Tale of Mystical Love
Noor Mohammad Chauhan
At the height of Mughal power, India saw a remarkable fusion of Islamic and indigenous traditions, giving rise to a rich composite culture. This was reflected in all fields, including art and architecture, dress and food habits and even in religious forms and beliefs. One of the best representatives of this confluence of traditions is the Sufi-Bhakti movement, a form of personal piety that challenged the hegemony of the religious orthodoxy and crusaded against caste and community divisions and meaningless ritualism. A good illustration of this aspect of the Sufi-Bhakti tradition is the work by the little-known sixteenth century Muslim saint Kutuban. Kutuban was the disciple of the noted Sufi preceptor of the Suhrawardiyya order, Makhdum Shaikh Budhan of Meerut in present-day Uttar Pradesh. Shaikh Makhdum was not only an exalted mystic but also a great musician, and his hospice (khanqah) attracted musicians from places as far as Delhi, the Deccan and Jaunpur. Under his careful training, Kutuban ascended the Sufi path and also received training in classical Hindustani music.
Kutuban is best remembered for his classic work on mysticism, the Miragavati, which presents a unique blend of Islamic and Hindu mystical concepts. This Sufi romance was composed in 1503 during the reign of Hussain Shah Sharqi of Jaunpur, in whose kingdom Kutuban lived. In the work, he praises the king, a great patron of the arts and music, writing in glowing terms of his deep knowledge of the Holy Quran and of his righteousness ‘that resembles that of Yudhishtra’. The work itself is a Sufi romance and, like other mystical treatises of its time, is an allegorical tale. The leading female character, Miragavati, represents the reflection of Divine beauty on earth, while a queen who is rejected by her lover symbolises worldly love. The hero, the prince, is the seeker of love, whose ultimate goal is Miragavati. In order to reach his goal, the Sufi, like the prince, must undergo stern tests and face great torments.
The Miragavati begins with the praise of God, using typical Sanskritic terms which are the literal translations of their Arabic Islamic equivalents: the Creator (kartara), the One (ekamkara), the Invisible (alakhaniranjana). Following the Holy Quran, Kutuban says that God has neither form nor gender and none is equal to him. ‘All the birds twitter’, he writes, that ‘He is one, only one. The Pandits have thought and said that there is no peace in having two gods. After this Kutuban addresses the Prophet Muhammad, saying that God first created the ‘light of Muhammad’ (nur-i-muhammadi), and then for his sake brought forth the forms of Shiva and Shakti.
The story of the king Ganapati Deva now commences. The king prayed fervently to God for a son. Eventually, a son was born to him, and was named Rajakumara. The Pandits who had come to the palace for the naming ceremony, consulted the planets and checked the almanac. They told the king that all would be well with the son when he grew up, except that he would suffer the pangs of viraha, the pain of separation from a woman. The child now grows into a young man. One day, while hunting in the forests, he sees a beautiful deer, which is really Miragavati in disguise, having seven brilliant colours and the supernatural ability to assume different forms. The prince at once falls in love with it, but the deer rushes away and jumps into a lake. The prince runs behind her and so passionate is his desire that he follows it into the lake. Still, he cannot find the deer. He tells his father that he will live on the banks of the lake till the deer reappears. The king builds a grand palace, seven storeys high, for the prince near the lake. It is richly decorated with paintings from scenes from the Vedas, the Ramayana, such as the abduction of Sita, and from the Mahabharata, such as the lila of Krishna with his gopis and portraits of the five Pandavas. The prince lives alone in this palace for an entire year, drowned in sorrow and suffering, feeling the painful pangs of viraha. Then, all of a sudden, one day Miragavati appears before him.
In order to prevent her from escaping, the prince steals Miragavati’s clothes, but she gets the better of him, takes away her clothes and flies off to Kanchanapura, her father’s kingdom, where, after his death, she becomes the ruler of the country. Meanwhile, the prince, heart-broken at his loss, begins to roam the forests in search of her in the guise of a yogi, telling all who meet him that he is from the city of Gorakhapura and is a disciple of the yogi Vrasantha. He grows long, matted hair (jata), holds a chakra in his hand, wears large ear-rings (mudra) and wooden sandals (pamwar) and carries on his shoulder a tiger-skin (keharichala), just like any Shaivite mendicant. In the course of his journey, he meets a sadhu (jangama) who tells him the direction to Kanchanapura.
In the course of his long journey to Kanchanapura, the prince has to face great hardships, such as storms, floods and wild animals. On the way, he arrives at the town of Subudhiya, where the beautiful princess Rupamini is given to him in marriage. But, he soon realises that his real goal is Miragavati and so he leaves his newly-wed wife to carry on his journey. On the way, he encounters numerous demons, whom he slays, and finally he reaches his destination. Putting off his yogi guise, he meets Miragavati, and falls unconscious at her feet. Later, he marries her and becomes king of Kanchanapura, a happy ending of a long tale.
What, then, is the message that the Miragavati tries to convey? The story can be read on two levels. Firstly, as an ordinary love story. But this was not what Kutuban himself intended. In the manner of Sufi writers before him, Kutuban uses the love story form to express the Sufi message. Thus, the prince is identified as the Sufi salik or ‘seeker after God’. Miragavati is the reflection of divine beauty that the salik constantly pines for. The prince’s sorrow (viraha) at being separated from Miragavati describes the salik’s state on being separated from God. The many demons that the prince slays on his journey to Kanchanapura are the many desires that the salik must conquer on the spiritual path. The princess Rupamini, whom the prince abandons, represents worldl love that must be sacrificed in the Sufi way. Finally, the prince’s union with Miragavati is the arrival of the salik at his final goal, which is that of baqa or ‘abiding in God’.
In its form and idioms, Kutuban`s Miragavati is surely one of the most beautiful mystical treatises of the entire Bhakti-Sufi tradition, and what makes it so particularly endearing is its confident confluence of Shaivite,Vaishnavite and Islamic influences. And in that it has a very relevant message for our times.
Originally printed at http://www.islaminterfaith.org/may2003/article.html, and reprinted with permission.