People’s history of the Punjab: Humanism and equality

The poetry of Shah Hussain explored the socio-political dimensions of Punjabi society

Shah Abdul Latif Bhita’i was a contemporary poet of Bulleh Shah

Dr Manzur Ejaz writing for TFT

Islamic extremism is not new in the subcontinent: At one time even the Emperor Akbar, the most liberal among Mughal rulers, was forced to ban alcohol under the pressure of the religious establishment. However, at that time the difference was that an alternative ideology was also evolving, but this is not the case in the political discourse of today. The Pakistani state has successfully created a disconnection from the tradition of an alternative ideology by promoting the religious version of the ruling Muslim elites – most Muslim rulers were conservative Sunnis – and Mullahs.
The alternative ideology in the Punjab started with the Chishtia’s challenge to the establishment through the rebellious poetry of Baba Farid-ud-din Masood Ganj-e-Shakar (1175-1266). Baba Guru Nanak, following this tradition, critiqued the political economy as well as the system of ideas prevailing in both Hindu society and ritualistic Muslim religion. Nanak negated the political system more directly than anyone else had done in the Punjab before him.

Baba Nanak (1469-1539) was very methodical in his intellectual discourse. In his Japji Sahib, he undertook the rebuttal of the presumptions of the Hindu religion and its philosophy. He negated the Muslim practice of ritualistic practices, but because of Islam’s monotheism his criticism of it was not as harsh as it was against Hinduism. Furthermore, since he absolutely negated casteism and gender differentiations, his main target was Hindu philosophy and its practices. Probably, this is the reason that Muslims wanted to bury him according to Islamic tradition.

On the political level Baba Nanak’s main criticism was against foreign invaders and their religious pretensions. Baba Nanak is the only poet who described the invasion of the Mughal Emperor Babar, (1483-1531). He observed that Babar did not differentiate between Indian Muslims and Hindus and dishonoured their women indiscriminately. According to him, Babar arbitrarily destroyed mosques and mandirs. In conclusion he sums up:

Pap ki janj ley Kabloon dhaia, jori mangay dan vey lalo

([He] mounted an invasion with his sinful party (army) and he demands donations by force)

Baba Nanak also provided a deep insight into the exploitative economic and social systems in India. This was one of the main reasons that he attracted so many Punjabi artisans to his teachings. The class of poor Jat peasants joined him at a later stage. Baba Nanak’s complete comprehension of the system became the basis of a religious and nationalist resistance in the Punjab, while the works of Sufis were not able to induce an organized movement that could sustain itself. This had positive developments in the Punjab as far as putting an end to the invaders from the North was concerned, but Sikhism lost its edge in due course because it became just another organized religion with all the usual ritualistic aspects. Nonetheless, this negative development does not diminish Baba Nanak’s significance as a thinker espousing an alternative ideology to the one enforced by orthodox Islam and Hinduism.

Shah Hussain (1538 – 1599), a defiant intellectual of his time, improvised the language to bring it close to the one we use contemporaneously, and explored the socio-political dimensions of society. Through his subtle diction he emphasized the inner links of human beings with nature and society. He deepened the tradition of anti-theocracy and formalistic religion. His lifestyle was a manifest negation of retrograde social institutions.

Sultan Bahu (1628-1691) lived through the reign of Aurangzeb (1618-1707) for the better part of his life. The coercive force of the Mullahs was at its peak and not only Hindus but most non-Sunni sects of Muslims faced persecution. Sultan Bahu fearlessly exposed Mullah Shahi in a way not seen before in Punjabi or other North Indian writings.

For Sultan Bahu the Muslim religious establishment was comprised of greedy and arrogant persons. He defined the role of Mullahs not as religious leaders but as people of a profession who were selling their semi-educated ideas to people.

Parh parh alam karn takkabar mullan karn wadiai hoo

Galian dey wich phiran nmanay baghal kitaban chai hoo

Jithay waikhan changa chokha paran kalam sawai hoo

(The scholars study to boast and Mullahs brag. They wander in the streets (like vendors) with their books under their armpits. Wherever they see a better meal they recite [scripture] some more).

In another couplet Sultan Bahu writes that the sole purpose of the scholarship of people of the religious establishment was to please royalty. These people were inherently devoid of any knowledge, like ‘boiled milk become yogurt that cannot produce butter.’ He articulated his anti-Mullah philosophical ideas through folk similes and metaphors that penetrated the hearts of the Punjabi masses. If he had employed Persian – he was a scholar of Persian as well – his appeal would have been lost on the elites and ruling classes of that time.

The decline of the Mughal Empire gave birth to many nationalist movements and uprisings, and the 18th century was also the era of great poets and intellectuals in the whole of North India. Punjab’s two greatest poets, Bulleh Shah (1680-1757) and Waris Shah (1722-1798) created their masterpieces during this century. Sindh’s most beloved poets, Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai (1689-1752) and Sachal Sarmast (1739-1829) also belonged to the same period. Urdu poetry’s great Ustads, Wali Deccani (1667-1707), Mir Taqi Mir (1723-1810) Mir Dard (1721-1785) and Nazir Akbarabadi (1735-1830) were also contemporaries of the great master poets of the Punjab and Sindh.

Bulleh Shah explained the correlation between the rapidly changing and disintegrating society and the enhancement of art, philosophy and poetry:

Ultay hor zamanay aaey, tann main bhait sajan dey paaey

(I have discovered secrets of the unknown (sajan) because the times have turned upside down).

Prosperous and stable times hide the real nature of society, its institutions and the essence of human relations. However, as institutions start falling apart, the essential reality of human relations starts unravelling. In normal times the relationships between mothers and daughters and fathers and sons are conceived to be natural and eternal. However, as anarchy starts pervading, ugly reality begins to reveal itself. As Bulleh Shah puts it:

Jad aapo apni pey gai, dhi maan noon lut key ley gai

(When everyone started running for himself/herself, the daughter started attacking the mother).

Through exposing institutions and human relations as functions of political and economic circumstances, Bulleh Shah interjected the role of material conditions and the concept of historicity, i.e. nothing is permanent and every relation is a product of changing conditions. Besides highlighting the role of the basic structure of society, Bulleh Shah articulated the role of organized religion, and other obscurantist ideologies that are employed to sustain an uneven and unjust society.

Waris Shah (1722-1798) was even more incisive and comprehensive in identifying the basic institutions of society. He recreated the epic story of Heer Ranjha to critically evaluate each institution and expose its degeneration. Starting with the institution of property and the judicial system, he went on to analyse religious ideology, commerce and the overall feudal structure of his era. He subjected alternative institutions like Jog to criticism, arguing that abandoning worldly affairs is hardly the right choice for the betterment of society.

For him property relations were supreme and pretensions of brotherly love were fake:

Waris Shah eh gharaz hey buhat piari hor sak na sain na ang dey nain

(O Waris Shah, self interest is dear to everyone. There is no blood or other relation).

Similarly, he exposes the justice system when his brothers grab the land by bribing the Qazi:

Wadhi dey key bhoin dey banay waris, banjar zimin Rajheethay noon aai hai

(They grabbed the land by bribing the Qazi, while barren land was given to Ranjha)

Wherever he brings the Qazi’s character into his story he does not forget to mention bribery. He was even more direct about the role of the religious establishment controlling the mosques. For him the entire class of Mullahs is comprised of parasites who are sexually degenerate as well. In Ranjha’s dialogue with the Mullah, Waris Shah undercuts the entire base of organized religion.

Similarly, he makes sure that his readers capture the essence of the feudal class which perpetuates itself through consuming the surplus produced by poorly-compensated workers. He highlights the greed and treachery of the ruling class. For him the ruling class forgoes even its value system when its economic interests are at stake. His prime example is Heer’s father, who after discovering the ongoing affair between Heer and Ranjha, winks at his wife to look the other way.

Sadi dhi da kujh na lah lainda, char din tan majhin chara liay

(He [Ranjha] cannot take away anything of our daughter; let us have him graze our buffalos for some period)

The alternative ideology articulated by Baba Farid was improvised and elaborated by his successors. A few of the main points of this ideology, discussed above, can be summed up as follows:

1. Man does not need intermediaries (Mullahs, Pundits etc) to realize spirituality. This meant that organized religion has no place in determining the state and other social institutions. This ideology comes close to modern secularism, because if religion is an individual endeavour, then the state and society has to be shaped in secular discourse.

2. The religious establishment is always comprised of greedy, self-indulgent, unenlightened parasites. Priests are only concerned with making money, despite all their pretensions.

3. All institutions and human relations are determined by historical circumstances: nothing has inherent or eternal value. The material conditions of human beings mould their basic course in every aspect of life.

4. All humans are equal and they should treat each other as such.

Employing folk language was an integral part of this ideology. All its creators were high-level scholars of Persian and Arabic and could have lived comfortably by serving the ruling classes. But, they chose a difficult path to be with the masses, and enlighten them in order that they should better understand the system that oppressed them.

One of the major problems with our present situation is that we have disconnected from this centuries-old ideological struggle, and we have not created any mass-based alternative system of ideas that can stop the Mullah’s onslaught on society. We might loudly protest against Mullahs but we don’t have much to offer to the masses as an alternative ideology. And we will not succeed unless we reconnect with our intellectual heritage.
Dr Manzur Ejaz taught at the Punjab University, Lahore, for many years and now lives in Virginia

2 responses to “People’s history of the Punjab: Humanism and equality

  1. we common people no thinking pakistani as enemy but politician and leader teach us difference. But as sikh i still want to see again pakistan and india make one country.Because by our this issues other country are taking advantages

  2. Dr. Manzur Ejaz has truly and honestly portrayed the thought process of alternate idealogy. His article is undoubtedly a part of history. He has done a great job. The sufis undoubtedly revolted against the mullah’s febricated religion and it is ho[ped younger generation will revisit islamic concepts of human dignity as practiced and preached by the Holy Prophet (PBUH).

    Congratulations, Dr. Manzur Ejaz.

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