Hymn to the Buddha

No faults in any way are found in him;
All virtues in every way dwell in him

Thus begins the Hymn to the Buddha (Satapancasataka), a poem by the 1st century poet Matrceta. It is considered to have played some part in the popularization of Buddhism at that time, and even now is a good introduction to the atheistic religion.  At first it looks like an eulogy for the Buddha, but as one reads the full text it becomes apparent that it is not just a blind eulogy to a person but encapsulates the message of the Buddha in verse. It speaks about the Buddha’s concerns (the noble eight fold path)- Compassion, Speech, Teaching, Guidance and Deeds, among others. An extract from ‘In Praise of Speech’:

Your speech is excellent in three ways,
based on fact it is truthful
because its motive is pure it causes no confusion
and being relevant it is easily understood.
Continue reading “Hymn to the Buddha”

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VG Kiernan

For those of us in South Asia, Victor Kiernan was known primarily as the translator of Mohammad Iqbal and Faiz Ahmed Faiz. His works as a historian are relatively unknown. Even his translations, for that matter, are not so much read as they are appreciated, mainly because few need to when they can read the original in Urdu. His relative ignorance in India is also difficult to understand because he was one of the few of the British Marxist Historians who actually spent some time in India. In Kiernan’s case, he was even married to an Indian lady, though for a short time. For all this, however, India (and Pakistan) seems to have been a passing interest for him and his personal and intellectual association ended pretty much around 1950. He lived to the ripe age of 95, and passed on earlier this week on 18th February.

A google search yesterday led to a tract ‘Marxism and Gramsci‘ (pdf), written by Kiernan  in 1972 when Gramsci’s works were being introduced to English readers. Besides a number of insightful and critical comments on both Marxism and Gramsci, he provides a comment on the state of Marxism in India as well:

Continue reading “VG Kiernan”

Links

Dr Chamal Lal has a collection of some of the favourite Urdu couplets of Bhagat Singh, including a picture of the original in the young revolutionary’s own handwriting (right). Dr Lal reproduces the couplets in the nagari script as well.

achcha hai dil ke saath rahe paasbaan-e-akl
lekin kabhi- kabhi ise tanha bhi chod de

auron ka payam aur mera payam aur hai
ishk ke dard- mandon ka tarz e kalaam aur hai

akl kya cheez hai aik waza ki pabandi hai
dil ko muddat hui is kaid se azad kiya

Dr Manzur Ejaz, writing a series on People’s History of the Punjab, on the life and work of Shiekh Farid, considered to be the first poet of the Punjabi language.
Continue reading “Links”

To the Punjab of Farid and other Poems

Santokh Singh Dheer, whose courageous poems in the 1980s made him known as the “peoples’ poet”, has been a life long left- wing writer whose writings have been marked by an empathy for the downtrodden. As a student during the late 1980s I had the good chance of translating some of his poems which are now available in the form of a book. Dheer, who is now close to 90 years, handed over the manuscript to me few years back, dejectedly remarking that the collection would not be published during his life time. Fortunately, and thanks to publish on demand technology, I have been able to publish his collection. It is available from Amazon.com (or CreateSpace) for US $7 and as a free e- book .

Terrorism under the garb of religion, which is how we know of it today, started in India in the 1980s in the Punjab. It was a by- product of the developments during the emergency in the backdrop of the green revolution that had created it’s own contradictions. Though it is true that much of the violence took place after Operation Bluestar followed by the assassination of Mrs Indira Gandhi, a very strange kind of extremism had arisen before that. Young men, flaunting AK-47s and riding motor cycles would waylay chosen targets as well as unsuspecting ordinary individuals and murder them. Just like that. The Nirankaris were the first to incur their wrath, then came the Arya Samajis like Lala Jagat Narain, followed by ordinary Hindus and then by those Sikhs considered to be renegades to the ‘panth’. Thousands of killings later and with a combination of state terror as well as a fig leaf of “democratic” elections (when less than 10% of the people voted), peace returned to the state after nearly a decade.
Continue reading “To the Punjab of Farid and other Poems”

What’s good for the goose?

Apparently, what’s good for the goose is not always good for the gander in the time of the free fall of the free market:

The IMF’s advice to Pakistan (and its no different for the rest of the third world) is to privatize the government’s assets and raise funds from the market. At the same time, the IMF chief wants the markets, in turn to raise money from the US federal government. Why not then give a handout from the US federal government directly to the rich world’s ‘burden’?

The IMF said it was encouraged that the (Pakistan) government was committed to measures to improve its financial position, including privatizing assets and raising funds from the international markets.

Four days ago, the IMF chief had the exactly the opposite take on the United States’s .7 trillion “bail out” plan to stop the free market’s free fall:

Continue reading “What’s good for the goose?”

Ghalib in the 21st Century and other links

Amit Basole has a fascinating series of posts analyzing Mirza Ghalib’s couplets where he not so much dissects them as use them as a starting point to pose contemporary questions, on the question of faith, for example, and what it means to be human.

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.

Justice Markanday Katju of the Supreme Court of India explains why Urdu is part of his ancestry and offers a number of insights into the state and fate of the Urdu language in India today.
Continue reading “Ghalib in the 21st Century and other links”

Much Before Ghalib: A documentary on Sahir

This documentary brings out some very interesting facts about the umero uno of Indian lyricists, the great Sahir Ludhianvi. One fact that I was not aware of till this short film was that Sahir was named after one of his father’s bitter rivals- a neighbour named Abdul Hayee with whom he was engaged in a legal wrangle and and used to call him by expletives when Abdul Hayee, the son, was a child. I will write sometime on how Sahir’s lyrics were my inspiration for diving deeper into Urdu poetry and how, much before Ghalib and Faiz, it was Sahir’s lyrics for Hamraaz and Gumrah that seduced me towards Urdu poetry.

YouTube – Sahir Ludhianvi

Now, will someone take the hint and get started on a documentary on The Other Ludhianvi? 🙂

An Interview with Alys Faiz

(Reproduced from The Dawn)

Alys Faiz’s story is the story of a lifetime of commitment. From being a young woman who wanted to fight alongside the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, she became the woman behind revolutionary poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz; Alys now finds herself still angry at the social injustice in the world, still fighting on behalf of the oppressed in her regular columns for Viewpoint and She, as well as in her work with the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and other organisations.

Alys campaigned for the Muslim Family Laws Ordinance in 1961 and for peace in the Gulf thirty years later, in 1991; Alys collected signatures for peace in 1952 and again for peace in Afghanistan in 1988.

A single interview cannot possibly do justice to her extraordinary, varied and active life. Hers has above all been a challenging life, involving adaptation to an alien culture and society; living with a man whose greatness and political commitment led her to make huge personal sacrifices; carrying on his work in the loneliness of bereavement.

Yet Alys Faiz has no regrets and prefers to tell of the difficult times via hilarious anecdotes, using her acting training to further liven up the store with mime and mimickery. The white hair and Alys’ claims that she is now ‘tired’ are deceptive: there is a quickness of eye and hand that betrays a wicked sense of humour, an eternally youthful streak and an obvious powerful personality. Undoubtedly, these were the characteristics, which have made her a survivor.

Q. You’ve always been politically active. Was your family interested in politics?
A. They were Conservatives.

Q. So how did you end up a Communist?
A. I didn’t end up; I began! I was always a bit of a loner. I used to like to go out for walks on my own on the weekends. And one fine day I found myself in Clerkenwell, where I saw Marx’s house. I went in and John Stratchey was lecturing on socialism or something. I sat down and listened. That was the beginning.

Q. How old were you at the time?
A. About 18. And then I joined the Party.
Continue reading “An Interview with Alys Faiz”

A selection of Chilean poet Marjorie Agosin’s poems at the The International Literary Quarterly.

The Disappeared

The disappeared
took their voices with them
their voices with which they sang
The International
their tongues and languages

We became accustomed to not hearing them
while we searched for them
perhaps secretly
we dreamt that some day
they would be waiting for us at the corner café
or in the schoolyard
as if nothing had happened
because it was a bad dream in some
short story by Borges

With them we also lost the transparency
of objects
the illusion of every day
that it was always the present the moment
the transparency of objects

And so we grew accustomed to filling ourselves with absence
to a gray silence on our cracked faces
to forgetting their voices
to really believing that perhaps not one of them existed
that these disappeared
were not real

And so we too disappeared from history
we shriveled up
the sky also smaller
we no longer searched for anyone
we did not question anyone
we grew silent in order to die or perhaps to live in miniature
and one day like them
we also disappeared
except that
we were aware
we dressed in mourning
we joined forces with fear
little by little indifference defeated us too

We expected nothing else
except occasionally thinking yes,
perhaps they would again appear in that corner café
or in that instant of the sun when summer is a
ceremony of delight.

Link via RSB

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Jacues Rupnik on why 1968 needs to be remembered not so much for the Parisian student revolt as for The Prague Spring. 1968: The year of two springs

The French Left rejected the market and capitalism at the same time as, in Prague, Ota Sik was putting forward a “third way” between eastern state socialism and western capitalism.

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Scientist DP Sen writes on the problems of the communist movement.

A middle class leadership for a working class movement is a contradictory arrangement and cannot continue forever. The above two classes have different class interests, more so in a developing country….In China, the middle class leadership has allowed capitalism in the name of development. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, the Chief Minister of West Bengal and also a Polit-Burean member of the Communist Party of India-Marxist , proclaims every alternate day, so to say, that they are practising capitalism. If so, why the name: Communist Party of India-Marxist?

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Rembrandt – Philosopher in Meditation

Initially what I saw in the painting is the man, presumably the philosopher in the center of the painting, under the staircases that seem to represent both the cascading movement of the mind as well as the transience of time- the philosopher is situated in a particular position in time and is thus also limited by it. He basks in the glow, as it were, of enlightenment within those confines.

As one looks closely at the painting, one can also see a woman, and there is another source of light. The source of light comes not from the skies or the external world, but from the hearth. Unlike the man, the woman is not sitting placidly and reflecting or basking in the light, but is in the act of keeping the fire, the source of the illumination going.

There is not one, but two philosophers in the painting. Or perhaps there is indeed only one. And it’s not the one seated next to the window.

Link via Flowerville

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Introducing Occasional Links: Mayawati, Kafka, Urdu Poetry, Books, Publishing

I plan to have an occasional post with a round up of what I have been reading, will try and make it once a week, else it will appear, well, occasionally. The continuity will be determined to a large extent by your response, of course.

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Tehelka has an excerpt from Indian Dalit leader Mayawati’s forthcoming biography, exploring her relationships with the men in her life- her grandfather, father and Kanshi Ram. A Miracle of Democracy

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In his short story A Hunger Artist, Franz Kafka examined the life of a hunger artist that audiences would pay for the tickets to watch him go without food day after day, especially during the last days of the 40 day show. This 40 day duration was determined not because it was a reasonable number of days for a person to survive without food, but because the owner of the show calculated that to be the attention span of the audience- anything beyond forty days, the audience would dwindle and it was no longer lucrative to keep the show going. A magnificent story of the decline and marginalization of the artist as well as the poor. A Hunger Artist

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Ghazala has the original nazm in Romanized Urdu as well as the translation of hum gunahgaar auratein hein (We are the sinful women), a poem by Pakistani poet Kishwar Naheed. We, Sinful Women

It is we sinful women
who are not awed by the grandeur of those who wear gowns

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The NYT has an article on the explosion in the number of books published: “In 2007, a whopping 400,000 books were published or distributed in the United States, up from 300,000 in 2006.” This has happened partly because of self- publishing but paradoxically also at a time when reading is in decline. Are you an Author? Me, too! (link via John Baker)

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Andrew Gallix, in the Guardian writes on why some feel that while what is written is good, what is not written is still better. Besides, it saves on paper. A reader’s guide to the unwritten

A Rare Interview with Shiv Kumar Batalvi

Watching this interview with the Punjabi poet, the late Shiv Kumar Batalvi, I could not but reflect that poetry, and art in general, is far greater than its creator. Once the poet’s idea finds a language, the language works on its own- the shared repository of mankind’s long history and engagement with ideas and emotions, it cannot but dwarf its lonesome creator.

Batalvi’s talk is almost child like in the interview, and his answer to questions about “getting away from myself” and the death of an intellectual are as naive as they are innocent. Same for his answer to the question of the inspiration of his poetry. Batalvi was not a great Punjabi poet, at the same time, his poetry is marked by a melancholy lyricism that brought a freshness to the language. As in a previous post on Batalvi, I wonder if its melancholy has something to do with the partition and confusion of ideas and identities, rather than a purely personal sadness. Batalvi’s answer seems to confirm that it was more than something purely personal- he seems to have had a happy life as he states in the interview.

Here is the rare footage from the BBC’s television with Batalvi in 1970, when he was 32. He died three years later at the age of 35. The interview is in Hindi/Urdu.

Link

(I must say that the person who has uploaded this rare footage deserves kudos for this rare treat.)

While on Batalvi, here is a rendition by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: mae ni mae mere gitaan vich. I like this better than other renditions because of its monotone and the relative lack of emotion in the voice, thus letting the words speak for themselves.

Related Post: Shiv Kumar Batalvi

Literature from the Evil World

The London Book Fair this week celebrates Arabic literature. As Ahdaf Soueif states, there may be a crisis in the Arab world, but there is no crisis in the Arabic literature as such, though I must admit that I have seen very little or read very little of the same. Perhaps this has to do with the relative lack of availability of its literature in translation. The US occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan has, if that is any consolation, turned some attention to Arabic literature.

My own limited excursions are confined to some early readings of the Lebanese- American poet Kahlil Gibran and Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz‘s Cairo trilogy. Here is a poem from Gibran’s most well known work The Prophet.

Children

And a woman who held a babe against her bosom said, “Speak to us of Children.”
And he said:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as he loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.

source

Review of: The Ardent Pilgrim: An Introduction to the Life and Work of Mohammed Iqbal by Iqbal Singh

IqbalThe Ardent Pilgrim: An Introduction to the Life and Work of Mohammed Iqbal
By Iqbal Singh
Oxford University Press, 1997
Pages: 183, Price Rs. 295/-

In the Great Trinity of Urdu poetry, that is, of Mirza Ghalib, Allama Iqbal and Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Iqbal forms a crucial link between the poetry of Ghalib and Faiz. This is both at the level of time as well as in the space of ideas, that is, from the mysticism of Ghalib to the thundering declaration of communism in the verse of Faiz.

The book under review is one of the latest to be published after the celebration of Iqbal’s birth centenary in 1977. Though largely still largely ignored in this country, some of the books on Iqbal to hit the market in recent years have been Khushwant Singh’s translation of Shikwa and Jawab-e-Shikwa, Rafiq Zakaria’s Iqbal: Poet and the Politician and Ish Kumar’s Ghalib and Iqbal. Iqbal Singh’s revised edition of the book he wrote in 1951 comes as a welcome addition to the contemporary literature on Iqbal.

The strength of the present work lies in the tracing of the philosophical ideas of Iqbal. The son of a tailor, Iqbal won fame early in life while still a student of Government College, Lahore. At this stage his poetry was under the heavy influence of Sufi mysticism. It was only when he travelled abroad later in life to study at London and Heidelberg that he underwent a metamorphosis. Specially in Germany, he was thunderstruck, as it were by the considerable body of philosophical thought he encountered. Specially notable is the impact of Hegel, Bergson and Nietzche. Later in life he was to spurn the entire idealist tradition in Western philosophy. It was in London, too, that he started writing in Persian, which afforded him a more versatile form as well as sophistication for his ideas to find expression. Indeed, all the great writers in Urdu, have like Ghalib, either written extensively in Persian or like Faiz, made extensive use of Persian expressions. In the case of Iqbal, however, this switchover to Persian for some of his most mature poetry was to be a great loss for the development of the Urdu language.

It was at this crucial period of his stay in Germany that Iqbal was to be faced with serious misgivings regarding nationalism. It was the decade before the First Word War and the undercurrent of the conflicts between the European nations were already present. These rivalries were based on greed- and Iqbal was repulsed by these developments. The culmination of these into the First World War was to confirm his misgivings. Iqbal’s response to come to terms with the question of nationalism led him not towards socialist internationalism, but, on account of his psychological make up and instinct, towards early Islam, which for him had subsumed various tribal loyalties into a powerful spiritual movement. The Bolshevik Revolution was yet to take place and the ideas inspired by Bolshevism were yet to sway the intelligentsia.

He quoted with proud approval the well known remark of the famous Arab conqueror, Tarik, who, when he led his forces from Africa across to the coast of Andalusia, asked his soldiers to burn the boats in which they had crossed and cheered his homesick followers with the declaration:

Every country is our country because it is the country of our God.

Iqbals’ self perception as the harbinger of Islamic revivalism was beginning to show its contours. His entire life subsequently, and his poetry too, was to be directed towards this goal.

The militant mood of the young Muslim intelligentsia that was asserting itself at the time of the Khilafat movement was reflected in the Al Hilal, the paper edited by Maulana Azad. Iqbal remained politically unmoved, but his writings now began to have a definite and pronounced anti- modern and anti- Western bias.

The alternative that Iqbal now started espousing was that of pan- Islamism, and in the development of this doctrine, he was considerably influenced by the ideas of Saiyad Jamal-ud- din Afgani whose lectures and travels in the 19th century across the Muslim world had deeply influenced the intelligentsia in the respective countries. This positive ideal, as opposed to Iqbal’s denouement of nationalism, became his leit motif and became the cornerstone of his poetry.

This was also the time of the progressive disintegration of the Ottoman hegemony and it was soon after Italy grabbed Tripoli from the Turks that Iqbal’s anger found its vent in Shikwa where he blamed Allah for the misfortunes of the Muslims on earth. The poem was read and recited all over the country. In it the Muslim intelligentsia found its words. Iqbal now attained popularity and above all came to be recognised as the most eloquent voice of Muslims in the country. With his brilliant academic background- in philosophy (Cambridge), philosophy and poetics (Heidelberg) and a bar at law , also from England, his firm grounding in Arabic and Persian, his inborn gift as a poet and finally his insatiable intellectual thirst and prowess all ensured that he would be among the towering and most eloquent personalities that modern India was to throw up in the first half of this century. He was the poet- philosopher, if ever there was one in this country.

Iqbal now went through a process of catharsis and self- purification starting with Asrar-e- Khudi . Influenced by Rumi, he turned away from the Sufi mysticism of Hafiz and western idealist influences, essentially the Greek influences on Islamic thought between 9th and 13th century. This logically led to his repudiating Sufism in general and the Hafiz tradition in particular.

As part of his critique of Sufism, he began to stress on the development of the ego or self. While Sufism emphasised the need to merge the self into the whole, Iqbal took a diametrically opposed stand- that of the development of the ego. Thence:

Tu shab afridi, charag afreedam
Sayal afridi, ayagh afreedam
Man aanam ke az sang aina saazam
Man aanam ke az zahar naushina saazam

(God, You created the night, I made the lamp
You created the earth, I made earthen pot out of it
It is me who created the mirror out of stone
It is me who made elixir out of poison)

In tracing the evolution of Iqbal’s thought, Singh also devotes considerable space to link his evolution to the specific social, political and cultural development in the early twentieth century. Peppered with insights and keen observations accumulated over half a century, Singh is at the very best, his treatment of the subject scholarly and his critical faculty acute. His zest for the subject finds expression in the book- which is impassioned and dispassionate at the same time.

This said, there is at least one point that the present reviewer feels that Singh falls short of “brimming over”. In th enature of things, the philosophy of Iqbal overwhelmingly overshadows his poetry and the author too has concentrated more on the philosophy of Iqbal at the expense of his poetry .

This leads to two problems. One, the poetic milieu in which Iqbal’s poetry arose is at best understated, and at worst ignored. Specially, Iqbal’s inheritance from Ghalib is completely left unmentioned- besides that of contemporary poets. The second result is that while Iqbal emerges as a poet of Islamic Revivalism (which undoubtedly he was, just as Vivekanand was for Hindu Revivalism), he was also the poet who captured the hearts and minds of the non- Muslim intelligentsia as well, specially after the strongly leftward turn that came over in the 1930s. The intrinsic humanistic appeal, specially relevant for the “awakening Asia” , and which transcended Islam, fails to emerge.

That, unfortunately, continues to be a major cause for Iqbal’s relative ignorance this side of the border. This ignorance also reflects what MN Roy had in 1939 in his small but illuminating book The Historical Role of Islam had observed- the Hindus are perhaps the only people, who despite the advent of Muslims in India, never tried to understand and learn from the revolution of Islam, unlike the Europeans, whose Renaissance was borne from the encounter with Islam.

Published: The Tribune July 1997