The Life of Bulleh Shâh

Bulleh Shâh is generally regarded to be one of the greatest Sufi poet/saints from the Punjab area of India. Born in 1680 in Pandoke Village, a few miles from Lahore, his original name was Abdullah Shâh. The child was born with an innate mystical temperament and a poetic soul.

Baba Bulleh ShahAs a young boy in school, the teacher taught Bulleh Shâh the letter Alif, the first letter of the Arabic alphabet. The other boys in his class finished the whole alphabet while he was still mastering that one letter. When weeks passed, and the teacher saw that the child did not advance further than the first letter, Alif, he thought that the child must be dumb and sent him home to his parents, saying, “Your boy is deficient; I cannot teach him.”

Bulleh Shâh’s parents did all they could to provide him with a proper education. They placed him under the tutelage of various teachers, but he made no progress. They were greatly disappointed, and in the end, Bulleh ran away from home so he would not be a burden to his own family. He lived in the forest and recognized the manifestation of Alif, which took form in the forest as the grass, the leaves, the trees, branches, fruits, and flowers—as everything. He witnessed it as a germ, an insect, a bird, and in animals. The same Alif was himself and all else. He thought as one, felt as one, realized one, and saw nothing separate.

After mastering this lesson thoroughly, he returned to pay his respects to the elderly teacher who had expelled him from school. The teacher, absorbed in the vision of multiplicity, had long ago forgotten him. Still, Bulleh Shâh could not forget his old teacher who although at first was tough on him, had eventually shown him his most precious life lesson—a lesson which permeated the fabric of his being. Therefore, he bowed humbly before the teacher and said, “I have prepared the lesson you so kindly taught me; will you teach me something else?”

The teacher laughed at him and thought to himself, “After all this time, this simpleton has remembered me.” Bulleh Shâh asked permission to write the lesson, and the teacher replied in jest, “Write on this wall.” He then made the sign of Alif on the wall and it divided into two parts. The teacher was astounded at this wonderful miracle and said, “You are my teacher! That which you have learned with one letter, Alif, I have not been able to master with all my learning.” Bulleh Shâh then sang the following song:

 Oh! friend now quit thy learning,
One Alif is all thou dost need.
By learning, thou hast loaded my mind,
With books thou hast filled up thy room.
But the true knowledge was lost by pursuing the false,
So quit now, oh friend, the pursuit of thy learning.

Eventually, Bulleh Shâh moved to Lahore and became a disciple of the renowned spiritual master Inâyat Shâh. Bulleh Shâh’s relatives strongly objected to his placing himself under the guidance of what they considered to be one of low caste, but Bulleh did not pay much attention to his relatives and completely immersed himself under the guidance of Inâyat Shâh. Under the Master’s guidance, Bulleh gave up seeking the truth through words and experienced the heart of true love. In his own words, he “entered the ocean of Unity.”

Bulleh Shâh had all the virtues that Shâh Inâyat sought in a disciple. The Master decided to reveal his spiritual treasures to Bulleh Shâh before the latter became oblivious of his surroundings, and the disciple began to pass his time in a state of ecstasy.

 Whatever questions or doubts Bulleh Shâh had before he met his Master were all drowned in the experience of inner light. When he had initially decided to come to Inayat Shâh, people had dissuaded him from doing so, saying, “You are a great scholar; does it seem right to you to go to an ordinary gardener of low caste and become his disciple? Is it not shameful?” But his Master was a true sage, and many of Bulleh Shâh’s compositions are imbued with love and gratitude for him; in this pure love, there was no separation between himself and the beloved.

In many poems, Bulleh Shâh declares that love for the Lord had so radically changed him that his individual self or ego was totally eliminated. He realized his true Self hidden behind the veil of the apparent physical body. This identification with the Supreme opened the floodgates of divine light, and in this light no one remained a stranger; all became his own. In the transcendence of the finite to the Infinite, all disputes of religion, good, and evil disappeared once and for all.

Remove duality and do away with all disputes;
The Hindus and Muslims are not other than He.
Deem everyone virtuous; there are no thieves.
For, within every body He himself resides.
How the Trickster has put on a mask!

Saturated with this love, Bulleh became the personification of compassion and forgiveness and began seeing the Divine in every being. All distinctions of caste and religion, friend and foe, ceased to have any meaning for him. The following incident illustrates this sublime state of mind.

Once, Bulleh Shâh was engaged in meditation inside his chamber during the month of Ramadan. Some of his disciples were sitting outside eating carrots. After some time, a group of orthodox Muslims who were keeping the fast happened to pass them. When they saw the disciples sitting at a fakir’s home, violating the fast, they were enraged and shouted angrily, “Are you not ashamed of eating in the month of Ramadan, right in front of the abode of a fakir?” The disciples replied, “Brothers, take your path. We are feeling hungry. That is why we are eating.”

The group of Muslims asked, “Who are you?” They replied, “We are Muslims. Don’t you feel hungry?” The orthodox Muslims again commanded them to stop eating, but the disciples did not heed. As they were on horses, they alighted and snatched the carrots from the hands of the disciples and threw them away. They also began to beat them. As they were about to leave, it struck them that the teacher of these impious people must be cast in the same mold. So they turned back to ask the teacher what kind of instruction he had given to his disciples. Entering Bulleh’s room they said, “Who are you?” Bulleh, who was meditating with his eyes closed, raised his arms and moved his hands. They asked him again, “Why don’t you speak? Who are you?” Bulleh once again raised his arms. The riders, taking him to be a madman, went away. Soon after they left, the disciples entered the chamber, raising a hue and cry that they had been beaten. Bulleh told them that they must have done something to provoke the riders. The disciples denied that they had done any such thing. Bulleh said, “What did they ask you?” The disciples replied, “They asked us who we were, and we said we were Muslims.” Bulleh retorted, “That’s why you were beaten. You became something, and you suffered. I didn’t become anything, and they didn’t bother me.”

There are numerous instances in the poems of Bulleh Shâh that reflect the Infinite that is beyond religion, caste, and country. Bulleh said all these distinctions are born out of time and space, but the soul is unborn and timeless.

I take myself to be the beginning and the end;
I do not recognize aught except the One.

Having realized this inner Truth, Bulleh Shâh became the embodiment of Truth himself. He spent the rest of his life disseminating the message of this Reality, guiding all those who came in contact with him in the same way. His magnetic personality, pure living, divine stirrings, and writings spread his fame far and wide until he passed away in Qasur in 1758 or 1759.

Throughout his life, Bulleh Shâh was endowed with a keen sense of observation and injected symbolic expressions into his verses that were the essence of the simple, daily life of a Punjabi villager. In this way, he transformed the trivial dealings of one’s life into an inspiring and touching message of the radically ineffable nature of God and one’s own natural, mystical experience of Oneness.

Ever new, ever fresh is the spring of love!
When I learned the lesson of love,
My heart dreaded the sight of mosques.
Then I entered the abode of the Lord,
Where a thousand melodies resounded.
Ever new, ever fresh is the spring of love!

When I grasped the hint of love,
I banished “mine” and “thine” from me.
I was cleansed inside and out.
Now, wherever I look, the Beloved is everywhere.
Ever new, ever fresh, is the spring of love!

I am sick of reading Vedas and Qurans;
My forehead is worn down from constant obeisance.
God is not found at Hindu shrines, nor at Muslim’s Mecca.
Whoever found Him, found Him as the Light of lights.
Ever new, ever fresh is the spring of love!
Burn the prayer mat, break the water pot,
And do not touch the rosary, or the staff.
The lovers proclaim at the top of their voices:
“Give up halah1 and eat murdar2!
Ever new, ever fresh is the spring of love!

O friends, I am lost to myself;
Lifting my veil, I dance in the open.
Wherever I look, Him alone I see;
By Him I swear, none else exists.
“He is with you” went round the world
When the Master read from the scroll.
O friends, I am lost to myself;
Lifting my veil, I dance in the open.
O friends, no trace of I-ness is left!
The secret I am telling you, do not tell anyone.
Don’t give a hint of it to anyone,
That Bulleh has actually realized the Truth.
O friends, I am lost to myself;
Lifting my veil I dance in the open.

O mother, my fasts, my pilgrimages, my prayers, O mother,
My Beloved has made me forget them all!
As soon as I realized the Beloved,
My logic, my grammar were all forgotten!
Such was the unstruck melody that He played!
My fasts, my pilgrimages, my prayers, O mother,
My Beloved has made me forget them all!
When my Beloved came to my house,
I forgot all lessons, all learning!
In every object He is now seen,
His splendor is visible inside and out.

– – – – – – –

Adapted from Bulleh Shâh, by J. R. Puri and T.R. Shangari. Copyright © 1986 by Radha Soami Satsang Beas Ali. All rights reserved. Reprinted by arrangement with Radha Soami Satsang Beas, Amritsar, India.

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