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In pre-Partition India, Muslims too celebrated Janmashtami: A look back at reverence for Krishna in works of Urdu poets

In the India of 2017, a Muslim celebrating Holi, Diwali, Janmashtami or Shivratri is newsworthy since these are thought to be ‘festivals of Hindus’ and Ram; Krishna and Shiva are ‘Hindu Gods’ with whom Muslims could have no affiliation. For most of us born after the tragic Partition of 1947 or the later demolition of Babri Mosque in 1992, this might seem fictitious but there was a time when devout Muslims revered Ram, Krishna and Shiva and celebrated Janmashtami and Dussehra.

Urdu poetry has a special place for Krishna and he is often described as someone who represents love and beauty. Poets like Insha Allah Khan ‘Insha’, Iqbal, Ibn-e-Insha, Parveen Shakir are a few to use his imagery to represent love, romance and beauty. For them, Krishna was not only a metaphor of beauty but a figure who should be respected and revered. One of the earliest Urdu poets from 18th century Insha Allah Khan ‘Insha’ writes;

“Saanvle tan pe ghazab dhaj hai basanti shaal kii
Jii mai hai kah baithiye ab Jai Kanahayya laal kii”

(Yellow shawl looks majestic on sultry body
At this moment, my heart wants to say victory to dear Kanhayya)

In present India ‘Jai Kanhayya laal ki’ (victory to the dear Kanhayya) is a phrase that seems reserved for Hindus which Muslims are not supposed to use. The orthodox element within Islam can brand any Muslim for blasphemy for using this very phrase.

However, Insha is not the only Muslim Urdu poets who have revered Krishna. The most interesting example among poets, who have written about Krishna, is Hafeez Jalandhari. His reverence towards the Hindu god is noteworthy because, of the current Indians and Pakistani Muslims he is the most unlikely to hail a ‘Hindu God’. Hafeez memorised Quran and was counted among one of the orthodox Muslims among the Urdu poets of early and mid-twentieth century.

He was an active member of Muslim League that campaigned for Pakistan as a separate state. After 1947, he joined the Pakistani armed forces and participated in the attack on Kashmir in 1948, where he was wounded too. National anthem of Pakistan as well as the state anthem of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) have been written by him. Such a person, for the present generation, is least likely to be perceived as a secular and someone who could be respectful towards a ‘Hindu God’.

When Indian national movement was on and Hafeez was also fighting for the independence, though as a member of the Muslim League, he wrote a poem Krishn Kanhayya in praise of Krishna. It was no simple eulogy. The poet hopes that Krishna will come back as a saviour of the country. At the very outset, Hafeez draws the attention of readers towards the grandeur of Krishna using the words;

Ai dekhne walo
Is husn ko dekho
Is raaz ko samjho

(O you who is watching, look at this beauty. Try to understand this secret)

He goes on to write;
Ye paikar-e-tanviir
Ye Krishn ki tasviir

(This manifestation of light This portrait of Krishna)

It is important here to note that among common Muslims Prophet Muhammad is supposed to be a manifestation of light. By using the same metaphor for Krishna, Hafeez in a way reiterates the age-old belief of a section of Islamic scholars, that Krishna was a righteous prophet sent to the people of the subcontinent. During the course of the poem he stresses over his belief again by saying;

Ye nar hai ya nuur
(Is he human or light)

Again, the same belief that common Muslims hold for Prophet Muhammad reflects here for Krishna that he is not a human made of flesh but was light/splendour. The most important part of this poem comes when he urges Krishna as the king of India to get the nation out of the bondages of slavery. It shows his faith in Krishna.

Sab ahl-e-khusumat
Hain dar pae izzat
Ye raaj dulare
Buzdil hue saare

(All the people of litigation are going towards gates of honour. These dear ones of the kingship Have become cowards)
Aa ja mere kale
Bharat ke ujaale
Daaman mai chupa le

(Come O my black light of India, cover us in your clothes)

Hafeez, in these lines, while on one hand blamed Indians who held offices under British for the slavery, he also urges Krishna (here he addresses him as ‘Bharat ke kaale’) to come and save us from the ignominy of foreign rule.

In the poem, he stresses the need of advice from Krishna to his Arjun so that he can defeat Duryodhan. Of course, Duryodhan for him in this poem is British government. It shows his immense faith in the teachings of Geeta to fight the evil using violence only when needed. On another occasions, Krishna remains that symbol of love.

At the end of it, he pleads before Krishna about the state of the country and asks him to save it.

Pariyon mai hai gulfaam
Radha ke liye shyaam
Balraam ka bhayya
Mathura ka basayya
Bindra mai kanahayya
Ban ho gaye viraan
Barbad gulistaan
Sakhiyaan hain pareshan
Jamuna ka kinara
Sunsaan hai sara
Tufaan hai khamosh
Maujon mai nahi josh
Lau tujh se lagi hai
Hasrat hi yahi hai
Ai hind ke raja
Ek baar phir aa ja
Dukh dard mita ja

(Among angels, he is rose faced. He is dark for Radha, brother of Balram. Famous one from Mathura, Kanahayya in Brinda; forests have gone deserted, gardens ruined. Female friends are depressed. Border of Yamuna is entirely desolated. Storm is silent; waves have no passion. Expectation is from you, desire is only this much O King of India Once again come back Annihilate pain and sufferings)

Here it must be kept in mind that Hafiz obviously wasn’t expecting Krishna to come back but he believed that for a free and better India, people needed to follow the teachings of Krishna.

That Hafeez can revere the teachings of Krishna and praise him publicly, even though he was one of the most orthodox Muslim poets of his times, shows how much times have changed. For him, it was as normal as writing about Prophet Muhammad or any other Quranic prophet. Hate for another religion obviously did not touch the devout Muslim poet’s art.

This Janmashtami, we hope that Indians stop branding each other’s icons as Hindus or Muslims. We need to adopt good teachings from our ancestors while also developing modern thought in the process. To look at philosophies through communal prism has harmed this country more than anything else. To conclude, here’s a couplet from Muhammad Iqbal, another famous Urdu poet, with a wish that religious bigotry ends from our society this Janmashtami.

Ye Aaya-e-Nau, Jail Se Nazil Huwi Mujh Par
Gita Mein Hai Quran To Quran Mein Geeta

This new ‘verse’ was revealed to me from the jail that the Quran is in the Gita and the Gita is in the Quran

The authors are research scholars of History at Jawaharlal Nehru University and freelance political commentators on Indian politics with a special interest in Muslim politics

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