Ghalib on the coils of religious symbolism

With last time’s post on the “Faith of Faithlessness” we have embarked upon a new project in collaboration with The South Asian Idea blog. Via selected couplets of Ghalib we wish to raise certain questions on religion, faith, humanity, divinity, pluralism and beyond. Questions that are at once eternal and of contemporary relevance.

This is what we have planned. Every week, or roughly every week we will choose one Urdu verse by Ghalib which speaks about the themes mentioned above. A literal translation along with commentary will be posted here. In concert with that, some questions will be posed around the verse and its meaning(s) here on The South Asian Idea. Our readers are encouraged to visit there to get the full experience of this endeavor. And if you know of good Ghalib verses that it would be relevant to discuss here, please send them our way.

Verse for this week:

نہیں کچھ سبحہ و زنار کے پھندے میں گیرائ
وفاداری میں شیخ و برہمن کی آزمائش ہے


nahii;N kuchh sub;hah-o-zunnaar ke phande me;N giiraa))ii
vafaadaarii me;N shai;x-o-barhaman kii aazmaa))ish hai

Literal translation:
there is no {‘grip’ / holding-power} in the noose/coil/snare of prayer-beads and sacred-thread
in faithfulness is the test of the Shaikh and the Brahmin

[Translation by FWP, click here for this verses entry in A Desertful of Roses.]

First let us here some commentary by Moazzam Siddiqi sahab (courtesy Anjum Altaf of The South Asian Idea):
[subbah and zunnaar are exoteric/external/zaahirii symbols and are incapable of penetrating and taking hold of the soul; wafaadaarii, which lies in the niyya(t) of the believer, and thus, cannot be externally seen/exhibited is an internal state of the believer]. The word “phanda” noose in Hindi, for which the Persian words are “kamand, daam” brings to mind the whole imagery of “shikaar,” the game of hunting where the beloved is the shikaarii (the hunter) and uses the phanda/kamand to capture/seize the heart of the lover (the “shikaar,” the prey or victim)].
————–

Ghalib uses the pejorative or negative word, “phanda” or noose to refer to the rosary and the thread. Thus he seems to want to evoke images of being trapped, being unable to escape and realize the true nature of Divinity. But there is a tension here in the verse. The coils are weak, the noose is ineffective. It has no holding power. Thus it cannot really bind the Shaikh or the Brahmin to their vows, to their beliefs. Frances Pritchett expresses the dilemma very well:

“Does this mean that the Shaikh and Brahmin might be ‘trapped’ or ‘ensnared’ by their own religious symbols? And if so, would this entrapment occur against their will, so that they’d struggle to escape, the way trapped creatures normally do? If so, they would perhaps succeed, since these nooses have no real ‘gripping power’. But what form would their struggle take?

Or would this ‘entrapment’ and ‘snaring’ occur without their awareness, such that they’d complacently think themselves well-grounded, or firmly anchored, or otherwise safely bound into their own religious systems? If so, they’d be deluded, since these symbolic coils have no ‘gripping power’ and thus can’t provide any ultimate security.”

What then can test the mettle of our religious figures, if not their adherence to religious symbols? The second line provides the answer. The strength of their faith, of course. Thus there is a very clear affinity, as several commentators note, with the verse from last week. What matters to Ghalib is the strength of inner faith rather than outer symbols such as the sacred thread or the rosary. The zunnar or the sacred thread is a commonly used poetic image for the religiosity of the Brahmin and its need is questioned very often by those who want to emphasize the inner purity or love and devotion over the outward expression of belief. For example the following verse by Amir Khusro:

کافر عشقم مسلمانی مرا درکار نیست
ہر رگ من تار گشتہ حاجت زنار نیست

kaafir-e-ishqam musalmaani maraa dakaar nist
har rag-e-man taar gasht haajat-e-zunnar nist

I am a kaafir of love, I have no need for musalmaai (the practice of Islam)
My every vein is a thread/wire, I have no need for the zunnar

On the issue of the rosary, Kabir says,

माला तो कर में फिरे जीभ फिरे मुख माही
मनवा तो चहुँ दिश फिरे ये तो सुमिरन नाही

maalaa to kar meiN phire jeebh phire mukh maahii
manvaa to chahuN dish phire yeh to sumiran naahii

The rosary turns in the hand, the tongue wags inside the mouth
But the mind roams the four directions, surely this is not prayer!

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One thought on “Ghalib on the coils of religious symbolism

  1. Reading your post I was reminded of the immortal couplet-Ban kranti ke pujjari, siddhant mein hattiBar dil mein umang aur dimagh meing tatti{Become devotees of revolution, obstinate only on matters of principleFill your heart with hope and your brain with shit)If you can make a living saying the same old thing- which had no effect when it was first uttered and thus earned a sort of grudging tolerance from those in power- then for, God’ sake, don’t stint the wine!Get drunk at least before you vomit- since vomiting is your occupation.Thus, the true message of Ghalib is- being an intellectual in Delhi is nothing but cramming and vomiting. Hence being drunk is important.Also gambling. If you can get a windfall that way- maybe you can move to some commercial city and set up in Business.Ghalib’s true greatness lies in his praise of Rum- the God of the Hindus. Of course, only reason he made this discovery was because the Mutiny had cut off supplies of French wine.Still, he was a great man.As Sahir Ludhianvi mentions- gandhi, Ghalib etc. are worshipped only by their assassins.

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