Reflections on Faith, Humanity and Beyond

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack of what is found there

– William Carlos Williams

Somewhere, sometime poetry speaks to all of us. Poetry makes us think, sometimes precisely because it does not ask us to think, does not seek to convince us. Humanity, peace, coexistence, faith, are on test today in South Asia. And we turn to one of its greatest poets to learn some simple and hence first-to-be-forgotten Truths. We turn to Ghalib to learn to think. In leaning upon Ghalib, we also self-consciously reach for a source indigenous to South Asia, to its own civilizational genius, to search for a way forward.

To millions across the world, the name “Ghalib” needs no introduction. Perhaps the most accomplished and certainly the most famous poet of Urdu and Persian that South Asia has produced, Asadallah Khan ‘Ghalib’ (1797-1869) has been recited, read, interpreted and quoted countless times in the past 150 years.

Through Ghalib we want to raise questions that are relevant to us today in South Asia and to South Asians elsewhere in the world. What does it mean to practice a certain Religion in a plural society? How should we treat those who are different from Us? What is the nature of Belief? Or Unbelief? What is the nature of the Divine? Can (wo)man presume to know the workings of Nature (the Beloved)? As humans must we accept our fate? Or do we have Free Will? In many ways these are the eternal questions that face us as humans. But as we will see, Ghalib raises them (and occasionally provides answers) in a manner all his own. Kehte haiN ke Ghalib kaa hai andaaz-e-bayaN aur.

In this new project, on which we have just embarked, we depart from the conventional model of presenting an entire ghazal followed by its translation. Instead we present only one she’r at a time along with its literal (not poetic) translation followed by a commentary and the questions it raises. Each week we will choose one verse. A commentary will be offered on mehr-e-niimroz and questions surrounding the she’r will be posted on The South Asian Idea Weblog.

Adept at expressing highly subtle and complex thoughts and emotions within the space of two lines (the she’r), Ghalib’s poetry has the rare virtue of appealing directly to the heart as well as providing much food for thought. However, unlike Iqbal, unlike the Sufis (like Khusrau), unlike the Bhakti poets (like Kabir), Ghalib was not a poet with a message. His first love was words and he loved to explore their sounds and meanings. And since he was not committed to convincing people of a message, reading him is a journey whose destination is not already known.

In the popular imagination Ghalib is a romantic poet, a poet of love, longing, and desire. More scholarly attention focuses on Ghalib’s technical prowess, his socio-historical and literary context, his skills in creating multiple meanings out of single words and phrases and his ability to create fresh, new metaphors.

We, however set out to do something different. In his Urdu divaan, Ghalib talks not only about love and longing, but also about faith and religion, about the nature of Divinity, about Being and Nothingness, about what it means to Believe. Ghalib’s questioning nature comes through very clearly in his verses. Not content to accept any received truths either from the Shaikh or the Brahmin, Ghalib constantly puts everything to the test of his own reason and experience. It is this aspect of Ghalib’s critical thinking that we wish to explore in our project.

Join us in this journey by leaving your thoughts and by suggesting a she’r for discussion.

This introduction is written by Amit Basole and is reproduced from Mehr-e-Niimroz.

Index of first lines (they also serve as links to the respective posts)

1.    vafaadaarii ba shart-e-ustuvaarii asl-e-iimaaN hai
2.    nahiiN kuchh subbha-o zunnaar ke phanday meN giiraaii
3.    baske dushvaar hai har kaam ka aasaaN hona
shar-o-aaiin par madaar sahii
5.    bachte nahiiN mu’aakhazah-e roz-e hashr se
6.    bandagii meN bhii vuh aazaadah-o khud-biin haiN kih ham
iftaar-e-saum kii jise kuch dast.gaah ho
8.    maiN ne majnuuN pe laRakpan meN ‘asad’
9.    chaltaa huuN thoRii duur har ik tez-rau ke saath
10.  banaa kar faqiiroN kaa ham bhes Ghalib
11.  ham ne maanaa kih taghaaful nah karoge lekin
12.  hai pare sarhad-e idraak se apnaa masjuud
13.  ham ko ma’luum hai jannat kii haqiiqat lekin
14.  kam nahiiN jalvah-garii meN tire kuuche se bihisht
15.  kyuuN nah chiikhuuN kih yaad karte haiN
16.  saltanat dast bah dast aaii hai
ham muvahhid haiN hamaaraa kesh hai tark-e rusuum
18.  ka’be meN jaa bajaaeNge naaquus
19.  dekhiiye paate haiN ushshaaq buton se kya faiz
20.  laazim nahiiN ke kih Khizr kii ham pairavii kareN
21.  taa’at meN taa rahe nah mai-o-angabiiN kii laag
22.  laag ho to us ko ham samjheN lagaao
23.  az mihr taa bah zarrah dil o dil hai aaiinah
24.  haiN kawakib kuchh nazar aatey haiN kuchh
25.  raat din gardish meiN haiN saat aasmaaN
26.  baaziichah-e atfaal hai dunyaa mire aage
27.  huuN giriftaar-e ulfat-e sayyaad
28.  nah thaa kuchh to khudaa thaa kuchh nah hotaa to khudaa hotaa
29.  kyaa farz hai kih sab ko mile ek-saa javaab
30.  go vaaN nahiiN pah vaaN ke nikaale hue to haiN

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8 Responses to “Ghalib”

  1. radhika yeddanpudi Says:

    My favorite would be Amir Khusrau not the least because he was a liberal in the 13th century. But Ghalib’s poetry is certainly a great place to start enquiry into faith-I prefer that word to religion.

    I enclose a Persian poem by Amir Khusrau here for other readers:
    Kafir-e-ishqam musalmani mara darkaar neest
    Har rag-e mun taar gashta hajat-e zunnaar neest;
    Az sar-e baaleen-e mun bar khez ay naadaan tabeeb
    Dard mand-e ishq ra daroo bajuz deedaar neest;
    Nakhuda dar kashti-e maagar nabashad go mubaash
    Makhuda daareem mara nakhuda darkaar neest;
    Khalq mi goyad ki Khusrau but parasti mi kunad
    Aarey aarey mi kunam ba khalq mara kaar neest.

    I am a pagan and a worshipper of love: the creed (of Muslims) I do not need;
    Every vein of mine has become taunt like a wire,
    the (Brahman’s) girdle I do not need.
    Leave from my bedside, you ignorant physician!
    The only cure for the patient of love is the sight of his beloved –
    other than this no medicine does he need.
    If there be no pilot in our boat, let there be none:
    We have god in our midst: the sea we do not need.
    The people of the world say that Khusrau worships idols.
    So he does, so he does; the people he does not need,
    the world he does not need.

  2. sabihaashraf Says:

    iam far from being a scholar but there are a couple of thoughts which arose from reading about mehr -i -nimroz and those iam trying to share…

    mehr e neem rooz instead of mehr i niim roz

    please do not restrict mehr e neem roz to ghalib on faith -that would be an injustice to the poet who surpassed faith
    i know that later on in the intro to the website /blog whatever —iam as illiterate in computers as iam in other things so please forgive me—the intro does say at the end ” also more related themes”its main tinge seems to be slanted towards it ” this aspect of ghalib’s critical thinking”

    this concerns radhika’s (muslim) – radhika , i believe that the less we use labels the better we will be-i have lived long enough to be thoroughly upset with mankind’s continueing and destructive obsession with isms

    jub kay tuj bin naheen koee mojood
    phir yay hungamay e khuda kiya hai

    having said that, the idea of helping newer , maybe younger minds access
    the boundless treasures of ghalib through today’s mehfil -the internet is superb–mukarrar,mukurrur….

  3. Hasan abdullah Says:

    I think that the following two verses would be good starting point, if we wish to understand Ghalib’s verses in proper perspective.

    nafee sey kartee hai asbaat taraawish, goyaa
    dee hai jaa-ey dahan us ko dam-e eijaad naheen
    (From negation drips affirmation, as if
    the spot for mouth has not been provided at the time of creation)

    nah thaa kuchh to khudaa thaa, kuchh nah hotaa to khudaa hotaa
    duboyaa mujh ko honey ney, nah hotaa main to kyaa hotaa?
    (When there was nothing, God was, Had there been nothing God would have been
    Undoing, my being has been, had I not been , then what would have been?)

    Incidentally, the first verse was penned at 30, whereas the second one was formulated at 50. The first one does not find place in Ghalib’s last selection, but perhaps describes the most abstract philosophical precept known to humanity, whereas the second one is arguably one of his most popular verses, is oft quoted, and is considered as ‘the peak’ of his poetry by many.

    If the verses are employed out of context, these might inadvertently generate a skewed image of Ghalib, because his understanding about basic issues such as God and sins was highly nuanced. To explain my submission, I quote the following two successive verses of a ghazal from his twilight years.

    kyaa woh namrood kee khudaaei thee?
    bandagee men meraa bhalaa nah huaa

    jaan dee, dee huei usee kee thee
    haq to yoon hai keh haq adaa nah huaa

    (Was that Namrood’s godhood
    that servitude did me no good

    Gave away life, was given by Him only
    The truth is that the due could not be paid)

  4. hassaanhashmi Says:

    To Sabiha,

    I don’t know how it would be an injustice to anyone. Plus Ghalib did not surpass faith by any means as far as I am concerned. Even though I am a BIG fan of Ghalib’s poetry, these statements are too short from truth. In fact, I don’t know what surpassing faith even means. In fact there could not exist a stage in a person’s life where he “surpasses faith” as far as I am concerned.

    To Radhika,

    It is wonderful that you appreciate those verses by Ameer Khusrau but I would like to tell you that the translation that you have presented resembles the ideas Khusrau is attempting to present, like a fly resembles an eagle. It is an injustice to Khusrau’s status as it is among Sufis. This problem also occurs with many translations of Rumi’s works by Coleman Barks and others.

  5. Ghalib » Hri Institute for Southasian Research and Exchange Says:

    […] availability of Ghalib’s works, a reader may well wonder what the recently embarked upon The Ghalib Project, undertaken by TheSouthAsianIdea Weblog, will add to her understanding and appreciation of the […]

  6. SouthAsian Says:

    Vinod: This is an interesting article by Professor Gopi Chand Narang that informs the discussion we have been having on the Osama board:

    Urdu Ghazal and the Indian Mind –

    Prof Narang’s central thesis is that the Urdu Ghazal has greater proximity with Indian cultural and spiritual ethos than Islamic ideas as practised in Arabia.

    What the article illustrates is that there is no intrinsic fixity in human attitudes – they move back and forth. What is of interest is the investigation of the phenomena that make them move one way or another during specific periods of time.

  7. Parshant kumar Says:

    Sab kahaa.N kuch laalaa-o-gul me numaayaa.N ho gayi, khaak me kya suraten hongi k phnha ho gayi…hum muvahiid hain hamaaraa kesh h tark-e-rusuum, millaten jab mit gayi azza-e-imaa.N ho gayi…Galib….we can understand Galib’s position regarding religion through the above quoted lines.

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