LAHORE: Shah Hussain (1538-1599) popularly known as Madho Lal Hussain is the greatest mystic and poet Lahore has produced in its known history.
Middle-class shibboleths regarding Sufism, much in vogue these days, utterly fail to describe him. His life bewilders us as much as his poetry delights us. He was the stuff legends are made of. The way he lived his life stunned both patricians and plebeians.
Hussain mocked what was revered and, against all expectations, people started paying him reverence. And his mocking of himself being revered further reinforced his image as a self deprecating saint, hiding behind the persona of a hedonist. “I am a Lord’s beggar, do not you call me saint. The lie offends me”.
His grandfather was a convert. Both of his parents belonged to the Rajput clan. Weaving was the adopted family profession which he proudly refers to in his poems, to the dismay of the Rajputs who glorify themselves as a martial race.
Shah Hussain got his early religious education from Maulvi Abu Bakar. When a mystic, Sheikh Behlol from Panjshir, Afghanistan, came to Lahore, Shah Hussain was initiated into his circle as a disciple that greatly impacted his intellectual and spiritual development. For his higher learning he was admitted in the seminary of Sheikh Sa’adullah where he was taught how to explain and interpret the Holy Quran.
Mela Charagan is held in ‘Chet’, the first month of the indigenous calendar, the harbinger of spring that creates the delightful ambiance of regeneration and evokes the ‘joyful noises’ of Shah Hussain’s dance and song.One day when he recited the famous verse “--The life of this world is nothing but a passing delight and a play whereas, behold, the life in the hereafter is indeed the only (true) life ---’, he requested his teacher to explain it which he did, emphasizing that the pleasures of ephemeral life of this world had to be shunned for the sake of eternal life.
Shah Hussain agreed that life was a passing delight and a play but made a radically different inference from it that consequently changed the entire course of his life. If life of this world was a play, he said, it had to be lived playfully. He came out of the seminary dancing, shaved his head, donned a red robe and sought the company of musicians. Prince Dara Shikoh, a spiritualist and a great scholar, who was executed by his ‘pious’ brother king Aurangzeb in the battle for succession, writes about Shah Hussain, half a century later, with great admiration in his book ‘Hasnatul Arifeen’: “Strange were his ways. He would roam the city streets accompanied by musicians with his beard shaven of. No one could dare confront him. He knew the Quran by heart and wondrous was his interpretation of the verses -- one day his mentor asked him to recite the entire Quran in his prayer.
He began the prayer and when he recited the verse ‘Have we not opened up thy heart, and lifted from thee the burden that had weighed so heavily on thy back?’ he burst out laughing, finished his prayer, left the place and never saw his mentor again.” The ways of the mystics can indeed be mysterious!
He received revered knowledge but refused to accept its given meaning, which irked the clergy a great deal. His interpretation of the knowledge imparted to him turned it on its head. His stunningly unconventional approach to knowledge, social living and spiritual practice made him a mocking mystic.
Mockery was his stick to beat the orthodox establishment with. He, through his practice, mocked the clergy and the accepted social norms to show what they actually stood for.
Hussain exposed the ‘piety’ of the pious. Prince Dara Shikoh narrates how Shah Hussain confronted a high priest of orthodox clergy, Mullah Abdullah Sultanpuri who wanted to issue a decree against his so-called un-Islamic practices. “Sheikh Hussain publically practised his way (self depreciation and exposure of the revered traditionalists) without fear.
Makhdum-ul-Malik, Abdullah Sultanpuri wanted to punish him (Shah Hussain). He saw him in one of Lahore's bazaars in the company of musicians. Sheikh Hussain got hold of the reins of Mullah’s horse and said: ‘I have a question which you must answer. Islam has five tenets. You and I both share the belief in the oneness of God. But you have avoided paying the Zakat (obligatory religious tax for those who can afford) and going on pilgrimage to Mecca, while I have given up prayer and fasting. How come I deserve punishment and you don’t?’ The mullah kept silent. --”
When the mullah died, his house was searched by the royal officials who discovered gold bricks concealed under the floor.
One must keep in mind the socio-historical conditions which facilitated the tolerance of such a deviation, if not its acceptance. Mughal rule had stabilized and peaked.
Mockery was his stick to beat the orthodox establishment with. He, through his practice, mocked the clergy and the accepted social norms to show what they actually stood for.Shah Hussain’s contemporary, emperor Akbar the Great, realising the ground realities of India being a pluralistic society, had chartered a new socio-political course with a view to separate the religion from the state.
His endeavour created a social space for public debate and dialogue on issues both religious and secular.
Shah Hussain’s life, in the haze of facts and fiction, offers itself as a mélange where reality has the allure of myth and myth acquires the force of reality.
Rationalists among us tend to dismiss myth as superstitious nonsense forgetting that myth signifies ineffaceable reality concealed that needs to be decoded. In other words, myth is a reality locked in a way that it can only be grasped the way we grasp a metaphor; through a process of unfolding.
In order to understand the life of Shah Hussain, we must try to understand the reality of his myth which we see reflected in the flames of the candles lit every year at his anniversary on the occasion of ‘Mela Charagan’ (festival of lights) in the midst of amazing stories of his life told by his devotees.
Mela Charagan is held in ‘Chet’, the first month of the indigenous calendar, the harbinger of spring that creates the delightful ambiance of regeneration and evokes the ‘joyful noises’ of Shah Hussain’s dance and song.
And this is the month that even inspires the uninspired. Remember T. S. Eliot’s lines from "The Waste Land"? “April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of dead land, mixing desire with memory”. The desire of what we want to be and the memory of what we could not be, deserve celebrations at least once a year at the ‘Festival of lights’.