Kamla K. Kapur is a critically acclaimed author, playwright and poet. She is the author of Ganesha Goes to Lunch, Rumi’s Tales from the Silk Road, and The Singing Guru.
Having studied Rumi for 20 years, Kamla’s books reimagine myths and stories from various traditions of the East. In her most recent book, Rumi: Tales of the Spirit, Kamla eloquently translates the beauty and depth of Rumi’s teachings into simple wisdom to guide our complex lives.
BJB: “Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi was a 13th century Persian poet, storyteller, an Islamic dervish and a Sufi mystic. He is regarded as one of the greatest spiritual masters and poetical intellects. Born in 1207 AD, he made use of everyday life’s circumstances to describe the spiritual world.” One of Rumi’s great legacies was his articulation of a “religion of love.” He wrote, “Since we worship the one God/ then all religions must be one.” How does Rumi: Tales of the Spirit speak to the possibility of an all-encompassing “religion of love” emerging during this time of societal separation?
KK: Rumi stresses a non-dual perception of the world. What this means is encapsulated in one of his remarkable stories.
Briefly, a guru sends his disciple into the next room to fetch the glass bottle sitting on the table. The disciple returns empty handed and asks his guru: which of the two bottles do you want me to fetch? The guru replies, there is only one bottle. No, insists the disciple, there are two. Break one of the bottles, the guru instructs. The disciple does so, and is flabbergasted to see no bottle remains.
We humans, like the disciple, tend to see our lives, experience, the world, as dual — as two. In the social and political scenes this translates into us vs them, I vs it: Democrat and Republican, Christian and Muslim, this and that, outward and inward, life and death, happiness and sorrow, black and white.
We see two bottles and cannot see that our seeing is false and flawed.
We are too focused on form, appearance, which Rumi calls shadows. To this extent our senses, that show us the division between things, delude us, all our Spirit Guides say, into living a life of disconnection and alienation. We cannot see the truth because, as Rumi would say, ‘hair has grown in the eyes of our hearts.’ It is this obscuring of vision that exiles us from the reality in which we are all intimately connected.
In focusing on two we forget the One that the two are a part of.
Yin Yang, as the Chinese would say. Conflict, duality, two-ness, contradictions are contained in the One which is like a vast amniotic sac that contains us all. Focus, Rumi says, not on the dualities, pleasure, pain, loss, gain but on the One that generates and contains both.
In the social and political context this means black, white, brown, purple, yellow, gay, lesbian, transgender, intergender, no gender, slim, fat, beautiful, ugly people are all one, made of the same stuff — all deserving of love, compassion, equal rights.
To see the Unity of all people on the planet we need only remember that everything that exists, from the tiniest of creatures, plants, all things in nature, planets, stars, galaxies are made of the same stuff: subatomic particles, electrons, neutrons, quarks, leptons; atoms, molecules. Everything is made up of the same building blocks, which means that the whole universe is one large family, consanguine and connected to each other in ways we cannot even imagine.
We are a part of the all, and the all is a part of us.
We have lost the ability to see an issue from anything but our own point of view; to be sympathetic; to see the issue from a perspective that takes both into account, the people we love and the people we hate. A wonderful cartoon in The New Yorker made me laugh out loud this week: a couple in wedding garbs taking the oath, and the minister asks them, “do you promise to hate the people I hate?”
To be disciples of the “Religion of Love,” we have to teach ourselves to listen and learn to see through the eyes of our visionaries. They are the lighthouses in our storm-tossed lives to take us home. We don’t have to go far to find guidance. The wisdom that can save us individually and as a species, in our own lives and the life of the world is given to us freely.
Our greatest wealth is like air, available to any who seeks it.
Rumi and many of our guides make it very clear that our salvation lies in the surrender of our inferior understanding to the illumined ones. Take their words, he says, and put them like gold earrings in your ear.
It is our deepest and highest responsibility as humans, sapiens, to endeavor to change our petty perspectives, challenge, change, and expand them. Discipline, study, self-examination, reflection, following in the footprints of our Guides, to whatever extent, is not a choice but an imperative if we are to evolve into the best we can be by taking full responsibility for our lives that have been given to us as a supreme gift.
To embark on the “Religion of Love,” the love that extends not only to our near and dear ones and people who hold the same opinions on matters as we do, but to those who are so very different from what we think the norm ought to be, we humans must focus on the One of which we are all are parts and which we are all connected.
True, it is not easy to love people who oppose the very principles we live for — inclusion, rather than exclusion, expansion rather than contraction, love and trust instead of hate, mistrust, and fear. But not all is doom and gloom even in our times. I read a news item yesterday that was very heartening and showed the way.
A woman in Starbuck’s struck out at Victor, a man in a MAGA hat, calling him a fascist, a Nazi, and a brown people hater. Her employer fired her, saying they do not condone hate speech of any kind. His words were very telling and timely: “expressing what you believe is not the problem; attacking people for what they believe is the problem.” Victor, for his part, expressed sympathy for his hater and said he felt bad she had lost her job. Who would have thought a man in a MAGA hat had a heart? It is people like these, from both sides of the battlefield, which show us the way towards a “Religion of Love.”
I am not naïve enough to think my attitude will change America and the world. We are in the fight and the fight is in us. But my attitude has helped me to change myself. This change does not mean I am going to concede to the values I find alien to myself and destructive of the world I envision and cannot help but hope for — a world where conflicts can be resolved through communication and dialogue rather than blind reactions. And all of us, liberals or conservatives, progressive and reactionaries, if we look honestly within ourselves, are guilty of being prisoners of our prejudices.
The “Religion of Love” can only find disciples one individual at a time.
BJB: You write, “Rumi emphasizes that all suffering is a gift. Its redemptive purpose is to turn us toward the Light and Love of that suprasensuous and unseen energy, ubiquitous in and around us.” There is ample suffering in the world, largely due to our inability to be with our own pain. We are conditioned to run from it or ignore it. How does the spiritual wisdom of Rumi shed light on, “The water of life is hidden in the land of darkness?”
KK: We are altogether too modern to understand or desire suffering the way the Sufis and mystics of all time embraced and rejoiced in. Our goal is to avoid it at all costs, whether through pursuit of pleasure, pharmaceuticals, alcohol, empty distractions, social media, or unquestioning faith in science’s ability to cure all disease, mental and physical. Many of us turn to religion and spirituality for the same reason — to circumvent if not extirpate suffering.
But suffering, or what we call ‘stress,’ and ‘anxiety,’ Maulana Rumi advised almost eight hundred years ago, cannot be expunged. ‘Pains are messengers. Do not turn away, foolish ones!’ Rumi, together with other Guides from all religious traditions, gives us a perch from which to view adversity, a perspective that helps us to take every advantage of it, see it in a light that makes it life-affirming instead of life-denying.
From this perch we can see how our vicissitudes are the very fuel for a series of transformations in our journey to healing, wholeness, and the acme of all our desiring:
In his late thirties Rumi met Shams, a ragged, wandering mystic in his sixties, and the meeting catalyzed him into a vision of the universe as experienced through the eyes of love. Shams kindled in him the One Love, undifferentiated between human and divine. Shams’ death a few years later delivered the transformative wound from which grew the Mathnawi, 25,700 verses in six volumes that continues to guide humankind all over the globe. It is a testament to the life and love-bestowing function of adversity.
Rumi’s faith in suffering as a necessary experience is everywhere present in his stories. His characters are enlightened by their trials.
BJB: What is a practical manner in which we can integrate Rumi’s teaching into our daily lives?
KK: The table of contents in my first book on Rumi, Rumi’s Tales from the Silk Road organizes Rumi’s stories into 8 categories, all of which are necessary for our well-being.
My latest book, Rumi: Tales of the Spirit, contains my commentaries detailing how we can apply some of the following in our daily living.
EMBRACE SUFFERING. It is healthy and transformational, as shown in his stories.
PRAY. Prayer is a hotline to the all-powerful cosmic forces which live within us as our own higher selves. Pray without reservation or doubt. We do have recourse when we are confused and lost. Prayer makes us open to receive help and guidance.
BE CONTENT. It does not mean to stop striving, but to be content with everything that is happening, has happened in the arc of our destinies. Without contentment we are never satisfied. It gives us peace, releases energies tied up in the knots of discontent so we can live better and fuller.
TRUST SPIRITUAL MASTERS. In one of Rumi’s delightful stories, reimagined in Rumi’s Tales from the Silk Road, an arrogant mouse picks up the leading rope of a camel and leads him to impress his peers back home. They come to a swift river and the mouse finds himself helpless and on the verge of drowning. The camel says to the mouse: “Next time do not rely on your own lion-heartedness but trust in those who can see further than you.” On the camel’s advice he hops on his hump and is carried safely ashore. Rumi speaks in parables. The camel, like so many other animals in his stories, is a prophet. All guides and gurus can save us when we are on the verge of drowning. All guides from all traditions perform this function in the shared human experience of sorrow and loss. “Prophets,” says Rumi, “are like one single being. If you refuse one of them, you refuse all the others.”
TAME YOUR EGO. It is our ego in its striving to affirm itself that keeps us from seeing the unity of all on Earth; it is the cause of all our suffering.
BE HUMBLE. Without humility, which is basically the attitude of “I don’t know,” we are incapable of learning.
SURRENDER TO THE COSMIC WILL. By surrendering that which we cannot change by our own efforts alone to the Cosmic Will, we remove our resistances, lose our attachments, and become truly free.
BEFRIEND DEATH. All our fears, problems, anxieties arise from our attachment to ourselves and our lives. It is only by embracing death that we can live fully. When a seed of corn is buried in the earth, Rumi tells us, it rises up as an ear of corn; when the corn is crushed in the mill, its value increases and it becomes bread. When bread is crushed under our teeth, it becomes the mind and spirit. When does anything ever decrease by suffering and dying?
BJB: “Art comes from the heart and, likewise, speaks to the heart; but this asks something of the witness, too, a kind of emotional and spiritual sensitivity with which to receive the generous gift of the artist.” How is Rumi: Tales of the Spirit a gift from your heart?
KK: In Sanskrit there is a word that articulates and demonstrates your question: sahriday. It means of the same heart. Art is only complete when it is seen, witnessed, felt in sahridays, those of the same heart who receive what is offered through the heart with open hands and ears. I hope that my latest book on Rumi finds the audience that resonates with it and receives the gift that I have received from Rumi.
BJB: If you had to choose, what are the main messages you would like readers to take away from these stories?
KK: Trust the Universe. There is a purpose and a meaning to human life that cannot be grasped by our intellects and reason alone.
Introspect. Reflect. Wonder. Don’t use just part of your brain — challenge it to think deeper and wider.
Don’t just use a part of your heart: use more and more of it. Our capacity to know, understand, and love is infinite, as wide as the world itself.
BJB: Having experienced so much on your spiritual journey, what unanswered questions do you have?
KK: I used to question the raw and often brutal nature of life itself and where in the rational scheme of things it fit in. But I have since learned that the rational mind alone is incapable of coming up with answers. It always has to function in conjunction with the heart. The eye of the heart reaffirms life, all of it, the beauty and the terror, and is grateful for every bit of it, not just despite pain and suffering, but somehow because of it.
I strive to remember the Mystery that surrounds and informs me. What I don’t know is a source of wonder for me.