Lost in Translations
Spirituality, a victim of political hijacking
When I arrived in Delhi three years ago for a degree in English literature, I found campus life divided in three: there were the political, intellectual rebels who smoked cheap cigarettes in a nearby dhaba, the vagabond hippies who sang Bob Dylan on the campus at nights, and the party lovers who went to expensive restaurants to drink mojitos, virgin.
Visiting their apartments I found in their well dusted, organised, otherwise minimalist rooms the bookshelves that contained, roughly – a Plato, an Edward Said, an Arundhati Roy – and among many other great literatures, a book I found deeply problematic.
That book was An Essential Rumi by Coleman Barks.
In the 2011 Bollywood movie Rockstar, a quasi-depiction of an artist’s quest for passion and love, the protagonist Jordan intones in typical Bollywood hero drama: “Out beyond the idea of wrongdoing and rightdoing there exists a place, I will meet you there.”
These lines, powerfully boosted on the Internet, are attributed to Rumi and rendered in Barks’ translation. But an actual translation of the Persian verse is this:
“Beyond Islam and kufr there is a ‘desert plain’. For us, there is a ‘yearning’ in the midst of that expanse. The knower of God who reaches that plain will prostrate in prayer, for there is neither Islam nor kufr, nor any ‘where’ in that place.”
Barks’ so called reinterpretation is to be expected, if not on grounds of intellectual honesty, because Barks is also a product of New Ageist Euro-Americans obsessed with the ‘spiritual East’. He does not know Persian, has no formal education in Persian poetry or Islam, and simply paraphrased the already existing translations.
For this he is often credited with some kind of ‘Rumi phenomenon’, which conveniently converts the Masnavi’s complex verses into slick, sometimes pretentious translations; sexualizes them; secularizes them; steals from them their essence; merges different poems to make one – and makes them mainstream, a duplicate oeuvre on the internet, profusely flowing, pathetically trying to sound passionate and spiritual.
Maintaining an Orientalist position devoted to erasing this poetry’s social and religious context, Barks pulled off the famous American capitalist stunt with all its anthropological and spiritual drama.
The outcome? Rumi, the great Persian mystic who wandered the streets of Konya, became a social media formula, a tattoo on the arms of famous celebrities, a poster on the walls of cozy spas, a marketing strategy for local eateries, brand name for a Vodka company.
After all, a poet who was Muslim, must have been “more than just a Muslim.”
“But once you have achieved Enlightenment, the religion you belong to hardly matters,” said my friend rather dreamily as we sat on the campus of a local Sufi dargah on the outskirts of my small town.
I had argued how Islam must have played an important role in Rumi’s development, while my friend held that spirituality must be seen in a vacuum, in “pure” metaphysical terms, without any social or religious variation.
Such a vacuum often makes spirituality a victim of political hijacking.
In his brilliant essay What Is To Be Done, Ali Shariati observes that there is “no universal prototype for being enlightened.” Someone enlightened in postwar industrialised Europe (his example is Jean-Paul Sartre) may not be enlightened in India, and may perhaps fail to play the role of an enlightened one.
Similarly spirituality – that big sister of intellect and reason, with all its universal message, its humanitarian servitude, its ecstatic dimensions, its distant exoticism – spirituality has its own soil, its own personal history, its own taste of things, removing which makes it hollow, meaningless, mundane, a souvenir tossed around with no knowledge of its real worth.
Such efforts to exacerbate literature that is deeply religious, to produce absurd feel-good canons that often find place in conventional self-help books, porno magazines, pop star interviews, does not feed the intended; rather it becomes another commodity it was supposed to rebel against.
The great Persian mystic poet. The healing power of Buddha. The medicinal advantages of Oum. These become commodities for the Eurocentric, a colonial hangover, and consequently, given the prevailing global power structures, put on a syllabus for the very people for whom such literatures were originally written.
“But it’s not just East and West,” said another friend of mine with conviction, “there is also the subaltern and the oppressor element to it.”
This drew my attention to the great poet Kabir Das and the Brahmanisation of his poetry.
Poets like Kabir, Raidas, Tukaram, thought to have belonged to the non-Brahmin castes of the Hindu caste hierarchy, sometimes wrote about equal, timeless, sorrowless towns.
For Kabir it was Premnagar, city of love. Later I learnt how ‘the city of love’ metaphorically became ‘the city of Ram’ in Kabir’s poems, an appropriation performed by a Brahmin scholar, and later commodified by inducing it into the national civil services exams.
The poetry of Kabir, which is suffused with social resistance, was constructed to ‘surrendering’, the deconstruction of which almost seems impossible.
A nation with a history of oppressing citizens in the name of caste often flaunts this rich heritage on international platforms, cleverly mythologising the intellectual wealth of the people it viciously continues to oppress.
When I arrived in college I saw a baseless intellectual atmosphere, engineered by meaningless jargon. Now with the passage of time this atmosphere has transformed into serious scholarly endeavours, but the only knowledge we have gained is knowledge of betrayals.
Our wisdom is the wisdom of who looted us. Even before we could understand or defend our own traditional knowledge, our own intellectual assets, we were introduced to them with notions of “cultural hegemony”, endless histories of colonialism and analyses of imperialism, as they still continue to take its grotesque form.
In the last year of college, as we had tea at a local eatery called Al-Buffet, my friend and I laughed at the name, but with time we had learnt how such small, harmless things often feed into much bigger problems.
Often they leave us in a complicated relationship with our oppressors. If consciousness is a language, then we are a people who are lost in translations.