By Aparna Sharma
How Hafiz, one of Iran’s greatest poet-saints, found God
The subject tonight is Love
And for tomorrow night as well,
As a matter of fact
I know of no better topic
For us to discuss
Until we all
Hafiz is not a name, but a legend, one of the greatest spiritual poets to have emerged from Iran. Also called Hafiz of Shiraz, he had memorised the Koran, while still in his teens. His father died early, leaving him and his mother, in deep debt. Hafiz and his mother went to live with his uncle. Because of their poverty, he had to drop out of school, to work in a drapery shop and later in a bakery.
That is where the story begins.
In 1341, Hafiz was 21 and still working at the bakery. Working by the day and marvelling at the works of Saadi, Farid ad-Din Attar, Rumi, or Nizami by night, he learnt to get by with little sleep. Early one morning at the bakery, a worker who delivered bread fell ill, and he had to deliver to a certain quarter of Shiraz where the rich Turkish ruling class lived. At a mansion, Hafiz happened to see a young woman of delicate beauty standing on the balcony. Her name was ‘Shakh-e-Nabat’ (meaning ‘branch of sugarcane’). Nabat’s fragile beauty immediately intoxicated Hafiz and he fell hopelessly in love with her. This single encounter had such a profound effect on him that he almost lost consciousness. Sleep, hunger, and other natural urges left him and Nabat seemed to colour his poetry in hues of her name.
Befriended Hafiz so completely
It has turned to ash
Of every concept and image
my mind has ever known.
Hafiz realised the futility of his longing when he heard that she was promised in marriage to the king’s brother. His love was destined to remain unfulfilled, yet the vision of her beauty filled his heart and his being – a state in which the thought of the beloved is constantly with you, like a soft background score to every scene. His thoughts were constantly with her.
Then one day he remembered the famous ‘promise of Baba Kuhi.’ Baba Kuhi was a perfect master-poet, who died in Shiraz in 1050, and was buried four miles from Shiraz on a hill named after him. Baba Kuhi had composed a ruba’i that held some hope.
Wherever a heart has blood flowing from it, I see it. Crazy for hair of moon-faced ones? I admit I see it! That particular Essence … the same in both worlds, in moon-faced ones looks, pure, exquisite … I see it.
The promise that Baba Kuhi gave, was that if anyone could stay awake for 40 consecutive nights at his tomb, he would grant them the gift of poetry, immortality, and their heart’s desire. Hafiz, most keen on the third, vowed to keep this vigil. He had plenty of practice in remaining awake the night through.
Every day Hafiz would go to work at the bakery, eat his day’s meal, and then walk past the house of Nabat. By now, even she had come across some of the poems Hafiz had composed for her.
You should come close to me tonight, wayfarer For I will be celebrating you…
She had noticed him passing by, each day wearier, but with fire in his eyes. Hafiz was in a kind of trance. The only thing that kept him going was the love in his heart and his determination to keep the lonely vigil.
As Hafiz’s love increased for his beloved, so also increased his desire for that beloved – God. He saw the Divine as her higher self. And it was to this higher self that he now composed his ghazals. Hafiz was by and by getting to love the actual flame, of which Nabat was a reflection.
Do not surrender your loneliness so quickly
let it cut more deep.
Let it ferment and season you
as few human or even divine ingredients can
Something missing in my heart tonight
has made my eyes so soft
my voice so tender
my need of God
The days passed, as if in a frenzy, with Hafiz going about his gruelling life, and then keeping an all-night vigil on the dargah, night after night after night. The moon smiled at the earth.
They say that there is a promise of fulfilment in every deep yearning. On the fortieth day, she ran out and threw herself in the dust at his feet, declaring that she had lost her heart to him. That she would no longer marry the prince, that she loved him. But Hafiz stumbled on, single-mindedly towards his quest.
Finally, utterly exhausted, Hafiz saw a radiant angel who asked him what he desired most. Some say this was Angel Gabriel, who gave Hafiz a cup of water of immortality and the gift of poetry, and asked him his heart’s desire.
Hafiz could not take his eyes off Gabriel. So great was the divine beauty of this messenger of God, that Hafiz had forgotten his muse. The flame which burnt in him, was now all around him in this dazzling brilliance of the Angel’s light and Hafiz knew, that if the messenger is so beautiful, then how much more beautiful the Divine must be.
And at the hour of the boon, beholding the Angel of God, the cup of immortality in his hand, Hafiz declared, “I want God.”
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