Tantric practices became prevalent across an extraordinary spectrum of sectarian boundaries in South Asia and beyond, ﬂourishing with Saivism, Buddhism, and Vaisnavism and ﬁnding a place in both Jainism and the Brahmanical smarta traditions as well. If one leaves aside monolithic Orientalist characterizations, it would seem evident that in South Asia, Islam constituted no less likely a ground for the assimilation of Tantric yoga. In important ways, a suitable foundation was already in place: Suﬁ traditions, after all, embraced elaborate spiritual disciplines that, like those of Tantric yoga, required esoteric initiation and presupposed a mystical physiology as the locus for meditations involving syllabic formulas,visualization, and controlled respiration. Islamic adaptations of indigenous yogic disciplines are indeed by no means unique to Bengal: Suﬁ silsilahs and Ismaºilis in South Asia attest multiple examples of experi-mentation, and as Carl Ernst shows, Arabic and Persian translations of the lost Sanskrit Amrtakunda circulated in Suﬁ circles as far aﬁeld as Istanbul. In the presence of the enormous variety of dhikr techniques available inlate medieval Islam, it was apparently not uncommon for Suﬁs to “obtain multiple initiations into the practices of several Suﬁ orders, though the primary orientation would remain in a single order.”The variable and extendable nature of the elements of Suﬁ meditational praxis, the potential for the individual Shaykh to innovate, and the probable Islamization of yogi communities in Bengal, discussed subsequently, suggest historical circumstances in which the development of Islamic forms of Tantric yoga should be of little surprise.
BIRBHUM: Traditional musicians in West Bengal, known as the Bauls continue to spread the message of communal harmony through their devotional hymns. Their membership is usually made up of Hindu bhaktis and Sufi Muslims. Since time immemorial, they have been educating people and addressing various social issues.
The Bauls who can be seen performing in trains, buses, on streets, in villages have in the past undertaken the mammoth task of spreading awareness about deadly diseases like AIDS and cancer through their songs and musical street plays.
“We educate people through our music. We, the Bauls, sing songs that have an element of devotion, an element of love, a message of belongingness,” said Gopal Das Baul, a Baul musician.
As a brown man with a beard and turban, I am usually perceived as Muslim. Unfortunately, more often than not, that perception comes with a whole lot of Islamophobic bigotry, but that’s a post for another time. If someone (politely) asks me if I’m Muslim and I say no, the follow up question is usually, “What are you, Hindu?”
I, along with the vast majority of turban-wearers in this country, am a Sikh (properly pronounced “Sick(h)”). Many readers would likely recognize me as a Sikh if you saw me walking down the street, but even many of those who know that man + turban = Sikh (gotta love Goodness Gracious Me) nevertheless have been misinformed (or just not informed) about Sikhism.
The most common misconception I hear from other South Asians about Sikhi is that it is a sect of Hinduism. Perhaps a warrior caste even (ironic, given that Sikhi from its inception was an anti-caste revolution). Another more understandable misconception, or oversimplification, is that Sikhism is a blend of Hinduism and Islam. The reality is that Sikhism is an independent faith with almost 30 million followers, making it the fifth largest religion in the world.
But first, let’s back up. Sikhism was founded by Guru Nanak, a mystic poet, saint, and revolutionary who was born (to Hindu parents) in Punjab in 1469. Around the age of 30, after emerging from having disappeared for three days while bathing in a river, Guru Nanak stated, “Na koi Hindu, Na Koi Mussalman” (there is no Hindu, there is no Muslim).
This provocative statement wasn’t intended to be a diss to Hinduism and Islam. As Sikh scholar Nikki Guninder Kaur states, “Guru Nanak was not making a value judgment about, nor refuting, the religious life of the Hindus and Muslims of his day. He was pointing to the oneness of the Trascendent that translates into the oneness and equality of humanity… He was not asking people to abandon their faith and adopt another, but stressing the fundamental, common truth underlying the diverse faiths and systems of belief.”
Like his contemporary Kabir and other saints associated with the radical bhakti movement, Guru Nanak saw religious divisions and rigidity as obstacles to the Divine. South Asia at the time was under the rule of the Mughal Empire, which was often at odds with Hindus. He saw a society brimming with hypocrisy, intolerance, caste oppression and sexism, all in the name of God. Guru Nanak traveled around Asia and the Middle East engaging the people he met about questions of God, religion, injustice, and love, while singing his devotional poetry, accompanied by a Muslim musician, Bhai Mardana.
Almost two hundred years later, Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth and final living Guru of the Sikhs continued to emphasize unity: …Hindus and Muslims are one.
The same Reality is the Creator and Preserver of all; Know no distinctions between them. The monastery and the mosque are the same; So are the Hindu worship and the Muslim prayer. Humans are all one!
Of course, contemporary Sikh institutions have not been immune to the powerful ideologies (and pathologies) of arrogance, sectarianism, and patriarchy (I write about some of these contentious issues in our community at The Langar Hall). Perhaps if Guru Nanak were alive today he might say, “There is no Hindu, there is no Muslim, there is no Sikh.”
Despite the problems inherent in most religious institutions, we Sikhs in the end rely on the poetry of the Guru Granth Sahib to inspire us. The Guru Granth Sahib is a 1430 page collection of devotional poetry written by six of the Sikh Gurus and nineteen Hindu and Muslim saints from the Radical Bhakti and Sufi traditions (including Kabir, Sheikh Farid, Namdev, and Ravidas). Indeed, you don’t have to look any further than the Sikh scriptures to see Hindu-Muslim (and Sikh) unity embodied.
Sahas tav nain, nan nain hah tohe kau, sahas murat nanaa ek tohi.
Sahas pad bimal, nan ek pad, gandh bin, sahas tav gandh, iv chatal mohi.
Sabh maih jot jot hai soe.
Tis de chaanan sabh mai chaanan hoe.
You have a thousand eyes yet without eye are You,
You have a thousand faces yet without face are You,
You have a thousand feet yet without foot are You,
You have a thousand noses yet without nose are You,
I am enchanted by Your wonders.
There is a Light in all, and the Light is You,
By that Light we are all illuminated.