Faith and Hope by Uzma Rehman

16. Oct 2011
Outer courtyard of a shrine in Bhit Shah, Sindh province of Pakistan where an 18th Century poet-saint Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai is buried. The shrine is visited by thousands of people on daily basis.

“I am distressed, anxious and befallen. I cannot rest till I find my son again. Please do something. Please pray. Please help.” These were words uttered by Hameeda, a middle-aged tall brown-skinned lady clad in shalwar-qamis (Pakistani national dress) who arrived at Baba Ji’s (a revered man; a spiritual guide) Astana Paak in a city in southern Punjab, Pakistan.  Astana Pak is a private lodge which receives guests and devotees from various walks of life who visit in devotion for a sanctified person. She was talking to Amma-Apa, the lady of the house, opening her heart out to her. Amidst crying and sobbing, she narrated the story of the day. That morning, her 12 year old son, who mentally lags behind children of his age, asked his mother for permission to go to the shop around the corner of the street, not too far from his home as he wanted to buy himself cheeji (a local expression used by children for sweets and other things that children like to munch on or chew). His mother gave him permission as usually he visits the shop, buys his sweets and then returns home not too long thereafter. Only that morning, he did not return home after a couple of hours. The shop keeper told her that her son had left a few hours ago after buying his sweets, indicating that he had been sitting on the donkey cart used by a man selling fruit. The shop keeper thought that the fruit seller would drop the child at home after giving him a short ride. Hearing this Hameeda was overwhelmed with anxiety imagining that perhaps the fruit seller had kidnapped her son. In desperation, she asked everyone in the street if they had seen her son. Some children playing in the street pointed to a direction where the fruit seller had taken his carriage. However, Hameeda did not find her son.

 So she ran to Astana Paak to ask for the help of Baba Ji.  Amma-Apa, the lady of the house, consoled her and told her not to lose heart. Yet Hameeda was so upset that she would neither drink nor eat anything. Amma-Apa then told Baba Ji about Hameeda’s story. Baba Ji said that Hameeda should remain calm, return home, and inform him later in the evening about what had happened during the rest of the day.  In the meantime he would pray for her. Thus, Hameeda, who came in crying her heart out for her son left consoled, her tears dried by some sympathetic lady residents and visitors at Astana Paak.

As always men and women gathered in the evening at Astana Pak to listen to Baba Ji’s teachings and the qawwali music[1] that he played on his stereo sound system. Among them were Hameeda and her 12-year old son. She was happy, content, and thankful now that her son had returned. Actually, the fruit seller with a donkey cart had taken Hameeda’s son for a ride and dropped him a few streets away from their home. Here some other boys from the neighborhood helped him find his way home.

This is one of the stories that one hears when one visits Astana Paak. Ordinary Pakistanis frequently face such challenges but they find courage, consolation and support from people around them to face these challenges. Families and friends do help by offering emotional or sometimes economic support. However, individuals such as Hameeda respect and revere a person whom they have accepted as their guru as the latter provides them with hope and positive expectations.

A local music band singing folkloric songs and saints’ poetry in a Pakistani shrine on the annual celebration.

The South Asian tradition of venerating saints (sant – Sanskrit/Hindi term used primarily among Hindus; Auliya Allah– Arabic term used among Muslims) and spiritual guides (gurus – local Hindi term used among Hindus and Sikhs; and murshid – Persian/Arabic/Urdu term) is found in all major religions—Hinduism, Islam, and Sikhism. People of diverse faiths contact persons that are considered sacred due to their spiritual merits, venerate them and ask for their guidance in their worldly as well as spiritual lives. These revered persons are known to have acquired, through inner struggles, spiritual exercises and sometimes long distance travels higher stages of spiritual advancement and enlightenment under the guidance and supervision of their spiritual guides, following which some of them are commanded to guide and help the suffering humanity. Since these saintly persons are considered to be closer to God, people turn to them for blessings and prayers for various objectives such as material prosperity, marriage, fertility, cure of illnesses, welfare of families, cattle, etc. A limited number of people also contact these enlightened persons for spiritual education and training. Whereas one finds persons with genuine saintly qualities in South Asia, one also runs across fake and self-proclaimed saints who earn their living by extracting money from gullible devotees in turn for ‘unqualified’ prayers and blessings[2].

Parallel to this tradition of revered saintly persons is the practice of venerating the deceased saints in South Asia. South Asian landscape is dotted with thousands of tombs of saints and shrines. Thousands of people of diverse religious backgrounds visit these shrines on daily basis. Some major shrines where Muslim saints have been buried are visited by Hindu, Sikh, Christian and Muslim devotees alike.

Uzma Rehman has a Ph.D. from the Department of History of Religions, Institute for Regional and Crosscultural Studies, University of Copenhagen.

[1] Qawwali music is sung by groups of singers with a lead artist singing in Punjabi, Urdu and Persian about themes such as praise for Prophet Muhammad, saints and one’s spiritual guide.

[2]For an interesting reference on India’s tradition of gurus, faqirs and spiritual masters, see A Secret Search in India (1935) by Paul Brunton.