Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Parallels between Vedanta & Bhakti in Hinduism and Sufism in Islam

I have given below mainly my comments (slightly edited) in a conversation related to Vedanta and Sufism. The conversation starts on something related to Brihadaranyaka upanishad. While the absence of relevant comments from others may make the flow a little odd, I think it still may be of some interest to some readers and so decided to put it up as a post. If you find the flow too odd just stop reading the post.

Ravi S. Iyer wrote:
I believe it is well accepted among Hinduism scholars (both academic and religious) as well as enlightened Hindu masters, that the God (Atman/Self) of the Upanishads is without fear and without desire. Here are a couple of extracts from the wiki page associated with one of the Upanishad Mahavakyas (Great pithy statements), (Tat Tvam Asi - You/Thou are That):
The meaning of this saying is that the Self - in its original, pure, primordial state - is wholly or partially identifiable or identical with the Ultimate Reality that is the ground and origin of all phenomena.
'Thou' stands for the inherent substratum in each one of us without which our very existence is out of question. Certainly it is not the body, mind, the senses, or anything that we call ours. It is the innermost Self, stripped of all egoistic tendencies. It is Ātman
--- end extracts ---

The Upanishads also explain how man is deluded into thinking he is the illusive (and so ultimately false, like in a dream) mind-body, instead of the unsullied pure Atman that is his reality. I think it is in this context that the Brihadranyaka Upanishad quote given in the post, referencing fear and desire, should be understood. These primordial instincts (fear and desire) cloud man's experience/awareness of his ultimate reality and lead him to get caught up in the Great Illusion (MahaMaya) created by the Lord Himself (who/which is the ultimate reality within each of us).

That's my take on the matter. However, there could be some flaws in it. I mean, I am neither an academic scholar on religion nor a religious scholar smile emoticon . But I think I should mention that I am a Hindu Brahmin ... so Veda including Upanishads (which is Vedanta i.e. end of the Vedas) have been an important part of the traditions of my family upbringing & social milieu.


Ravi S. Iyer wrote:
I am not so knowledgeable about the distinctions in Hindu philosophy terms like Ishvara, Brahman and Parabrahman. The general impression I have is that the usage of these terms can vary a lot depending on the context. I mean, its not so well defined across the rather huge amount of Hindu scriptural texts. ...
What I have understood quite reasonably, IMHO, is the, at least seemingly, different approaches of Jnana marg (wisdom path) and Bhakti marg (devotional path). Ramana Maharishi or Nisargadatta Maharaj seem to be good examples of near contemporary spiritual masters of the Jnana marg, with its emphasis on self-inquiry (Who am I? ... Am I this body? Am I this mind? ... deep contemplation on it leading to the answer felt in one's being that I am not the body and not the mind but something more fundamental - an unchanging, deathless and ever peaceful awareness - the Atman or the Self). But this path appeals to only a very few.

The overwhelming majority of Hindus are primarily on the Bhakti path (devotional path). I think the core aspects of the Bhakti path are that the devotee has deep faith in an interventionist God, with scripture having celebrated accounts of such a God intervening and saving devotees, and the devotee loves & worships his God. He believes that his God is taking care of him and will come to his help in some fashion in his time of need. I think these core aspects of the Bhakti path are similar to devotion in Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity & Islam), if one leaves out the idols & images (so, many Gods, even if they are viewed as lesser Gods in comparison to the ONE universal & all powerful God/Brahman) of the Hindu Bhakti path. And, for the great devotees in Hinduism, like great devotees of Abrahamic religions, they love their God with great intensity and are willing to face all sorts of difficulties and 'tests' of material life, without letting go of their love for the Lord. And, in this context, the point of wanting to taste the sugar rather than be the sugar comes in. In other words, these great devotees of the Bhakti path prefer to be great Lovers of the Lord and enjoy being in that state of love & worship, rather than experience that they are (their essence is) the Lord themselves ("become" the Lord themselves).

Ramanuja, I believe, was one of the great teachers in South India who blended Bhakti/devotion and Vedanta. From "From a young age, his intelligence and ability to comprehend highly abstract philosophical points were legendary. He took initiation from Yadavaprakasa, a renowned Advaitic scholar. Though his new guru was highly impressed with his analytical ability, he was quite concerned by how much emphasis Ramanuja placed on bhakti." But his guru was not able to stop Ramanuja and Ramanuja seems to have been the founder of the Visishtadvaita school of Vedanta, which seems to be some blend of Bhakti and Advaita.

[BTW I am from the Iyer community of Tamils from South India,, for whom Adi Shankara is the big philosophy man :-), whereas the Iyengar community of Tamils from South India,, has Ramanuja as the big philosophy man. Historically there has been quite some rivalry between Iyers & Iyengars. Thankfully, that has all but disappeared in today's South India.]

Another BTW :-). Ramanuja is credited with being one of the main persons who popularized the famous South Indian temple of Tirumala/Tirupathi, which has a blend of Bhakti & Veda (rituals part of the Veda mainly, I believe), Its wiki page states that this temple is now the most-visited place of worship in the world! Surely the annual Hajj in Mecca would have a higher number for the period of the Hajj, I think. [Wiki confirms it. From, "The gathering during Hajj is considered the largest annual gathering of people in the world."] But perhaps over the year, the total number of visitors (Bhaktas/devotees) to Tirumala/Tirupathi temple would be higher.

Hope my response is not too long. But I felt it necessary to make it this long to clearly convey my take on the matter.


Ravi S. Iyer wrote:
Interesting observation of you & your friend about Sufism being like the Bhakti path. India has had, and perhaps continues to have, great Sufis, who have demonstrated the great similarities of Sufism with the Bhakti path, specifically their intense devotion to God, surrender to His Will, and also usage of the mystical powers some of them acquired for the good of people at large, irrespective of religion.


Ravi S. Iyer wrote:
Interesting to know about Hazrat Inayat Khan. Perhaps he is more well known in the West as he founded a Sufi order in the West (according to his wiki page). I am not so sure about Vedanta impact on well known Sufi orders in India. One contemporary Indian Muslim theologian said that the difference between Hinduism and Islam is an apostrophe s (apostrophe followed by s): Hindus say all is God, Muslims say all is God's! I think he captured that quite neatly :-).

Two very famous Indian Sufi shrines and their associated orders too, I guess, are the shrines of:
a) Moinuddin Chisti, - A 12th & 13th century Sufi saint originally from the regions northwest of India (Afghanistan/Iran) and who founded the Chisti order of Sufism. This Chisti order had various Mughal emperors as its followers. [That would mean lot of material support for the order over centuries of Mughal rule in north & west India]. His shrine is in Ajmer, called Dargah Sharif,, and is, I think, the most popular and most revered Sufi shrine in India.
b) Nizamuddin Auliya, - A 13th & 14th century Sufi saint of the Chisti order (founded by Moinuddin Chisti), who was based in Delhi. His shrine is in Delhi, called Nizamuddin Dargah,, and is quite well known in India.

I very much doubt whether the Chisti order of Sufis would accept the Vedanta view that all is God.

A more recent saint, who is a favourite of mine, and who is viewed as a Sufi by some, is Shirdi Sai Baba, a 19th & 20th century saint, He wore the dress of a Muslim fakir (renunciant) and is said to have frequently uttered, "Allah Maalik" (God is the master). He had both Muslim and Hindu devotees, and was also willing to accept Hindu forms of worship. He is famous for his saying, "Sabka Maalik Ek" (The master of all is one), which essentially meant that there is only one God for all Muslims, Hindus and people of all other religions. As far as I know, he did not talk about the Vedanta teaching that all is God. After his passing away, over time, his Hindu devotees seem to have heavily outnumbered his Muslim devotees leading to the current worship in the temple of Shirdi Sai Baba being a very Hindu type of worship. I view that as rather unfortunate - it would have been better if like when he was alive, Muslim forms of worship of God like chanting of the Koran, Namaaz etc. co-existed with Hindu forms of worship.

Given the above background, I have the impression (though I could be wrong as I have not studied this area well enough) that Indian Sufism today cannot be viewed as having been significantly influenced by Vedanta. But the influence of Bhakti as well as the music of Hindu Bhakti may certainly have influenced Indian Sufis. .... Of course, Sufi orders elsewhere like the one associated with Hazrat Inayat Khan may be different from most Indian Sufi orders on this Vedanta influence aspect.


Ravi S. Iyer wrote:
My earlier comment was limited to the Indian Sufi orders. Let me first share a little I got on the Sufi Chisti (Ajmer, India) order's view on this. From, 'The tenth Hijaab (veil) is that of mushaheda, that is, coming face to face with the Divine Light. Hazrat Ali Hujwari thinks that "Hajj is the only place of mushaheda for a Sufi." Hazrat Abul Abbas says: "Mushaheda means a Sufi's unswerving faith surcharged with overwhelming love for Allah; the devotee sees nothing else except the Light of Allah all around." Hazrat Shaikh Shibli says: "In everything I saw, I found the Light of Allah in myriad colors and forms,"' I think this could be interpreted as saying that God (Light of Allah) is all pervasive but I don't think one could interpret it as all is God. I know I am splitting hairs here :-) but I think it is an important point from a theological understanding point of view.


I think, in terms of real spiritual progress and spiritual experience, whether one has the view that All is God or the view that All is God's, may not matter so much. Far more important would be the depth of the love that one has towards what one views as God/manifestation of God OR as belonging to God. It is unconditional & deep love towards all that come to them/are around them that is the hallmark, IMHO, of both the great Hindu Bhakta or the great Muslim Sufi (or great saints of other religions). Such pure love is beyond the realm of differences in theological understanding, and names and outward practices of various religions. I think one gets a taste of the divine/of God when one experiences such unconditional love.


Ravi S. Iyer wrote:

I very much like (writings about) the universality of the spiritual experience. I guess I am more into religion nowadays as understood by mainstream interpreters of religion who are essentially teachers of religion to the masses. So I tend to read more about what, say, the learned Maulvis/Mullahs approved by the authorities at Mecca, say about certain contemporary issues, and how such views may help make the world a more tolerant and vibrant multi-faith world, rather than intricate spiritual aspects conveyed by Sufi masters. So I think my comments in this post have been somewhat influenced by this background of some limited exposure to current mainstream Islamic religious authorities' interpretation of holy scripture of Islam.


[Ravi: A user provided the following poem of Ibn Arabi, which is available here:]

"O Marvel! a garden amidst the flames.
My heart has become capable of every form:
it is a pasture for gazelles and a convent for Christian monks,
and a temple for idols and the pilgrim's Kaa'ba,
and the tables of the Torah and the book of the Quran.
I follow the religion of Love: whatever way Love's camels take,
that is my religion and my faith."

'Tarjuman al-Ashwaq'. Theosophical Publishing House, 1911. Poem XI.


Ravi S. Iyer wrote:
Thanks a lot for the Ibn Arabi quote. I think that is very similar to the oneness of Hindu Vedanta and experience of great Hindu mystics of both Vedanta/Jnana (wisdom) & Bhakti (devotion) paths (I am in all and all is in me kind-of view/experience).


However, from my interest in how the majority of the religious faithful view such matters, I think it is notable that the wiki on Ibn Arabi states, "Muslim scholars have often held strong, polarized views regarding the viewpoints and character of Ibn Arabi. Many have declared Ibn Arabi to be the foremost spiritual leader and Sufi master in Muslim history. Others regarded him as a heretic or even an apostate. Very few have had neutral or lukewarm reactions."

So, from a viewpoint of finding common ground among the religious faithful of various religions, Ibn Arabi may not be a welcome choice. Yes, he, like many other great mystics of various religions including Hinduism, was controversial because the scholars of his religion could not handle his expressions of his deep mystical experiences. Perhaps that is why well known Indian Sufi orders like the Chisti (Ajmer) order may not be willing to go so far as the Ibn Arabi quote given earlier, in their public teachings & writings. [Of course, individual Indian writers, Muslims or non-Muslims, may surely be quoting such unity of being quotes of Ibn Arabi. But that may not have much impact on the Indian Sufi followings.]


Ravi S. Iyer wrote:
I will certainly make the time, a few days down the line, to read up on the great Ibn Arabi using that link (, and let you know of my views. And, yes, we certainly must not reject Ibn Arabi sufism just because he is viewed as controversial even today by some schools of Islam. I certainly will not reject Ibn Arabi or any such great mystic on such grounds, as I will simply be losing out on learning about and benefiting from knowing about a great mystic.

However, unity of faiths or rather common ground among faiths, is an important interest area of mine, where I do have to note the dissenting views of mainstream schools of a religion about a leading religious/mystical figure of the past.

Interesting info. about dimensions of Taj Mahal being received by Ibn Arabi while in Mecca. I did not know that. Thanks.



  1. Thank you for supplying these posts for all to read and contemplate. I have had an interest in these topics for some time and, fortunately, am familiar with the research that has been conducted in a wide range of areas. I would like to add a few comments:
    Firstly, inasmuch as the notion of oneness has dominated much of Islamic thought, particularly Sufism, it should come as no surprise that many, many figures have proposed the oneness of all Reality. This has amounted to them exclaiming, like the esoteric Hindu position, that "All is He" (Hama ust) or "All is God." The idea is not limited to Ibn Arabi, although he did exert tremendous influence throughout the Islamic world in general and throughout Subcontinent in particular, no matter how much people nowadays want to deny his prominence and the dissemination of his ideas. Others suggested that "All is His" (Hama as ust), in order to counteract what they perceived as imprecise understanding of Reality, but, from a bird's eye view of things, it was not the only opinion; at the very least, the two views were hotly debated, the Chishti order being a fervent supporter of the former position (the Naqshbandi the latter). To be sure, the different views closely resembles the difference between shankara and ramanuja. A number of Sufi thinkers noticed the similarity with Vedanta and made efforts to gain familiarity with it, most obviously by translation from Sanskrit to Persian.

    This brings us to my next thought. Secondly, there has been tremendous amount of cross-fertilization between Islam and Hinduism, far too much to gloss over in a post. What this meant was that there was mutual influence; and that the lines between the communities were much more porous than they are today.

    1. Thanks Shahid Khan for your interesting comment.