While researching a story on the resurgence of sufism in Punjab, my journalist-friend Kali introduced me to a certain college professor, whom he described thus:
"When we were kids, we used to buy a lot of firecrackers at Diwali. We'd burst all our smaller crackers first - the larhi, the anaar, the rockets. We'd save the biggest and best for the last - the Aloo-bomb."
Dr Seva Singh burst out laughing when he heard himself being referred to as a large, noisy firecracker, named 'potato', of all things.
However, after hearing him out, I am left with little doubt that the title was a fitting one - for all his gentleness and jollity, there's enough explosive material in his head to set a town or two afire.
He's a retired professor, living in Kapurthala, who has done a lot of research on Indian philosophy and saint-literature, in particular. When I began asking him questions about Sufism and why people are so drawn to it, especially in Punjab, he shook a few foundations upon which I had based my assumptions of faith and a resurgent secularism.
This is a small part of the gyaan he gave me (the rest is too incendiary to put down in writing):
"In the tenth and eleventh centuries, as other warrior groups rose to power in Asia, the Islamic empire began to collapse. At such moments in history, whole civilizations withdraw from the physical realm and turn to mysticism and spiritualism. Fleeing from war and persecution, thousands of caravans trooped into India, from Baghdad and Persia. They came via Punjab, which was a tribal area. Being cut-off from other large empires on the subcontinent, Punjab already had a more equitable social environment. It was full of sadhus, nagas and other non-vedic spiritual people. People from Tamil Nadu, Bihar and other distant states had already started migrating here, as far back as the thirteenth century - not because of work, but to escape the oppressive vedic caste systems."
"At that time, in Punjab, there was little industry and little agricultural prosperity. The Turks and Persians had brought new technologies to India. They brought irrigation techniques and spindles and looms; the cloth industry grew and flourished; paper was introduced. New professionals came into being. Trade improved."
"The first Sufi saints, like Baba Fareed and Shah Hussain, were crucial because they gave India a new ethical code. India has had three great urbanisation phases - the first was in Sindh (Harappa), and then there was Buddha’s time and then, when the Turks came in, about the thirteenth century. With urbanisation, there comes social upheaval and revolution. You break bonded labour. You break caste barriers. People in urbanised set-ups gain confidence and escape feudal oppression."
"Sufism isn’t so important as the period that gave rise to the Sufis. The times that let them flourish, made them acceptable to the public. These were people who wanted to live with truth and self-respect."
"However, our century is not a century of urbanization. Sure, towns are turning into cities and villages into towns but these are neither important centres of trade and industry nor learning. These are simply crowds - huge masses of people living in a space. That’s all. Caste and religious divisions are getting worse, deeper entrenched in cities than they ever have been, throughout history."
"Don't believe that the resurgence you see is a return to the roots of Sufi mysticism, with reflections on injustice, the sorrow of human society, property laws, taxes, caste-based oppression and so on."
"Bulle Shah may be known as a sufi saint now, but he was as much against Sufism as an institution as he was against all other forms of institutionalized religion, against all priesthood. Now, sufism is also institutionalized."
"Whenever there’s an economic crunch, when there’s frustration and insecurity, and the apoliticization of a society, its people turn to spiritualism. India has no ideology to hold onto; only rough caste-based political power equations. People may have more money but they have no mooring, and are afraid to lose the little they’ve gained. They are turning to mysticism or to religion because they want some sort of anchor."
"Don't think that this trend is true of sufi dargahs alone. The crowds are increasing at kumbh melas and at gurudwaras too. There is no sufi thought here. Anyone who wants to go back to the roots of Sufi philosophy, anyone who tries to raise the spectre of Sufism that defied tradition, norm and priest, is either dismissed or shouted down. Only those philosophies and teachings are accepted which serve to strengthen institutionalized religion. The true Sufi word - the words of rebellion, the words of revolt against the system, the words of rejection of an unfair system - those words of Sufi saints like Bulla and Kabir and Fareed have been buried."
"The Sufis spoke of equality, the loss of caste, of religion, even your own name... Yet, go to any Sufi dargah and look at the kind of groupism and factionalism that exists at sufi shrines - so and so was the Pakistani-Sikh. That one is a Balmiki. This was a Chamar and that was a Qalandhari and this was a Baghdadi."
"This is a mark of regression. And it is being encouraged because people feel safe in small, familiar groups. People nowadays will romanticise Sufism, but will not let it become an agent of change. This so-called resurgence amounts to cultural appropriation, nothing more."
And when Dr Singh had stopped talking, I thought, rather sadly, of a couplet that goes something like (beg pardon if I'm making a mistake with the exact wording) -
"Yeh akhiri but bhi chhin gaya
ab hum bhi musalmaan ho gaye..."
["Now that my last idol has been snatched away
I am finally made a musalmaan"]
But no, actually, I'm not so shorn of idols, after all. I'm quite happy to find my idols amongst wise old professors who have the fighting spirit of an Aloo-bomb.