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Indian Sufi Muslim devotee prayers at the Ajmer Sharif during the Urs Festival in Ajmer, Rajasthan. —AFP
Indian Sufi Muslim devotee prayers at the Ajmer Sharif during the Urs Festival in Ajmer, Rajasthan. —AFP

In contemporary times, religion and religious identity is being used as cover for political agenda. Be it terrorist violence or sectarian nationalism in various parts of the world, religion is used to mask underlying politics.

Where once there was talk of separation of religion and politics many decades earlier, our current age is swinging in the opposite direction, more so in South Asia.

This is unfortunate, because keeping the problematic relation between state, politics and religion aside, there are some traditions within the major religions that have broad universal appeal that could help us progress as a whole.

The Sufi and Bhakti tradition in Pakistan and India are two such trends from within Islam and Hinduism respectively, that are focused more on the unity of humanity as a whole, overcoming sectarian divides.

Also read: Sufism — a balm on India's religious wounds

The saints from these traditions had massive appeal among people of different religions and they were away from the centers of power, unlike the clergy.

We have seen rich traditions of people like Kabir, Tukaram, Narsi Mehta, Shankar Dev, Lal Dedh, clearly from within the Hindu tradition, while Nizamuddin Auliya, Moinuddin Chishti, Tajuddin Baba Auliya Ajan Pir, Nooruddin Noorani (also known as Nund Rishi) coming from a clear Sufi tradition and Satya Pir, Ramdev Baba Pir, having a mixed lineage, where Bhakti and Sufi themselves are deeply intertwined.

Sant Guru Nanak did try a conscious mixing of the two major religions of India. He traveled up to Makkah to learn the wisdom of Islam and went to Kashi to unravel the spiritual moral aspects of Hinduism. His first follower was Mardan; and Miyan Mir was the one who was respectfully invited to lay the foundations of the Golden Temple of the holy Sikh Shrine.

Guru Granth Sahib has an inclusive approach to religious wisdom. No wonder people referred to him as, ‘Baba Nanak Sant Fakir, Hindu ka Guru Musalman ka Pir’ (Saint Nanak is a saint for Hindus and a pir for Muslims).

Today, while global discussion on religion has been centered on its divisive effects, a renewed interest in Sufi tradition is heartening.

Also read: Can Sufism save Sindh?

Sufism has been prominent in South Asia for the last 10 centuries. The word Sufi means a coarse wool fabric, the type worn by Sufi mystics. It has strong elements of mysticism, giving no importance to rituals, aimed at an understanding of the divine by transcending anthropomorphic understandings. This is similar to the belief held by Bhakti saints also.

In the beginning, the orthodox sects started persecuting them but later compromises were struck. The Sufis formed the orders of roving monks, dervishes. People of all religions, in many countries, frequent their shrines, and this again is similar to the Bhakti saints, who have a vast following among people of different religions.

In parallel, Bhakti is probably the most outstanding example of the subaltern trend in India's religious history.

The Bhakti saints came from different streams of society, particularly low caste. Bhakti opposed the institutionalisation of religion, tried to decentralise it, and declared that religion is a private matter.

It gave respectability to the separation of state power and religion and merged the concept of God worship with the process of gaining knowledge; travails of poor people are the focus of the Bhakti saints’ work.

The Bhakti traditions gave respectability to many low castes, posing a challenge to the upper caste hegemony; this tradition had an inclusive approach towards Muslims as well.

The Bhakti tradition opposed the rituals, hegemony of the elite of society. They adopted the languages more popular with the masses. Also, they talked of one God. In India, in particular, Hindu-Muslim unity has been a principal concern expressed by many of the saints from this tradition.

Also read: Old Sufis, new challenges

In the subcontinent, during the freedom movement, the declining sections of society, Rajas, Nawabs, Land lords threw out Muslim and Hindu Communalism to begin with.

This nationalism in the name of religion had nothing to do with morality of religions, it was merely a use of religions' identity for political goals. In the national movements, we had people like Gandhi, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, who were religious but opposed religious nationalism.

The essence of the Sufi and Bhakti tradition are reminders to us that the spiritual-moral part of religion has been undermined in current times.

The inclusive, humane nature of these traditions needs to be upheld and the divisive-exclusionary versions of religions have to be ignored for humanity to progress.

Author Image

Ram Puniyani is a writer and activist.

He is associated with various secular initiatives and also has been part of different investigation reports on the violation of human rights of minorities. He can be reached at

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (26) Closed

Harmony-1 May 03, 2015 12:03pm

Good one Mr Ram Puniyani. This is what we should promote, religious tolerance, unity of humanity and not divisive-exclusionary versions of religions.

g umesh May 03, 2015 12:07pm

Religious nationalism in India is a reaction to rabid communalism by the minorities and identity politics.The trend can only be reversed if the minorities become secular.One article by Puniani which did not disturb me.

Bystander May 03, 2015 12:41pm

''in various parts of the world, religion is used to mask underlying politics.'' VERY NICE WORDS. REFLECTING THE REALITY.

Concerned May 03, 2015 12:41pm

I am surprised to read "The Bhakti tradition opposed the rituals, hegemony of the elite of society. They adopted the languages more popular with the masses. Also, they talked of one God." This is far from the truth. Bhakti marg is popularised by several people including elite towards different forms of GOD (be it shiva, Ram, Krishna, Durga, Sai baba etc) and not one GOD as mentioned by the author. One c an quote several examples.

aam admi May 03, 2015 12:51pm

great articulacy. & article,,,, hats of to the writer, keep it up ,,,,,time demands this type of universal up holding,,,,

Great giant May 03, 2015 01:19pm

Superb. Well done dawn.

Sanjoy Sankar Guha May 03, 2015 01:52pm

Only true spirituality - not religion - can unite the world. Till then it will be shopkeeping, selling one's wares.

Sanjoy Sankar Guha May 03, 2015 02:07pm

From where we have come we do not know. Where we are going to we do not know. In between we become busy discovering our own self-importance and inflicting it on others. Unless we learn to pay attention to the world in our hearts, we will only continue to stumble and stutter, moving from pain to more pain.

mimi May 03, 2015 02:12pm

Those who suffer from terrorism and secterian wars , they need this.indians who follow the indigenous religions never suffer from religion. Forget sufi and bhakti, we had forefathers like Buddha who even told not to harm aan insect. Moral of lesson is people should follow their own culture and religion, not outside culture and religion.

R.Kannan May 03, 2015 02:17pm

The trouble with the analysis of Punayani is that it does not represent the whole truth. Much before the British came the Moughul Emprire. Guru Nanak's followers were forced to take up arms during the Moughul rule due to religious intolerance of the Moughuls. This was before the British rule. In fact, Punjab had Ranjit Singh as its king during the British time and his army included people of all religons. My point is not that Sufi & Bhakti movements were not beneficial but that the seeds of relgious intolerance wre sowed during Moughul times. This does not mean I support the antics of Bajrang Dal types but let us accept the historical facts in full. We cannot undo the history of an earlier mankind but let us not change facts to suit opinions.

Up wala May 03, 2015 02:41pm

Very nice Article and It must be,Nationalism is separate from religionism...u r religious that does not mean u r national and vice versa

Victor Sumbly May 03, 2015 04:22pm

Wonderful to print this article.That is what religion ought to be,unity with positive energy.Bravo Pakistan and indian that is what you have given to world.

Sanjoy Sankar Guha May 03, 2015 04:52pm

@Harmony-1 Spot on !

Buddha May 03, 2015 04:53pm

Bhakti is alive and kicking in Indian hearts. Its prehaps is the most suitable mode to reach god in the modern era. Not entirely surprised by lack of comments from Pakistani brothers - its pointer to status of sufism in modern day Islam.

Keti Zilgish May 03, 2015 05:33pm

@Sanjoy Sankar Guha thanks Sanjoy for both your comments they are very well phrased.

Pramod May 03, 2015 08:51pm

@Concerned Please quote some examples

Rocky May 03, 2015 09:33pm

Wah! What a timely article? Bhakti movement was gaining strength by the beginning of 14th century. That and with the earlier onset of Buddhism/Jainism are perhaps the main reasons why the outside invaders found easy pickings in India.

Prayandprey! May 03, 2015 09:37pm

@mimi ; I think 'organic ' religions are closest to the hearts of the people in a region. Imported religions have nothing to do with how humans perceived the universe and laid down their own wisdoms. Religions of the foreigners are good business based on quantity and world-domination traits!

N May 03, 2015 10:55pm

It would have been truly representative to show also a picture of Hindu praying at the Ajmer Sharif. I wonder how many Sufi poets Muslim or Hindu make it to the curriculum of schools in Pakistan as opposed to school curriculum in India. It appears that Pakistan decided to sever all its history and identity seeking no one knows what. The question Can Sufism save Sindh, should be Can Sindh be allowed to pride in and protect Sufism? The article is well written and deserves read in schools.

V May 03, 2015 11:48pm

The main difference between the Bhakti and Sufi movements was that while the Bhakti movements seemed no converts the Sufi movement actively seemed converts to Islam.

Caz May 04, 2015 12:09am

@R.Kannan : Religion is fundamentally a political phenomena and is the instrument used to attain power and domination over the `other'.

Another Indian May 04, 2015 04:20am

Religion has brought more harm than good to humanity. Isn't it just about time we as a species look for an alternative for our issues?

Mleccha May 04, 2015 07:25am

Why leave Bangladesh out?Most writers keep comparing India with Pakistan.In reality India should be compared with Nepal(being only Hindu nation of the world).Same way Pakistan must be compared with Afghanistan,Bangladesh(all Islamic states).That way we're promoting religious intolerance.If that's not the case than newspapers could be populated by n news articles since India has so many churches,synagogues,gurudwaras & zoorastrian praying places.India would end up comparing with Italy because of Christianity.Draw reasonable comparisons,which could be met both religiously,socially & economically.

kp May 04, 2015 08:02am

They were not uniting enough, otherwise the sub-continent would not be divided.

Rajat Khnna May 04, 2015 11:05am

Sufis and Bhakti are just the same which says Love is GOD and Love God. While people were religious out of fear of GOD it taught that GOD is the true Love.

Here in India we read so much about Bulleh shah , Babab Farid , Rabia , Sultan Bahu, Rumi. and they all say the same as said my bhakti saints like Kabir, Guru Nanak , Dadu Dyal ji, Meera bai.

Its sad that we want others to follow our way of religion Whereas Religion is my personal love affair with GOD. He is love and the The TRUE LOVE.

Syed May 04, 2015 12:03pm

All religions give massage of peace. It is a tolerance we required in our society so we give respect to other religions especially minorities religions in our society. In subcontinent religion become business industry, where tolerance has no place, where fundamental of all religions violated by enlarge. Overall, Mr puniani I like your article.