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There is a rare experience that can bring more delight than falling in lovefalling in love with God. Both are mysteries of the soul. We are used to living our lives without touching such mysteries. Falling in love may remain in the back of our minds as a supremely desirable event, but the world doesn't revolve around it, except for lovers. We give them a privileged position, briefly exempt from care and worry. Life's business gets suspended while lovers sigh and long for each other, feeding off the mere touch of the beloved, intoxicated by a glance or a word. Glances and words aren't really magical, yet love makes them feel that way.
The excitement of falling in love always comes to an end, and when it does, the mystery fades. Day by day, the intoxication is less, and soon the lovers get welcomed back into the reality of business as usual. Yet a privileged few are spared this return to everyday life and remain in love seemingly without end. For this to happen, the beloved must be God. All other loves pale beside a sacred one. Saints and sages alike tell us one story over and over of being irresistibly drawn to God's embrace:
Oh God I have discovered love! How marvelous, how good, how beautiful it is! . . . I offer my salutation To the spirit of passion that aroused and excited this whole universe And all it contains.
These words are from Rumi, the sublime Persian poet so enraptured with God that he clung to a pole outside his house, swinging back and forth in ecstasy. From his lips poured joyous, drunken words about his Beloved, but these words weren't the ordinary effusions of a lover seeing through rose-colored glassesRumi was a lover who had seen something at the depths of life. To him, God was everywhere, and every atom of the universe pulsated with the same divine rapture. The power that created the cosmos poured through Rumi's veins, and the experience was not all pleasure. It was earthshaking:
You go to bed crying and wake up the same, You plead for what doesn't come Until it darkens your days. You give away everything, even your mind, You sit down in the fire, wanting to become ashes, And when you meet with a sword, You throw yourself on it.
Ordinary people (the villagers and devotees who surrounded Rumi) were reluctant to throw themselves into such a frenzied state, but they were fascinated by Rumi. In mesmerized groups they stood around while he swung on his pole rhapsodizing, or whirled in the dance of the dervishes and sang, because his songs and verses were inspired. It is that quality which puts God-intoxication above falling in love. Some aspect of wisdom is present, not a mere emotion or inflamed passion. Reading Rumi, a chill runs up your spine because you have the uncanny feeling that you have been where he is. Perhaps he is even yourself:
Motes of dust dancing in the light That's our dance, too. We don't listen inside to hear the music No matter. The dance goes on, and in the joy of the sun Is hiding a God
Rumi was dancing the dance of life. He knew it, and so did his listeners, which is why the line between poet, saint, and lover became quite blurry in his case. No poet is more intimate than Rumi, no lover more crazed, no saint more innocent. An air of the supernatural gathered around him because he never lost this wild, extreme state of ecstasy. Somehow the deepest lovers don't have to fear time. Their intoxication is permanent, even though the divine beloved is invisible, remote, and never touched physically.
Centuries ago an Indian princess named Mirabai walked away from wealth and privilege to live among the poor just so she could remain intoxicated. Like Rumi, Mirabai expresses amazement that the rest of us don't follow her lead. But to do that requires great strength, for the life of God-intoxication leaves no room for compromise, as Mira points out time and again:
I am going mad with painbut no one gets it. Only the wounded feel their wounds, embracing the fire in their hearts. Only the jeweler knows the worth of the jewel, not the one who tosses it aside. Mira wanders the forest, sick with love. Her pain will only cease when the Dark One comes to heal it.
These lines are as intimidating as they are alluring. What is such a love, and why do certain people fall so deeply under its spell?
I have been fascinated by such questions for a long time, and I found answers only by going into the soul-places where mortal love and immortal love meet. Romeo and Juliet were mortal and even died for love, yet they attained a kind of immortality by being allowed to live on in verse. Immortal love doesn't need poetry. However, it is our good fortune that some of the God-intoxicated have written words that permit access into their ecstatic world. Particularly in the East, in that exotically woven belt of lands that stretches from Arabia to the Indian subcontinent, poets and saints are never far apart. Mirabai and Rumi are only two such figures; there are many, many more. In this collection I have gathered a few of the most revered, beginning in the medieval period and extending to this century. The name of Rumi has gathered much luster recently, but the othersKabir, Hafiz, Tagore, and Mirabaideserve just as much recognition. In their own cultures they stand as beacons of inspiration, largely because the common people have taken them into their hearts and continue to sing their words every day.
From my childhood I remember women gathering in my grandmother's house in Delhi, often accompanied by a wheezing little harmonium, and the voices of family and friends raised to praise God in the words of Kabir or Mirabai. In that setting there was no question about whether this was "great" poetry; it was great in its heartfelt yearning, for much of this writing is the purest yearning imaginable:
Take me to that place where no one can go Where death is afraid And swans alight to play On the overflowing lake of love. There the faithful gather Ever true to their Lord.
This is Mirabai, but the amorous theme she touches on is widely shared. Mystics either remain speechless, or they drift toward the language of lovers. There seems to be no middle ground. If they speak as lovers, we still hear all the complaints of earthly love, that it is fickle, that it brings sleepless nights and empty days, that food has no savor when the lover is gone and the heart becomes anxious and restless. In a way it seems strange to keep using such language about God, because the key quality of immortal love is freedom. It isn't bound by time and space; it doesn't really need expression or outward show because nothing is happening outwardly. The soul's love occurs when a person goes to an unchanging place beyond all dimensions. As Kabir says:
A man lives inside boundaries His spirit lives outside. Something else knows neither one.
Like Mirabai and Rumi, Kabir lived in the so-called medieval period (his dates are roughly 1440-1518), a term that is too Western to really make sense in India, where unbroken traditions span many centuries. He was low-born, trained in the family craft of weaving. Because cultural boundaries are inescapable, mystical poets still acquire religious labels. Rumi is therefore considered Muslim and Mirabai Hindu, but Kabir refused to be labeled, and was claimed by both religions. (If you read deep enough, these poets easily embrace all faiths. For example, there are mentions of Christ throughout Rumi.) The charming tale of what happened to Kabir's body after he died is known by every Indian child: After he passed on, Kabir's remains were claimed by both the Hindus and Muslims of the town. One side wanted to cremate him and scatter his ashes over a holy place, while the other wanted a burial. The disagreement between the two factions grew heated to the brink of violence. There seemed to be no peaceful solution until Kabir came in a dream and told his followers to open his casket. When they did, Kabir's body was gone, miraculously changed into a bundle of flowers. One faction took half the flowers and burned them; the other took their half and buried them. Thus both faiths got what they wanted, and Kabir became storied as a saint who could not be trapped by orthodoxy on either side.
Delightful as it is to spend time with these divine lovers, I have also come to believe that the God-mad (to use a wonderful phrase from India) have hit upon a truth that has objective validity: There really is a place beyond time and space that we can access even though we are here inside time and space. Modern physics speaks of the "event horizon," which lies beyond the travel of light, a place that must exist but can never be seen because the oldest photons in the universe are unable to bring us any data about it. When you ask a question like, "What happened before time began?" or "Where did things exist before the universe was created?" you are not making sense on this side of the event horizon. There is no time before time began and no place outside space. Yet to a quantum physicist, all such questions do make sense if you cast your mind over the event horizon. Thus we hear about additional dimensions that once existed, about mega-universes that might have served as incubators for our own, and so on. The space beyond space is called "virtual" in the terms of physics; it is an empty place, completely black and cold (words that aren't really meaningful outside our universe), yet filled with the potential to create all time, space, matter, and energy.
The womb of creation is over the event horizon, and it is very real. The Big Bang erupted from virtual space. In other words, so did space-time itself. The amazing implication is that creation didn't happen at a particular moment. You can run a clock backward to try to get to the exact second that the Big Bang occurred, but just when you are about to arrive at the birth of things, your clock will falter and cease. All events will become compacted into a density too heavy and concentrated to allow for either time or space. Properties like weight and size, duration and movement disappear. At this point of seeming nothingness, everything is possible. Every single second of the life of the cosmospast, present, and futurecoheres into a unity. This point has been called a singularity by physics, but mystics call it God. God is the One and Only, the All that is only itself yet contains diverse creation. The mystic's God is not a person or a place but a state that is everywhere at once. This abstract portrayal remains true even when God is being named as father or mother, lover or friendthese are just words used in an attempt to humanize the ineffable.
To cross the event horizon seems physically impossible, yet it is spiritually our birthright. The poets in this book exercised that right, approaching God with awe and trembling but with disarming intimacy, as if meeting the One was the most natural thing in the world. Who is to say that they are wrong? Perhaps messages are drifting across the event horizon all the time. Rabindranath Tagore, the great Bengali poet and Nobel laureate, took the ecstatic tradition of Kabir and Mirabai into our time, going so far as to translate Kabir as an act of homage. Tagore had a famous meeting with Einstein in which the two compared their sense of what God's reality might be, but it is in his poetry that Tagore speaks most wistfully of how easy it is to miss the divine fragrance that is all around us. He uses the image of a flower that has been passed by on the road:
When the lotus opened, I didn't notice and went away empty-handed.
Only now and again do I suddenly sit up from my dreams to smell a strange fragrance. It comes on the south wind, a vague hint that makes me ache with longing, like the eager breath of summer wanting to be completed. I didn't know what was so near, or that it was mine.
This perfect sweetness blossoming in the depths of my heart.
Tagore is the tenderest and most emotionally delicate of the poets in this bookat least that is how he strikes me. They all speak to our souls with the same uncanniness that I mentioned earlier, but after a while one detects a definite flavor from each: Rumi is sharp and challenging, the ever-alert mind who gets impatient with the sleepy. Hafiz, another great lyricist in Islamic poetry, often adopts the metaphor of being drunk on wine, carelessly letting loose his rapture in the "sin" of drinking and carousing. Mirabai is the besotted slave of love, longing in the night for her Dark Lord. (She uses oblique names for him, such as "lifter of mountains," drawing from the legends about Krishna, who is called dark because he is envisioned by his devotees as having deep blue or even black skin.) Kabir is harder to typify in my mind, perhaps because I grew up hearing him the way a churchgoer in this country hears hymns. He can be intimate, devoted, humble or haughty, detached, and even abrasive.
The God-mad are inevitably elusive; they don't know their place in society because they don't have one anymore. Therefore they feel free to speak in any way they choose. Mirabai is ironically aware of how much distress she is causing to conventional people by her divine love affair:
The whole town thought I had gone mad. She'll ruin the family, my mother-in-law cried, And the prince sent me a cup of poison. I laughed as I drank itdon't they understand? Can you lose your body and mind If the Dark One has already taken them?
Naturally, the answer to her question is both yes and no. So-called sane people don't go dancing through the street, swinging on poles, or stripping naked before God, yet we still understand at a deeper level why such behavior defies sanity. We are all tuned in beyond the event horizon. Rumi puts it very simply in two lines that strike to the core of the ever-fleeting mystery:
When you feel most alive, find out why. This is one guest you won't greet twice.
In one couplet he states the spiritual purpose of life, which is to find the essence, the seed of joy that permeates our most awake moments without ever being able to be caught and put in a bottle. This joy is the guest we can't greet twice, because it lives in the moment and is new every time. The miracle is that we greet it at all, yet we do. As simple as Rumi's words sound, he can turn on an instant and plumb the profound depths of mystical experience:
He is the tree, the fruit, and the shade He is the sun, the light, and the dream The word and its meaning A point in the All Form in the formless Infinity in a void.