Ghalib Says – 1

Today if you tell me some things are fated I would be inclined to believe you.

The last three posts just sort of happened – there was no grand design involved, just the order in which we happened to chance upon things. There was a BBC story on syncretic communities under threat and that led to Hindu-Muslim or Muslim-Hindu? Then there was a column on the usefulness of Milton by Stanley Fish that led to Milton and Ghalib. And finally, an essay by Mark Lilla that a reader had sent last year popped out of a randomly opened file and led to The Politics of God.

In retrospect, you can see the threads that link. The threat to syncretic communities could be attributed to the politics of God (as some readers have already done in their comments) and one could use Milton or Ghalib to think about the issue, if one were so inclined. But there was no way one could have planned Ghalib himself stepping in and providing just the perfect tool to think with on the issue.

It was almost like that. For on the very day we finished posting The Politics Of God, there appeared on the excellent blog dedicated to Ghalib (Meher-e-Niimroz) a post on the faith of faithlessness centered around the following couplet:

vafaadaarii ba shart-e-ustuvaarii asl-e-iimaaN hai
marey butkhaane meN to kaabe meN gaaRho barahmin ko

Faithfulness, as long as it is firm, is the essence/root of religion/faith
If he dies in the temple (idol-house) bury the Brahmin in the Ka’ba

You can look up the full commentary on Meher-e-Niimroz. Here we simply note how Ghalib has linked together our three posts, pick up on the essence of the couplet, and see where it takes us.

The essence of the thought is the following:

It is not the faith that matters but the faithfulness of belief in that faith. All who are faithful to their beliefs (regardless of what the beliefs are) are equally worthy.

And the thought is dramatized powerfully by the image of a Muslim eager to accord the highest honor of his faith, burial in the Ka’ba, to a Brahmin who has died in the temple. Why? Because the Brahmin was faithful to his own belief.

Note, one believer is not saying to another: “You are an Unbeliever no matter how faithful you are to your own belief.” He is not saying: “My belief is better than yours” (on what basis could he really say that?). He is not saying: “Yes, you are a devout believer but you are deluded and in error; let me show you the right path.”

So, Ghalib has brought us back to the questions we posed at the end of Hindu-Muslim or Muslim-Hindu? Except that Ghalib has needed only 15 words to set us thinking for hours – that is precisely the greatness of Ghalib.

  1. Does a believer in one faith have the moral authority to determine whether someone else’s faith is right or wrong?
  2. Do you agree that Ghalib provides a good criterion for behavior – that it is faithfulness and not Faith that counts? If not, why not?
  3. What do we do in a shared space where the lines have become drawn in terms of Believers and Unbelievers?

And just so there are some who consider Ghalib one-sided (a condescending Muslim), it is good to remember that Ghalib looked up to Mir:

Rekhte ke tumheeN ustaad nahiiN ho Ghalib
Kehte haiN agle zamaane meN koii Miir bhi thaa

You are not the only Ustad of Rekhta, Ghalib
They say that in an earlier time/age there was even/also some Mir/master

And Mir had expressed a similar sentiment as follows:

Miir ke diin-o-mazhab ko ab puuchte kyaa ho un ne to
Qashqa kheenchaa dayr meeN baiThaa kab ka tark Islam kiyaa

What do you ask now about Mir’s religion and faith?
He drew the caste mark (on his forehead), sat in the temple, and long abandoned Islam

So, what the poets seem to be saying is that it does not matter who you are but what you are. It does not matter what label is ascribed to you, it is your faithfulness that counts in the end.

I wonder what Ghalib has to say about fate?

While you are at Meher-e-Niimroz and have a liking for Ghalib, do not miss the opportunity to link to Professor Frances Pritchett’s page. Make sure though that you have many hours to spare for it is not easy to come back out of that Desertful of Roses.


  • Jaffer
    Posted at 21:48h, 20 July Reply

    You may want to edit the above blog to change the spelling of “Brahman” to “Brahmin” because they do imply different things. The following is from Wikipedia.

    Brahman (bráhman-, nominative bráhma ब्रह्म) is a concept of Hinduism. Brahman is the unchanging, infinite, immanent, and transcendent reality which is the Divine Ground of all matter, energy, time, space, being, and everything beyond in this Universe.

    Note that “Brahman” is different from “Brahmin,” the Priests/Holy Men of the Indo-Aryan Caste System that still influences India today. The confusion between the terms can be dated back to the translation of the Upanishads into modern English.

  • Jamil Ahmad
    Posted at 18:50h, 20 September Reply

    First of all my comment on Brahman vs. Brahmin. While Jaffer’s explanation of the difference is illuminating, the word as used by Ghalib is Brahman. In Urdu poetry that is the accepted pronunciation of the word. The rest of Ghalib’s ghazal has qaafiyas: gulshan, dushman, daaman, gardan, rahzan and several others. Changing the word to Brahmin distorts the couplet so that it no longer qualifies as a part of the ghazal.

    Iqbal has also used the word as Brahman. In his ghazal in Baal-e-Jibreel, where the misra’ occurs:

    man ki duniya men na dekhe men ne shaikh-o-barhaman

    there is a similar rhyming pattern.

    In my teaching of chemistry, I have used Ghalib’s she’r to illustrate Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. My post on the subject is on Alt.languages.Urdu.Poetry at:

    • Vikram
      Posted at 23:06h, 08 August

      I would just like to point out here that the observer effect is being confused with the uncertainty principle.

      The problem of the observer disturbing the object of measurement is the observer effect. It is a limitation of how we measure, not a fundamental principle of the universe.

      The uncertainty principle derives from the fact that matter fundamentally has particle and wave characteristics. It is impossible to understand it completely without taking both things into account. However, as we try to understand the particle aspect, we increase the uncertainty in the wave aspect. And vice versa. So we can never really understand the universe in one way without comprising on the other.

    • Jamil Ahmad
      Posted at 22:23h, 27 August

      The impossibility of precisely measuring position and momentum of a sub-atomic particle is a fundamental law of nature and is not due to any limitation of equipment.

      Heisenberg’s own explanation of this principle is quite understandable and is reproduced on the American Institute of Physics website at

      Heisenberg did a though experiment using the concept of a gamma ray microscope in which one attempts to measure the position and the momentum of an electron simultaneously. The gamma ray used for measurement disturbs the particle; hence the impossibility of precise measurement. His thought experiment does not evoke wave property of the electron.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 05:57h, 28 August

      Heisenberg’s explanation has been discarded by physicists for a while, although his conclusions have not.

      “The original heuristic argument that such a limit should exist was given by Heisenberg, after whom it is sometimes named the Heisenberg principle. This ascribes the uncertainty in the measurable quantities to the jolt-like disturbance triggered by the act of observation. Though widely repeated in textbooks, this physical argument is now known to be fundamentally misleading.” – From the wiki article on the uncertainty principle.

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 17:19h, 29 August

      Vikram is right … Wave-particle duality is fundamental to quantum mechanics. It isn’t that if we have means to observe a particle other than light so that it’s position is not I impacted then we will not have uncertainty principle . The thing is a wave occupies space where as a particle occupies a point in space so if observed wave transforms into a particle the question is at which point the wave occupied in space this article will emerge? We can only predict its probability.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 23:22h, 20 September Reply


    You are quite right. Going by the rhyme the pronunciation should be Brahman. We have to separately sort out the issue raised by Jaffer.

    Your interpretations of the two ashaa’r in the ALUP post were extremely creative.
    Many thanks for pointing us towards them.

  • Jaffer
    Posted at 19:57h, 21 September Reply

    My point in my earlier post was with respect to the translation of Ghalib’s verse into English. A person who is familiar with Urdu would know that the word referred to a priest/holy man even though it is pronounced as “brahman” when reciting the verse. So it makes sense that we translate it as “brahmin” (priest/holy man) to convey its proper meaning in English.

  • UVR
    Posted at 13:55h, 02 October Reply

    Not to put too fine a point on it, but the words Ghalib has used (in Urdu) must be pronounced as ‘bar-ha-man’ or ‘ba-rah-man’. As for which pronunciation is appropriate where, one must look towards the meter of the sh’er in which the word appears.
    For example

    naheeN kuchh subhah-o-zunnaar ke phande meN geeraa’i
    wafaadaari meN shaiKh-o-*barhaman* kee aazmaaish hai

    dekhiye paate haiN ‘usshaaq butoN se kyaa faiz
    ik *barahman* ne kahaa hai ke yeh saal achchhaa hai

    “brahman”, “braahman” etc are not pronunciations that Ghalib has employed.

  • Meesam
    Posted at 07:08h, 10 December Reply

    thats Brahmaand the universe not brahman (brahmin or brahman are the same)

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 07:41h, 10 December

      Here is how it is on Dr. Frances Pritchett’s website:

      وفاداری بہ شرطِ استواری اصلِ ایماں ہے
      مرے بت خانے میں تو کعبے میں گاڑھو برہمن کو

      वफ़ादारी ब शरत-ए उसतुवारी असल-ए ईमां है
      मरे बुत-ख़ाने में तो क`बे में गाढ़ो बरहमन को

      vafādārī bah shart̤-e ustuvārī aṣl-e īmāñ hai
      mare but-ḳhāne meñ to kaʿbe meñ gāṛho barahman ko

      1) faithfulness, with the condition/stipulation of constancy, is the root/principle/origin of faith/religion
      2) if he would die in the idol-house, then bury the Brahmin in the Ka’bah

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 13:42h, 10 December

      I think the confusion is because of script. In Urdu whether you pronounce brahman or barahman the written word is same but in Devnagari script brahman and barahman or Brahm (ब्राह्मण , बरहमन ब्रह्म )will be written differently. There is tradition in Urdu to keep purity of Farsi and Arabic words but Urduize Sanskrit, Indic root words, therefore Brahman(ब्राह्मण) becomes barahman(बरहमन).

      In English also Sanskrit root words are Englishized for instant Ram becomes Rama, brahman(ब्राह्मण) becomes brahmin, Yog becomes Yoga etc and Brahm becomes Brahman as Atma becomes Atman. Ghalib clear uses barahman as UVR above pointed out.

      Brahmand is quite another thing it means Universe and not Brahman(ब्रह्म) which is quite an esoteric concept of Vedant originating in Brahm Sutra. Brahm Sutra is a set cryptic one liners ( I think about 78 ) which in it self may mean nothing but many sages have given commentary on Brahm Sutra(Aphorism) including Shankaracharya, Ramanujacharya, Madhavacharya etc to establish philosophical stream Advait, Vishisht Adbvait and Dvait. there are others who have also commented on Brahm Sutra. There is tons of religious text on these philosophical streams like nature of Brahman, nature of Maya and nature of Atman etc. including in Bhagvat Gita.

      I hope I have not confused you more.

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