Chapter 9 - The Sufi Yogas

Great Systems of Yoga

by Ernest Wood

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AS IS fitting in the field of a religion based upon the revelations through the Prophet Muhammad, the practices (or yogas) and fulfilments of the Sufis were and are entirely saturated with the doctrine of Islam, which is resignation to God, or rather delighted union of the will of man with the will of God. This fundamental principle of acceptance of God's will among the religious becomes the reception of God's being among the mystics.

In the efforts and attainments of these mystics must be recognized therefore two operators—God who is trying to give himself to man, and man who is trying to give himself to God. The second of these factors, the human efforts, naturally takes on the aspect of yoga practice—purification of the self from worldly desires, mental defects and selfish motives, often by means of frequent deep and prolonged meditation, and even by physical asceticism, intended in some cases to reduce the body to submission, and in others to demonstrate submission achieved.

It was indeed from one of these practices that the very name "Sufi" was adopted—the wearing of woolen garments by these mystics and yogīs, a mild equivalent of the Christian hair shirt. The word "sufi" is derived from a word meaning wool.

The foundations of the contrast between material riches and the presence of God which has had great influence in the Sufi life were laid by Muhammad himself, when he said "Poverty is my pride," and rejected the personal use of riches, as well as in the example of earlier Prophets, including Moses, David and Jesus. Many were the Sufi ascetics and mystics who gave up wealth and pursued the simple life.

It was, however, always the constant thought or remembrance (dhikr) of God that was considered the means to Union (tauhid) with Him, in which there was the passing away (fana) of all the human qualities or human nature, the only continuity (bava) being then the continuity of God Himself. Students of comparative yoga will see in this a similarity to Buddha's doctrine of Nibbanna, or Nirvāna, in the achievement of which every vestige of what man can think or feel himself to be entirely disappears. This transformation of the Sufi could take place during life, but woe to the man who might say that he had become God. The true idea is quite different from that. It is a dying to self. The orthodox of Islam would never allow a man to call himself God, or permit the idea that God would appear in or through human form. All its inspirers were regarded only as Prophets, of whom Muhammad was the greatest, and the height of their message was loss of self in God. When man is lost in God, the continuity is God's, not man's.

The technicalities of Sufi yoga practice were never codified with the exactitude found among the Hindus and Buddhists, though it must be said that Sufi teachers in India sometimes adopted portions of the Hindu meditational methods, without abating the essential aim of devotional submission. The present writer became acquainted with one Sufi teacher in the north of India who had sixteen thousand disciples or followers within a radius of about fifty miles, and was using methods of meditation the same as those of one of the Hindu schools. This brings to attention the fact that although there are many "sannyāsī" Sufis wandering about with musical instruments and singing devotional songs, still the bulk were and are people in ordinary occupations, as is the case with Hindu aspirants also.

Music plays an important part in the life of most of the Sufis in India, following the Mevlavi Order established by Maulana Jatal al-Din Rūmī. It is not only through the eye that things can tell us of their essential being. To go along with the experiences in perfect harmony, even unity, is the height of a sort of meditation which conveys experience beyond thought and reason. Every being acts from its own character, and usually the seeing or experiencing is limited to the material gain—so a worm sees a tree in one way, a bird in another, a monkey in another, a worldly man in another. But a spiritual man must see it in another way, without the antagonism and conquesting of his reasoning mind, but with acceptance, harmony and flowing—with, in short, a sort of meditativeness which excludes reason. On this account the allegories of Love and Wine came to fill the poetry of the Sufis. Thus one can understand stanza 60 of Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat:

You know, my friends, with what a brave carouse
I made a second marriage in my house,
Divorced old barren Reason from my bed
And took the Daughter of the Vine to spouse.

In this sort of meditativeness or lovefull attentiveness there is experience above reason, above expression in words. This was usual with Emerson, so he could write:

Cans’t thou copy in verse one chime
Of the wood-bell's peal and cry,
Write in a book the morning's prime,
Or match with words that tender sky?

Wonderful verse of the gods,
Of one import, of varied tone;
They chant the bliss of their abodes
To man imprisoned in his own.

Ever the words of the gods resound;
But the porches of man's ear
Seldom in this low life's round
Are unsealed, that he may hear.

Moulana Rūmī expressed the longing of Love in the following verses translated by R. A. Nicholson in his book Rūmī, Poet and Mystic:

Hearken to this Reed forlorn,
Breathing, ever since ’twas born
From its rushy bed, a strain
Of impassioned love and pain.

The secret of my song, though near,
None can see and none can hear.
Oh, for a friend to know the sign
And mingle all his soul with mine!

’Tis the flame of Love that fired me,
’Tis the wine of Love inspired me.
Woulds’t thou learn how lovers bleed,
Hearken, hearken to the Reed!

It is part of the technique of Sufism to be on guard not to fail in this Love, or unantagonistic looking, in oneself as in all. There is no self-fighting in this. Look with Love, and the divine "intoxication" of the Wine will come. As Rūmī, again, said:

Into my heart's night
Along a narrow way
I groped; and lo! the light,
An infinite land of day.

This awareness of the real man is put in less direct terms in the poem on Body and Soul by another Persian poet, Enweri—translated in Emerson's essay on Persian Poetry:

A painter in China once painted a hall;
Such a web never hung on an emperor's wall;—
One half from his brush with rich colors did run,
The other he touched with a beam of the sun;
So that all which delighted the eye in one side,
The same, point for point, in the other replied.
In thee, friend, that Tyrian chamber is found;
Thine the star-pointing roof, and the base on the ground:
Is one half depicted with colors less bright?
Beware that the counterpart blazes with light!

"Beware" means, of course, "be aware."

We may find room in this short introduction to Sufi yoga for two verses, vi 17-18—very percipient—from Richard Burton's Kasīdah:

Yes Truth may be, but 'tis not Here; mankind must seek and find it There, But Where nor I nor you can tell, nor aught earth-mother ever bare.

Enough to think that Truth can be: come sit we where the roses glow,
Indeed he knows not how to know who knows not also how to unknow.

Cease, then, your own Almighty Power to bind, to bound, to understand.

In his book Sufism, Prof. A. J. Arberry gives a list of the meanings of terms used in much of the Sufi love-poetry, compiled from a treatise by Muhsin Faid Kāshānī, a Persian author of two centuries ago. Among these are the Face or Cheek (Divine Beauty, Grace, Bounty, Light, Reality), the Tresses (Majesty, Power, the veil of Reality), Mole (point of Unity), Eye and Glance (God's beholding and granting), Eyebrow (the attributes which veil the Essence), Wine (ecstatic experience), Wine-bearer (Reality, loving to manifest itself in every form), Cup, Pitcher and Jar (revelations of Divine Acts, Names and Qualities), Sea and Ocean (revelations of Divine Essence), Tavern (Pure Unity)—but see Professor Arberry's book for a fuller list and details.

In the Sufi yoga it is separation (tauhīd) that is to be overcome. Every aspirant is free to follow the means of his own choice to this end, with or without the technique of any particular teacher. Professor Arberry has given lists of the "stations" reached by the aspirant's own endeavours and the "states" which he receives from God, these not being in the power of human nature to produce for itself, according to three of the ancient writers. The simplest of these lists is that of al-Sarrāj, who gives seven "stations"—the conversion from formal religion to the resolution to achieve, abstinence from unnecessary and unsuitable activities, renunciation of pleasures, poverty, patience, trust in God and satisfaction—and ten "states"—meditation, nearness to God, love, fear, hope, longing, intimacy, tranquillity, contemplation and certainty. 1

The part played by music in the devotional yoga of the Sufis has been told very beautifully by Inayat Khan in his Mysticism of Sound. Moulana Rūmī especially valued the help of music, so it came strongly into the devotions of the Mevlavi Order of Sufis. A branch of this order came to India, and was carried to great heights by Khaja Moinudin Chisti. For many centuries at his tomb in Ajmere there has always been and still is the best of music and singing to be heard. At some of the assemblies of this order, the ecstasy (Wajad) of union has three degrees of attainment—objective, ideal and ecstatic. When this ecstasy comes, sometimes it manifests itself in tears, sometimes in sighs, sometimes in actions.

Although this takes place practically there is also a theory of the abstract or unlimited sound, for which the devotee can listen anywhere in nature. This also involves the method of abstractedness through sound which we find among the Hindus as well as the Sufis. This sound has ten forms, it is said, in ten different channels of the human body; it may be like thunder, the roar of the sea, bells, running water, bees, sparrows, the lute, a whistle, a conch-shell, and, highest of all, the sound of Hu. The last is found dwelling in all the other sounds as their spirit, as it were. Like the Om of the Hindus, it is regarded as the name of the Nameless, constantly sounded by Nature. When ecstasy comes the Sufi forgets mental as well as physical existence. The effect, however, is throughout; body and mind are purified and made able to receive intuitions.

In writing even briefly of the aims and techniques of the Sufis one must not omit the dancing or whirling of the Dervishes, not seen in India, but in Egypt and some other countries. These take various forms, as shown by E. W. Lane in his Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians. Remembrance (zikr) accompanies the practice, in the form of repetitions of the "Allah," with or without additional exclamations. The following is an extract from Lane:

The durweeshes, who formed the large ring (which enclosed four of the marble columns of the portico) now commenced their zikr; exclaiming over and over again, "Allah!" and, at each exclamation, bowing the head and body, and taking a step to the right; so that the whole ring moved rapidly round. As soon as they commenced this exercise, another durweesh, a Turk, of the order of Mowlawees, in the middle of the circle, began to whirl; using both his feet to effect this motion, and extending his arms; the motion increasing in velocity until his dress spread out like an umbrella. He continued whirling thus for about ten minutes; after which he bowed to his superior, who stood within the great ring; and then, without showing any signs of fatigue or giddiness, joined the durweeshes in the great ring; who had now begun to ejaculate the name of God with greater vehemence, and to jump to the right, instead of stepping. After whirling, six other durweeshes, within the great ring, formed another ring; but a very small one; each placing his arms upon the shoulders of those next him; and thus disposed, they performed a revolution similar to that of the larger ring, except in being much more rapid; repeating, also, the same exclamation of "Allah!" but with a rapidity proportionately greater. This motion they maintained for about the same length of time that the whirling of the single durweesh before had occupied; after which, the whole party sat down to rest. They rose again after the lapse of about a quarter of an hour; and performed the same exercises a second time. 2

Prefacing his poem Song of Seid Nimetollah of Kuhistan, Emerson has a note on another form of this dance, as follows:

Among the religious customs of the dervishes is an astronomical dance, in which the dervish imitates the movements of the heavenly bodies, by spinning on his own axis, whilst at the same time he revolves round the Sheikh in the centre, representing the sun; and, as he spins, he sings the Song of Seid Nimetollah of Kuhistan.

The first portion of the Song tells what state of mind the dancers are trying to reach:

Spin the ball! I reel, I burn,
Nor head from foot can I discern,
Nor my heart from love of mine,
Nor the wine-cup from the wine.
All my doing, all my leaving,
Reaches not to my perceiving;
Lost in whirling spheres I rove,
And know only that I love.

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Source: Reproduced from the Great Systems of Yoga, by Ernest Wood, 1954. This text is in the public domain in the United States because it was not renewed at the US Copyright Office in a timely fashion. These files may be used for any non-commercial purpose provided this Notice of Attribution is left intact in all copies.