Farid Bani in Guru Granth Sahib
Guru Granth Sahib was compiled by Guru Arjan in 1604 AD, that is, the very early seventeenth century. There passed a few centuries, in other words, between the death of Farid and the debut of his verses in the Sikh scripture. That has made for a number of interesting questions about the origin and afterlives of Farid Bani, as those verses came to be known.
Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs, contains 112 verses by the famous Sufi Saint Baba Farid. Farid, who lived approximately between 1173 to 1265 A.D., was the chief disciple of Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki and led the Chishti school of Sufis after Kaki’s death. He, in turn, trained the famous Nizamuddin Auliya of Delhi. The poet Amir Khasru was a major disciple of Auliya. The early Sufis such as Kaki or Farid did not leave much by way of written material. Their work and memories began to be written up since the fourteenth century when Auliya’s disciples began to put together a series of memoirs of their master.
Guru Granth Sahib was compiled by Guru Arjan in 1604 AD, that is, in the very early seventeenth century. There passed a few centuries, in other words, between the death of Farid and the entry of his verses in the Sikh scripture. That has made for several interesting questions about the origin and afterlives of Farid Bani, as those verses came to be known.
Farid was born in Multan but shifted soon to Delhi, where he received spiritual training from Bakhtiyar Kaki. The latter was the spiritual guide of Sultan Iltutmish, who had succeeded Qutubuddin Aibak as the Sultan of Delhi. Incidentally, whether or not the famous Qutb Minar in Delhi is named Bakhtiyar Kaki still remains a matter of lively debate. If an influential school of opinion says it was named after him, another says it is named after sultan Qutubuddin Aibak who had commissioned the monument but died soon after the constructions commenced.
Farid the Sufi saint gained a reputation as an austere and strict disciplinarian. He spent some years in Hansi, in Haryana of today, and after the death of Kaki sometime between 1235 and 1238, shifted his base to Ajodhan near Multan. The place is now called Pakpattan and falls in current Pakistan. Later accounts, that is, surviving and verifiable accounts, recall him as a strict and austere Sufi saint, so much so that his immediate family had reportedly to suffer extreme poverty. He would practice the impossibly hard Sufi observance of chilla-a-ma’kus or the forty-night vigil. It involved suspending his body upside down in a well, his feet tied by a rope to the wooden support at the top. Ironically enough, the shrine built around his tomb at Pakpattan soon assumed a much larger profile and its hereditary custodians enjoyed great wealth and influence. During the Mughal period, in particular, there had emerged a welter of hagiographic literature celebrating Farid’s miraculous powers. These legends soon consolidated his reputation as one of the greatest Sufi Saints of Punjab, and indeed of the subcontinent. By then Farid had been dead for nearly two centuries. The fame of Farid shot up exponentially a couple of centuries after his death. The difference between the historical Farid and his image as a miracle worker two centuries after his death should be kept in the mind.
Aligarh Professor K A Nizami published a brief biography of Farid in 1955. One of the questions he tried to examine there is whether Farid himself composed the Granth Sahib verses attributed to him. Nizami did not dispute that Farid had a soft corner for verses but regretted that there was no contemporary reference of Farid leaving so many verses. He wrote also that many later words were used, and the Farid himself did not refer to his poet self as Farid but Masud. Nizami concluded that the shlokas were probably composed by a descendant of Farid called Shaikh Ibrahim, who had been a contemporary and friend of Guru Nanak. Christopher Shackle has in a more recent paper shows that Nizami’s perspective may have been influenced by a pre-modern, or roughly eighteen and nineteenth century, Sikh approach to Farid Bani. Before that, there was little attempt to asking whether or not Farid composed the shlokas attributed to him. But since then, there was a tendency to show that somehow Guru Nanak himself discovered them and reinterpreted them within a largely Sikh world view, as though the merit of the Farid Bani depends less on their own but more on their discovery and retention by the Sikh divines. This is, of course, a simplification of a more complex point, and presented only as a common-sense illustration, and intending no offence to any religious sentiment, whether of the Sikhs or the Muslims.
But the point is that the significance of the shlokas does not depend entirely on whether or not Farid himself wrote them all. There are two other related concerns too. One, the verses are quite small in size. They cover about 6 or 7 pages out of a total 1430 printed pages of the Adi Granth. Two, the themes addressed are not uniform, and their diversity inhibits attempts to seek out doctrinal clarity or consistency. The subjects broadly include the need for divine love, self-purification, penitence in spiritual progress, the ephemeral nature of human existence and so on. They seemed, to Nizami, gushes of a heart overflowing with divine heart and yet they emphasized the ascetic aspect of spiritual discipline.
Yet, the salience of Farid Bani in the Adi Granth cannot be underplayed. They are the only clearly defined example of the contribution of an unambiguously Muslim saint-poet to Sikh scriptures. They are also a rare bunch of vernacular verses assigned to an early Sufi Saint. Persian at this time used to be the preferred language of Sufi expression and Sufi record. Farid has been recognized by more recent scholars as possibly the greatest example of the vernacularization of Sufism in the subcontinent. He was probably the first major Sufi saint to be born in the subcontinent, and his teaching, so far as evidence survives, was largely conducted in a vernacular language. These dohas can also be read, to that extent, as traces of how the Sufi messages were translated into the vernacular world of the subcontinent.
Later, whether or not the historical Farid wrote them lost its status as the principal concern. What messages they seek to convey became a more pressing concern, and how the later scholars came to read them. More contemporary scholars such as Christopher Shackle emphasized the vernacular element in these shlokas. Guru Nanak generally used a language which Schackle called a mixture of Punjabi with Western Hindi based Sant Bhasha. So did the other Bhagats whose teaching is included in Adi Granth. The language of Farid Bani verses, on the other hand, uses features associated with the language, or dialect, of southwestern Punjab. It used to be called Multani and is now called Siraeki in Pakistan. Few scholars have worked with Siraeki material with more distinction than Professor Shackle.
Unlike Nizami, Shackle believes that there is a clear theme running through the Farid Bani. It is that death is evitable and can strike anytime, and it is necessary for that reason to turn away from worldly pleasures and to cultivating spiritual discipline. The style too is different. While Nanak could take recourse to long verses in order to hold a whole discourse, Farid preached in Dohas. The Dohas are made of two rhyming verses, each divided into half verses of three or four words at most. As a form, it cannot hold a long discourse. It has to communicate only in condensed images or succinct messages. As Shackle writes, ‘it would be inappropriate to expect them to provide a systematic presentation of Sufi ideas, although they individually reflect the well-known Sufi teachings, whose goal is to foster a love and awareness of God through turning away from the attractions of this world.’
The contents of the Bani are said to be consistent with what is known about the Chisti Saint Farid from the early Persian sources. But Shackle agrees with Nizami that some of the verses were probably written during the sixteenth century, well after Farid’s death, possibly by an admirer or many. But the discovery of a Manuscript in the Chisti centre of Khuldabad in the Deccan offers new evidence of Farid’s Dohas circulating in the fourteenth century too. It offers some credence to the possibility that Farid’s teaching circulated in the subcontinent well before Nanak discovered them or later Persian or Sikh scholars lent them more grandeur.
Within the Adi Granth, Farid Bani forms part of a larger section called the Bhagat Bani, which furnishes teaching from saints other than Sikh Gurus. There is no clarity yet as to which Sikh Guru collected these verses. It may be Nanak, but it may as well be Amar Das. But it is almost certain that Guru Arjan was responsible for the final placement of the Farid Bani within the Adi Granth.
Shackle concludes with remarkable insight. He shows that the question of whether or not Farid Bani were all written by Farid or his descendant Shaikh Ibrahim is a consequence of an impulse to privilege Guru Nanak as the last word. If it could be shown that the Farid Bani was composed by a contemporary of Nanak, it appears to reduce the greatness of Farid to some extent. If on the other hand it may be shown that at least some of the verses attributed to Farid did indeed predate this Shaikh Ibrahim, it may be an advance towards restoring to Baba Farid at least part authorship of the verses attributed to him.
The issue at stake here is what or how, or how much of Farid Bani circulated in the subcontinent before they were compiled in the Adi Granth. Instructive here is the point that before the so-called pre-modern Sikh scholarship, there was no attempt even by Sikh scholars or commentators to ask whether or not the Farid Bani was indeed composed by Farid. They were accepted as germane or essential to the Granth as other Bhagat Banis. In that sense, the surprise that Farid Bani is found within the Sikh scripture is itself a somewhat later phenomenon. There was a time, in other words, when it did not raise any surprise whatsoever and was read or approached as integral to the main text. It is time, it seems, for all of us, to change the question once again. What we need to ask is how the early Sikh Gurus did not find anything unusual at all to include the dohas of a Muslim saint within a body of their teaching. What happened later that it became necessary to get worried about indisputable authorships, or authorities? In this day and age of epidemic perverse anonymity and ambiguities again, there is a crying need to reclaim histories of more honourable ambiguities.