Sufism and the Hindus of Sindh: An introduction to a complex topic

It was through the concept of wahdat-e wujud that Hindus were accepted as disciples of the Sufi masters.

Some Hindus could even become masters themselves, while locally, interesting arrangements were made between Muslims and Hindus, as in Sehwan Sharif.

By Michel Boivin

Sindh is one of those lands where religious boundaries are blurred, especially between the two main religions, Islam and Hinduism.  The encounter between both religions in modern times was made possible by the permeation of Sufism in religious culture, and the pervading belief of wahdat-e wujud. Sufism provides the main lexicon and a framework of beliefs for spirituality, which has been adopted more or less by all the religious persuasions. Beyond Muslims of all creeds, Hindus, Christians, Sikhs and others visit Sufi dargahs, and they can even become Sufis without ceasing to be Hindu, Christian or Sikh. A pervading belief all over Sindh is that the formal religions, as embodied through rituals or dogmas, are not the finality of the quest for God. As put by Shah Abdul Latif (d. 1752) in his Shah jo Rasalo about Islam:

Namaz and fasting are indeed good deeds

But there is another wisdom

By which to behold the Beloved

Sur Asa, 4.

But beyond that, it should not be forgotten that Sindh was a predominantly Muslim territory (about 70 percent of the total population), and that the ideology of Sufism was the dominant discourse among Muslim populations. This chapter proposes an outline of the encounter between the Hindus of Sindh and Sufism, addressing three core issues. Firstly, it deals with the conditions of possibility: how was it possible that the Hindus ‘practiced’ Sufism in colonial Sindh? Secondly, it tackles the meaning of being Sufi throughout the different categories of relationship the Hindus had with Sufism: what does it mean for a Hindu to be Sufi? And thirdly it examines the post-Partition period: was the encounter with Sufism among the Hindus of Sindh altered by Partition, and by the rigidification of religious identities both in Pakistan and in India?

How can a Hindu be a Sufi?

Before analyzing how a Hindu could be Sufi in colonial Sindh, we must return to the medieval religious heritage that prevailed. Indeed, despite a cruel lack of sources, several concordant clues allow us to affirm that two versions of Islam paved the way for this encounter between Islam and Hinduism. The first were the Ismailis, a sect of Shia Muslims, and the second the Sohrawardis, a Sufi brotherhood. Both were probably in competition in the religious market, but they share a main conception: it was not compulsory to convert to Islam, but only to be the murid – follower – of a pir – spiritual guide – in both, and neither necessarily required that a disciple should not be the disciple of another spiritual master: there could be a plurality of allegiances.

A very important clue to understanding these processes is the attribution of two names to a sacred figure: a Muslim name and a Hindu name. Examples are Magho Pir/Lalu Jasraj, Pir Patho/Raja Gopichand, Lal Shahbaz Qalandar/Raja Bharthari, and Uderolal (Jhulelal)/Shaikh Tahir. Another point that should be underlined is that according to their respective traditions, these Sufis lived between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, a period in which the Sohrawardis became dominant. One last point should be underlined: all Hindu names are related to the Nathpanths, the jogi disciples of Shiva who are celebrated by Shah Abdul Latif.  In his poetry, Shah Abdul Latif introduced them as the model of asceticism. He would have spent some years with them, visiting several Hindu places of pilgrimage.

What can we infer in relation to the encounter between Sufism and Hinduism? Unfortunately, historical sources do not provide details, but it can nevertheless be said that this encounter took place during an initial period at the end of the Soomro reign. The Soomros were the first Sindhi rulers to rule Sindh since the Arab conquest in 711, and did so between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries. According to sources, they were Rajputs who partly became Muslims, maybe Ismaili. The cult of a sacred figure with two names could be practiced by both Muslims and Hindus.

While there is a lack of data for the following centuries, the conquest of Sindh by the East India Company army in 1843 had an enormous impact on the kingdom, in the political, social, cultural and economic fields. The British developed education, and trained Sindhis to assist them in the administration of the province. It was from this melting pot that an intelligentsia was to emerge. In the nineteenth century, the conception as well as the practice of Sufism underwent an evolution. The members of the Sindhi intelligentsia, whether Hindus or Muslims, constructed a new, more intellectualized representation of Sufism, which aimed, through a re-reading via new spiritual movements such as the Theosophical Society, to build a new brotherhood. In this new conception, Sufism was more an aesthetic, quasi-existential discourse, rather than a practice. But this does not mean that Hindus did not frequent Sufi dargahs, or that they were not affiliated with a Sufi master.

Many well-to-do and educated Hindus like the Amils went to the dargahs, and according to the sociologist Sarla J Narsian, they turned to Sufism because it corresponded more to the modern way of life (Narsian 1932). The Amils’ interest in Sufism is corroborated at the same time by Jethmal Parsram Gulrajani, who claimed that they “are the main supporters and advisers of both the devotees of the Sufi pirs and holders of the gaddi.” (Parsram 1924: 83-84). Interestingly, this Hindu Sindhi literati played a key role in legitimizing that Hindus can be Sufis in his book titled Sind and its Sufis published in English in 1924.This was the first book devoted to the Sufism of Sindh ever published in English. After a first section on historical contextualization, the second one is on the Sufi culture of Sindh, the third on Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, and the last on ‘three great Sufi teachers’, which is probably a reference to the theosophical concept of the word teacher – here, he discusses Shah Inayat, Shah Abdul Latif, and Sachal.

The small book is a perfect summary of how the new middle class of Sindhis represented Sufism. Interestingly, it was published by the Theosophical Society in Madras, where the headquarters of the organization remain even today. Like Mirza Qaleech Beg, and maybe even more than him, Parsram read Sufism through the lens of theosophy since he spoke in his book of “what the Sufi calls Tasawuf or Theosophy” (Parsram 1924: 127). Parsram was one of the first Sindhi literati to speak of the Sufi culture of Sindh. He started by summarising the many religions that have flourished in Sindh, like Buddhism, Jainism, and Hinduism. More recently, he added, two other religions had been dominant: Sikhism and Sufism. He wrote that the mysticism of the Sufis of Sindh contains the threads of both Indo-Aryan Sanatana Dharma and the Arabic-Persian mystic culture. In fact, there is hardly a country in the whole of Asia, including India, in which the mystic thought of two great civilizations, the Indian and the Arabic-Iranian, is seen as in so beautiful a union as in Sind.

Typology of encountering between Hindu Sindhis and Sufism

What does it mean in today’s Pakistan to be a murid, namely the disciple of a Sufi master? The way through which a Hindu is a murid is not very different from a Muslim. He must in fact have a relationship with two characters: the saint who is buried, the dead saint, and the one who manages the sanctuary, the living saint. The legitimacy of the latter is constructed through narratives in which he appears either as his descendant or as a close companion. The devotional relationship that the Hindu murid has with the tomb is materialized by different rituals, which are not different for Muslims. For example, offerings are usually deposited at the tomb in procession. The offerings consist mainly of flowers or brocades, and the Hindu murid will then recite a Hindu prayer.

With the living master, he has to organize meetings at regular intervals and pay him the tithe, in exchange the master gives him his baraka – spiritual blessing – as protection, and he is also the director of his conscience. He helps him to solve his problems, whatever they may be, whether relating to his family, his profession, an inheritance, or health. Finally, the master teaches him the meditation that will bring him closer to God. During the initiation ceremony, he delivers the naam – secret chant – which will serve as the basis for meditation.

In Sehwan Sharif, where Lal Shahbaz Qalandar is buried, the Hindus are still involved in the general economy of the pilgrimage. There are two aspects in their involvement: first is their work as Sufi master, second is their role in the mendi – ritual application of henna. The death of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar is interpreted as being his mystical wedding with God, which is symbolized with henna and accordingly, the mendi is the main ritual of the three-day melo – annual festival – devoted to Lal Shahbaz. Therefore, on each of the three days, a procession is led from a Sufi lodge to the shrine to deposit the henna at the tomb. On the first day, the procession is led by the Sayyid Lakkiyari, who dominate the pilgrimage system, the second by Lal Das, and the third by Ramchand. The last two are Hindus.

The participation of Hindus in this ritual of primary importance is explained as follows: their ancestors would have been close companions of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, and would have helped and watched over him. As a result, Lal Shahbaz Qalandar is said to have requested that after his death, they lead the mendi procession. In fact, this situation raises the question: is this an exception in the landscape, or is it a remnant of a vanished, pre-Partition era?

Perhaps the answer lies in both. Indeed, such a system does not exist anywhere else in Sindh, and historical sources have not documented it. But in any case, this does not mean that it is an exception, and what remains is that Hindus are always disciples of Sufi masters, which of course they combine with other affiliations. And here again, it is more a question of affiliations to individuals, to masters, than to a confession.

Post-Partition situations in Pakistan and in India

The relationship between Hindu Sindhis and Sufism has not undergone any major changes since the creation of Pakistan. Due to lack of data, it is difficult to give a figure for the number of Hindu Sufis, that is, Hindus who are followers of Sufi masters. Hindus cannot be said to be a particular target for the terrorist groups that have attacked several Sufi dargahs in recent years. Apart from affiliation to a master through initiation, many Hindus of all categories, from high-status castes such as the Lohanas to those once described as untouchable, such as the Bhils, the Kohlis or the Menghwars, regularly visit the dargahs. The most propitious moment is that of the annual festival, when it is said that the baraka of the saint is the most powerful.

We must also observe the emergence of new processes that I would describe as the ‘Hinduisation of Sufism’. To speak of this, I will take the example of the ‘Hindu dargah’, as it is called by its devotees, a shrine to Jhulelal at Tando Ahmad Khan, near Thano Bula Khan, in the part of Sindh known as Kohistan. In fact, this dargah is dedicated to Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, with a small dome and a monumental entrance which are miniature replicas of those of Sehwan Sharif. The site is well dedicated to Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, but it also promotes an assimilation of this Sufi saint with the ancestral deity of the Hindus known as Uderolal. One of the ways in which this assimilation takes place is through the common nickname, Jhulelal, which both the sacred figures bear. Furthermore, above the miniature tomb of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar the famous formula, sometimes attributed to Sai Baba of Shirdi (d. 1914): Sabka Malik Ek – Everyone’s Master is One.

In India, the situation is different. Some sites dedicated to Hindu Sufis still exist in Mumbai, Chennai, Delhi, Vadodara and Haridwar. But the Sufi masters observe that the number of disciples is constantly declining. The vast majority of devotees are becoming older, and the younger generation has not given rise to a new population of devotees. But the decline of these Sufi traditions is due to other factors, starting with the rise of the Hindutva ideology, which does not tolerate people who identify themselves as Hindus almost simultaneously performing cults catalogued as Islamic. The Hindu Sufis I encountered during my investigations explicitly stated that they had been threatened to stop this practice. At the very least, they had to renounce rituals that might have seemed ‘too’ Muslim, and not display anything that could be seen from the outside.

In India, however, the relationship to Sufism has not completely disappeared, despite the decline of Hindu Sufism. Today, it can be understood in terms of the quasi-affective link that many Hindu Sindhis maintain with a major Sufi work: the Shah jo Rasalo of Shah Abdul Latif. Proof of this are the works that are regularly published: translations, glossaries and reflections. For these Indian Sindhis, this masterpiece continues to embody Sindh, the lost homeland, and its specific identity of the Sindhi culture. A recent publication may indicate that interest in Shah jo Rasalo in India has now spread beyond the Sindhiphone community. Indeed, Shabnam Virani and Vipul Rikhi explain that since they were denied visas to go to Sindh, they decided to focus on the Shah jo Rasalo tradition on ‘our’ side of the border, namely in Kachchh (Virani and Vipul : 2019 ix).


Returning to the questions posed in the introduction, it can be pointed out that it was through the concept of wahdat-e wujud that Hindus were accepted as disciples of the Sufi masters. Some Hindus could even become masters themselves, while locally, interesting arrangements were made between Muslims and Hindus, as in Sehwan Sharif. Although the details are not really known, it can be assumed that these were alliances between the dominant families of the place concerned.

Given the rigidification of religious identities – Islamic in Pakistan and Hindu in India – it has been observed that the relationship between Hindu Sindhis and Sufism has evolved differently in different political and religious contexts. In India, this relationship took refuge in the masterful work of Shah Abd al-latif, the Shah jo Rasalo. In Pakistan, new accommodations were invented, such as the notion of the Hindu dargah. The verse of Shah Abdul Latif that Virmani and Vipul placed on the back cover of their book highlights the fascination the poet still conveys:

I saw myself

I was the Beloved

I made this world

I myself seek it       

At the beginning of the 1990s, when I started to conduct fieldwork in Sindh, I was immediately fascinated by the richness and variety of the territory ethnologically. But what surprised me most, when comparing Sindh with neighboring provinces such as Punjab, Rajasthan or Gujarat, was the lack of interest that researchers had shown in this subject. So I plunged with delight into this cultural milieu, beginning a process of never-ending discoveries. My work would not have been possible without the support of many Sindhis, and the irreplaceable welcome I have always received from the population. Over the years, I consider that my Sindhi friends, in Pakistan, India and elsewhere, have become part of my family. It is a great pride for me to have very modestly contributed to the development of Sindhi studies in Western Europe.

01-Saaz-Aggarwal-Book-Title[Excerpted with permission from Sindhi Tapestry: an anthology of reflections on the Sindhi identity

Edited & Curated by Saaz Aggarwal]


Courtesy: Sindhi Samachar (Received through email)








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