ulleh Shah is believed to have been born in 1680, in the small village of Uch, Bahawalpur, Punjab, in present day Pakistan where his father, Shah Muhammad Darwaish, was a Paish Imam (prayer leading person) and teacher. Due to unknown reasons Shah Darwaish had to move to Malakwal, a village in Sahiwal. Later, when Bulleh Shah was six years old, his family moved to Pandoke, which is 50 miles southeast of Kasur. Bulleh Shah was schooled by his father, along with the other children of the village. Most episodes confirm that Bulleh Shah had to work as a child and adolescent herder in the village. Details of his education at Maulana Mohiyuddin's reputed madrassa are less known but it is confirmed that he received his higher education in Kasur. Some historians claim that Bulleh Shah received his education at a highly reputed madrassa run by Hafiz Ghulam Murtaza where he taught for sometime after his graduation. He probably got into higher education the way many talented individuals have done from antiquity to this day.
There is agreement between most historians that Bulleh Shah was the son of a Paish Imam who was struggling to make ends meet and was bumping from one village to the next. Village Paish Imams were considered in the category of other artisans like carpenters and potters, and they were paid in kind at the crop harvest. They were also paid for performing nikah (marriage prayers) and wielded a little more respect than other artisans, because they may have taught all the adults of the community. Bulleh Shah's herding at a very young age shows that the family was struggling to survive and had to put its young to work. There are many miracles attached to Bulleh Shah's herding period and the way he put back a crop plundered by animals. But such childhood stories are common for all sages, and sometimes they are identical. Often, devotees and superficial commentators create such stories to belittle the human efforts that these sages undertook to accomplish distinction.
Bulleh Shah's herding at a very young age shows that the family was struggling to survive and had to put its young to work
However, Bulleh Shah's herding is undeniable from all written accounts. Besides feeling the pain of poverty, Bulleh Shah must have experienced class/caste stratification at a very young age. It is interesting that two of the great Punjabi classical poets, Baba Farid and Bulleh Shah, were born to poor village Paish Imam families, went through difficult economic circumstances but educated themselves at the highest level.
For Bulleh Shah real knowledge came from history and real-life experiences
After having accomplished his scholastic learning Bulleh Shah, like his predecessors, faced the question of epistemology (theory of knowledge) of learning. The question was and is: how and why is knowledge gained? Sultan Bahu had categorized the knowledge through religious madrassas as a marketable commodity used to charm the rulers and mislead the people. For him the real knowledge expands your inner-self and helps you to relate to humanity, nature and the whole universe. Bulleh Shah was sharper in negating the knowledge gained for religious and other establishment-friendly purposes:
Ikko alaf tere darkar/ Ilmoon bas kareen o yar (Only Alaf is required/ Stop acquiring worldly knowledge)
The shrine of Shah Inayat Qadiri in Lahore
Bulleh Shah goes into details of how knowledge is used by various levels of the religious establishment and how it makes them degenerates and compares them with Satan who was the most learned angel of God but went against God's will. For Bulleh Shah real knowledge came from history and real-life experiences. In another Kafi, he points out that he has acquired the understanding of the world from the course of history where anarchy shows the naked realities hidden under the ongoing status quo. For example in the following Kafi he predicates his understanding of the reality of socio-economic relations within society and how they can be put upside down with the change of time:
Times have gone upside down/ That is how I discovered the secret of love/ The crows are killing eagles/ The sparrows have put hunting birds down/ The blanket [wearing] people have become kings/ The kings are made to beg/ Bullah, this is the dictation from the Supreme/ Who can stop it?
For Bulleh Shah taking an Arain as his Murshid was an act of declassing, or surrendering his ego and negating the ingrained caste system
In another Kafi, depicting the triumph of economic greed even over sacred relationships, he says: " Dhee maan noon lut ke le gai" (The daughter got away robbing her mother). Bulleh Shah comes very close to basing human consciousness on material conditions. In a Kafi, he states " Mati qudam kraindi o yar" (O my friend, it is soil that takes every human and non-human shapes). And he finished the Kafi by saying that, in the end, the soil goes back to soil and he thus dismisses the metaphysical concepts of life hereafter.
Within the confines of "dictations from the Supreme" or history, real knowledge leads one to relate to humanity, nature and the universe. This goal can be achieved only through first surrendering your ego in front of your Murshid and fall in deep love with this relationship: " Jad main sabq ishq da paRhia/Daryia waikh wahdat de waRiya/Ghuman Gharian de vich aRia/ Shah Inayat laiya par." (When I learned the lesson of love/I entered the river of unity/I was trapped in whirlwinds/ Shah Inayat helped me to get across.)
As the last line of the Kafi indicates, Bulleh Shah became a follower of Sufi Shah Inayat Qadiri, who was a member of the Arain tribe of Lahore. Bulleh Shah's choice of an Arain preceptor-Arains are considered much lower in the caste trajectory of the subcontinent- must have been taken as degrading for the family. There is a verse in which his family women shame him for taking an Arain as his Guru:
'Sisters and sister-in-laws came to Bullha to make him understand/You have put a dirty spot on the family name.' In response Bulleh Shah is said to have written: 'The person who calls me Syed will go to hell/If someone calls me Arain, he/she will have a place in paradise.'
The 18th century was one of the most troubled times in Punjab: the Mughal empire was declining and there were uprisings all around
For Bulleh Shah taking an Arain as his Murshid was an act of declassing, or surrendering his ego and negating the ingrained caste system. He was probably the only classical Punjabi who openly expressed ishq (love) for his Guru. Inayat Qadri's alienation with Bulleh Shah is a much-talked-about myth in which it is claimed that he had to learn dancing and went back to his Murshid dancing in female attire. The cue of this myth is taken from Bulleh's famous Kafi: " Tere ishq nachaiya kar ke thayya thayya" (Your love made me dance beat by beat). This is a nice and beautiful story about performing arts professionals but most probably Bulleh Shah wrote this Kafi in a trance of several Persian Ghazals that were favorites among Chishti-Qadria circles. Ghazals written by Usman Harooni, guru of Moeen-ud-Din Chishti Ajmairi (founder of the Chishtia order in India) which was written about six centuries before Bulleh Shah was born, is almost identical. Bulleh Shah gave a unique indigenous color and flavor to Harooni's Persian ghazal, which opens with the verses:
I don't know why I start dancing the moment I see you/ But I am proud of myself that I dance in front of my friend/ I am Usman Harooni, friend of Mansoor [Hallaj]/ People taunt and degrade me but I keep dancing for you on the altar.
Bulleh Shah - shrine in Kasur
Ranjha Ranjha kardi ni mein aape Ranjha hoi (Uttering 'Ranjha' over and over, I have become Ranjha myself)
There is a corollary to the fiction mentioned above. In it Bulleh Shah, like his Murshid, is forced to leave Kasur for Lahore, banished by the extremely conservative Sunni Afghan rulers of Kasur. A dancing woman, Muradi Begum, gave him refuge and taught him dancing, as the story goes. It is more likely that Kasur's rulers threw him out of the city because of his defiant lifestyle, but the refuge provided by Muradi Begum is not doubtful. It is more likely that Muradi Begum, wife of Punjab Governor, Amir Munno Muin-ul-Mulk who ruled Punjab from 1748-1753 may have helped Bulleh Shah because Lahore was a much more tolerant city. Probably, Muradi Begum is the first woman during the Mughal period who first started ruling Punjab under the name of her infant son after Munno's death in 1753 and then directly under her own name. She may have helped Bulleh Shah during her own or her husband's reign.
A Bulleh Shah deotee arrives for his Urs
The rift between Bulleh Shah and Inayat Qadri has been a topic of discussion in their admirers' circles. Scrutinizing several sources, it looks more probable that Inayat Qadri's son-in-law visited Bulleh Shah in Kasur and later could not give him proper attention because he was busy making arrangements for the wedding of his teacher's daughter. Inayat Qadri's son-in-law complained that Bulleh Shah did not do properly host the guests because he considered himself better than the Arains visiting him. It is likely that upon hearing his, Inayat Qadri got upset and started keeping Bulleh Shah at a distance. Feeling the pain of this Bulleh Shahreferred to it in his Kafi: 'O my love I made a mistake by not going along with you.' Besides personal difficulties, Bulleh Shah's period was extremely unsettling. He spent his early life in Aurangzeb's era. He also witnessed the war of succession between Aurangzeb's three sons, Muazzam (known in history as either Bahadur Shah I or Shah Alam), Azam and Kambakhsh. Muazzam did the same to his two brothers and their families that Aurangzeb had done to his own siblings. Muazzam's mother was a Hindu Rajput: despite being extremely conservative, Aurangzeb's traditional queen Nawab Bai Begum Saheba was the daughter of the Raja of Rajauri (Jarral Rajput). It is also interesting that Bahadur Shah I was diametrically opposed to his father's Sunni faith: he was a Shia. One can see the weirdness of the ruling Mughal family's genealogy and religious variations under which people had to survive.
Available collections of Bulleh Shah's poetry are tainted by Kafis and verses which do not seem to be his own
Bahadur Shah made peace with the rising Sikh movement but his reign lasted only four years (1707-1711) and the latter resumed guerilla war during Bulleh Shah's life. Apparently, Punjab was in turmoil due to Sikh incursions and frequent invasions of Ahmad Shah Abdali which made this verse popular: " Khahda peeta lahe da te baqi Ahmad Shahe da" (Consume as much as you can because the rest is going to be taken away by Ahmad Shah anyway). Bulleh Shah lamented the destruction of Punjab by saying that " Bura haal hoia Punjab da..." (Punjab's conditions have worsened).
The 18th century was one of the most troubled times in Punjab: the Mughal empire was declining and there were uprisings all around. However, this was the period in which the greatest literature of Punjabi, Sindhi, and Urdu was created. Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai (1689-1752) was Bulleh Shah's contemporary while his lifespan also overlapped with Waris Shah (1722-1798), Abdul Wahab (1739-1829), better known by his pen-name, Sachal Sarmast, and Urdu poets such as Mir Taqi Mir (1723-1810), Khwaja Mir Dard (1721-1785) and Nazeer Akbarabadi Nazeer (1740-1830). However, instead of reflecting the gloom of the declining Persian aristocracy that was visible in Urdu poetry of the time, Bulleh Shah is upbeat as we see in his Kafi: " Ishq di navion navin bahar" (Love is blooming on every turn).
Calligraphic painting of Bulleh Shah poetry
Available collections of Bulleh Shah's poetry are tainted by Kafis and verses which do not seem to be his own. There were probably many other poets, devotees, and singers who put their own creations under his name. Several Kafis are totally based on Shah Hussain's verses with little alteration or addition. And, it is obvious that a poet of Bulleh Shah's calibre would never plagiarize another poet. Some Kafis are so repetitive and carry religious themes which are more likely written by a lower-level poet. In addition, many singers use Bulleh Shah's name for Sultan Bahu's anti-Mullah baits. Bulleh Shah is taken to be a major representative of anti-Sharia themes and his predecessors' work is also credited to him. Therefore, it is extremely difficult to sort out Bulleh Shah's authentic Kafis, requiring the reader to be very diligent.
Bulleh Shah's poetry takes the reader to a slippery slope where, sometimes, lyricism, simple vocabulary and use of popular folk symbols are so enchanting that they do not press the reader into exploring their deeper meaning. Due to its lyricism and apparent simplicity, explaining Bulleh Shah's poetry is the hardest for a literary critic and hence it has prompted some to say that Bulleh Shah is an overrated poet. It looks like Bulleh Shah's simplicity may have encouraged many to add their own poetry to his name. The fact of the matter is that Bulleh Shah is very subtle and philosophically very articulate if one starts scratching beneath the surface.
Bulleh Shah further honed the philosophical contours of Punjabi intellectual discourse. His predecessors had been alluding to determinants of history in symbols like Shah Hussain's ' Rab da bhana' (God's wish). Bulleh Shah clearly established that human relations and consciousness are determined by historical conditions. In the verse ' hukam hazoroon' (orders from the Supreme) he affirmed the concept of a pre-determined historical process but also unearthed the dynamics of change where the weakest can conquer the most powerful. Bulleh Shah was witnessing the declining Mughal empire, its ruling elites' downfall while the Sikh movement was rising. ' Bhurian wale raje keete' (the blanket-wearing people are becoming rulers) is understood to be a reference to Sikh guerillas which comprised the artisans and poorest section of the Sikh Jatts of Punjab. Some Sikh literary critics have interpreted Bulleh Shah's symbol of "Bhurian wale" as a slight but they fail to understand that Sufis preferred "Bhura" over the Mullah's white sheet. Though Sikhs had not captured state power by then, Bulleh Shah's sharp eyes could see where history was heading.
Bulleh Shah aptly discovered the basic contradictions of the society that were reflecting in religious differentiations. The following verse highlights his understanding of the essence of conflicts among people: 'Somewhere he is called Ramdas and elsewhere Fateh Muhammad/This dispute is from eternity/Once the quarrel between them was settled/ Something else came out of it.'
Bulleh Shah took symbols and metaphors like Heer-Ranjha, charkha, weaving, etc. and expanded them. He gave them new dimensions and deepened the philosophical discourse. Through Heer-Ranjha's metaphors Bulleh Shah broadened the concept of unity that was much closer to Advaita Vedanta:
'When I learned the lesson of love, I got scared of the mosque/I ran into the Hindu seminary where several horns are blown/ There Heer and Ranjha became one/ Heer was mistakenly searching for Ranjha in the jungle while he was right in her lap/ I lost all [worldly] awareness.'
Ranjha Ranjha kardi ni mein aape Ranjha hoi (Uttering 'Ranjha' over and over, I have become Ranjha myself)
Bulleh Shah was very hard on Mullahs and Pundits and took an unprecedented defiant posture: 'You [Mullah] wasted your life in the mosque/ Your inner side is filled with filth/You never stood for prayer of unity/ Now why are you making loud noises? You stay awake but dogs are also awake at night!'
After negating the Mullah, Bulleh Shah defiantly declares: 'Burn the prayer mat and lota [earthen pot]/ Don't take the prayer rosary and holy stick/Lovers are announcing over and over/Leave the kosher and eat non-kosher.'
'Oh Bullah drink wine and eat kebabs, burn the fire of your bones under [them].'
'Loot God's abode/, Rob the robber of all robbers.'
Some historians claim that when Bulleh Shah died in 1757, Mullahs refused to lead his funeral prayer. Bulleh Shah would not have cared about it at all!
Dr. Manzur Ejaz is a Washington based writer, literary critic and well-known Pakistani columnist