. There we attended darshan, a special ritual of blessing and “appearance” in which devotees see the god and the god “sees” them. With an expectant crowd we waited as Hindu priests ducked in an out of the curtained area preparing for the appearance. While we were waiting, we gazed up at statue of Shiva in his nataraja pose, dancing the universe into motion and stepping on the dwarf of forgetfulness of Self. As I admired this statue, I remembered a teacher telling me that as you yourself step on, or overcome the inner dwarf of forgetfulness of Self, you can sometimes “almost hear it screeching.” Eventually, to the sounds of drums and temple bells, the curtain was parted and the symbol of Shiva appeared. While encountering such external representations was riveting and meaningful, an equally vivid form of darshan occurs when an image of the god or goddess appears in a dream or vision, or when the Goddess’s inspiration or influence is experienced. Much like the Sufis, my wife and our friend often felt that something that happened on our trip was not an accident, “Kali made us stop here,” “Durga directed us there…”

While I enjoyed visiting the temples and participating in the drama of the Goddesses’ seeming interventions in our trip, most of my own interactions with the Murshid took other forms. We stopped for several days in the small coastal city of Pondicherry, the center of the former French colony on the Bay of Bengal. We came here to connect with a Hindu Teacher, Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950), a former Indian freedom fighter, yogi, and guru. When the British sought to jail him for his political activity he escaped to the safety of the French colony and established an ashram in Pondicherry. Sri Aurobindo and his special companion, a French woman known as “The Mother,” are buried here and their spirits are very present. We could connect with Sri Aurobindo because we had read his writings, knew the general details of his biography, and had seen his photographs. Reading his essays, some of his teachings lingered in my memory and occasionally his image appeared in my mind. On two nights, I attended the evening ritual in the ashram not far from the guests house where we were staying. There were about seventy-five people sitting there in the courtyard around the tombs of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. The courtyard was open to the night with the branches of trees reaching up into the twilight. While faint sounds of the city reached us, it was quiet in the courtyard. Dim lights and candles added to the air of mystery and devotion. Devotees placed their hands and often their foreheads on the tombs, and stayed there quietly. When meditation started, the lights were turned off and we all sat in silence. I felt in spiritual communion with the mix of westerners and Indians sitting there together as we focused on the presence of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. Afterwards, walking in the soft evening darkness back through quiet city streets to the guest house, I reflected on Aurobindo’s teachings about the mysterious power of silence. I remembered how, unlike some Hindu gurus, he taught that the world is not an illusion, it’s real and it’s divine. And we are responsible not only for pursuing our own spiritual path but for trying to help the human world progress.

While I was much less aware of “The Mother,” I ran into her unexpectedly when I went into a Pondicherry shop. It had a small book nook and I picked up a copy of a journal publication of the Ashram. Glancing through it, I “heard” the Mother’s voice as I read a short essay she had written decades earlier. In many situations, she taught, we get too caught up and need to “step back” from the situation either literally or psychologically. Putting the journal back on the shelf, this teaching stuck in my mind. Later I tried to put it into practice and reflected further. “By ‘stepping back’ we can regain our sense of who we are—regain the True Self we can regain our the Sufis would say—and then we can better find our way through the situation before us.”

When we stopped in a French bakery for lunch, I enjoyed gazing at the pastry display, “The eclairs look delicious!” A few moments later I had an unexpected encounter with another great teacher. The wall of the bakery was lined with spiritually oriented posters. While my wife was ordering, I stopped in front of one that had an image of the Buddha sitting in meditation. The accompanying text presented a brief story which went something like this: A man went to the Buddha and said, “I want happiness.” The Buddha replied, “First, get rid of ‘I’ which is the ego, second get rid of ‘want’ which is your craving desire. What’s left is happiness.” Trying to integrate this with Sufi teachings, I thought, “Well, in getting rid of, or shifting out of, the petty ego, we transition to the True Self, and living from here we can be, we are, happy.” As we set out in the car, the encounter came back to me and I told the story to my companions.

In the course of our pilgrimage we had spiritual experiences in temples and ashrams, in shops and bakeries, and in sites of natural beauty. In the wonderfully green mangrove swamps of Pichavaram, trying to really experience them well, I thought about how an important dimension of Sufism is to seek to see the divine everywhere—and the Sufi Teacher, Inayat Khan, came to mind. I recalled how he says that we are often only dimly aware of the beauty, the shining of the divine, in the world all around us. In this way, he says, and I remembered his powerful words, “we waste our life, which is an opportunity to experience and enjoy.” But when we “remember” our Teachers and receive their help, we can clear away distractions and deeply experience the beauty before us. Pondicherry turned out to be a wonderful place to watch the sunrise out of the Bay of Bengal. Rising early, I ventured out to the beach, found a good flat rock, sat down, lowered my eyelids, and entered the quiet of meditation. Shah Jii appeared, and a vivid memory came back to me. I had slept at the Sufi Center and soon after dawn Shah Jii woke me up. He indicated that I should be silent, and he led me and another disciple on a narrow trail up the mountain to a rocky ledge with an amazing view of the surrounding hills and the vast green Indus Plain far below. Silent, but very much with each other, we watched the rising sun sending beautiful rays of light over the mountain ridges and down onto the plain below. This memory overlapped with my experience at Pondicherry. Again I was not alone, dozens of others—westerners and Indians—awaited sunrise on the rocks nearby or on the balconies of the guest house and apartment buildings behind us. Many more beings were also with us. Some people were praying to their gods and goddesses, or chanting mantras, and others like me were in tune with their Teachers. And when the sun rose, we all experienced a beautiful moment of communion together.

When the Indian Pilgrimage was over, my wife and I flew back to the US. On the way, sitting in the cramped and crowded economy section of Emirates Flight 231, I awoke from a brief period of dozing with a headache, sweating, fatigued and uncomfortable. Merging the past and the present moment, I remembered and felt again all the sadness and strain of packing and saying goodbye to our Indian family. I looked at my watch, it was a little after 4 am Indian time and we had already been traveling for eleven hours—driving out of Hyderabad through hectic traffic to Rajiv Gandhi airport, flying to Dubai, waiting in the airport and flying for hours over the Middle East toward the Atlantic crossing. And from now until our arrival in Washington Dulles airport, “ten more hours to go!” Mired in an ugly, unpleasant state I felt resentful, sick, and tired. I started whining to myself, “How am I going to handle the rest of this trip?” Then somewhere in the inner distance, I seemed to hear a faint whispering call, “You should meditate.” “But,” I answered “I don’t feel like it…” And then, just barely overcoming my resistance, I decided to try for a minute or two. Straightening up, stretching, relaxing my body, I centered and started following the breath, leaving my self-pitying state behind, I entered the silence, “Ah, so much better.” Surprisingly, it was easy to stay in meditation and for the next 25 minutes or so I sailed free and easy through calm empty space. Then awakening, shifting out of this good meditation, I felt wonderfully restored. The meditation, I thought, was “utterly transformative.” Feeling some agency, energy, and amusement again, I pulled my pen and travel journal out of the seat pocket, lowered the tray table and happily started going back over my notes on the Tamil Nadhu pilgrimage—reading, remembering, and filling in details. I enjoyed recalling our visits to the marvelous Hindu temples, sunrise on the Bay of Bengal, and the silence of the ashram. As I recalled and re-entered these experience via memory and reflection, the Murshid reappeared and once again I connected with Sri Aurobindo, the Mother, Shah Jii, and the Gods and Goddesses of the Temples. And then, “What’s that high pitched noise I seem to hear?—Ah, yes, Shiva, it’s the dwarf of forgetfulness of Self, screeching…”

1 Ali Bin Uthman Al-Hujwiri (Data Ganj Bakhsh) Kashaf Al Madjub, (“The Unveiling of the Veiled,”) translated by Reynold Nicholson, Islamic Book Foundation, Lahore, Pakistan, 1976, p. 345.
2 Victor Turner and Edith Turner, Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture, Columbia University Press, New York, 1978 p. 37, Cf. pp. 250-251.
3 Peter Heehs, Sri Aurobindo: A Brief Biography, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1989 and Peter Heehs, ed., The Essential Writings of Sri Aurobindo, Oxford University Press, 1998. Not far from Pondicherry is Auroville, the successful experimental township founded by The Mother.
4 Hazrat Inayat Khan, Mastery Through Accomplishment, Sufi Order Publications, New Lebanon, NY, 1978 p. 294.


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98 The Costly Transgression

The Costly Transgression

Woman as Lover in Sufi Discourse


Woman as lover or desiring subject is mostly absent in Sufi discourses. In the following analysis, I will focus on two exceptions that find their way into Sufi discourses of love. The first is the character of Zulaykha in the story of Yusuf and Zulaykha; this is based on the Koranic version of the tale in sura Yusuf, which is modified and retold in numerous Sufi texts, including Attar’s Ilahinama. The second, less well-known, is the story of the daughter of Ka’b (known as Rabi’a Balkhi), also in Attar’s Ilahinama. While both Zulaykha and Rabi’a Balkhi open spaces for the articulation of woman as lover or subject of desire in Sufi discourses, I argue that Attar’s empathy and inclusivity also allows him to offer an implicit critique of the dominant masculine discourse of Sufism.

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Sura Yusuf, as already suggested by its name, is mainly about the trials and ordeals of Yusuf (Joseph), the son of the prophet Ya’qub, on his path of faith and eventual prophethood. Yusuf, the favorite son, is taken by his jealous brothers to the desert and dropped into a pit. A caravan looking for water saves Yusuf from the pit and takes him as a slave. He is later sold to an Egyptian ruler by the name of al-Aziz. Al-Aziz’s wife attempts to seduce Yusuf, but Yusuf resists the temptation. He is then wrongly accused of trying to seduce the wife of al-Aziz and sent to prison. Because of his ability to interpret dreams he is able to interpret the king’s dream, save the kingdom and as a result, obtain his freedom.1 After his release he demands that the wife of al-Aziz confess to her guilt and that he be exonerated from the accusation of attempted seduction. The wife confesses to her guilt and shortly after that Yusuf becomes ruler of Egypt, and a prophet. Eventually he confronts his brothers and returns home to his elderly father who has lost his sight crying for his beloved Yusuf.

In the Koranic version, the wife of al-Aziz, who is not even identified by name, is simply a seductress representing both the threatening force of female sexuality and woman’s deception (her guile). However, as discussed by Gayane Karen Merguerian and Afsaneh Najmabadi in “Zulaykha and Yusuf: Whose ‘Best Story’?”, in the later commentary of sura Yusuf, the wife of al-Aziz is given the name Zulaykha and the story of Yusuf over time changes into the story of Yusuf and Zulaykha with an emphasis on Zulaykha’s love for Yusuf. Zulaykha’s love is also gradually incorporated into Sufi literature as an example of earthly love’s transformation into divine love, famously illustrated in the fifteenth-century poetic narrative Haft Awrang (Seven Thrones), written by the Sufi poet Nur ad-Din Abd ar-Rahman Jami (1414-1492).

In mapping the trajectory of Zulaykha through centuries of Koranic commentaries, stories of prophets (sacred histories), and Sufi literature, Merguerian and Najmabadi try to ascertain whether or not Zulaykha’s evolution as a character makes a feminist reading or a “feminist appropriation” of her possible. In their view, even though Jami’s Sufi rewriting of Zulaykha elevates her status from a mere seductress to a Sufi lover, at the end she cannot be completely rescued “from the confines of male heterosexual imagination.” Given that in Jami’s version, Zulaykha’s reward after years of suffering for Yusuf’s love is to be restored to her original beauty and wealth and presented to Yusuf as his wife, Merguerian and Najmabadi conclude that “in all of the story’s various existing versions, including Jami’s, Zulaykha is crafted by heterosexual male desire and imagination.”2

Though I agree with Merguerian and Najmabadi that Zulaykha’s character, like so many other fictional female characters depicted by male writers, is heavily influenced by the dominant discourse of male desire, I am open to an interpretation that destabilizes the dominant discourse. In a way Merguerian and Najmabadi already do that in their feminist interpretive strategies, suggesting as they do that “guile” is not restricted to women, or that it can be interpreted as wit. But in terms of female sexuality and desire, they seem to think that Zulaykha cannot offer much as a vehicle for feminist interpretation. I will suggest otherwise.

In the Sufi discourse of love, Zulaykha is probably the only well-known female character who assumes the mantle of a lover. Since the ultimate goal of Sufi love is the annihilation of the lover’s ego identity in the beloved, the promise of the union is never the promise of sexual/physical fulfillment but of total loss or dispossession of self. The Sufi discourses that treat Zulaykha as a lover seriously, emphasize this loss more than anything else. In Attar’s Ilahinama, for example, we find this emphasis in highlighting the seemingly lowest point of Zulaykha’s life story as evidence for the sincerity of her love. In a brief narrative moment, Attar depicts Zulaykha at the time when she is reduced to a blind, destitute, old woman sitting at the side of the road waiting for Yusuf. In a reversal of fortune, he is now the ruler of Egypt and a prophet, soon to pass by with his army and entourage. Seeing her in such a pitiful state, Yusuf turns to God and prays for her death saying, “O God, what do you want with this old blind woman? Why don’t you take her away, since she sought to bring disgrace to your prophet?”3 Though the scene is based on Nayshaburi’s eleventh-century tale of Yusuf and Zulaykha in Qisas al-anbiya (the stories of prophets), it offers a completely different take on the meeting of the two after many years at the dramatic point of the reversal of fortunes. In Nayshaburi’s Qisas al-anbiya Zulaykha appears to be still in charge, in spite of her misfortunes.4 She is the one who initiates the conversation and eventually asks Yusuf to pray that she regain her eyesight. Yusuf also is shown to have a lot of sympathy for her. In Attar’s version of the scene, on the other hand, Zulaykha is silent and Yusuf is depicted as a cold-hearted revengeful man. After Yusuf’s prayer for her death, it is Gabriel, the messenger of God, who addresses Yusuf stating that it is Zulaykha’s love for him that makes Zulaykha dear to God. Admonishing Yusuf for his prayer, Gabriel asks: “Who told you to seek the death of the rose in the garden and to wish for the destruction of the friends of Our friends?… Since she is filled with tenderness for Our Yusuf, who would think in hatred of taking her life?”5 The paradox of Gabriel’s defense is that Zulaykha is championed because of her love for Yusuf, while Yusuf himself does not value this love and is admonished for that. In a way Yusuf is here the voice of the dominant male discourse, full of hate, who sees Zulaykha as nothing but a lying seductress who tried to corrupt the prophet of God. But, as a lover in Sufi discourse, Zulaykha is presented as someone who is willing to sacrifice all and everything for her beloved. At the end of the scene Attar concludes: “If you know how to sacrifice your life you have some conception of the lovers’ secret, and if you have no idea of sacrificing life all your talk is of no avail.”6 Imagining Zulaykha as a Sufi lover and defending her against the misogynist discourse of male desire, Attar is finally able to focus on Zulaykha’s love alone and show that it can stand on its own, even when the object of her desire (Yusuf) despises her and prays for her death. Though Attar alludes to the possibility of Zulaykha regaining her youth, beauty, and status to regain Yusuf’s desire, the scene’s focal point is Zulaykha’s suffering in love, Yusuf’s cold-hearted response to her, and God’s admonishment of his prophet’s lack of sympathy to his destitute lover. Here Zulaykha’s punishment has nothing to do with punishment for her excessive sexuality (as argued by Merguerian and Najmabadi in relation to other versions of Zulaykha’s tale), but it is the suffering of a Sufi lover who has to let go of all her possessions, including her self, in order to be annihilated in her beloved and attain union. In that sense, Zulaykha’s suffering is no different from Majnun’s. Attar’s depiction of Zulaykha in this brief scenic moment in Ilahinama not only destabilizes the normative narrative of sura Yusuf, but also, in mirroring the reversal of fortunes, offers a fresh and ironic juxtaposition of a vengeful self-righteous prophet on the one hand and a disgraced, destitute lover who has sacrificed all for her love on the other hand. Attar’s Zulaykhas ultimately triumphs as a Sufi lover.

Nevertheless, the short reference to Zulaykha in Attar’s Ilahinama cannot undo centuries of religious/literary misogyny. Zulaykha’s character as a seductress responsible for wrongfully accusing the prophet of God and sending him to prison persists in the Islamic discourse and imagination. What Attar’s rendition of Zulaykha does, however, is to show that Sufis’ understanding of love as an ultimate act of self-negation not only is more important than prophethood, but also can provide the means to dismantle feminine stereotypes and to open spaces for women’s spirituality.

Daughter of Ka’b (Rabi’a Balkhi)

A lesser known character in Sufi discourse is the poet and princess, daughter of Ka’b, who appears also in Attar’s Ilahinama. Attar’s daughter of Ka’b is based on the poet Rabi’a bint Ka’b al-Quzdari, mentioned by Nooruddin Muhammad Aufi Bukhari (1171-1242) in his Lubabul Albab, the oldest known biographical work in Persian literature. Aufi, who was a contemporary of Attar, does not say anything about Rabi’a Balkhi’s personal life except that she was constantly in love and engaging in “shahid bazi.”7 This small fleeting reference is very significant, since to my knowledge it is the first time in recorded Persian literature where a woman is identified as a practitioner of shahid bazi. Does this mean that she enjoyed the company of young adolescent boys (amrads), or simply had male lovers? It is hard to say. The rest of Aufi’s entry on Rabi’a Balkhi is devoted to his praise of her poetic powers in Persian and Arabic with a few examples of her poetry. On the other hand, Rabi’a Balkhi is also known in her native Afghanistan as the mother of Persian poetry, and a national hero on account of her poetry and her tragic death brought about by her love for her brother’s slave, Baktash. So, in Afghan cultural discourse, the story of Rabi’a Balkhi’s life is mostly identical with the story of the daughter of Ka’b related in Attar’s Ilahinama. Her tomb, which still exists in Mazar-i Sharif, has been visited for centuries by young lovers who treat her with a saint-like veneration.

Even though Attar refuses to name Rabi’a Balkhi and only refers to her as “daughter of Ka’b,” in telling the story of Rabi’a Balkhi he not only firmly establishes the possibility of a woman as an ardent lover in Sufi discourses, but also empowers the female lover with the gift of poetry to enable her to express the intensity of her love and to communicate with her beloved. Interestingly, as in the case of Rabi’a al-Adawiyya there are no references to Rabi’a Balkhi’s life story and love story before Attar. Aufi’s fleeting reference to her constantly being in love and engaging in shahid bazi is the only reference outside Attar that dates near him or precedes him. Whether or not Attar is mythologizing a historical figure or creating a legend based on pure fiction, his story of Rabi’a Balkhi engages historical reality as well as mystical truth.

The story of Rabi’a Balkhi (or daughter of Ka’b) appears in discourse twenty-one of Attar’s Ilahinama, in an exchange between the king father and the sixth son. In answer to the father’s question of what each son desires most, the sixth prince responds that he desires the knowledge of alchemy to guarantee the mastery of both worlds (the material and the spiritual). The father in turn rebukes his son for falsely equating desire with love and goes on to explain what love actually means.

If you would achieve perfection in love you must be perpetually in three conditions:
First weeping, second burning, and thirdly bleeding.
If you come forth from these three seas,
Your Beloved will admit you behind the curtain, otherwise
He/She will lay many a thorn in your path,
And if you do not understand these words,
the following story will suffice to explain them.8

The story of Rabi’a Balkhi therefore is framed as an example of mystical love and, contrary to most examples in the discourse of Persian Sufism, the protagonist of this love is a woman. The beautiful daughter of a ruler by the name of Ka’b falls in love with his brother’s slave, Baktash. Unlike the Layla and Majnun story where love consumes the lover even in the absence of any impediments to their union (where Majnun cannot stand to be in proximity to Layla), or Mahmud and Ayaz story where the physical proximity does not diminish the intensity of love, Rabi’a and Baktash’s story, with a woman as the protagonist lover, is essentially a story of forbidden love.

Unlike Zulaykha who at the beginning of her love wants to fulfill her desire and to consummate her love, Rabi’a, who often in her poetry expresses the pain of separation and the hope of union with her beloved, refuses to engage in any physical act of love-making when the opportunity presents itself. Sometime after the lovers start a literary affair, Rabia moves through a passageway when she encounters Baktash. Immediately recognizing her, Baktash seizes her skirt. Feeling indignant, Rabi’a tears herself loose and says:

Ill-mannered one, what impudence is this? Thou art a fox—how can you take the place of a lion?
No man dares approach me—who are you that you should seize my skirt?9

When Baktash protests that she is the one who has been sending him love poems day and night, “Having first driven me mad why do you treat me as a stranger?” Rabi’a responds that he should be content that he is the reason, the excuse for this love.

You know nothing of this mystery.
Something has happened within my heart and it was brought about by you,
Not a hundred slaves would have been worthy of doing this, and yet I have granted it to you.
Is this not enough for you that you have been the reason, the excuse?
There is no goodness in what you have done,
What you have done is falling into lust.10

Rabi’a leaves at once and Baktash’s love for her intensifies after the encounter. Attar no doubt wants to make sure that Rabi’a’s love is not mistaken for an ordinary physical/sexual attraction that can only find satisfaction in the physical union of the lovers. Right after depicting the scene, Attar quotes the great Khurasani Sufi master, Abu Sa’id Abu al-Khayr in saying that from her poetry one can tell that Rabi’a is not addressing an earthly beloved, but really expressing her love for God.11 Still, if we compare Rabi’a’s rejection of Baktash’s physical love to the numerous stories of Mahmud and Ayaz where the two lovers are depicted in physical proximity and at times in erotic scenes of love lying next to each other, it would seem that Rabi’a’s rejection of Baktash’s physical advances cannot be simply explained away as an enactment of an ideal Sufi love. As we shall see by the end of the story, there are legitimate reasons for Rabi’a to be mindful of her interactions with Baktash. Class and gender barriers complicate Rabi’a responses. She is a princess; he is a slave; they are both under the direct command of the king/brother Hares.

One cannot underestimate the role of poetry in the love story of Rabi’a Balkhi. Not only does Attar’s narration of Rabi’a love story rely heavily on the love poems that Rabi’a regularly sends her beloved Baktash, but also her love poems betray the secrecy of her love and ultimately expose her love to the world and to her brother and lead to her tragic death. When a friend of Baktash looking for valuables inside an urn comes across the hidden love poems and presents them to Hares, Rabi’a’s poems become irrefutable evidence of her crime of love. Hares orders his men to put Baktash in chains and take him to the dungeons. He also calls on his men to have his sister’s wrists cut open and have her entombed in a bathhouse. Wailing and crying, Rabi’a continues to write poetry with her own blood on the walls of the bathhouse until she dies. Rabi’a’s poems thus exceed their literary function as expressions of her love and at the end become physical embodiments of the lover/poet.

My share of love is this
That they put me in hell while still alive,
So that I could record my secrets in hell,
Amid flames and fire in blood.
How would you know the way this should be written?
Such a tale should be written by blood.
Since I’m in hell for the heavenly face of the beloved
I’m in paradise everywhere I turn.
Since God has made hell my lot,
My tale is the paradise of lovers.12

Attar does his best to transform Rabi’a Balkhi’s fortune by making her tale and her poetry a vehicle for an ideal Sufi love. But somehow, he is not as successful with Rabi’a Balkhi as he is with Rabi’a Adawiyya in his Tazkerat al-Awliya. The tale of Rabi’a Balkhi with all its fantastic imagery (i.e. a woman writing poetry with her blood), dramatic plotline, and tragic love theme is not picked up by other Sufi writers after Attar. She is mentioned here and there (as in Jami’s Nafahat al-uns), but she is not incorporated in the Sufi discourse of love like Layla and Majnun or Mahmud and Ayaz or even Yusuf and Zulaykha. She stands alone, unique, and at odds with the tradition that cannot bring itself to include her as a woman poet/lover wholeheartedly.

Perhaps, the apparent neglect of Rabi’a Balkhi in Sufi discourses is due to the fact that the story of Rabi’a Balkhi as told by Attar is among other things a story of honor killing, the murder of women by their male relatives due to what is perceived by the family/community as sexually immoral behavior. Attar is clearly on the side of Rabi’a in the story. He even makes sure that Rabi’a is avenged at the end. Eventually Baktash frees himself from the dungeon and cuts the king’s throat at night. Then he goes to Rabi’a’s grave and kills himself. Nevertheless, Attar makes a great effort in presenting Rabi’a’s love as a love that transcends physical passion, as if arguing that had Rabi’a acted on her love for Baktash, her claim to love would have been illegitimate. In fact, Attar’s aim is to show that, like the Layla and Majnun story, Rabi’a’s love for Baktash as an example of profane love (eshq-e majazi) is a vehicle for spiritual love (eshq-e haqiqi). Attar believed he was making a good case for the inclusion of Rabi’a Balkhi in the lofty spaces of Sufi love discourse. After all, in the case of Yusuf and Zulaykha as we have seen, the Sufi discourses were generous enough and forgiving enough even to allow for the physical passion of Zulaykha. However, Sufi writers did so, as Merguerian and Najmabadi point out, by transforming Zulaykha into Yusuf’s object of love. In other words, they turn Zulaykha from a lover to a beloved, projecting a masculine ideal of love. Moreover, as a prophet renowned for his beauty and talked about in the Koran, Yusuf’s love is already deemed legitimate. Rabi’a’s love for a slave on the other hand, continues to challenge the Sufi discourse of love, which for the most part is a discourse founded on male desire and homoerotic love.

Ultimately, we owe the existence of the woman as lover in Sufi discourse to Attar and his continuous efforts in imagining women as spiritual actors and agents instead of mere bystanders and impediments in men’s spiritual quests. No doubt, Attar was also limited in his vision of women’s spiritual involvements and experiences. But as we have seen in the case of Rabi’a al-Adawiyya, Zulaykha, and Rabi’a Balkhi, the daughter of Ka’b, his vision was far more conscious of the possibility of woman’s agency as both divine and human lover than most of his contemporaries or even his predecessors.

1 The story of Ysuf interpreting king’s dream.
2 Gayane Karen Merguerian and Afsaneh Najmabadi, “Zulaykha and Yusuf: Whose ‘Best Story’?”, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 29 (1997), 500.
3 Attar, Ilahinama, Kadkani, 365. Attar Ilahi-nama, Boyle, 297.
4 Qisas al-anbiya, Neyshaburi.
5 Attar, Ilahinama, Kadkani, 365. Attar Ilahi-nama, Boyle, 297.
6 Attar, Ilahinama, Kadkani, 366. Attar Ilahi-nama, Boyle, 298.
7 Lubabul Albab, Aufi, page 61, entry 51
8 Ibid.
9 Attar, Ilahinama, Kadkani, 379. Attar Ilahi-nama, Boyle, 313.
10 Ibid.
11 There are no references to Rabi’a Balkhi in Abu Sai’d’s known biographies.
12 Attar, Ilahinama, Kadkani, 386. Attar Ilahi-nama, Boyle, 321.


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98 Nudge



Somewhere around the sixth month in utero, our daughter started hooking her foot over my wife’s rib. Discomfort followed: soreness, restlessness, a reminder of new life. I do not have a uterus, but I do have a rib, and several times a small foot (or something like it) has hooked thereon. People use the word calling, but that’s so grandiose. So I call it a nudge. That’s how it feels. God—whoever that is, by whatever name—was nudging me toward something. This essay needs a warning label. WARNING: the nudge is slippery, even dangerous.

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For one thing, it’s hard to tell if the nudge is a nudge at all. Sure, maybe there is a foot on your rib. Or maybe you slept funny, or overstretched, or the jalapeños are back for their revenge. That’s not much to hang a life on. And yet it’s exactly what God expects—no, what God appears to expect. (Who can be sure, after all?) You take a risk that maybe, just maybe, you’re building your whole future on indigestion.

Then there’s this. A few months after our daughter’s birth, my wife had a sudden coughing fit and broke a rib. The same rib that served as a perch for the persistent foot. She thinks the foot weakened the rib, and that’s why it broke. So following the nudge can get you lost and break your bones. And little by little, I’ve learned to entrust my life to it.

That word calling: people use it all the time. Listen in the right circles, and you’ll hear someone say she has a calling from God. Or God called him to the mission field. It’s been going on for centuries. Ancient Hebrews and Christians wrote about God calling. Mostly, in these stories, God tells people things. God tells Abraham his future as a father of multitudes. God tells Moses the sacred law on Mount Sinai. An angel tells Mary she’s about to give birth to God.

Yes, God appears in dreams and visions too. But there’s a lot of audio in these sacred texts. The divine hands cupped round the divine mouth, shouting to be heard above the fray, like the mother on a porch who yells it’s time to come home for dinner. Some days I’d love a call to come home. Instead I get a nudge. A foot on a rib that never goes away.

With all the talk about calling, you have to search hard for people who’ve experienced the nudge. But you will find them. The nudge is what Elizabeth got in the Christian sacred texts. Mary arrives, pregnant with Jesus, and calls out a greeting as she walks in the door. Elizabeth, pregnant with John the Baptist, feels the baby leap in her womb. Many years later, seekers began to visit monasteries with the dream of joining someday. They still do. The abbot or novice master sits down with them and asks about calling. The answer is usually vague, and it centers on restlessness, an inner discomfort that outlasts mood swings and physical pain. They rarely mention babies, but maybe they should. Something is being born. And it won’t quit till it gets its way.

We were driving back to Johannesburg in a blinding rainstorm—a 10-hour trip to catch our flight home—and my mind lingered on the tectonic shift that South Africa had wrought in me. So much of what I’d always considered essential had lost its luster: the striving, schmoozing, and false self required to run my own business. Something else waited to be done.

Something is being born.
And it won’t quit till it gets its way.

I knew what the something else might be. Before the trip I’d launched a blog about matters of spirit. Each Saturday morning I’d compose a post or two at a café right out of the seventies, all bright orange and funky fonts and plush sofas. It refreshed me from the shallows of the workweek, and I continued to blog during the South Africa trip. But then the trip was over, and we sped through the rain toward our flight, and the foot slipped over my rib. One half-day a week was no longer enough. I was being asked to write more. I flew back to America and wrote more. The nudge didn’t stop. It didn’t stop till the writing occupied half my days and all my bliss. Only then did the child change position, the soreness recede, and my body lie at rest.

Sometimes you only know the nudge by its symptoms. For the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah the nudge was a fire. Long ago he obeyed God’s call (the verbal kind) to rage against the leaders of Israel, and he’d had more than his fill of it—enough to consider turning his back forever. But it wasn’t that simple. If I say, “I will not mention God, or speak any more in God’s name,” he writes, then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.”

For others the nudge is a gasp, or a gleam. Thirty years ago, during a dinner with close friends—the kind who look out for each other—my wife and I were bemoaning the need to leave town for some other, less expensive place. Ideas got thrown around, considered, shelved. Then someone mentioned the city where we now live.

My breath caught in my throat. I looked at my wife, and the light in her eyes told me she’d felt the same.

I haven’t said much good about the nudge. It’s been all annoyance and inconvenience and warning labels. Yet so many of us follow wherever the nudge leads. If that seems irrational, look again at the light in my wife’s eyes. It’s a quickening of sorts: the very first movement of that new life. We see what’s coming and we cannot keep our feet from running toward it. Elizabeth’s baby knew what lay ahead. Mary nudged with her greeting, and he leapt for joy. I have seen that joy, the allure of following it, the love offered behind the allure, the Mystery enfolding it all. Many of us will do whatever it takes to bring that nudge, safe and squalling, into the world. Later on, we’ll do everything we can to nurture it, till it too gives life to everything it touches.


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98 depths



[/twocol_one] [twocol_one_last]


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listen to the hum
its unstruck chords
offer full silence

note by absent note
it can play you into existence.

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98 Ayurveda


A Spiritually Rich Education


There is a direct relationship between physical, mental, and spiritual health, as per Ayurveda, the science of health and healing from ancient India. Spirituality helps one understand the basic building blocks of human individuality and speaks to ultimate concerns of human existence. It helps us cope with the stress of life, personal strivings and issues of adaptive functioning. Spirituality supports the deepest healing and total transformation —which is possible when existential suffering (that all human beings experience at some time or another in life) is directly addressed with spiritual knowledge of the invincible Self.1
Physical medicine has limitations in this capacity, and this is where the need to blend the hard science of disease management with pragmatic spirituality becomes apparent. The seers, who were the original authors of Ayurveda, gifted humanity a unique medicine that is simultaneously an artful way of living to protect and optimize health. Ayurveda is a science-based system of medicine to overcome chronic and acute physical disease, but also a spiritual path or philosophy to approach the transcendent or ultimate reality, by way of a purified mind.

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This purified mind reveals the truth of a subtle, spiritual core of the true Self (Atman), which is beyond the suffering of body and mind, always whole, healthy, incorporeal, ethereal, eternal, and which survives death.2

In this last capacity, Ayurveda seems to be able to satisfy the individual need for a sense of meaning in life (Trivarga)4 and the search for larger purpose in life (Moksha).4 “Meaning” may also include moral or ethical values (Dharma and Sadvirtta)5 that are universal, and emerge from Ayurveda’s view of the ultimate sacred reality (Brahman), which surpasses religion.

What is remarkable is that Ayurveda is perhaps humanity’s one and only system of health and recovery that corroborates the state of ideal or perfect health with a state of “transcendence,” or meta-experience of a transpersonal, unity consciousness. This outlook reflects Ayurveda’s spiritual Vedic roots and alignment with Vedic cultural ideals.

The concept of “love” in Ayurveda goes beyond the felt transitory “emotion,” into an abiding belief system, comprising of compassion, altruism, forgiveness, patience, tolerance, support, empowerment, respect, responsibility, etc., which shape intent, and guide our actions, both towards our self, and all other beings (Sarva Bhuta Hita).6

Thus, Ayurveda is a complete spiritual tradition (Adhyatmika Darshan). Ayurveda does not incorporate consciousness as part of its therapy as an adjunct. In contrast, in Ayurvedic medicine, life itself is described as a tripod of consciousness (Atman), body (Sharira), and mind (Sattva).7

Ayurvedic medicine is, thus, the first medicine of mankind ever to systematically and comprehensively incorporate spirituality, or consciousness, as the most essential aspect of healing, without which life itself is not possible.

No Forced Splitting Between Matter and Spirit

Therefore, classical Ayurveda’s understanding is vastly different from other healing sciences, which regard the subject matter as either purely physical or purely mental. Most medical systems claim their hard-earned pragmatism by denying, or at least ignoring, the possibility of the existence of consciousness.

The unique Ayurvedic approach positively empowers humans in their search for true health, by reminding us fragile humans of our inherent potential to self-heal by reclaiming connection with our spiritual Self, which is eternally whole, universally connected, and one with the ultimate reality. This spiritual Self is a source of plenary existence (Sat), plenary intelligence (Chit), and plenary bliss (Ananda). In other words, existence is consciousness and consciousness is bliss.8

The Self is an enigmatic, mighty power to the unversed, but Ayurveda invites each one of us to recognize this substratum of uninterrupted, immortal consciousness, and become familiar with our true nature, our eternal Self, through spiritual understanding. Once we begin to entertain the possibility of a transcendental Self that animates and outlives our fragile phenomenal body-being, we begin to appreciate our life in all its colors, depth, and essence. We will finally become ready to receive the supreme gift of spiritual knowledge (Atma Jnanam), which the Vedic Rishis were intending for all human beings.10

Ayurveda does not neglect one dimension at the cost of another. Ayurveda emphasizes that, for a healthy and fulfilled journey through life, all dimensions of “life” are correlated, equally significant, and co-operational. No other system of healing, apart from Ayurveda, delivers so comprehensively physical, mental, social, moral, ethical, ecological, environmental, and above all, spiritual health for the journeying soul.

Spirituality versus Religion

To continue to advocate a meaningful inclusion of spirituality in medicine, it is necessary to clarify a difference between the terms, “spirituality” and “religion.” Spirituality is, indeed, a multifaceted and multidimensional intellectual, experiential, and behavioral human quest for meaning, purpose, and expression of truth in life (known as the pursuit of Moksha in Ayurveda). It is also the mindful embodiment of universally applicable and entirely humane ethical values and beliefs by which an individual act, lives, and makes decisions in life (included under the concept of Dharma in Ayurveda).

The emotive aspects of spirituality involve feelings of optimism, hope, empathetic connection to all beings, compassion, care and love, a sense of inner centeredness, peacefulness, and finally, a continued reliance upon inner resources, in the form of an inner conviction of the presence of a cosmic power greater than oneself. This is subsumed under the concept of Sadvritta in Ayurveda.

Spirituality expresses itself in the ability to grow, learn, deserve self-worth, and to give and receive spiritual love with ease. A spirituality-driven person, as a result, has a healthy relationship with their self, others, the society, the natural environment, and this entire universe at large.

Religion, on the other hand, is a canonized set of beliefs about spirituality, headed by a group of individuals, and each religion attempts to help connect its followers to its unique “concept of spirituality” through its own body of practices, theories, rituals, and codes. Many find religion as a first door into the realm of spirituality, and others may find spirituality via other doors—not religion.

Spirituality, unlike religion, is the greater, more developed notion, and it can and does exist despite religion, as evidenced by the sciences of Ayurveda, Yoga, and Vedanta. An experience of spirituality is entirely possible even for the atheist or agnostic, who may choose to connect to a higher truth via nature, the arts, music, philosophy, and even the pursuit of pure science, since spirituality is a universal mind state that is connected to a meta-reality.

Precluding Spiritual Crisis

As per Ayurveda, because we are really spirit with a body and mind, our spiritual nature is primary, and our psychological and biological nature is secondary and dependent upon our spiritual nature. Hence, to be spiritually cognizant is important for the health of the other two dimensions of existence (body and mind).

One who is spiritually-inspired and has a sense of connectedness with a universal truth experiences hope, meaning, purpose, and inner strength to overcome to become. However, if there is a spiritual non-alignment for any reason (negative religious experiences in the past, life situations, such as terminal illness, or tremendous personal loss, that makes one spiritually-estranged), then individuals can experience existential isolation, mindlessness, meaninglessness, utter dismay and hopelessness that go beyond what can be fixed by mental health practitioners. This is a spiritual crisis and it has a lasting negative impact on mental, as well as physical health.

Ayurveda wants to proactively prevent spiritual crisis, by informing each human being of their spiritual Self, Atman, from the get-go. For a concept of health that goes beyond the limitations of body and mind, Ayurveda informs us that we are ultimately spirit, Atman, which is one and the same with the Universal Truth, or Brahman.

Atman (personal self) and Brahman (universal self) are not divinely illustrious personalities or godheads, but actually facets of the same Ultimate Reality, which transcends name and form, is permanent, immutable, unchanging, uncaused, non-dual ground of this diverse creation. While both terms ultimately refer to the same truth, Atman refers to the reality of consciousness expressed in living beings, while Brahman refers to the same consciousness in its purely transcendental, infinite universal state.

Evidently, the realization of the identity of the personal Self with transcendental consciousness is the highest goal of human life, as per Ayurveda.9 Further, this is not hard or impossible, teaches Ayurveda (in tune with the Veda), because this consciousness, or spiritual Self, is “self-revealing,” and its presence can be immediately known and experienced through the agency of a quieted mind. This consciousness, Atman, is indeed self-luminous.

It is to the credit of Ayurvedic medicine and its expansive sweep into the nature of existence that the multi-dimensional living being­—you and me, can hope to heal not only in body and mind, but also reclaim, at any time, our spiritual nature. There is hope. We can hope to be “seen.” We can hope to be appreciated with all our complexity. Our experiences are all valid, each and every one of them; and, we are not merely dismembered organs, structures, and functions; we are whole. We are more than our parts. We are lofty spirits having a local experience on this planet called earth, in this process called life. We are in all and all is in us. Everything is essentially as it is meant to be. Everything is peaceful, if we choose peace. Everything is one, regardless of whether we see diversity. Our true Self sings this soothing song. Listen. Let us hear it together through Ayurveda—this is the invitation of the Rishis, no less.

The Missed Opportunity by Modern Ayurveda Fraternity

Despite such a rich spiritual background, worldwide and especially in in India, Ayurveda’s country of origin, we witness more and more a preference toward a bio-pharmaceutical statistical model; and the word “holistic” is highly limited in its professional application.

Focus upon psycho-spiritual dimensions of health is minimal, if not absent. This is an unfortunate situation, partly due to the Ayurveda fraternity’s preoccupation with modern physical sciences and attempts to launch Ayurveda on the same footing as mainstream medicine. While there are pros and cons to this approach, the bottom line is that spirituality is being marginalized amongst Indian practitioners of Ayurveda, as well in the Ayurveda education process.

When spirituality is accepted as a living value that must be assiduously cultivated for true health and lasting well-being, it becomes the basis of a compassionate attitude toward all beings (including our self) and service toward those who are suffering.

I want to caution students as well as current and future Ayurveda practitioners against the quick commodification of Ayurvedic spirituality, as is unfortunately the trend in new-age culture.

If we, as a community, do not define what the basic premise of Ayurvedic spirituality is from the source texts, and what its landmark principles and salient features are, a misappropriation of an ancient spiritual wellness tradition cannot be ruled out. In the current era, when the ancient wisdom that was once passed on carefully from teacher to select student, can now be bought and sold literally with the click of a button, its application, too, becomes driven by market trends.

Practitioners of future can take wisdom forward today, to continue to bridge the great divide between the material and spiritual dimensions of health that has beset Ayurveda today. But first, they must make the effort to study Ayurveda in a deeper way—deeper than merely mastering dosha-balancing techniques, quick lists and tips.

I hope my efforts in this direction, namely of enabling a spiritually-infused, whole-person education through classical Ayurveda, will broaden the understanding of the role of spirituality and dharma ethics in improving the health and well-being of individual patients, families, and healthcare providers.

1  Charaka Samhita, Sutra Sthanam, I, Shloka, 55-56
2  Charaka Samhita, Sharira Sthanam, I, Shloka 59
3  Ashtanga Hridayam, Sutra Sthanam, I, Shloka 2
4  Charaka Samhita, Sharira Sthanam, V, Shloka 16-19 5 Charaka Samhita, Sharira Sthanam, II, 46-47
5  Charaka Samhita, Sharira Sthanam, V, 22-24
6  Charaka Samhita, Sutra Sthanam, VIII, 29
7  Charaka Samhita, Sutra Sthanam, 1, 46-47
8  Charaka Samhita, Sharira Sthanam, I, 83, 155
9  Charaka Samhita, Sharira Sthanam, I, 155
10  Charaka Samhita, Sharira Sthanam, I, 143-146


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98 Enchantment on the Freeway

Enchantment on the Freeway


One of my guilty pleasures is that I love cars. And I love driving, especially on long road trips. One day some years ago I decided to drive from Oakland, California, to Danville to have lunch with friends–driving my new car.

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I headed out on a beautiful spring morning, cruising along with a recording of the beautiful Hindu chant Govinda Jaya Jaya carrying me along. Govinda Jaya Jaya is the song of one who seeks and finds total protection by the Lord. Govinda and Gopala are names of Krishna in the form of a shepherd. Set in the Bilaval raga, its beautiful melody draws forth feelings of joy, repose, tenderness, and prayer. Besides, it’s wonderful driving music.

Govinda Jaya Jaya
Gopala Jaya Jaya
Radha Ramana Hari
Govinda Jaya Jaya

I was heading from Oakland on Route 24, a very scenic highway, but when I turned onto Highway 680 to connect to Walnut Creek and on to my final destination, I was driving on what is arguably one of the most beautiful highways anywhere. Once past Mt. Diablo, fewer houses mar the landscape, but horses abound. California live oak, gnarled and windblown, and huge gray boulders set against the green hills, dominate the view. Simply breathtaking. Chanting along with Govinda Jaya Jaya and enjoying my new car, I was in heaven.

In heaven­—right up to the point where the traffic had stopped dead still. In front of my car were six very large bighorn sheep in the middle of the five-lane freeway. The first miracle was that nobody hit them. We all just sat in our cars, feet off the gas pedals, transfixed. In front of us were beautiful, rose-blond animals with huge curled horns. Nobody honked. Instead, everyone got out of their cars and started moving forward to see what was going on. And then we just stood there, quiet.

After a while, a man in the far-right lane began to drive his car slowly forward, but instead of driving on down the freeway, he turned left beyond the sheep. The second car saw what he was doing and followed him, and I followed, and then the car next to me, and then the PG&E (Pacific Gas & Electric) truck in the far-left lane. The cars in the rows behind us pulled forward, and we made a circle around the animals. Without discussing it, we all got out of our vehicles and opened the doors so the bighorns couldn’t get past us.

It was a moment.

This was before the day of the ubiquitous cell phone, but somebody in the back of the pack had one and called animal control. And we waited. The woman next to me came over to my car and said, “Help me out here.” I asked her what she wanted, thinking maybe she needed water.

“Tell me you are playing Govinda Jaya Jaya on your stereo. Tell me it isn’t in my head, and that I haven’t totally lost my mind.” The tape was still playing.

I laughed. “No, it’s me. The music is coming from my car. Yes, the sheep are real. Yes, we’re standing here in the middle of the freeway with our cars circling a herd of sheep. And everyone is just standing here in the sun, enjoying the moment.”

“Oh, thank God,” she said.

People kept moving forward, and, eventually, our cars were surrounded by people just standing there, looking, waiting. It was very still, except for the music—certainly no less a mystical experience than St. Francis and Poor Clare dancing on the road in the hills of Umbria above Gubbio.

Govinda Jaya Jaya
Gopala Jaya Jaya
Radha Ramana Hari
Govinda Jaya Jaya

I wondered what reality those animals were living in. Spiritual teachers tell us this world is an illusion; “maya” they call it. What maya were those bighorn sheep experiencing, circled by cars on a California freeway in noonday sun? Certainly, a new experience for all of us. I wondered why, when the cars ahead had cleared the space, they hadn’t turned and driven up the road? Another miracle, I thought, was that the bighorn didn’t start ramming our cars with their huge horns. I was grateful. And watchful.

After a time, we saw the highway patrol and the animal control vehicles slowly driving toward us. They’d come down the exit ahead and were driving toward us in the wrong direction. When they reached us, they came and just stood with the crowd, looking, shaking their heads. The animal control people used long poles with loops to gather up the now utterly terrified bighorns, loading them into their vehicles. They had to make a call for a second vehicle. I guess they hadn’t imagined how big these sheep were. Then people slowly began returning to their cars.

The woman next to me shook her head, smiling, “Sometimes you can’t possibly understand something, but all the same, you know exactly what it means.”

I laughed, “You know what? I totally understand what you just mean.” She, too, started laughing.

When the bighorns were safely loaded into the animal shelter vehicles, we slowly and carefully drove out of the circle and resumed our journeys. I doubt that anyone who was there that day will ever forget the look in those bighorns’ beautiful light-brown eyes filled with sheer terror, nor our calm and peacefulness, knowing that they would eventually be safe. Because Lord Krishna was a shepherd? Perhaps. Because the music of that ancient raga calmed them? Maybe. Or was it because sometimes, just sometimes, people have more sense than we normally give ourselves credit for?

Adapted from a chapter in a forthcoming book entitled The Threshing Machine.


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