What a Sufi Image of Cow Slaughter Tells Us About the Brahman in Classical Persian Literature

A look at the Persian literary incarnation of the Brahman and the presentation of religious difference in the work of poet Abdul Qadir “Bedil”.

Representative image: Credit: Thomas Hawk/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Representative image: Credit: Thomas Hawk/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

For over a thousand years, since around the ninth century, the imagination of the Indian in Arabic and Persian literature coalesced in the figure of a non-Islamic religious specialist, the Brahman. Not that of the Kayastha Hindu, the men of whose caste, from the mid-16th century onward, increasingly staffed the bureaucracies of the Afghan and Mughal states of North India, nor that of the occasional Brahman who, by familial and personal circumstance, received a traditional madrasa education in Arabic and Persian. For both these types of men were so steeped in Persian-Islamic learning and comportment as to be Muslim, in an elite cultural sense.

Rather, the Brahman of the Persian literary imagination was continuous with the Brahman of the earliest texts of kalām or rational theology in Arabic, whether Muslim or Jewish. This Brahman was purely a debate opponent invoked by Muslim and Jewish theologians to defend the necessity of prophecy. These heresiarchs presented him as a proponent of the sufficiency of human reason and thus of the redundancy of prophets. Sarah Stroumsa, a scholar of early Islamic-Jewish theology, has argued that early Muslim-Jewish theological debates were shaped by encounters with Brahmans and that these debates were conducted solely on the shared ground of logic, avoiding reference to theological doctrines specific to each side. The polemically simplified picture of the Brahman this left behind in the archive of early Muslim-Jewish heresiography was perhaps what allowed him to pass from theology into literature, where he congealed into a stock character.

Among the many Persian literary incarnations of the recalcitrantly prophecy-denying monotheist Brahman, the subtlest by far are those of the great Persian language poet of Delhi and Patna, Abdul Qadir ‘Bedil’ (1644-1720). I offer a commentary on one of the 40 couplets in which Bedil mentions the Brahman in his corpus of over 2,800 ghazals. Here is the verse in transcription:

qatl-e arbāb-e havas bar ahl-e dil makrūh nīst
gar ba khūn-e gāv sāzad birhaman zunnār surkh

Two ambiguities, one orthographic and the other grammatical, and one bilingual pun allow us to propose many distinct translations. The orthographic ambiguity turns on the letters that make up what I have transcribed as ‘havas’ but that can in fact be vocalised in three different ways: havas or crazed lust or madness, haus or wandering at night, as cattle when pasturing, and hūs or intellect. The grammatical ambiguity, directly affecting the foregoing one, depends on whether we choose to understand ‘qatl-e’ as ‘slaughter of’ or ‘slaughter by’. And the pun consists of the word ‘birhaman’ itself which, as Bedil would have known, also means ‘the universal Self’ of the Upanishads as well as containing the Sanskrit-Hindi-Urdu word for “mind” and the Persian word for ‘I’, man.

These ambiguities let us propose multiple translations. Here, I offer only three, each invoking a literary-theological context proper to itself:

The killing of the crazed by the lover is not odious
If the Brahman stains his sacred thread crimson with cow’s blood.

The first line appears to permit the lover the killing of the crazed – here to be understood by ghazal convention as love-crazed – on the condition that the Brahman “stains his sacred thread crimson with cow’s blood”. But this is in fact an absurd condition, for it is culturally improbable, Bedil is implying, that the Brahman would do so. The negation in the first line therefore turns out to be an affirmation that it would be odious for the lover to kill the love-crazed. In the Sufi code of the ghazal of Bedil’s age, the breaking of rules of social propriety by the divinely possessed lover was permitted.

But less apparent is an allusion to an elliptically told tale in verses 67-73 of ‘The Cow’, the second chapter of the Qur’an. Read alongside the commentary on them by Ibn Kathir, the Qur’an commentator of 14th century Damascus, the verses in question appear to refer to the Jews of Medina who failed to immediately heed Moses’s command that they do God’s bidding by slaughtering a cow. Instead, they stubbornly first posed questions about its appearance and kind. Only when Moses had answered them did they slaughter it, “but they could hardly do it”. That they eventually heeded Moses nonetheless distinguishes them in the Qur’an as a people who accepted the prophet God sent them. The Brahman of Bedil’s verse stands in implicit contrast to the Medinese Jews by serving as a limit to prophecy, a limit the transgression of which is an absurd condition on which the Sufi may kill the love-crazed.

A second translation:

The killing of night pasturers by the lover is not odious
If the Brahman stains his sacred thread crimson with cow’s blood.

Here, haus or ‘wandering at night, as cattle when pasturing’ alludes to a tale in verses 78-79 of the Qur’an’s chapter ‘The Prophets’. Read alongside Ibn Kathir’s amplification, the tale relates to a dispute between a sheep owner and an orchard owner. The sheep had wandered into the orchard and eaten the grapes. The prophet David adjudicated the resulting dispute, ruling that the sheep be given to the orchard owner. But his son Solomon, divinely inspired, proposed a more equitable judgment. “The killing of night pasturers” then alludes to the killing of the sheep or the sheep owner. Such killing would be odious because the condition for its permissibility – “If the Brahman stains his sacred thread crimson with cow’s blood” – is a sheer improbability. Once again, the Brahman confirms the justice of Abrahamic prophets by his contrast with them.

A third translation:

The killing of intellectuals by the lover is not odious
If the Brahman stains his sacred thread crimson with cow’s blood.

Here, vocalising the word as hūs or “intellect” lets us read the first line as permitting the lover-mystic the killing of “intellectuals” – also translatable as “lords of the mind” – on the absurd condition that the Brahman stain his sacred thread crimson with cow’s blood. That is, we may read it as forbidding him such killing. On a superficial reading, the couplet is then not saying much more than that Sufis, conventionally understood as abandoning reason in their amorous frenzy, must still let men of the mind be.

But a more interesting if less obvious sense catches our attention when we recall that, perhaps unlike the early Muslim and Jewish theologians, Bedil who was surrounded by his Hindu students in Persian poetry also knew the word “Brahman” in its Upanishadic sense as “universal Self”. What’s more, he wrote in a period when Persian-language poets in North India also composed poetry in Urdu and routinely enriched the poetic practice Amir Khusro inaugurated of bi- or tri-lingual punning. He and his readers would thus have seen or heard in the second syllable of “Brahman” – man – both the Persian word for “I” as well as the Sanskrit-Hindi-Urdu word for “mind”. Finally, the absence of a definite article in the original Persian lets us translate the second line thus: “If Brahman stains its sacred thread crimson with cow’s blood”. Reading the couplet with an attention to these puns and the eliminability of the definite article lets us propose that the second line explicitly states the absurdity of the ego ever relinquishing its heretical self-worship. It is on this absurd condition, again, that the lover is permitted the killing of lords of the “mind” or “ego” – which is to say that he is forbidden such killing.

I have not addressed, for reasons of space, yet other translations that result from the grammatical ambiguity of the genitive construction ‘qatl-e’, translatable as “killing of” and “killing by”. Nor have I spoken of this couplet’s place in the structure of the ghazal that contains it. I will conclude by noting that it is not only the figure of the Brahman that makes this verse continuous with the earliest Islamic theological figurations of the Brahman. It is also its syllogistic structure: the couplet’s conditional assent to a certain action recalls what Jalaluddin al-Suyuti, the renowned Arabic philologist of 16th century Egypt called al-madhab al-kalāmi, the construction of logical proofs in the manner of kalām or rational theology, a manner of speaking that he said was found in the utterances of prophets.

Is Bedil claiming the mantle of prophecy and implicitly refusing that of poets who, as the Qur’an says, “say what they do not do”? If so, is this claim to prophetic unambiguity implicit in the couplet’s syntax not contradicted by the ambiguities we have just uncovered in its single words? Can we read Bedil today with the recognition that it was once possible to experience the emotional intensity of faith even as you took pleasure in the shimmering ambiguity of the signs of religious difference?

Prashant Keshavmurthy is associate professor of Persian Studies in McGill University’s Institute of Islamic Studies and the author of a study of Bedil and his circle titled Persian Authorship and Canonicity in Late Mughal Delhi: Building an Ark (Routledge, 2016)

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