It gives me great pleasure to be back in the Smithsonian. You deserve our compliments and gratitude for hosting yet another sterling event on Sufi’ism, celebrating the message and ethos of this spiritual tradition, of which India has been and remains an anchor.
I have been struck by Smithsonian’s motto – “Shaping the future by preserving our heritage, discovering new knowledge, and sharing our resources with the world”. In keeping with this vision, it has contributed with commitment and determination to the cause of preserving and showcasing the world’s amazing diversity and traditions.
Less than a year and half ago – in April 2011 – the Smithsonian Institution had gathered an impressive group of scholars and artists whose insight into the tradition and significance of Sufi Islam was extraordinarily enriching.
Those exchanges underlined the appeal and relevance of Sufi’ism – as also its messages of diversity, tolerance, moderation and harmony – for the contemporary world. They also triggered new intellectual curiosities and quests to capture its multi-faceted nuances, some of which would be elaborated upon over the next two days.
We were happy to be associated with last year’s event, just as we are today in being a part of this year’s gathering.
I recall, last year, coinciding with the conference, the Indian Council of Cultural Relations had supported the visit of a group of Qawwali singers from Ajmer Sharif – an important icon of Sufi’ism in India and the sub-continent – who mesmerized audiences with their performance at several venues in the greater DC area.
This time again, the Indian Council of Cultural Relations has brought four leading exponents of Sufi culture and traditions in India.
We have Manjari Chaturvedi, a Sufi-kathak exponent; Dr. Madan Gopal Singh, a well known Sufi and folk singer; Dhruv Sangari who had enthralled the audience here last year; and Yousuf Saeed, an avid filmmaker, who has used the medium of cinema to depict with great sensitivity subjects like Sufi’ism and communal harmony.
I would also like to recognize the artists who have come from Pakistan and Turkey.
The endeavours of these artistes in exploring and explaining the essence of Sufi’ism elegantly articulate the theme of this conference: “Searching for the Divine through the Arts”.
Indeed, the art forms associated with Sufi traditions have been seen as are an excellent window to its soul.
India has been the birth place of four of the world’s major religions. It is also home to followers of all major religions of the world, almost without exception. There are over 170 million Muslims in India – about 17% of our population – representing various traditions in Islam. They have made their own distinct contributions to India’s culture, society and traditions, just as they have been in turn enriched by India’s diverse and pluralistic cultural and civilizational heritage.
This multi-religious character of the Indian society – with a spiritual leaning that nurtured openness and diversity – provided the perfect canvass for confluence and cross-fertilization of various cultural streams over centuries.
You would have heard of the phrase “Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb” – roughly translated as the “tradition nurtured along two great Indian rivers, Ganga and Yamuna”. It is an evocative expression to describe a blending and thriving of the Hindu and the Islamic cultural expressions.
That blending remains a way of life in today’s India.
It is in this synthesis of faith, diversity and spirituality, that Sufi’ism was welcomed in the Indian subcontinent more than a millennia ago. The message of peace, equality and tolerance – embraced, personified and preached by Sufi saints – had a spontaneous appeal among the people of India, regardless of their religions.
And, it still does. Throngs of Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and followers of many other faiths can be seen at India’s various Sufi shrines seeking blessings, making wishes, and thanking the saints for facilitating their fulfillment.
Religious articulations in India have also meshed with the desire and struggle for social transformation and greater equality. Buddhism and Jainism in the 6th century B.C. spoke up against social inequality. At another time and era, there was the bhakti movement or ‘selfless’ devotion, stressing also on the oneness of God and devotee, and common threads in different religions.
Sufi saints admired India’s diversity and strove to find a unity among its heterogeneous elements by – as poet laureate Rabindranath Tagore said, “set(ting) at naught all differences of men, by the overflow of their consciousness of God”. One Indian scholar noted, “For them (the Sufis), God was not a logical abstraction of unity, but a living reality, to be approached through the service of mankind”.
This was a herculean mission, but one which they undertook with zeal. They worked to build a social order free from discord, conflict, and inequity. Their creed was to return hatred with love, violence with affection. The famous Sufi pir, Shaikh Nizam-u’d-din Auliya used to recite the following verse of Shaikh Abu Sa’id Abul Khair as his life’s motto:
Whoever causes grief to us,
May his life get more and more happiness.
The relentless exchange between Hinduism, Islam and Sufi’ism led to both “reformist movements” and a “devotional renaissance” where writers, poets and singers communicated in easy verses the essence of tolerance, inclusion, and spiritual unity of all faiths.
For example, one of the greatest poets who contributed to this was Kabir, a Muslim weaver. He was a disciple of Hindu guru Ramananda and often challenged religious orthodoxy in his work.
And through the works of these eminent saints and pirs, also evolved a strong artistic tradition of Sufi’ism.
Indeed, Sufi music is a seminal contribution of Sufi’ism to the composite culture of the Indian subcontinent. Inspired by the elements of love, mutual respect, universality and freedom of spirit, Sufi music attracted people by its simplicity and emotiveness.
Even today, it continues to find a special niche in modern Indian culture. Our eminent group of artists present here, I am sure, will give you an enlightening experience of that.
The fact that many Sufi artists from other countries are popular in India also reveals how much Sufi’ism has remained a shared heritage, transcending divisions of national boundaries.
At a time when we sadly witness, in many corners of the world, religion and faith being used as forces of division rather than unity, hatred rather than compassion, and exclusion rather than acceptance, Sufi’ism with its tenets of equality and mutual respect has the spiritual power that can nudge us into believing in the need and importance of living together in peace and harmony, regardless of our individual religions, faiths, beliefs and persuasions.
I would end my remarks with a famous Sufi couplet that I admire for its simplicity and profoundness at the same time. It was quoted by the noted Indian philosopher and India’s former President Dr. S. Radhakrishnan in his book The Future of Civilizations, and goes thus:
"There is so much good in the worst of us and
So much bad in the best of us
That it did not behove any of us
To find fault with the rest of us."
Thank you very much! I wish this conference success.