What South Asian religious traditions have in common with Zoroastrianism

Published April 4, 2018
A devotee blows a horn at the shrine of Madho Lal Hussain during the three-day long Mela Chiraghan festival in Lahore on March 24, 2018. | Arif Ali/AFP
A devotee blows a horn at the shrine of Madho Lal Hussain during the three-day long Mela Chiraghan festival in Lahore on March 24, 2018. | Arif Ali/AFP

I have been to Sargodha many times. In fact multiple times in a year, throughout my childhood. This is where my family comes from — both maternal and paternal.

Despite all my trips, however, I have never visited the shrine of Naghyana in a village called Dharema, about 10-odd km from the city.

Composed of two graves, it is an extraordinary shrine, dating back to the 17th century. The first grave is said to belong to Prince Murad Baksh, the youngest son of Emperor Shah Jahan, who had joined hands with his older brother Aurangzeb to take on their brother, Prince Dara Shikoh.

However, after Aurangzeb defeated Dara Shikoh, he put Murad Baksh to death, clearing the way for him to become the emperor. The story of his grave being at this site, though, is unlikely as Prince Murad Baksh was put to death in Gwalior.

The second grave is said to belong to the saint Naghyana, who is believed to have given refuge to Murad Baksh. The progeny of the saint eventually came to be known as Naghyana.

The word 'naghyana' is believed to have been derived from 'naghe,' an epithet used for nanga sadhus, the naked ascetic devotees of the Hindu deity Shiva.

Covered in ash dust, sporting long untrimmed hair, and known to consume hashish incessantly, these sadhus defy all societal norms and prefer to live in seclusion.

There is also a long established tradition of naked Sufi ascetics, connecting all the way back to udasi sadhus, followers of Shri Chand, the eldest son of Guru Nanak.

In devotional art, Shri Chand is usually depicted almost naked sitting in a yogic position next to a fire. He has long, ragged hair, just like a nanga sadhu.

Like these sadhus, the Sufi dervishes too let their hair grow long, and believe that hair is the source of life-energy.

It seemed that the udasi, as devotees of Shri Chand later came to be known, also borrowed heavily from the Shaivite sadhus, just as the Sufi ascetics or dervishes did. Perhaps Naghyana was one such Sufi ascetic.

There is another legend at the Naghyana shrine about the fire that the saint lit. Fire acquires a particular symbolic and religious significance in ascetic Sufi tradition.

Many popular Sufis are believed to have their dhuan (smoke), which, in this case, specifically refers to the place where they lit their fire and sat.

For many such Sufis, their dhuan became a place of veneration after their death. The situation at the shrine is quite similar.

At the shrine, it is narrated that the fire has remained alive ever since the death of the saint in the 17th century. His devotees have made sure that his dhuan survives.

I am told the fire simmers — emitting more smoke than fire — at the centre of a room that is blackened by this centuries’ old smoke.

Perhaps the fire comes to life during the annual urs celebration, the death anniversary of the saint, the day he is believed to have become One with the Divine.

I saw another similar situation at the shrine of Shah Hussain, the 16th century mystic poet, who is believed to have fallen in love with the Hindu boy, Madhu Lal. They are buried in Lahore together, in a union that signifies the Oneness of the world — Monism.

There is a fire just outside the shrine to Madho Lal Hussain in Lahore, which is lit throughout the year by the lamps of his devotees. Much like the fire at the Naghyana shrine, this one too was simmering when I visited a few months ago.

The situation at the shrine this past week, however, was different as thousands of devotees of the saint converged there to celebrate his urs, also known as Mela Chiraghan or the Festival of Lamps, one of the greatest festivals of the city of Lahore.

The fire must have been alive, thriving, whirling and swinging, imitating the dhamaal of the dervishes around it.

Devotion towards fire

Fire has long been held sacred in the indigenous religious traditions of South Asia. The Zoroastrians are popularly and falsely referred to as fire worshippers. Their religious shrines are known as fire temples, with fire forming a central feature in their religious rituals.

At a fire temple, the fire never dies. The original fire (other traditions assert it was ash from the fire) that was brought from Persia by the fleeing Zoroastrians was set up in a temple off the coast of Mumbai, the oldest fire temple in the world.

There is a deeper connection between the Zoroastrians and the Sufi ascetic tradition of South Asia. The term 'dervish,' popularly used to describe ascetic Sufis, is derived from the Persian word 'daryosh,' which is derived from the word 'drigu,' for devotees of Zarathustra.

While there is an etymological connection between the drigu and dervish, there also seems to be a religious continuity between the two, with fire joining the knot of these two traditions.

For many dervishes, it is not just fire — the ash from the fire of a Sufi saint is also significant. Just like the Shaivite sadhus, they believe ash from this sacred fire has magical properties and use it frequently for healing purposes.

It is around these fires that different dervishes gather and engage in hashish consumption, another connection that binds them with the Shaivite sadhus. In both of these traditions, the consumption of hashish or other forms of cannabis enjoys religious approval.

Sometimes Sufi ascetics perform zikr around the fire — this involves the invocation of God in a liturgical manner, using a breathing technique in a particular rhythm.

Jurgen Wasim Frembgen, a German anthropologist who has worked extensively on the Sufi culture of Islam, finds the origin of this form of zikr — a particular feature of South Asian Sufism — in the yogic tradition.

While fire is important in their religious asceticism, so is the tong or chimta, which is used to maintain the fire.

The chimta is an essential possession of a Sufi dervish. It is used to announce the arrival of a dervish into a village. It is used by him for rhythm when he sings Sufi songs. Often, it is the only instrument a Sufi dervish possesses.

The chimta is also kept by sadhus who not only use it to maintain fire but as a percussion instrument when need be. It is also part of the Sikh tradition where it is used as an instrument to perform religious music, following a trajectory that has its origin in the Shaivite sadhu tradition and their fire-tending necessities.

Scratching beneath the surface, one would find similar traditions of fire veneration in Buddhist and Jain traditions. Moving beyond the demarcations that divide these religions, it becomes impossible to maintain these boundaries in the ascetic realm.

Where does the Shaivite sadhu tradition end and Sufi dervish tradition begin? How does one begin to differentiate between the dervish and the udasi devotees of Shri Chand?

While there are several traditions that join together the threads of these indigenous religious practices, one of those traditions is their communal devotion towards fire, perhaps a tradition all of them borrow from Zoroastrianism.

The article was first published in Scroll and has been reproduced with permission.


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