The Lesser Known Ghalib (4): The Veil of Existence

This time’s entry on the lesser known Ghalib collects two verses, one Urdu and one Farsi, which, in my opinion seem to display connected philosophical features. They both play with the theme that the world of appearance (that which we see around us) is a veil over (Divine) reality, it both gestures towards the Divine presence and elides it.

The first verse in Urdu, is one of my all-time favorites (Ghazal 98, verse 10, rhyme scheme “aab mein”). It goes

ہے غیب غیب جس کو سمجھتے ہیں ہم شحود

ہےں خواپ میں حنوز جو جاگے ہیں خواب میں

hai Ghaib-e-Ghaib jisko samajhte haiN ham shuhood
haiN Khvaab meiN hanoz jo jaage haiN Khvaab meiN

That which we think of as seeing/the seen is the hidden of the hidden
They are dreaming still those who have awakened in a dream

Click here to read Hali, S.R.Faruqi and Frances Pritchett on this verse. As Faruqi notes “the metaphor in the second line immediately captures the imagination with its ‘peerless beauty.'” Faruqi continues:

“People who, in a dream, see themselves as awakened, are still in a dream (and asleep). When they consider that they have woken up, they are only in error. What kind of error is this? This error is not devoid of two aspects. The sleeping individual has not had the experience of awakening. When he thinks that he’s had this experience, he’s only in error. In this way, to consider appearance and shuhuud to be the experience of divine wisdom is an error.But this error is not entirely without reality. The way the experience of waking in a dream is a shadow of the real experience, in the same way knowledge of appearances is a shadow of knowledge of the Truth. The second aspect is that the person who is at that time absorbed in a dream, will sometime or other wake up. Just as nonexistence is a proof of existence, in the same way sleep/dream is a proof of wakefulness.”

But as Faruqi also notes, while the second line entices us with the beauty of its image, the first line also packs complex thoughts very densely. Ghaib itself is an incredibly multivalent word meaning “Absence; invisibility; concealment; anything that is absent, or invisible, or hidden (from sight or mental perception); a mystery, secret; an event of futurity; the invisible world, the future state” according to Platts Dictionary. So the phrase Ghaib-e-Ghaib right at the beginning sets us up with an interesting mental construct, the absence of absence, the hidden of the hidden, or the concealment of concealment. If we take Ghaib to mean hidden/concealed then we get the following: Existence, the world that exists, which we consider to be a manifestation of the Divine presence (shuhood) is actually only the concealment of the concealed, a curtain, a veil over the Ghaib. As Faruqi says, “even seeing things in the form of Divinity alone does not bestow knowledge about the true Essence; rather, it only gestures toward that knowledge.” Just as waking up in a dream is not really waking up but only a “gesture” towards real waking. So far so good. But I wonder if it would be valid to take Ghaib to mean “absence”, then shuhood/appearance/manifestation is the absence of absence, its the non-existence of non-existence, i.e. existence itself. I am not sure this reading works very well in conjunction with the second line, but maybe someone can think of a connection.

Now let us compare the foregoing Urdu verse to the Farsi one below (rhyme scheme “aabi besh nist”):

خویش را صورت پرشتان ہرزہ رسوا کردہاند

جلوہ می نامند و در معنی نقابی بیش نیست

Khvesh ra soorat parastaaN harzah rusva kardand
jalwah mi namand dar ma’ani naqaabi besh nist

Perhaps an Urdu translation would be:
Khud ko soorat parastoN ne bevajah rusva kiya
jise jalwa kehte haiN, naqaab se besh nahiN

In vain have the form-worshipers disgraced themselves
What they call the splendor of appearance is no more than a veil on reality

It seems to me, if I haven’t misunderstood the Farsi, that this verse can be read in at least two ways. In one reading Ghalib is saying, “The worshipers of form have disgraced themselves for no reason. They are actually not that far wrong. After all the splendor of appearance is only a veil on reality, it points to reality (just as the shuhood gestures towards the Ghaib or waking in a dream, though not waking in actual fact, is still a reflection of that fact). I would like to read it in this way, but I admit it may be a stretch.
In the second reading, which is less far-fetched maybe, Ghalib says, “Why have the form worshippers disgraced themselves for no reason? Their God is only a veil, a false God, not something you should disgrace yourself believing in, unless you are misguided (i.e. unless you mistake waking up in a dream with actually waking up).

I think it seems valid to claim that time and again Ghalib shows himself to be preoccupied with this Sufi and Vedantic trope or existence being a veil over the essence, what is called maya in Vedanta. His more well known verse,

jabki tujh bin nahiN koi maujood
phir yeh haNgamah ai Khuda kyaa hai?

seems to hover around in the same general space.


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