Bismillaah ir Rahmaan ir Rahiim
In the name of Allah, The Merciful, The Compassionate
The Purpose of Life
By Fleur Nassery Bonnin
In this next article in our series, we get to the heart of the matter of our spiritual reality and our purpose for being here in this world. We will draw on a quote from a Zoroastrian text made available to us by Henry Corbin, a poem from Moulana Rumi and a short story from Sheikh Suhravardi, each of whom in different ways deliver us the same timeless truth and call us to pay heed and respond. The spiritual reality of life sharply contrasts with our ordinary perceptions and cultural conditioning precisely because it encompasses and transcends them, and unless we let go of our familiarity with our smaller perception of worldly life we cannot know the larger spiritual reality.
We begin with Corbin introducing a Zoroastrian text. Zoroastrianism, sometimes referred to as Mazdaism, is one of the oldest continuous religions in the world and was once widespread in ancient Persia. It is a monotheistic religion based on the teachings of Zoroaster (Zarathustra, often referred to as a Prophet) and refers to the Creator and Ruling God as Ahura Mazda (Ohrmazd), the Lord of Wisdom.
The Zoroastrian text below reminds us that first and foremost we are spiritual beings on an earthly journey, and that this earthly journey has a fundamental and immutable purpose which is given shape and orientation by the realities of our Origin and our nature. Corbin has gone into details about how that takes place in his many books which we cannot go into at this point, instead we will start with the opening pages of his book "Cyclical Time and Ismaili Gnosis".
A little manual of Mazdean doctrine, written in Pahlavi (an old Persian language) and dated around the fourth century, contains a number of questions which everyone over the age of fifteen was supposed to know the answers to.
The questions are: "Who am I and to whom do I belong? Whence have I come and whither am I returning? What is my lineage and what is my race? What is my proper calling in earthly existence? … Did I come from the celestial world, or is it in the earthly world that I began to be? Do I belong to Ohrmazd (Lord Wisdom) or to Ahriman? To the angels or the demons?"
And here are the answers:
I came from the celestial world (menok), it is not in the terrestrial world (getik) that I began to be. I was originally manifested in the spiritual state, my original state is not the terrestrial state. I belong to Ohrmazd (Ahura Mazda, the Lord Wisdom), not to Ahriman (the Spirit of Evil and of Darkness); I belong to the angels, not to the demons. … I am the creature of Ohrmazd, not the creature of Ahriman. I hold my lineage and my race from Gayomart (primordial Man, Anthropos). My mother is Spandarmat (Angel of the Earth), my father is Ohrmazd. … The accomplishment of my vocation consists in this: to think of Ohrmazd as present Existence (hasti), which has always existed and will always exist (hame-bavetih). To think of him as Immortal Sovereignty, as Unlimitation and Purity. To think of Ahriman as pure negativity (nisti), exhausting himself in nothingness, as the Evil Spirit who formerly did not exist in this Creation, and who one day will cease to exist in Ohrmazd's creation and who will collapse at the final time. To consider my true self as belonging to Ohrmazd and the Archangels (Corbin, Manheim & Morris, 1983).
Approximately nine hundred years later Moulana Rumi, who is very well known and widely read in the West said:
Days and nights my thoughts and my questions to myself are
Why am I unaware of the reality of my state
Where did I come from and what is the purpose of my coming here?
Where am I going to, guide me to my homeland
I am hard felt in wondering, for what purpose I was made
Or what was His intention in the way I am made
I am the bird belonging to the garden of angels, I do not belong to the earthy world
They have made a cage out of my body for a few days in here.
It is sad to see that now, nearly eight hundred years later from the time of Rumi, we still do not ask those questions in order to find out what the purpose of this journey has been and what we were to do and become in this life.
It is interesting (and more revealing after you continue reading the story of the peacock further down), that Rumi is known to be the most read poet in the West and yet people tend to stay on the surface of his writing, in the level of what is familiar and do not go deeper so that those important and hard questions would be avoided, so that one does not need to get out of the comfort of what is familiar. Therefore, what better way of making the comfort of familiarity their reality! It reminds me of the saying which goes "don't let the truth get in the way of an interesting story".
Rumi had asked the hard questions and had done the hard work and his life proves it. Whilst most of us will not travel the distance he did following the truth against the seeming reality of familiarities including the status of his life at the time, but let's not forget that he lives on and on and keeps holding the torch for others who are lost and for the ones who want to find their way back to their homeland.
What better way to bring together these themes than hearing from the Sufi master whom Corbin referred to as "My Sheikh", in spite of eight centuries distance between them, Sheikh Shihabuddin Suhravardi (d. 1191) known as the Master of Illumination, through whom Corbin was led to his transformation.
Suhravardi wrote extensively and his works include many highly mystical texts which we cannot go into here. However he also wrote small and deceptively simple fables for his readers that contain secrets hiding in plain sight because they are dressed down in the everyday language of a story. In the following short story many themes mentioned above occur, but perhaps most potently and tantalisingly we see verified the teaching from the Gospel
"Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." (John 3:3)
Suhravardi’s tale of the King’s Peacock Under the Basket
A king had a garden, which in all four seasons was never without fragrant herbs, greenery and pleasant spots. Water flowed abundantly through it, and all kinds of birds sang from the branches of the trees. Every good and beautiful thing that could be imagined was found in that garden. And among those things dwelt a group of gorgeous peacocks.
Once the king took one of the peacocks and ordered it sewn up in a leather skin so that its plumage could not be seen and so that it would not be able to contemplate its own beauty through any amount of effort. He also ordered the peacock to be placed under a basket that had only one hole, through which a bit of grain could be poured for its nourishment.
A long time passed. The peacock forgot itself, the king, the garden, and the other peacocks. When it looked at itself, it saw nothing except the filthy dark leather skin. The miserable bird saw nothing else. It gradually grew fond of its dark, rough dwelling; and believed in its heart that there could be no place greater than its space inside the basket, so much so that it held as an article of faith that if anyone were to claim a life, habitation or perfection beyond the one it knew, it would be absolute nonsense, pure ignorance and infidelity.
Nonetheless, whenever a refreshing breeze blew and the fragrance of the flowers and trees, the violets, jasmine and herbs reached the bird through the hole, it experienced surprising delight. A consternation manifested itself within it, and it had a desire for flight and an inner yearning, yet it did not know from where the yearning came because, other than the leather skin, it knew no clothing; other than the basket, no world; other than the grain, no food. It had forgotten everything. When occasionally it heard the peacocks' voices and songs and other birds' tunes, its yearning and desire were stirred; but it was not awakened by the birds’ voices or the blowing of the breeze.
For a while it pondered what the aromatic breeze could be and from where the beautiful voices came. But it came to no realisation, and took comfort again in the familiar nest.
The peacock's ignorance was due to its having forgotten both itself and its homeland. "Those who have forgotten God, and whom He hath caused to forget their own souls". (Qur'an 59:19)
Every time a breeze or a noise came from the garden, a desire would well up in the peacock without its knowing why.
Perplexed it remained for some time until one day the king ordered the bird released from the basket and leather and brought before him.
When the peacock emerged from its covering, it saw itself in the midst of the garden. As it gazed upon its own plumage and saw the garden and its various flowers, and the atmosphere of the world, the chance to walk about and fly, and all the sounds, tunes, shapes and varieties of things, for a while it stayed in a state of trance sighing with regret.
"Alas! for that I have been negligent in my duty to God."(39:56); "but now We have removed from you your veil, so your sight today is sharp"(50:22); "Why, then, when [the last breath] comes up to the throat [of a dying man], the while you are [helplessly] looking on - and while We are closer to him than you, you see [Us] not."(56:83-85); "But nay, ye soon shall know [the reality]. Again ye soon shall know!"(102:3)
With this article we will bid goodbye to Corbin for now, and will turn to the teachings of Moulana Rumi through his celebrated books of Masnavi as of the next article.
Corbin, H., Manheim, R. and Morris, J., 1983. Cyclical Time & Ismaili Gnosis. London: Kegan Paul International in association with Islamic Publications.