Firaq Gorakhpuri was the senior poet on the stage at a Lucknow mushaira. A rookie versifier was on the mike, Firaq appeared to have dozed off, as his turn, the last usually, was still a few more senior poets away. “That sounds like my verse you are reciting, sir,” he suddenly interrupted the poet who was in full cry. The unhesitant accusation was padded with a half smile. “Thank you indeed Firaq sahib, but this is obviously an accident,” the frazzled poet pleaded, waiting for the nod to continue. The reply, however, provoked a sharper reaction than was bargained for. “Young friend, we have seen bullock carts crashing into pedestrians. Accidents are known to occur between cars and trains,” Firaq wouldn’t stop. “But an accident between an aeroplane and a bicycle?” The auditorium was in splits. Imagine Gautam Buddha as the senior poet and the world of intellect that followed as his protégés.
I too felt like the rookie man the other day when I thought I had figured out how Buddhism may have impacted global religions and some great literature too in no small way. Existentialism, theatre of the absurd, pacifism, T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, they all flitted by. Damyata (control), datta (give), dayadhvam (compassion) from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad are Eliot’s last words in the long poem. The words are thought to have come from the Buddhist reflection of the Upanishads. It was humbling to realise soon enough that scholars had arrived at similar conclusions with far more diligence than I could hope to muster as a journalist. Sitting in 10 days of Vipassana silence recently, the mind leapt. Any number of lines by Ghalib are infused with Buddhist meditation that may pass for Sufi influence.
The religious injunction came to mind in the reverie: travel to China to seek knowledge. Why be partial to China, why not Greece, for example, which produced great philosophers? Could it have to do with Buddhism, which had travelled circuitously to China? Was that the wisdom Muslims were being counselled to partake of? Surely there was more than an outside chance that Buddha’s teachings had imbued Confucianism with moral and temporal sinews. The idea of the unstitched cloth worn by Haj pilgrims and Buddhist monks crossed the mind. I noted that the focus on the inward gaze suggested by Buddhist contemplation was coursing through Allama Iqbal, possibly the greatest Muslim philosopher from Asia. “Apne mann mein doob kar pa ja suragh-i-zindagi/Tu agar mera nahi banta na ban, apna to ban.” (Delve into your soul to seek life’s buried tracks. Will you not be mine? Then be not mine, be your own at least!) Kabir was a popular pre-Mughal poet. Bulleh Shah came along from Bukhara with the Mughal arrival in India. Both learned poets divided by 1,000 miles between them and a couple of centuries apart spoke Buddha’s language.
“Main jaana jogi de naal” (I’m going together with Jogi) — akin to the essential invocation — “Buddham sharanam gachhami.” (I’m off to surrender to Buddha’s care). Kabir says: “Man na rangaae, rangaae jogi kapda.” It was a direct indictment of the priestly class. The mystics colour their clothes when they were required to fix their thought. Buddha’s use of the human body as an implement to train the mind to deal with worldly traps is reflected in Kabir faithfully in his poem Jheeni jeeni beeni chadariya. Any number of lines by Ghalib are infused with Buddhist meditation that may pass for Sufi influence. But was Sufism devoid of Buddha’s core beliefs? Khwaja Mir Dard the Sufi poet of the 18th-century Delhi offered an insight into his grasp of classical music and mysticism that came close to the voice of the Great Teacher of 600 BC. “Khalq mein hain par juda sab khalq say rahtay hain hum/ Taal ki gintee say baahar jis tarah roopak mein sum.” (We belong to the world we live in, but we always stand apart/Like the climax of the roopak taal uniquely aloof from the cyclical beat of the drum.) From Turkey to Iran, the Buddhist thought had been woven into poetry. Take Rumi or Adam Sanai in the 12th century, Buddha’s presence is inescapable. “Someone who keeps aloof from suffering is not a lover,” says Sanai in a translation by Coleman Barks. Buddha would be smiling with joy, not the half smile of Firaq....