July 06, 2020
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Ras Khan: A Medieval Krishnaite Sufi

One of the least known strands of Indian Sufism, itself one of the most precious of our diverse religious cultures, is the mystical Krishnaite tradition developed by Muslim Sufis...

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Ras Khan: A Medieval Krishnaite Sufi

One of the least known strands of Indian Sufism, itself one of the most precious of our diverse religious cultures, is the mystical Krishnaite tradition developed by Muslim Sufis. In the verses that these Sufis composed, which are still widely sung in the north Indian country-side, the love [lila] between Krishna and his gopis forms the central image and motif, symbolising the perfect attachment between the Sufi and God.

In using Krishnaite imagery, these Sufis performed a dual purpose: making their doctrines more intelligible to the masses, and bringing Hindus and Muslims closer to each other in a shared universe of discourse.

The most well-known of the Indian Muslim Sufis who wrote principally in the Krishnaite mould was the sixteenth century Ras Khan. Much of the little that we know about his life is shrouded in myth and mystery. His actual name is said to have been Ibrahim Khan, and he was born in the village of Pihani in the Hardoi district in what is now Uttar Pradesh. As to how he embarked on the Krishnaite path, there are great differences of opinion.

According to one story, as contained in the medieval text Bhaktakalpadruma, he once travelled to Brindavan along with his Sufi preceptor. There he fell unconscious and had a vision of Krishna. Thereafter, he remained in Brindavan till he breathed his last.

Another version has it that Ras Khan fell in love with a very proud woman. Later, when he read the Bhagwat Purana he was so deeply impressed by the unselfish love of the gopis for Krishna that he left his proud mistress and headed straight for Brindavan.

There is, however, an even more intriguing story that is contained in some of the hagiographic material about Ras Khan. In the Bhavaprakash of the seventeenth century, we are told by Vaishnavite scholar Hari Ray, that Ibrahim Khan earlier lived in Delhi, where he had fallen madly in love with the son of a Hindu merchant. ‘He watched him day and night’, says Hari Ray, ‘and even ate his left-overs’. This angered his fellow Muslims, who branded him as a disbeliever. But Ibrahim Khan, we are told, did not care or relent, answering, very simply, as Hari Ray puts it, ‘I am as I am’.

One day, the story goes, he overheard one Vaishnavite telling another, ‘One should have attachment to the Lord just as this Ibrahim Khan has for the merchant’s son. He roves around after him without fear of public slander or caste displeasure!’. The other Vaishnavite turned up his nose in disgust, and when Ibrahim saw this he drew his sword out in anger. Trembling before him, the Vaishnavite said: ‘If you loved God just as you do that boy you would find salvation’. Ibrahim’s curiosity having been aroused, he began discussing spiritual matters with him. The Vaishnavite advised Ibrahim to travel to Brindavan. When he got there, he was refused entry into the temple on the grounds that he was a Muslim.

After sitting on the banks of the lake near the temple having not had anything to eat for three days, Krishna, the story goes, appeared to Ibrahim, addressing him as Ras Khan or ‘the mine of aesthetic essence’, and accepting him as a disciple. From that day onwards, Ras Khan began living in Brindavan, composing and singing the Krishnaite Sufi poetry for which he is still so fondly remembered.

Ras Khan’s verses deal basically with the beauty of Krishna and the love between Krishna and his gopis. But the Krishna that Ras Khan refers to is not the anthropomorphic deity of the saguna bhakti school. Rather, his Krishna is the Supreme Godhead who actually has no physical form. In effect, then, what we have here is a Krishnaite form of Sufism.

Ras Khan’s Brij Bhasha writings are numerous, the five most important being the Sujana Raskhana, the Premavatika, the Danalila, the Astayama and a collection of Padas [couplets]. Of these the most well-known is the Premavatika [‘The Forest of Love’].

The Premavatika consists of fifty-three verses, most of which deal with the nature of true spiritual love, using the love between Radha and Krishna as a model. Ras Khan begins the work by saying, 

‘The dwelling of Love is Shri Radhika, 
the son of Nanda [i.e.Krishna] is Love’s colour’. 

But the path of Love is not easy, he tells us:

‘Everybody says: "Love! Love!" 
but nobody knows Love’, 

he adds, because 

‘If a person knows Love, 
why would the world weep?’. 

After this, he launches into a long discussion about the nature of divine love thus: 

"Love is inaccessible, incomparable, immeasurable 
It is like the ocean - 
He who comes to its shore will not go back 
When he drank the wine of Love, 
Varuna became the Lord of the waters 
Because he drank poison out of Love, 
the Lord of the Mountain [Shiva] is worshipped".

When the traveller on the mystical path begins to understand the nature of true love, then external rituals and bonds begin to lose their meaning for him. Thus, says Ras Khan: 

"The rules of the world, the Veda and the world, shame, work and doubt 
All these you give up once you practise love 
For what are regulations and negations when compared to Love?" 

‘Without Love everything is useless’, Ras Khan notes, and then adds: 

"Of Shruti, Puranas, Agamas and Smritis, Love is the essence of all.
Without the knowledge of Love there is no experience of ananda [bliss] 
Knowledge, acting and worship, all of these are the root of pride 

Reading the Shastras you become a Pandit, reciting the Quran, a Maulvi 
But if you have not known Love in that, what is the use, asks Ras Khan?"

From here Ras Khan starts an intricate description of the path of Love and surrender to God, in the process questioning all orthodoxies, all formalisms and all man-made divisions. This, in a sense, the essence of his message. He ends his work with the following lines: 

"Tearing his heart away from a haughty woman [i.e. the snares of the world] 
Miyam [himself] has become Ras Khan once he saw the beauty of Premadeva [TheGod of Love]".

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