By Life Positive
He has led a variegated life, perhaps necessary for a spiritual understanding. ‘M’, as he likes to be called, now gives talks on the Upanishads and the Gita, and gives spiritual guidance to those who seek it. He is an ideal person to speak on fostering Hindu-Muslim harmony in India.
Mumtaz Ali’s forefathers were Pakhtuns who moved from Peshawar to Travancore as bodyguards to the Maharaja, since he felt insecure when Tipu Sultan invaded his state. By the time of his birth 52 years ago, Ali’s family was fairly affluent.
At the age of 19, after writing his exam, he joined the Ramakrishna Mission at Belur Math without informing his parents. However, he was not satisfied with the curriculum there, since he had already read most of their literature by then.
Later, travel-bug bit the young man again and this time he left for Hardwar and traversed by foot to Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath. His attempts to find a true master, however, remained unfulfilled. Later, he again headed for Hardwar and Rishikesh. One day, while walking along the rough terrain beyond Badrinath, he came across a cave called Vyasa Guha.
It was here that he met his master after being induced into deep meditation. Time had apparently not wrought any change in the mysterious master whom he had momentarily seen in his childhood. This was the beginning of a new phase in Ali’s life. He continued to travel, but ceased to be an aimless wanderer.
For a while, he worked as a journalist, once even for an Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) publication, which brought him in contact with many eminent people. Then came a stint as a trustee of the Krishnamurti Foundation, where he met and married a Saraswat Brahmin. He now lives in Madanapalle in Andhra Pradesh, where he started a school for the poor and backward.
As instructed by his master, he continues to give talks on Upanishads and the Gita, and offering spiritual guidance. He has written two books, Jewel in the Lotus (Sterling), and Wisdom of the Rishis, the latter published by the Satsang Foundation, started by him in Bangalore (India).
In the backdrop of the recent Gujarat riots in India, ‘M’ shared some thoughts on fostering communal harmony and the true nature of Hinduism and Islam in an interview with Parveen Chopra and Sushmita Saha at IIC in New Delhi. Excerpts:
Q. Tell us about your association with your spiritual master?
I was only nine when I had a glimpse of my master, which opened up my mind. I was 20 when I went to the Himalayas to join him. I do not know his name, I call him ‘Babaji’ or ‘Maharaj’. A wanderer, he did not have an ashram or a big following. I roamed with him all over the Himalayas for three and a half years.
He is not Mahavatar Babaji but there is a connection. I practice Kriya Yoga as taught by him. I have a Muslim background, but I grew up respecting the saffron colour, associating it with great men.
It symbolises renunciation and sacrifice. It also signifies a rare spiritual vibration. I have great regard for ‘Vande Mataram’. I was deeply moved when I heard it the first time. You cannot detach yourself from the land where you are born.
Q. How did your varied associations influence your perspective on life?
M: I have closely moved with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). I have had some association with Nanaji Deshmukh, working for the English version of Manthan, as a joint editor. I have, however, resisted the temptation to join politics. There is a mind-set which some people manage to cross, while others don’t.
You do not find this (the Hindu-Muslim divide) in south India because the Partition did not affect them. Now, the RSS can in no way be called unpatriotic. Yet, what they don’t understand is that the economy has been badly hit because of what happened in Gujarat. If you turn back the clock, you are putting an obstacle in the growth of the nation.
Q. Does politics have a negative impact today?
M: I have some friends in the BJP but I feel that the political ideology should not be twisted. They say that mass killing of Hindus at Godhra was responsible for riots in Gujarat. If Gujarat is a reaction to Godhra, and is sponsored by the state as the media says, it is bad.
Q. How has communal disharmony become a persistent malady in India? What remedies do you suggest?
M: I think in India, people misinterpret religion because they are ignorant about it. I recommend people to learn Sanskrit, particularly youngsters. Even if the religious aspect is left aside, it is a beautiful, ancient language. People should go into the deeper aspects of religion rather than sticking to mere externalities.
Q. Will communalism gain an upper hand in the future?
M: I don’t think communalism can happen in India. I have my hopes. There is a certain resilience and the truly religious people will not allow this. Hindu culture cannot be Talibanised. Whenever there is a revival of a religion (Hinduism in this case), there is bound to be some kind of problem.
We can prevent it if we want to. But when people try to misuse it politically, there are bound to be problems. This, however, should not be used as an excuse to ban the awakening. The basic nature of the two primary religions in India is fundamentally different.
After the publication of my articles in two Indian national dailies recently, in The Hindu and The Indian Express titled, ‘Icon of Secularism’ and ‘Religious teacher talks of inter-religious harmony’, I got a fantastic response from many people, including the RSS. But no Muslim contacted me and expressed his opinion.I am not condemning them, but Islam follows a watertight compartmentalization, probably because they abide by a single book.
Q. How can we promote harmony?
M: You cannot blame a religion if something goes wrong. This country is principally a religious country. If something goes wrong in a system, you cannot blame the roots of that system. You can blame the people who are misinterpreting the message.
I was in Dubai early this year, giving talks to the Arabs. I asked them whether they considered themselves Muslims first or Arabs. They said that they couldn’t deny their Arab heritage. Similarly, if we consider our geographical unity, Hindus and Muslims can coexist in peace and harmony in India.
This does not necessarily mean that all of us have to go to a temple and follow Hindu rituals. I am truly shocked and astonished by the incidents in Gujarat. You can understand it happening in places where rigid rules are followed or where only one religion exists.
Afterwards, I began rereading the Ramayana (a Hindu epic) and noticed that when Ravana came to kidnap Sita, he came wearing a saffron robe. It can therefore be said that external appearance can be deceptive.
Q. Can Kabir’s teachings bridge the Hindu-Muslim divide?
M: Kabir was a pioneer in bringing Hinduism and Sufism together. In fact, an entire chapter in Guru Granth Sahib is devoted to Kabir’s dohas (couplets). Guru Nanak was a great admirer of Kabir.
Q. What is the true character of Islam in your opinion?
M: I believe from the time of Al Ghazali, Islam has gone a different way. Islam said: ‘Look for knowledge. Open your horizons.’ In fact, Muhammad said: ‘If you search for knowledge, you can seek it even in Tartary.’ One of the sayings of Muhammad is: ‘He who knows his self, knows his Lord.’
The whole Sufi philosophy was to develop this state. It was a time when Arabic exercised great influence in Islam. Hindu numerals were used. Ayurveda was converted into Unani. Words like alchemist, algebra are of Arabic origin.
The cube is also derived from the Arabic ‘kaba’, which denoted a unit of six perfect sides. Then the clergy obtained control and made it appear as if knowledge is opposed to religion. That is the basic difference between today’s Islam and Islam at its origin. They say all the knowledge in the world is in the Quran. How can that be?
There is the other side to the coin. RSS people tend to say that whatever is there to be learnt, is in the Vedas. I feel at one point, Islam took off in a different direction and became politicised. From that time problems started. India, however, had different kind of problems.
India knew Islam from the time of Mahmud of Ghazni, a plunderer. I do not think the invaders were even thinking of Islam when they plundered the temples-they were looking for treasures. They were born into an Islamic country and used this as an excuse to justify even killing people.
This kind of rigidity has infected the psyche. Unless this problem is fully understood and sorted out, no solution is possible. You cannot throw millions of Indian Muslims into the Arabian Sea. These problems can only be sorted out through Sufi teachings. Unfortunately, an orthodox Muslim hates the Sufi teachings more than an orthodox Hindu does.
A person who wants to go to Saudi Arabia for Haj might be denied a visa if it is discovered that he belongs to a Sufi order. One of the most important writers of Sufism, Idries Shah wanted to go to Haj. He was not allowed till he proved through records of his lineage to the Great Prophet himself.
Q. Is there an Islamic state today which is also modern in its outlook?
M: Turkey is one, as it is greatly Europeanised. But I do not think there is much of religion left there. It is similar to what is now being called secularism here, which denotes no religion at all. Indonesia can be called a modern Islamic state.
Though it has a majority of Muslims, they do keep Indian names. In fact, recently they installed a Ganesha statue in one of the Universities. Another country where the mysticism of Islam existed at one point of time was Baghdad (modern Iraq).
The tomb of Abdul Khader Gilani (head of the Khadria Order which emphasised on alternate states of consciousness through breathing), was situated in Baghdad. But of course, Iraq too has completely changed.
Q. How did you get involved with Sufism?
M: I have some contacts with the Chishtia Order (started by Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti of Ajmer Sharif). My master, Babaji, was well-versed in Sufism and instructed me to get into it. In Islam, music is equated with intoxication.
Liquor and music are both considered haram. Yet, Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti started the qawwali movement. He called it sama, i.e. singing for God. He meant qawwali to be sung purely for religious purposes.
Sufi songs are meant for a specific purpose, used primarily because the mind can be affected by music and brought on a certain track. The only other Order among Sufis that uses both music and dance is the ‘Maulavi’ Order founded by Jalaluddin Rumi. It is in this Order that we have the ‘whirling dervishes’.
Whirling is based on a very simple phenomenon, prevalent even among the Vaishnavites and the yogis. When the body goes round and round during whirling and stops at the end, the whole world seems to revolve around you.
Around your physical body, your ‘sukshma sharira‘ also revolves and when you stop suddenly or arrest the movement of your physical body, this subtle body continues to move and there is a probability of its coming out.
One encounter of an out-of-body experience, and never again shall you doubt such spiritual experiences. One such technique by which the consciousness can come out of the physical body is called phoba.
Q. Did Sufism come to India with the plunderers?
M: Not all groups. But some certainly did. Wherever there is a religious personality, people gather around him-some with spiritual motives and others with material gains in mind. Rulers are the most insecure people and usually seek security in such gurus. That way, they hung around some Sufis and came to India.
Q. Where are Sufi orders to be found today?
M: True Sufis can be found in very few places today. Some exist in some pockets on the Indo-Pak border, some in Iraq and some in certain pockets of Kashmir, although many have been killed during the recent terrorist phase. In India, they are found in the North and also in parts of South India. In Pakistan they are found in Sindh, some of them are not even Muslims. Some Sufi gurus are also based in England and America now.
Q. Were there ever any spiritual practices in Islam?
M: Namaz, the five times prayer prescribed by Islam, has all the elements of asanas (postures) as well as meditation. Then there is a ritual that includes the chanting of the rosary. It is not compulsory, because only those who are deeply spiritual would do that.
It is similar to japa in Hinduism. People who want to go further and try to understand the intricacies would seek a master because these things cannot be done on one’s own. Those who perform only the external practices of Islam, like namaz, giving alms and so on, are still following the path known as the shariat. Only those who go into tariqat, or ‘walkers of the path’, will reach their goal. Few achieve that.
Q. What is the uniqueness of the Vedic religion?
M: The most appealing aspect of Vedic religion is that it is not doctrinaire in nature. There are no dos and don’ts. It is not bound by rules and regulations. The spirit of inquiry prevails. It is strange that it had come into existence thousands of years ago.
Makes one wonder whether its origin is human at all. It is doubtful that in those days, the average human being had the capacity to even think in terms of inquiring, opening the mind, discussing and having dialogues.
When people speak of the Vedas having a divine origin, I sometimes feel that some beings might have been present those days, who brought this knowledge to us. Even if there were rishis (sages) who have accessed such knowledge from a certain level of consciousness, they might have derived inspiration from certain beings.
Q. What role you personally are destined to perform?
M: I see myself primarily as a spiritual teacher. I am a slave of my master’s directions. Before he passed away, he told me that my work is to go and spread the message of the Upanishads and the Bhagwad Gita, yoga and meditation. I desperately wanted to be a renunciant. Babaji was against it.
He argued that there are many saints who are teaching. You have to play a different role. Go back and get married. Stay as a family man. Come back after that. I told Babaji that if I decide to get married, my parents will look for a Muslim girl.
I would be stuck then. I love visiting temples and want to go to Kedarnath, Badrinath, Tirupati. I am not an abstract Upanishadic man. My Muslim wife would object to such adventures. Babaji told me to wait for the green signal to get married. At the age of 35, I married a Hindu girl.
Q. Upanishads are about the supreme knowledge. But do they give details of spiritual practices too?
M: From ancient times, the Upanishads talk of the real self being centred in the heart. The Yoga Upanishad does give practices although yoga as a philosophical system was started later by Patanjali.
Contact: Satsang Foundation, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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