Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib was born in Agra in a family belonging to Turkish group that migrated to India during the reign of Mohammad Shah. They brought with them the Turko-Persian Culture and Tradition.
His ancestors were new converts of Islam thus we find ample of Biblical and Quranic figures in the writings of Ghalib and also a constant preoccupation with the divine and his creations that oscillate between joyful ecstasy and hopeless despair.
However in spite of being so much preoccupied with divine and divinity, one finds ambiguity in his belief. A number of lines of his writings show that he has contradictions with the God and for this reason, he has been dubbed as Godless by the Islamic Establishments of his time.
Sometimes he seems to be very liberal and secular poet who believes that apt quest for the divine is only from within which would liberate the seeker from the narrow and orthodox practices induced in his religion.
Ambiguous Notions of Divinity in the Works of Mirza Ghalib
Preoccupation of Divine in his Writings
In the letters written by Mirza Ghalib, we find that he uses the conventional way of letter-writing. e.g. His Persian letter Danstanbuy which throws light on the pitiful condition Delhi and its occupants begins with these words,
I begin the book in the name of Lord, who is the Giver of strength, Who is theCreator of the Moon and the Sun and the day and the Night.
The lines show his belief in the oneness of God whom he considers being omnipotent. Moving forward, Ghalib tries to vindicate the system of universe organized by the Lord:
The Lord gives to man sorrow and joy, loftiness and lowliness and these are the instruments of his well being and the channels of his happiness. It would be a lock of wisdom to divide the gifts of the Lord into compartments of good and evil or when we see inequality, to at- tribute this to an injustice of the Lord.
In the lines, I think that Ghalib wants his readers to understand the system made and run by the Almighty. He perhaps suggests that God has given happiness and sorrow to every human being on earth.
Thinking that God has given richness to person and has simultaneously made him happy is wrong. Similarly assuming that a poor has no happiness is also a wrong thought.
God has divided these two things among all humans. To say that God has not equally divided everything is a wrong belief. For Ghalib, He has divided everything in a proper way.
We humans cannot understand His justice, hence we should not question Him. The poet justifies the existence of God by giving a logical example:
The rotation of the skies is like the rotation of a hand-mill. You know there must be a person who rotates the mill; Why then do you not believe there is One who rotates the stars?
In these lines does use a common example to explain to the readers that as there is always someone behind the motion of things on the earth, the earth and the whole universe does not move on its own, but there is some external power which is supreme, that makes it in constant motion.
The poet uses the word ‘One’ probably to stress on the fact that monotheism is the true religion of which he was a believer and questions the atheists and those practising polytheism.
…the inspired ones, who know the divine secrets, can see the Hands of the Lord behind these veils and can know the reality of the Lord.
Here, in my opinion, he is referring to the mystical features of his religion. He shows his belief in the fact that the ways and the secrets of the Creator can be understood only by those who are ‘inspired’ or in other words who quest for divinity and mysticism.
Such people attain the inspired status only by goes deep into the mystical elements of their religion rather than the practising orthodox rites and rituals.
Praise the Lord who has created being and vanquished non-being, Praise the Lord who has put an end to atrocity and has spread the light of justice.
Here he praises the bounty of his Lord and tells us how He has put an end to the brutality of some barbarians and provided justice to the commoners. In my opinions, he is referring to some of the kings who spreader violence on the land like Fir’oun, Namrood etc.
In this section, we see how Ghalib shows his belief in God. He Praises Him and His supreme power, justifies his existence and oneness and in the end praises his justice and divine help. In the next section, I discuss his attitude towards his religion and his criticism of the religious preachers of his time.
Mysticism in his Works & his Criticism of Religious Preachers
In one of his poem, Mirza Ghalib says:
You are ignorant of the secrets of the Great Unknown
If you were not, you would realise that every cover reproduces His melodies.
The poet here refers to the mystical elements of his religion. He believes that his religion is based upon mysticism which cannot be attained by those who remain ignorant of it and follow just the external rites and rituals.
Only the person who dips into the profound principles of his belief is able to discover the divine secrets of the Supreme One i.e. God. He becomes capable of listening to the carols that everything in this universe sings in the praise of Almighty.
My deity is beyond the bounds of comprehension, For those who, the Qibla is only a pointer to the real Qibla.
Again, the poet, here stresses the depth of his belief and perhaps points out and criticises those who do not trouble to see in their prayers beyond the words.
For Ghalib, such persons are always bound to a number of restrictions and obligations which they have to adapt and make others as well to adopt. But those who try to seek the divine truth and head for mysticism in their belief liberate from these worldly restrictions.
Such liberated and inspired people develop such kind of sight that enables them to see beyond Qibla i.e. they can see the divine and mystical elements which people cannot see.
The object of my worship lies beyond perceptions reach; For men who see, the Ka’ba is a compass, nothing more
In these lines, he says that he has adopted the mystical principles of his faith which have made him capable of seeing beyond Kaaba unlike the other members of the community who see Kaaba just as a compass.
Even at prayer, we bow in our own image
If God didn’t hold His door open, we’d never enter.
In these lines, the poet questions the weak imaginations of the believers. According to him, the believers, while praying to God to create an image of God and then prostrate to Him.
Ghalib criticises this practice. He says that creating such pictures of God in the thoughts while praying does not mean that He would be the real God and will accept that prayer.
Here again, he points to the fact that our prayers can only be accepted when we move into the mystical principles of our religion because it gives us the divine sight to see beyond the world the realm of Divinity.
My creed is oneness, my belief abandonment of rituals, Let all communities dissolve and constitute a single faith.
For Ghalib, the differences in the humanities are only because of our rites and rituals. The practices that our preachers teach us makes us remain stick to our belief and hate the people who do not hold our views.
According to him, if we give up our orthodox rites and rituals all the differences will wither away that will dissolve the communities that were established on the basis of caste, creed, religion etc. Ultimately a single faith will be attained that will be the same of all.
This faith, for Ghalib, will be based on the mysticism that can be attained by going deep into the inside the spirit. This belief of Ghalib is reflected in some other of his lines as well. E.g. Once he wrote to Tufta:
I hold all mankind to be my kin and look upon all men-Muslim, Hindu, Christian- as my brothers, no matter what others may think.
Thus Mirza Ghalib was in favour of Mysticism. This made him to severely criticise the religious preachers of his time and expose their hypocrisy:
The Sheikh hovers by the tavern door but believe me, Ghalib
I am sure I saw him slip in
As I departed
These lines show the hollowness of the faith of religious preachers who used to show off themselves to the people and would commit sins in the dark. The ‘tavern door’ here probably means the world of sins.
In this context, the poet conveys to us that those people who used to call themselves the true believers of their faith were double-faced. In one of his Ghazals, he says,
I can’t find the truth. The world reflects crooked, or the crystal ball distorts. The seer turns blind.
The poet here shows his despair for being a member of such a community that has taken away the apt principles of their faith and for their own benefit, they have used it in the worldly perspective which has become so dangerous that it makes blind every person who adopts it.
In simple words, the world has given up the mysticism and adopted materialism that attracts the innocents and makes them blind as well to the apt path i.e. the path of God.
He pleads to the preachers of religion not to preach such things that will distract the people from divinity:
For God’s sake, preacher, don’t snoop the wrong temple on something better neglected
Thus in this section, I gave ample references of works of Ghalib to vindicate his love for and belief in Mysticism. I also presented a comprehensive account of his criticism of religious preachers. In the next section, I will discuss his deviations from his religion.
His Deviations from the Religion
Gambling, drinking and extra-marital relationships are all strictly prohibited in the faith to which Mirza Ghalib belonged. However, Ghalib was a drunkard as well as a gambler and was even arrested for gambling.
During the anti-British Rebellion in Delhi on 5 October 1857, three weeks after the British troops had entered through Kashmiri Gate, some soldiers climbed into Ghalib’s neighbourhood and hauled him off to Colonel Burn for questioning. He appeared in front of the colonel wearing a Central Asian Turkic style headdress.
The colonel, bemused at his appearance, inquired in broken Urdu, “Well? You Muslim?”, to which Ghalib replied, “Half?” The colonel asked, “What does that mean?” In response, Ghalib said, “I drink wine, but I don’t eat pork.” (Wikipedia)
Thus we can say that though he was a Muslim and believed in mysticism yet he was not a practising Muslim. What he believed was just in his words. I have ample references to prove it. Even Ghalib himself accepts it:
These leanings towards mysticism This eloquent oratory O Ghalib You could have been a saint
If only you weren’t such a drunkard.
Mirza Ghalib acknowledges his faith in his religion and also accepts that he does not bring those beliefs into practice. Once, when someone praised the poetry of Sheikh Sahbai in the presence of Ghalib, he reacted at once:
How can Sahbai be a poet? He has never tasted wine, nor has he ever gambled; he has not been beaten with slippers by lover, nor has he ever seen the inside of a jail. (Wikipedia)
Once he wrote a letter to a friend,
In Paradise it is true that I shall drink at dawn the pure wine mentioned in Qur’an, but where in paradise are the long walks with intoxicated friends at night, or the drunken crowds shouting merrily? (Poems- Hunter.com)
Thus we can say that he is defending his drinking habit by arguing that the joy of drinking in the world will never be attained in Heaven. In Poem to My Beloved he says to his beloved:
Come let’s alter the course of heavens-Let the roving wine-cup Change our fates
All these lines show that Ghalib deviated from the principles of his faith and tried to justify them. In the next section, I will move further by describing Questions to God and ultimately to the existence of God.
His Questions to the Justice of God
In this section, I will discuss the Divine obsession in the works of Mirza Ghalib. In a Ghazal, Ghalib says,
The angels write and we are seized: What is the justice there?
We too had someone present when they wrote these records.
The poet here refers to the maxim of his faith that whenever a person does something wrong the angel that always remains with him writes it down. The poet here raises a rhetorical question by asking God how it is just that only angel has authority to write down his deed.
For Ghalib, if angel presents the sins of man before God then the latter should also have someone to defend him. The lines show that the poet is obsessed with the justice of God. Another reference to the obsession of the poet with God is found in the following lines:
Today we are abased, why so? Till yesterday You would not brook
The insolence the angel showed towards our majesty.
In these lines, the poet accuses God of inconsistency in his treatment of mankind. Here the pet refers to the story of Adam.
In the faith to which Mirza Ghalib belonged, it is believed when God created Adam, he commanded all the angels to prostrate him. All the angels at once acted upon it except Iblis (Azazeel). His refusal made him the victim of God’s wrath and was expelled from Heaven for eternity.
According to the poet, God gave such status to the man at that time but did not continue to hold it because today the man (particularly he himself) is subjected to humiliation. The poet wants God to give him the reason behind it. This makes him obsessed with God.
In this section, we see how much Ghalib seems to be obsessed with God. In the next section, I explain how Ghalib takes a step further by challenging the existence of God.
His Questions to the Existence of God
I know the truth, but, be that what it will
The thought of paradise beguiles me still
Heaven in the religion of Mirza Ghalib is the place of prosperity where every good man is said to live for eternity in the endless joy. He will never be deprived of anything and will be provided with everything that he desires for.
However the poet, here, does not praise heaven but rather considers it as a utopian thing. Whether it exists or not, nobody knows. But for him, its thought is good to keep his heart amused.
I think that he considers the concept of heaven as merely a fantasy and nothing more. It is the first attack on his faith.
When there was nought, existed God If all turned void, He’d still be there Doomed am I, for I am
Whatever could be If I were not?
In these lines, the poet says that God existed before the existence of anything, thus if nothing would have existed, God would still be there. But what would have been if God did not create him? In my opinion, he wants to say that God should not have created him and is thus quite displeased with him.
But there is another perspective of analyzing these lines. In the first part of the second line, the poet says, “Doomed am I” i.e. his existence is full of grief. this statement in a broader sense implies that humanity itself is responsible for its fate.
The focus shifts from the divine to humans. Thus this phrase becomes anti-thesis of the first line as it shifts concentration from God to man. As a consequence a sense of atheism into existence.
Life’s leisure is a mirror
Of the hundred, hues of self-adoration And night and day, the great dismay Of the onlooker of the scene.
These lines depict that Mirza Ghalib points out the limitations of God (onlooker). The poet says that in this world humans are accomplishing their affair and suffering sorrows and pains.
Similarly, day and night are also in motion on their own. The Creator seems to be helpless who cannot interfere in the affair of humans. Thus here again the questions about the existence of God by pointing out his helplessness.
Was that the deity of Namrud
My Devotion to him did not prove good
Here the poet compares the Rule of Named to that of God. According to Ghalib, Named who proclaimed himself to be the God was a tyrant who had no mercy for his subjects. Being a human he was also unable to hear to the prayers of commoners.
In the second line the poet asks whether God is also like Namrud as, like the latter, He cannot listen to and answer the prayers of the poet. Thus the poet puts a direct question on the existence of God and shows his belief in atheism.
Another reference in this context can be found in the following lines:
What a miserable life have I led, O Ghalib What reminiscences will I carry; as if
I didn’t have a God to look after me?
Thus it can be said that in spite of being a follower of his Faith he showed contradictions to it.
I have analyzed the works of Mirza Ghalib from different perspectives. After discussing the various dimensions of Ghalib’s attitude towards his Faith, I conclude that there exist Ambiguous Notions of Divinity in Ghalib’s Works and considerable contradiction in his belief.
He justifies the existence of God and later rejects it. he justifies the action of God and opposes them as well. He praises to Lord for His bounty but is obsessed with Him as well.
Mirza Ghalib is thus a poet of complex nature. We can say that he was a liberal poet. though the term cannot cover all the aspects of his belief yet it succeeds in defining his nature and attitude.
- Aijaz Ahmad, Aijaz, William Stafford and Adrienne Rich. The Poetry of Ghalib. Jstor.org. Web.
- Biography of Mirza Ghalib. PoemsHunter.com. Web.
- Ghalib, Mirza Asadullah Khan. Dansanbuy. Shiba Offset Printing Press, Delhi. 1992.Print.
- Ghalib. Wikipedia. Web.
- Jafri, Sadar and Qurratulain Hyder. Ghalib And His Poetry. Popular Prakashan, Bombay. 1970. Print.
- Ram, Malik. Mirza Ghalib. National Book Trust, India, New Delhi. 20 Dec. 1968. Print.
- Russell, Ralph. Ghalib The Poet and his Age. Oxford University Press. 2005. Print.
- Siddiqi, Byjameela. Mirza Ghalib: The “Godless” Lover. SeekerAfterTruth.com.Web.