Thursday, October 4, 2007

Not this, not this

Thanks to a rendition by Amit Paul in the recently concluded Indian Idol competition, I came to know about Rabbi Shergill's 'Bulla ki Jaana'.
The lyrics of the song (Suman Kashyap's translation is reproduced below) is written by eighteenth century Punjabi Sufi poet Bulleh Shah.
Bulleh Shah's amazingly powerful lyrics is an example of apophatic, or negative, theology. This attempt to describe the undescribable is found in the Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu traditions. My favorite is the ever-searching and ever-wanting mantra in Advaita Vedanta:
neti, neti or not this, not this.

In Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, Yajnavalkya is questioned by his students to describe God. He states "The Divine is not this and it is not that" (neti, neti).

Thus, the Divine is not real as we are real, nor is it unreal. The divine is not living in the sense humans live, nor is it dead. The Divine is not compassionate as we use the term, nor is it uncompassionate. And so on. We can never truly define God in words. All we can do is say, it isn't this, but also, it isn't that either". In the end, the student must transcend words to understand the nature of the Divine.

In this sense, neti-neti is not a denial. Rather, it is an assertion that whatever the Divine may be, when we attempt to capture it in human words, we must inevitably fall short, because we are limited in understanding, and words are limited in ability to express the transcendent. [Link]
Plotinus, the die-hard third century Platonist, took inspiration from these eastern ideas, and wrote the famous Enneads.
Generative of all, the unity is none of all, neither thing nor quality, nor intellect nor soul, not in motion, not at rest, not in place, not in time...

If any one were to demand of nature why it produces, it would answer, if it were willing to listen and speak: You should not ask questions, but understand keeping silence as I keep silence, for I am not in the habit of speaking.
(as quoted in Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan's The Bhagavadgita)
Bulleh Shah, Yajnavalkya, or Plotinus's thoughts are a whiff of fresh air. They release us from our habits of thought.