Apr 19, 2013

Owais and Owaisi: Two halves of Jarasandha

What sort of civilizational context can best manage its form and contents? Are some civilizational contexts better than others at this?

Doctrines or dogmas, priesthoods and caste-collectivization...these are part and parcel of any scientific, religious, or aesthetic tradition. How is this political and ideological creation best related with the undercurrent of knowledge and cognition itself? When does it protect and facilitate the growth of the tree of knowledge, and when does it merely feed off of and eventually suffocate its own host?

Recently, there was outrage over an incendiary hate-speech by Akbaruddin Owaisi close to Hyderabad city in south India. Basically, he portrayed Hinduism as a ludicrous and crass religious culture that was violent towards Moslems without any provocation, and he threatened that angry Moslems would overrun India if Hindu self-assertion develops any further traction.

The moniker "Owaisi" is used in Islamic Sufism to refer to a spiritual method named after one Hazrat Owais al-Qarani, a contemporary and devotee of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). "Owaisi" means someone who can be in the presence of and take teachings from the Prophet directly, across space and time, without an intermediary teacher. Taken as an individual, Owais is one of my favourite spiritual exemplars from any tradition. But odd as it may seem, Owais-like spiritual power and violent Islamism have not necessarily been antithetical to one another, ever since the very first generation of Islamic history. Its not even too strange  a coincidence that this hate-monger bears Owais' name. 

Pause for thought. Isn't it interesting that any spiritual movement observed in any tradition tends to yield two bifurcated social products after the passing of its founder - one connected to the founder by some structured physical association and an authorized, historical 'caste' setup to preserve and propagate; and the other a free-zone of emulation and continuous experimentation and seeking. Depending on historical circumstances, the movement can fuse these two halves, and expand and consolidate. But it inevitably keeps creating certain imbalances and problems. In fact, the greater the persistence it derives from the purushaarthic dynamics, the more trenchant the future sociological problem can be. Must this dogma-driven or caste-collectivized daemon be annihilated once it serves its purpose? If so, are the circumstances for its own annihilation created and set in motion by the enlightened founder? How?

The Vedas and most of its branches comprising Hinduism, Sikhism, etc. do speak of a spiritual potency that must go hand-in-hand with temporal strength. This is the basis of the purushaarthas, of the twin swords of miri and piri. But in which forge they are conceived and in whose hands these two swords become one...can make a world of difference. Conceived one way, a Dharmic context will contain and manage the dogmatic evolution and/or caste-order, and keep existing schools as mere portals to the ever-flowing stream of Dharma. But conceived another way, an Adharmic context will keep causing a series of convulsions to justify its dogma and/or collectivized caste-order, and it can be contained (or better annihilated) only by an outside force.

Recall the story of Jarasandha. Brihadratha was the king of Magadha. His wives were the twin princesses of Varanasi. While he led a full life, he was unable to have children for a very long time. Frustrated, he retreated to the deep forest, approached and served the sage Chandakaushika. The sage took pity on him and gifted him a fruit, telling him to give it to his wife who would then become pregnant. But the sage did not know that the king had two wives. In a schizophrenic turn of mind, as it were, Brihadratha split the fruit in half and gave it to both of them. Soon both the wives became pregnant and gave birth to two halves of a human body. These two lifeless halves were very horrifying to view. So Brihadratha ordered these to be thrown in the forest. A demoness (rakshasi - one who is compulsively 'protective') named "Jaraa" found these two pieces and held each of these in her two palms. Incidentally, when she brought both of her palms together, the two pieces fused  together giving rise to a living child. The child cried loudly which created panic in Jaraa. Not having the heart to devour a living child, the demoness gave it to the king and explained to him all that had happened. The father named the boy Jaraasandha (literally meaning "joined by Jaraa").

The Prophet Muhammad, even at the height of his spiritual and temporal power, was heckled by backbiters for being "abtar" - a frayed end, a lineage "cut off" - meaning one who has no living son to become his heir. It was an issue that frustrated the Prophet, and an entire short chapter of the Qu'ran was ostensibly revealed by Allah assuaging the Messenger and reflecting that same spite back on those detractors. (Qur'an, Chapter 108). 

انا اعطینک الکوثر
"Lo! We have given thee al-Kawthar (the refreshing fount at the gates of Paradise)"

فسل لربک وانحر
"So pray unto thy Lord, and sacrifice."

ان شانیک هو الابتر
"Lo! it is thy insulter (and not thou) who is cut off (without posterity)."

But politically, the issue of succession was to eventually devolve into dispersion and schism immediately after the Prophet's death (a saga still playing out in Sunni-Shi'a violence). In fact, the prospect of Islam as a living tradition was stillborn. Horrific internecine war, plague and general dispersion followed. To resolve this death spiral the Islamic community was forged as a regimented Khilafat (Caliphate) under the iron hand of the first two Caliphs, especially Omar Ibn al-Khattab, who used to walk the streets of Medina with a whip in hand. Thus regimented, he successfully diverted that aggression outward, attacked neighboring Persia and hit the jackpot. The rest is history.

What are the traces of bifurcation here? The obvious one is well-known: 'Ali, the Prophet's son-in-law and father of his grandsons, had claimed the mantle of, both, spiritual and temporal leadership. But the other senior Companions (who were also related to the Prophet, having given their daughters in marriage to him) claimed that they had the senior right to political leadership. Indeed, some of the later founders of the Sunni schools of jurisprudence said that in terms of fadheelat (excellence of virtue), the order of precedence puts Abu Bakr at the highest, Omar second, Osman third, and 'Ali fourth; but 'Ali was first in a separate spiritual category all by himself. Thus, according to this line of thought in the dominant school of Islam, the legacy of the Prophet could be split into two parts, and they were given to two different spiritual lineages connected to him by family ties. 

But there is a further, more interesting, and more subtle trace of bifurcation: Much to the consternation of all present, before passing away the Prophet actually bestowed his cloak on a completely different person with no family relationship - Owais al-Qarani, a camel-herder and a saintly personage in Yemen who had never met the Prophet in person, but was supposedly in communion with him telepathically. Not only did Owais have no tribal or family relation with the Prophet, he is not even considered a Companion by any Sunni school, since a Companion must by definition have been in the physical association of the Prophet and/or have served in the association of other Companions at least once. We will come back to Owais again later in this post.

The uneasy cleavage of the spiritual and the temporal was always problematic throughout Islamic history. For a long time, "Sufism" was a continuation of pre-existing spiritual cultures from the surviving remnants of Mithraic, Buddhist, Zoroastrian, neo-Platonic and Christian traditions of the Middle East, Egypt and India. Most Sufism at one time was considered outright heresy, and throughout its history its cutting-edge spiritual teachers were honored with the cutting-edge of the Caliph' temporal sword slicing their necks. Then the revered Imam Ghazali came and brokered a theoretical truce, claiming to show that Sufism could be fused with Islam, and that in fact the two could execute a very useful twinship. Thereafter, just as Guns and Bibles would later pioneer European colonialism, so did Swords and Sufis first set that template for expansion and consolidation.

But what makes this twinship a Jarasandha? The Bhagavad Gita, too, was spoken on a battlefield, so how is that different? Well, Ghazali wanted to fuse spirituality with Islam only insofar as it subordinated itself to the absolute dominance of the regimen of shari'ah and its supervising priesthood, its caste-collective, and its dogmas. He still attacked most spiritual schools of the time with vitriol. He wanted the spiritually packaged "Sufism" to be a cooling fount of ablution, with which the devout could soothe their agitations and refresh mind and spirit before re-entering the mosque.

Now the shari'ah is fundamentally based on the idea that in the person of the Prophet and his ways is the truth, and the perfect duplication of the truth is the true method. In the ways in which different Companions of the Prophet did this are reportedly found paths to the truth, and the shari'ah models them perfectly. Most often, this duplication of the truth is of the form of imitation. In fact, the satisfaction of simply imitating the behaviors of the Prophet was considered the greatest and most complete stage of self-realization according to the next great teacher who gave Islamism its ideological form - Imam Rabbani, or Sheikh Ahmad Sirhindi, who lived in India during Moghal times. Thus, given matching circumstances, there is no sin in the devout committing apparently graceful or terrifying actions, as long as he does so in the consciousness of its alignment with the calculus of shari'ah, just like an automaton servant. Indeed, there is merit in performing all such apparently beautiful or terrifying acts with the force of an intention without reservation.

But most Indic traditions would consider a different permutation - that religious and social regimen, and case studies of the behaviors of spiritual exemplars, are at best a parallel track to individual spiritual knowingness, and that the inter-relation between the two is the subject of ethics. Emulation, not imitation, is emphasized - in fact, imitation is considered dangerous in Vedanta, which says that acts must be based on adhikara, spiritual qualification. Imitation of the amoral acts of higher beings is spiritually harmful, like a form of 'spiritual pedophilia':
धर्म-व्यतिक्रमो दृष्ट
ईश्वराणां च साहसम् ।
तेजीयसां न दोषाय
वह्नेः सर्व-भुजो यथा ॥ 
"The transgressions of Dharma observed, by the Great Controllers seemingly audacious...To such spiritually potent beings this is no blemish, like the fire that devours all and remains pure." - Srimad Bhagavatam, 10.33.29
Owais al-Qarani was someone who had only heard of the Prophet and his new religion, and became a devotee at heart. He had a blind mother to take care of, and so he would herd camels for part of the day and use the proceeds to lead a simple life. Before his death, when the Prophet Muhammad said that he wished to bequeath his mantle to a man named Owais in Yemen, all the Companions were shocked, most had never even heard of him. They inquired, "If he is such a great devotee of Allah and His Messenger, why has he never even come to see you once, where was he to serve the cause of Islam during all the battles?" It is said that the Prophet defended Owais' absence on the grounds of some provisions of shari'ah law, saying that since he had a blind mother to care for, he was exempt. As unconvincing as this was, the Companions couldn't object, and the Prophet sent his cloak with Omar and 'Ali - along with a request to Owais to intercede and save all Muhammad's followers on Judgment Day. Both of them found Owais in the wilderness of Yemen, in a state of meditation. (It was later said that Owais would spend hours in such meditation, and would sometimes be so absorbed in his Prophet that when the Prophet lost a tooth at the Battle of Uhud, Owais's own tooth reportedly dropped off at that very moment.) They gave him the cloak along with the Prophet's request. Owais reluctantly accepted it and asked for some time to meditate alone. He took his time, and heard a voice say, "We have forgiven most of the Companions". But Owais was persistent with his Lord: "I want forgiveness for all his believers." He continued to meditate on the Lord. But it is said that curiosity and impatience got the beter of Omar and he started to walk up to Owais. Seeing him approach, Owais was distracted. He told Omar, "If you had not disturbed me, I would not have worn this cloak until God had bestowed all of Muhammad's followers to me."

Later many second generation Moslems would come to Owais to see him and ask him for spiritual advice. Once they told Owais of an old Companion who had now dug his own grave and was residing in it day and night waiting for his time to arrive, so he could pledge allegiance to Allah and His Messenger one all-important, final time. Owais went to see the man, and found him weak. Owais said: "You have given 30 years to your coffin and your grave, allowing them to come between you and God. They have become your idols." It is said that the man saw the light of Owais and through him realized how much time he had wasted; with a cry he lay his head down and passed on from this world.

Haram Ibn Hayyam said, "I went to visit Owais al-Qarani. He asked the reason for my visit. I explained that I felt a peace in his holiness' presence. To which Owais replied: 'I have never seen anyone who knows what is God, and yet finds more peace and comfort in the presence of another being.'"

Haram Ibn Hayyam requested Owais, "Give me a hadith from the holy Prophet." He replied, "Though I have heard a great deal about him, I never met him. I would not want to engage in story-telling and hadith. I have far too much work to get on with and this is not among them."

"And choose a friend who is able to free you from all else."

"An aim is required before embarking on an action. Therefore, if your aim is to find God and His Messengers, then surely you will reach your aim."

Owais said, "I wanted a high position in life, I found it in modesty. I wanted leadership, I found it in giving advice. I wanted dignity, I found it in honesty. I wanted greatness, I found it in poverty. I wanted lineage, I found it in virtue. I wanted majesty, I found it in contentment. I looked for peace and found it in asceticism."

Later on in old age, after his mother had passed away, Owais went and joined the faction of 'Ali. He volunteered at the Battle of Saffein. Apparently, he wasn't much of a warrior. He was martyred there. They say:

شود رد ابد بو جهل در دامن پیامبر
اویس در بیابان یمن گردد به حق بینا

"Even so close to the robe of the Messenger, 'Bu Jahl passed Eternity by;
While Owais witnessed the Truth in the wilderness of Yemen!"

Jarasandha had a persistence, power and vitality that was preternatural. In the end he was killed by Bhima, the son of Vayu (vitality itself), who was Hanuman in a previous life, and the great teacher Madhva claimed to be his next incarnation.  Bhima was the most certain of the five Pandavas, never hesitating in doubt, and had an intention that was without any reservation, especially when it came to annihilating an enemy. Bhima could marry a demoness and produce a devotee of Dharma from that union who would martyr himself for the Lord. Bhima would satisfy himself by drinking the blood of the slain Duhshasana. Bhima's intention was clear and without reservation, even though many of his actions inspire horror or disgust in lovers of Dharma.

After an interminable fight and numerous unsuccessful methods to handle Jarasandha, Bhima eventually killed Jarasandha by a method insinuated by K. - Bhima tore Jarasandha's body into its two unfused halves. Then he flung each half cross-wise in the opposite direction. Thus, the two halves could not merge back into one and resurrect.

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