Sufi Meditation and Contemplation

Someone presented a kashkul to me one day. A kashkul is a begging bowl used by the Chishti dervishes. The kashkul is made from a species of large gourd whose shell is sliced in half to create a heavy, oval bowl. It is polished with oil to give it a black sheen and it is easy to clean. It is very practical, because a dervish can accept money in it, but it is also fit to receive morsels of food in it. The dervish makes clear by means of his kashkul, that he is poor, while his Beloved is the Rich One.

Recently I’ve received another kashkul. It is the Kashkul-e-Kalimi. It is a Chishti manual dealing with zikr and contemplation. The author is shaykh Kalimulah (1650-1729) of Shahjahanabad. This Chishti shaykh was one of the greatest spiritual figures of the Indo-Pakistani subcontinent. He was a very learned man and very fond of sama’ (audition of Sufi music). He was a fine speaker, and whenever he spoke, his lucidity and the ease and grace of delivery held his audience spellbound.

Shah Nizamuddin Awrangabadi was present in a gathering wherein shaykh Kalimullah was active. When the shaykh got up Shah Nizamuddin placed his sandals before him as an act of devotion. Shaykh Kalimullah was pleased with this gesture and said: “In the acquisition of esoteric sciences tawajjuh (concentration on your spiritual guide) is first and foremost”.

Shah Nizamuddin answered with this couplet:

I have entrusted my very essence to you;
You know the accounting, whether more or less.

Shaykh Kalimullah suddenly remembered the prophecy of his own spiritual guide that the one destined to become the next master in the lineage would recite this verse. Shah Nizamuddin not only was immediately initiated into the Chishti tariqa, but later on indeed became the spiritual successor of shaykh Kalimullah.

During the month of Ramadan I’ve enjoyed tasting morsels coming from an English translation by Scott Kugle (aka Siraj al-Haqq) of the Kaskul-e-Kalimi. This begging bowl is packed with spiritual food. This Chishti manual explains very many Sufi practices like zikr (remembrance of God), fikr (meditation) and muraqaba (contemplation). It explains why these practices are valuable, how to perform them and what effects can be expected therefrom.

These Chishti spiritual practices should not be performed without the guidance of your murshid. First of all there are too many practices, so how to select one? Secondly, when it is a case of a self-chosen practice, then this is wrong, becomes it comes from the ego. Thirdly, only an experienced guide can select a tailor-made practice for you and monitor its performance.

There are periods when teachings are given in secret and there are times when they are shown openly. It is up to the discretion of an “instructing shaykh” to know what to do. Such people never do things without getting the green light from above.

The Kashkul is an eye-opener to murids. It cools down the ambition of those who are too much interested in spiritual practices. The Kashkul simply shows too many of them to be digested by a normal person. It also may give them in-depth information about practices already performed by them enabling them to learn more about the same. The morsels offered moreover not only deal with spiritual practices, but also enable you to differentiate between the four kinds of thoughts we have. It points to the central doctrine of unity and more subjects worthy to be digested.

It is also a spiritual testament. The Kashkul not only describes opinions of the Chishti tariqa but presents us with the delicacies, tastiest bits and best parts of the spiritual food offered by other orders. Shaykh Ibn al-‘Arabi e.g. also is mentioned. Thus shaykh Kalimullah has left us an inheritance to be used in ways fit for modern times when cooked by authorized people living in modern times, because who wants to eat bread of centuries ago?

Because of the need of having a murshid, Shaykh Kalimullah therefore also describes how to prepare for an initiation and what takes place during this initiation into the Chishti tariqa. He stresses the value of the practices he offers us, morsel by morsel. He does not only describe their benefits, but at times also mentions their side-effects. He appears to be rather laconic when he tells that beginners may experience blood coming from their noses and ears when performing a specific exercise. In fact he does not mention even more serious effects when you’d perform it wrongly, like severe mental problems. This is, I think, because he always assumes that a spiritual guide is monitoring the performance and will suggest the necessary corrections.

When you’d acquire the English translation of the Kaskhkul-e-Kalimi you also get two other interesting Sufi texts as well, which are to be found in the same volume. The first one is the Risalah al-Haqq (poetically translated as ‘The Compass of Truth”) and a book (“Treatise on the Human Body”) attributed to no one less than Khwaja Mo’inuddin Chishti. Khwaja Mo’inuddin Chishti can also be seen on a Persian miniature, which serves as the cover image of “Sufi Meditation and Contemplation”. Bichitr, the painter thereof, depicts Khwaja Mo’inuddin Chishti holding the world in his hands, surmounted by a crown which holds a feather of divine favour. Written in gold in the globe is the text:

Kelid-e-fath-e-do ‘alam be-dast-e to’st mosallam
The key to the opening up of the two worlds is entrusted to your hands.

Dara Shikoh (d. 1659), the eldest son of emperor Shah Jahan, was a prince with a mystic turn of mind. He loved the company of dervishes and mystics, irrespective of their religion. He belonged to the Qadiri tariqa. He has been responsible for a Persian translation of the Upanishads. The German philosopher Schopenhauer was influenced by a Latin translation thereof. Dara Shikoh is the author of the second book in Sufi Meditation and Contemplation. It is not only a Sufi manual dealing with spiritual practices, but “The Compass of Truth” also is a travel guide describing other worlds than the phenomenal world. Part of its value is that it demonstrates the common basis of meditation techniques in both the Qadiri and Chishti Sufi orders.

The third and final treatise in Sufi Meditation… is attributed to the first Chishti who settled in India. Because he lived so long ago, both his life and teachings are mostly documented in several other books in a legendary way. Khwaja Mo’inuddin Chishti appears in strange tales showing a battle for power, wherein he supposedly fights a yogi first on the ground and then the magical struggle continues in the air. He may in fact have had a contrary attitude to the one of gaining the upper hand by fighting. He may have been interested in yoga spirituality. It would however been difficult for him to talk to yogis, because he did not speak the local language. On the other hand mystics can communicate in many ways.

The Risalah-e-Wojudiyya is a curious text. It appeared in different manuscripts and under different names in the 17th century, so about half a millenium after Khwaja Mo’inuddin Chishti. A photo-copy of one page of the Persian text can be seen in Khwaja Gharib Nawaz as written by a modern Chishti pir. Here it has the name of Risalah-e-Afaq o Anfus (Treatise on the Horizons and Souls”) referring to signs we should reflect on. These signs can be found outside us (i.e. on the horizons) and in ourselves (i.e. in our own souls). The human body is a microcosm, which is a source of learning just like the larger universe, the macrocosm. In case you’d do an Internet search you can find a presentation of Carl Ernst, the translator, showing two different versions next to one another. He also situates Sufism in relation to yoga, because there have been many respectful contacts between the two.

The first part shows an account of the subtle physiology of hatha yoga, with emphasis on the 3 channels that parallel the spinal column. We can read in detail about breath control related to a complicated cosmology. This continues in the second part of the treatise, while in the final part metaphysical levels and archangels are linked to breathing according to yoga. The realization of these levels is said to be related to the heavenly journey of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.).