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Bulleh Shah’s poems have impacted people of every age for generations

The Punjabi poet lived through turbulent times and continues to be read widely today.

Every year, around the winter break, during one of the traditional festivities in the province of Sindh in Pakistan, friends, and family gather around a bonfire to tell stories from folklore and from their own lives, to sing songs from many different languages and to recite poems they know by heart. It was here that I discovered the spiritual poetry of Bulley Shah.

Bulleh Shah was a Punjabi poet, mystic, philosopher and a humanist born in 1680. His admirers often compare his writings and philosophy to those of the famous Sufi poet, Rumi. Bulleh Shah’s writing depicts the turmoil of his motherland during the war and the importance of spiritual seeking. His themes include his devotion to his spiritual guide, Shah Inayat and his teachings, and how Bulleh Shah found his own way in his spiritual journey.

Yes, you have read thousands of books
But you have never tried to read your own self
You have reached into the skies,
But you have failed to reach
What’s in your heart! – Bulleh
You have reached into the skies,
But you have failed to reach
What’s in your heart! 

His poetry emphasizes listening to one’s inner self and accepting the way of life. He promotes a state of mind where there is no difference between male and female and no difference between religions and cultures–this at a time of conflict between Muslims and Sikhs The poem above is perhaps Bulleh Shah’s most quoted, and it serves as a reminder to not only confront our own egos but to also establish a deeper and more honest connection with ourselves. His poetry was loved for its truthfulness which he showed uncompromisingly, as well as its undying messages and the compassion that is still revered today.

Not an Arab, nor Lahori
Neither Hindi, nor Nagauri
Hindu, Turk, nor Peshawari
Nor do I live in Nadaun

Bulleya! to me, I am not known
Secrets of religion, I have not known
From Adam and Eve, I am not born
I am not the name I assume
Not in stillness, nor on the move

Bulleya! to me, I am not known

Bulleh Shah lived in turbulent times in the sixteen nineties when Sikhs were rising against the Mughal Empire. He had close relations with the ninth Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Tegh Bahadur, and tried to persuade him to solve problems verbally instead of fighting. When Tegh Bahadur was beheaded, Bulleh spoke up in protest. Bulleh Shah always spoke with directness and was openly defiant to those who, in his view, only followed and practiced religion on the basis of business purposes and to show off their religiosity.  He compared those religious merchants to dogs who, he says, are better at what they do.

Staying awake and praying at night
The dogs are also awake, superior to you
They never stop barking
And go and sleep on a pile of rubbish, superior to you
They never leave their master’s door
Even when beaten with shoes, superior to you
Bulleh Shah, you’d better achieve something
Or the dogs will win this contest, superior to you

It was a time period where caste, creed and familial honor dominated people’s minds. Bulleh Shah fought all that and devoted his life to art as his poetry transformed into phrases of searching for God. He also wrote of his admiration for his Master, Shah Inayat. And in this, too, Bulleh Shah was breaking with convention. Shah Inayat belonged to a caste lower than Bulleh and so fellow villagers tormented Bulleh for going to a man of a lower caste than himself for spiritual learning. “You are a great scholar, a master of miraculous powers and a descendant of the Prophet,” the villagers would say. “Does it seem right to you to go to an ordinary gardener of low caste and become his disciple? Is it not shameful?”

But Bulleh Shah advocated for independence from worldly affairs. He wanted others to free themselves from doubts and questions like “What will people think?” He did not care for issues of identity. Instead, he encouraged others to follow their religion alone, setting out on a path of self-exploration. Bulleh Shah explained this process in such simplicity and purity that people of all ages were able to relate to the undying messages and connected to their own spiritual self.

Their time-worn norms are seldom right,
With these, they chain my feet so tight.
My love cares not for caste or creed,
To the rituals faith I pay no heed.

Ironically, the man who was first refused to be buried in the community graveyard due to his unorthodox views now has worldwide recognition. His incredible knowledge of folk and classical music was an essential part of his poetry and today, his poetry is used in many songs and has been featured prominently on the Pakistani musical television series, Coke Studio.

Oh Bulleh Shah, let’s go there
Where everyone is blind
Where no one recognizes our caste
And where no one believes in us.

I can’t help but think about the undying messages by Bulleh which are still admired and have helped people in many different stages of life. What I personally like about his poetry is this that his poetry, while spiritual does not apply solely to any one religion. It not only talks about a man’s relationship with God but also with himself. His poetry has helped me in a lot of ways, especially when dealing with my own emotional struggles. Bulleh Shah’s poetry always helps. Even after over two hundred years, its power endures.


2 comments on “Bulleh Shah’s poems have impacted people of every age for generations

  1. Wow! Great article! I am definitely going to check out more of his poetry now 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for the enthusiasm!


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