Part 2: Why Padmavat is an astounding synthesis of Islam and Hindusim?

Published: July 18, 2018 - 18:39

In the second part of this three-part series, Mahmood talks about how Jayasi’s masterpiece presents to us an Islam which dazzles because it appears in the garb of Hinduism

The beauty of Padmavat, and the Premakhyana tradition it emerged from, is that it is possible to read these stories both as a courtly romance as well as an allegory for a journey of inner transformation. As other scholars of the genre, such as Aditya Behl (Manjhan Madhumalati: an Indian Sufi Romance), Shantanu Phukan (Through a Persian Prism: Hindi and Padmavat in the Mughal Imagination), Simon Digby (Before Timure Came) and Mujeeb Rizvi (Padmavat aur Jayasi ka Rachna Sansar, forthcoming, and Peeche Peeche Hari Phirat Kahat Kabir Kabir), have shown, there are many aspects of Padmavat that are indisputably related to the spiritual quests of medieval Sufis. The particular Sufi lineage that Jayasi belonged to, had a tradition, lasting nearly two centuries, of deep interaction with Nathpanthi Yogis, followers of Machhinder Nath and his disciple Guru Gorakhnath. According to Tantric thought, the seven seas of the story can be seen as the seven chakras of the human body, the glimpse of Padmavati as a divine light, the Haqiqat ul Muhammadiya, the symbolism of annihilation in fire can be taken to depict the stage of Fana — the annihilation of self in union with the divine — and Hiraman’s role as the indispensable Pir or teacher. This tradition is littered with Sufi motifs. The lover is an Aashiq, no doubt, but is also a Salik and a Sadhak, a spiritual seeker and an ascetic. Like the Persian long poems, the masnavis, and the love poetry which inspired these poems, earthly carnal love often leads to divine love, and the lover’s quest for his heroine often parallels or leads to a transcendental journey.

As Professor Mujeeb Rizvi shows, it is difficult to fully decode Padmavat without knowing the Quran, as it is difficult to read it without knowing the great foundational Sufi authors such as Ibn ul Arabi, Ali Hujwiri and Al Ghazali and also without Rumi, Jami, Sadi and Hafiz. Quranic verses, Sufi sayings, Hadith and Persian poetry are all poured into this work in Hindi’s garb. If I could cull out random examples from Jayasi’s Stuti Khand, the first section of Padmavat, here are some direct translations from Quranic verses:

In 21.23, Quran says:

Wa Min Aayatihi Manamukum Bil Lail

And among his sings is the sleep that ye take by night


Keenhesi neend bhookh vishrama

Quran, 31.10:

Khalaq as Samawati Bighairi Amadin

He created the heavens without any pillars


Gagan antrikh rakha baaju khambh binu tek

Quran, 18.35:

Allahu Noor us samawati wal arz

Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth


Keenhesi Pratham Jyoti Prakasu

Quran, 23:

Iza arada shaiyan an yaqula lahu Kun Fayakun

When he wants something to happen he says ‘Be’ and it happens


Nimikh na laag karat ohi keenh sabai pal aik


And all that is superbly mixed with Hindu texts such as the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Gita. But it is built on a literary ground that rests on the Natya Shastra and its theories of the Rasa, the Sahrdaya and the Rasika, Anandvardhana’s theory of Dhvani, and Abhinagupta’s elaboration of the uses of Shlesh and Yamak. Bhakha poets recorded Indian flowers, fruits, customs, lifestyles, marriage rituals, modes of education, of worship, food, and seasons and also used allegories of Mahabharata and Ramayana and local deities.

Regardless of its Sufi nature — the message that Jayasi is trying to convey in the poem — it is equally important to discover how he does it. Jayasi and his predecessors took a spoken language, Awadhi, with few literary models, and used it to create great epics by relying heavily on their knowledge of Persian, Arabic and Sanskritic literature. They translated copiously from Persian and the Quran, finding and creating equivalents of Islamic figures and concepts in local terms. Figures like Brahma (Adam), Hiraman (Qutub, Ghaus), Parmatma/Kartar (Allah), Hanuman (Jibreel), Mahadev (Muhammed) provided equivalence between Islam and Hinduism. Other Sufi terms like Batin, Zahir and Qalb became Gupt, Pragat and Man. As Rizvi notes, “Hindi Muslim poets, Sufis, not only crafted a new literary language but also lent it a new depth by coining Hindi words which created new meanings and nuance, they constructed nouns and verbs: hundreds of Persian verb forms, proverbs and compounds were poured in and created in this Hindi.”

The result was a highly sophisticated and complex poem which could please connoisseurs and commoners alike. It is an incredible and astounding synthesis of Islam and Hindusim, of the Indic and the Persianate. Indeed, the Padmavat contained such reminiscences of Persian that many scribes, as Phukan shows, while copying the Hindi text, wrote innumerable Persian and the Quranic verses in the margins as an echo. Phukan rightly concludes, “Thus, the original Indic idiom is not only Persianised, it is also Islamicised by being contained within an intertextual network of Quranic quotations. In such a work, the Indic, Persianate and Islamic textures are simultaneously present.”

If I could take the liberty to present it like this, I would say that Padmavat presents to us an Islam which dazzles because it appears in the garb of Hinduism. That this was not regarded as a heresy is proved by its immense popularity with Sufis and Mughal literati alike. I will come to its ecology a little later, but just to illustrate how ‘at home’ it makes Islam here is an example from Professor Agarwal’s book about Kabir, whom Jayasi praises much. Kabir, writes Professor Agarwal, “wanted to turn the water of all the ‘seven seas’ into ink in order to write the praises of Ram, but given his divine grandeur, found the exercise inadequate.” Here now is a verse from the Quran:

“And if all the trees on earth were pens and the Ocean ink, with seven Oceans behind it to add to its supply, yet would not be the Words of Allah be exhausted in writing.” [21:27]

Notice the exactitude of reference. Here too is a Persian couplet as described by Bu Ali Shah Qalandar of Panipat,

Man Shunidam Yar-e Man farda ravad Rah-e Shitab

Ya Ilahi ta qayamat bar na aayad aaftab

I have heard that my beloved will make a speedy move tomorrow

I pray, oh God, that the Sun may not rise till doomsday arrives

And here is a famous Doha:

Sajan Sikare Jayenge, Nain Marenge Roye

Bidhna Aisi Keejiye ki Bhor Kabu na Hoye

In his Urdu collection, Peeche Peeche Hari Phirat Kahat Kabir Kabir, consisting of essays on Tulsi, Kabir, Vaishnava Bhakti and Sufi Premakhyans, Professor Mujeeb Rizvi notes, “There is a fundamental change in the nature of Hindu worship thanks to the Sufis. Before their arrival, Yagya, Vrata, Mantroccharans etc assumed a direct, individual relationship with deities and divinities where the latter were often forced to yield to the ascetic, devotional power of the followers. After the Sufi influence, worship became communal (assemblies of kirtan) rather than based solely on gifts and bounties at Yagya, also Mokhsha came to depend entirely on reza-i-ilahi, God’s will or grace, on His anukampa and was sought through love and devotion rather than action, not mediated through purohits as in Brahmanism. Tulsi and Surdas maintain that riyazat, asecticism and abstinence, were no guarantors of salvation: moksha comes through His anukampa

Farsiyat in Hindi, claims Rizvi, rested on a process that was much deeper than lexical borrowing. The earliest Persian dictionaries produced in India included Hindi words and in the following centuries their numbers grew substantially. This back and forth between Hindavi and Persian went on for centuries and deeply affected not only the currency of our words and the valence of our thoughts but also our cosmology of love and devotion.

Read the first part here:

Part 1: Exploring love and desire in Jayasi’s Padmavat through a new book

The author is a writer and director who is credited with the revival of Dastangoi, a 16th-century Urdu oral storytelling art form. He has also co-directed a critically acclaimed movie on farmers suicides in 2010, Peepli Live.

Read more stories by Mahmood Farooqui