Baba Farid- The intellectual developments of 12th century Punjab and rise of Sufism

People’s history of the Punjab: Baba Farid
by Dr. Manzur Ejaz, USA
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Every invasion of historical proportion resulting in prolonged occupation of territory results in reconfiguration of the intellectual discourse and state of knowledge in society. Mahmud Ghaznavi’s several incursions triggered the process which led to the reorientation of intellectual and scholarly pursuits, and the formalisation of the Punjabi language in the Punjab.

D. D. Kosambi, the renowned Indian historian, is not very impressed with the level of knowledge created during the transformation from Vedic tribalism to feudalism in the Punjab and the rest of India. The Punjab was in the forefront of such a transformation from tribalism to feudalism, giving birth to isolated villages and cities where kings and priestly classes had developed close links. Kosambi argues that the isolation of villages and their surplus channeled through the king and not through market mechanism, created conditions that were not conducive to enhancing knowledge: The interaction of individuals through commodity markets creates and builds institutions of knowledge.

Kosambi maintains that the Punjab was at par with Greece in the early periods, but the repulsion felt by the priestly classes for material reality hindered progress. In his words, “Thus, Brahmin indifference to past and present reality not only erased Indian history but a great deal of real Indian culture as well. The loss may be estimated by imagining the works of Aristotle, Herodotus, Thucydides and their contemporaries as replaced by priestly rituals rewritten [by the Greek intelligentsia]…” In other words the priestly classes were just rewriting rituals, while society was transforming its base in the Punjab.

Against this backdrop Al Beruni’s assertion that Ghaznavid invasions drove Punjabi intellectuals, scientists and high level scholars towards Kashmir, Banares and other Southern states should be viewed in relative terms. The Punjabi state of knowledge may have been far ahead of that in Ghazni or Central Asia, but it was far behind the Greeks who were at a similar stage at their time of transformation. Probably, it was the Brahmin priestly class that abandoned the Punjab, taking with them whatever knowledge there was. But in the long run the absence of the overwhelming Brahmin class may have benefited Punjab’s egalitarian spirit.

In general, for good or for bad, knowledge-producing institutions can only survive on a society’s capacity to generate surplus production and its transmittal to urban centers. Punjab being a prosperous country, had been able to support mammoth Hindu priestly institutions. The temples had become centers of visible and hidden wealth, inviting Mahmud Ghaznavi and other invaders to destroy them completely. Similarly, sprawling Buddhist monasteries could not have existed without substantial surplus production by the agriculture sector and other commodities, including handicrafts. If the Punjab had been barren and impoverished, neither could Buddhist monasteries have survived nor would Hindu temples be sitting on huge piles of cash, gold, silver, diamonds and other precious artifacts. And, probably, they would not have attracted northern invaders.

Mahmud wrecked the Punjab by devastating the land and taking a huge chunk of its population away with him as slaves to Ghazni. What was left of the Punjab’s wealth was also extracted by Mahmud and his heirs to Ghazni. Consequently, Ghazni became a very prosperous city, attracting scholars and traders, which included Hindus (especially traders) as well. This is the reason why many students started going to Ghazni for enhancing their knowledge.

Before northern invasions, the priestly classes and the rulers used Sanskrit as the spoken and written language, while the common folk used Apabhasha, which means a corrupted language. Some scholars hold that it was derived from Prakrit. However, a few linguists claim that in the Punjab neither Prakrit nor Apabhasha was in use. The language used was on the periphery of both, and was close to Masood Ganj-i-Shakar aka Baba Farid’s language written in the 12th century, which means it was Punjabi as such. Incidentally, Baba Farid (1173-1265) rarely borrowed a word or term from foreign languages like Persian and Arabic: his entire poetic discourse was purely in the indigenous language of the people of the Punjab.

Baba Farid is considered the forefather of the Punjabi language. As a matter of fact he can be honored as the first poet who wrote in the Punjabi people’s language for the first time in centuries. What we have from the previous periods is written in Sanskrit, which was the language of the elite. Of course a great Sanskrit writer like Panini created everlasting pieces of literature in the Punjab, but we don’t find anything written in the people’s language. Most probably writings may have been lost, because other than Sanskrit manuscripts there was no institution or mechanism to preserve people’s literature. Therefore, Baba Farid’s thought-provoking poetry is the first written document to be handed down to us by courtesy of the Sikh Gurus’ commitment to preserve Punjabi classics.

Baba Farid’s poetry has many philosophical dimensions, but we will limit ourselves to a few couplets which portray the condition of people in the Punjab at that time. Baba Farid was born in Punjab (Khotowal near Multan) and after his education and rigorous spiritual training were completed, he left the comfortable life of Delhi after he was made the head of the powerful Chishtia sect, and re- settled in the Punjab. He chose Pakpattan (then Ajodhan) where he had to fight with the ruler and the Qazi of the city. Baba Farid had to face socio-economic and ideological difficulties like a common man at the hands of the new alien rulers and their religious establishment. In one of his couplets he characterised the relationship between the peasants and the plundering rulers:

Farida, eeh vis gandlan dhrian khand liwar
Ik rahidey reh gaey ik radhi gaey ujar

(O Farid, the poisonous stems are sugar-coated. Some tilled the land and the others plundered)

In the first line of the couplet the stems of growing plants are depicted as being wrapped up in sugar. To the tiller his plants look like sugar. Because they will bring him the sweetness of life. But he is unaware that these plants will become poison because his oppressors will take them and gain strength from his ( the tiller’s) produce and will oppress him even more than previously. In other words the tiller is producing for his death and not for life.

In the second line Farid overtly pronounced what was implicit in the first line by saying that some continue ploughing and tilling, while others keep on plundering. One should note that Farid’s words describe the relationship between tillers and oppressors as an ongoing process in continuum for centuries.

In another couplet Baba Farid describes the nature of a class-oriented society and its uneven distribution of wealth:

Iknan aata aggla, iknan nahin loon
Aggay paey sunjansan chotan khasi kaon)

(Some have abundance of flour and some don’t have even salt
Only time will show who is hit more)

In this couplet the first line is a straightforward depiction of the economic disparity between the rich and the poor in the Punjab of that time: Some have so much that they cannot possibly consume it all, while others have nothing. Here flour symbolises material and personal freedom. The society around Farid was comprised of a large population of slaves and impoverished peasants, artisans and workers. They had neither material resources to sustain themselves nor the means to act freely.

The second line of the couplet is complex and can be understood in many ways. Of course if we go by the establishment’s religious doctrine it means that the Day of Judgment will tell who will be punished and who will not be. But, since Farid does not adhere to such a ritualistic religion, the line refers to the process of history. In other words time will tell which class will prevail and which one will be destroyed. Farid has referred to the destruction of one class of rulers by another. In the following couplet he portrays the temporary nature of power:

Jin loein jag mohia, sey loein main dith
Kajal raikh na sahndian, sey pankhii soey bith

(I have seen those eyes which mesmerised the world; they could not bear a touch of mascara but I have seen birds pouring stool on them)

An eternal sad undertone pervades Baba Farid’s poetry which more than anything else captures the melancholy of the injured soul of 12th century Punjab.

Please note: Dr Manzur Ejaz taught at the Punjab University, Lahore, for many years and now lives in Virginia, USA
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