Ghalib Says – 2

One thing sometimes does lead to another. Our post on Milton and Ghalib has culminated in a partnership with the blog Mehr-i-Niimroz (the noonday sun). Every week or so we will together select a couplet from Ghalib: Mehr-i-Niimroz will provide a translation and commentary; The South Asian Idea will use the couplet to pose questions and start a discussion. The objective will be to explore how much we can learn from Ghalib about the world we live in.

We launched this series with the following couplet:

vafaadaarii ba shart-e-ustuvaarii asl-e-iimaaN hai
marey butkhaane meN to kaabe meN gaaRho barahmin ko

Faithfulness, as long as it is firm, is the essence/root of religion/faith
If he dies in the temple (idol-house) bury the Brahmin in the Ka’ba

The commentary is HERE and the questions HERE.

This week’s couplet is the following (note the common word vafaadaarii – faithfulness):

nahiiN kuchh subbha-o zunnaar ke phanday meN giiraaii
vafaadaarii meN shaykh-o barhamin kii aazmaa’ish hai

there is no holding-power in the noose/coil/snare of prayer-beads and sacred-thread
in faithfulness is the test of the Shaikh and the Brahmin

You can read the commentary HERE before coming back for the questions.

At one level the interpretation is the obvious one – In the choice between faith and faithfulness, Ghalib is clearly in favor of the latter. He does not really care about the specifics of your faith or its outward manifestations; if you are faithful to whatever you believe in you have passed Ghalib’s test (of worthiness).

One can infer that what Ghalib would not approve of would be hypocrisy – the divergence of word and deed or to act in contradiction to one’s beliefs. Faithfulness is everything – which is the same message that was the gist of last week’s couplet.

Let us make this a bit more concrete. Suppose you are a Sunni Muslim and I am a Shia Muslim. We have somewhat different beliefs but this would not be relevant to Ghalib. As long as we are faithful to our individual beliefs, we would pass his prescribed test.

(Note it follows that the question of one set of beliefs being superior to another cannot arise in Ghalib’s world by definition. The focus is on being true to one’s own beliefs.)

But is that all Ghalib is saying? This couplet seems a little more nuanced than the last one with a little more tension is its use of the notion of faithfulness. Let us move away from religion to explore this aspect better.

Suppose I was born in a staunchly Marxist household and grew up with a firm belief in the ideology. However, recent events have raised doubts about the soundness of certain Marxist tenets. If I remain faithful to my set of beliefs, would I still pass Ghalib’s test?

This is difficult to assume. Could Ghalib’s faithfulness be merely a passive, unthinking one? Would he want us to examine the assumptions that underlie our faith? Is that what he is trying to imply by the references to a snare and lack of holding-power of the outward manifestations of faith? Could we be trapped by our beliefs if we do not remain active thinkers?

(Note the inference here is that we should worry more about the soundness of our own beliefs rather than the correctness of someone else’s beliefs. This is akin to the message of Socrates – question your assumptions especially the ones that seem the most obvious.)

So we are left with a whole host of questions. Let us pick up a few for discussion:

  1. Do you agree with Ghalib’s preference for faithfulness over faith?
  2. Do you believe Ghalib would subscribe to an unquestioning faithfulness?
  3. Do you believe the set of beliefs we inherit are necessarily correct? If not, how do we ascertain their soundness? Do we need to ascertain the soundness of our beliefs?
  4. Do you agree that Ghalib would not rank faiths in order of their correctness? If so, do you subscribe to Ghalib’s position? If not, why not?

We would welcome more questions that suggest themselves to readers in order to enrich this discussion.

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8 Responses to “Ghalib Says – 2”

  1. bhupinder Says:

    The questions posed at the end of this post may tend to ascribe a lot more than Ghalib intended in one sheyr. One of the key features of the ghazal form is that a ghazal does not address a theme, it is a collection of rhymed but independent couplets. To look for a philosophy or world view using a single shyer is both an overly ambitious task and a severely limited task.

    If one has to look for any such philosophy, one has to collate sheyrs with a thematic unity from different ghazals and see the pattern and consistency across all of them.

    However, let not these comments stop me from commending on your excellent series. I, for one, will follow with keen interest.

  2. SouthAsian Says:

    We are quite in agreement that a ghazal is not thematically united (at least not usually), hence our practice of focusing on the she’r.

    We would say that a she’r does in fact express a philosophy or world-view, partly because it must (i.e., it must be complete in itself) and partly because, particularly in the case of someone like Ghalib, the she’r is hardly “by itself”, it comes with and refers to an entire universe of symbols and metaphors each one with a long tradition of meaning-adornment. So yes, our attempt is ambitious (and rightly so!), but not limited in our view.

    We agree that collating several ashaa’r to look for not just consistence but also inconsistency is a good way to go. In fact this is in part what we are doing; however, we have just begun, so patterns will take time to emerge. Ultimately though we are still convinced that each she’r is to be taken on its own terms (of course with the universe it inherits). We will find plenty of examples where Ghalib contradicts himself. In this respect we find him like Gandhi. Gandhi once explicitly said, do not look for consistency in my writings over time. At any given time I try to express the Truth as it then appears to me. It may change. I may change.

    Finally, with regard to the questions posed, we see them as questions provoked by reading the she’r, not questions posed by the she’r. We should make this distinction clear. Our objective is not a scholarly exegesis of Ghalib for which we are not qualified. We have referred our readers to Professor Frances Pritchett’s excellent site A Desertful of Roses for that purpose. Rather, we wish to lean on Ghalib to ask questions that are of interest to us and hopefully to our readers.

  3. rw Says:

    I like the objectives as laid out in the last para in your comment. Your analogy with Gandhi is, however, incorrect because the second part of Gandhi’s statement was that ‘my life is my message’- meaning that his message lay not in theory but in action. In Mirza Ghalib’s case, however, there is very little that would inspire one now- he was little more than a frustrated member of a declining nobility, sometimes writing panegyrics to now forgotten nawabs.
    His stature lay in that he remains the greatest poet not only of Urdu but also the Mughal Empire, ironically emerging when it was declining and hence is full of doubts about the past, prevailing religions and ruminations on the misery of his times.

  4. SouthAsian Says:

    Point taken. However, the analogy with Gandhi, if understood in the restricted way we posed it, may still be of some value. The analogy was a very brief attempt to understand Ghalib’s sometimes contradictory positions by pointing to another person who often made contradictory claims and who had an epistemology or theory of Truth to back it up (viz. the idea of “movement from Truth to Truth” as opposed to “a linear approximation towards the Truth”).

    We do not know whether Ghalib has reflected somewhere on how he rationalized his various conclusions with each other. It is also possible that whatever contradictions exist in Ghalib, may exist because he was a poet before he was a philosopher (although he is a philosopher too). As such (and unlike Iqbal) he does not wish to propagate a message through his poetry, he is content to explore the fascinating world of words. In fact this is what attracts us to him. Because he is not pre-committed to convincing us of a message, he seems free to explore his thinking and go where it takes him.

    We did not mean to imply that the lives or even the world-views of Ghalib and Gandhi converged in any way, shape or form. We would not take the analogy any further than what we have said above. Ghalib, for us, is basically a thinker, not a doer, and of course there is nothing wrong as such with that. Most philosophers fall into that category (including Marx to some degree). That Gandhi does not, of course, as you have pointed out, points to his uniqueness among philosophers.

  5. rw Says:

    Yes, I think it is more appropriate to compare Ghalib with Iqbal and Iqbal was more consciously a philosopher than Ghalib.

    Good to have this dialogue going. Do keep the series going and I will keep coming back too to strike a discordant note here and there :-)

  6. radhika yeddanpudi Says:

    The great charm of this sher is, as you pointed out, that Ghalib intended no particular meaning. Even better the reader can interpret and develop his or her own relationship to this sher. A live and let live philosophy that permeates both the sher and the act of reading. When I try to condense the sher into a message is when I run into a problem. For example, and please forgive me for this most cliched example, if i take the long-ago Shah Bano case and dissect it applying the message of this sher this is what I find: I conclude as a non-Muslim that I must agree to live and let live i.e Islamic clerics who presumably know more about Islam than I do have decreed this woman need not be compensated for any injury, and so I shouldn’t quarrel with their method as they are being faithful to their faith. My question is does Ghalib’s sher show us a better way to make decisions? That is neither the role of poetry nor any one man for sure. I would argue that Ghalib is arguing beyond faithfulness to any method, he is speaking of a greater yet undefined faithfulness that is intelligent, humane and of which we are capable. It is both universal and very personal. P.S. Please note that the Shah Bano case happened when I was quite young so please correct me if there are any factual inaccuracies in my understanding.

  7. Amit Basole Says:

    Yes this is a very good point which goes much beyond the example of the Shah Bano case. The first thing that comes to mind is that we should be careful to draw a line between going to Ghalib for reflections and thinking that Ghalib will have all the answers. And that too in one she’r!

    That said, I agree with Radika that although strength of faith matters, what it is that is being adhered to, also matters a good deal. In the Shah Bano case, the priesthood can claim it is adhering strongly to its understanding of the faith, but of course others in the Muslim community may have a different view and can and will challenge the clerics. Ghalib’s message is that NO ONE has a monopoly on Faith and its interpretation. It is an individual act and individual reason should be exercised in the matter. The priests in particular are to be suspected:
    kahaN mai;xaane kkaa darvaazah Gahlib, aur kahaaN vaaiz
    par itna jaante haiN kal, woh jaataa thaa ke ham nikle

  8. SouthAsian Says:

    We referred the question posed by Radhika regarding the Shah Bano case to Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer, Chairman of the Center for the Study of Society and Secularism in Mumbai (

    We are grateful to Dr. Engineer for an instant response that is reproduced below:

    I am so glad to learn that you have started a website on which you discuss Ghalib’s selected ash’aar. Ghalib is an ever-living poet.

    Coming to above she’r, what Ms. Radhika says is partly true. In one sense Ghalib is reiterating that to be faithful is more important than nature of faith itself. But since Ms. Radhika has given the example of Shah Bano case (she is right in what she says about the Shah Bano case) one cannot infer from Ghalib’s above she’r that one can let a mulla perpetrate injustice on a woman since it is his faith. Laws relate to society, not to faith. If a law is perpetrating injustice, it cannot be sacred and inviolable. Laws, even when based on divine text, are man-made and must change if they become problematic in changed circumstances. Ghalib is referring to din, not to shari’ah. Din cannot be changed while shari’ah can and should change.

    This she’r is great indeed. It is not only humane it also tells us it is no use arguing and denouncing others’ faiths. One should rather be tolerant and let a multi-religious society exist in peace and stability.

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