Author: Late Ahmed G. Chagla - Clifton, Karachi (October 1934)



     Ghalib's poetry is considered to be the apotheosis of Muslim culture in India.  His works are the natural culmination of the constantly evolving thought, language, and style of the long line of Indian Muslim poets, from Amir Khusro, in the early years of Muslim rule, to Ghalib, in the very last reign of the Moghuls.  Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib was a contemporary and, for a time, the court-poet of BahadurShah, the last Moghul Emperor.  After the terrible days of the Mutiny and the deportation of BahadurShah, he lived a life of many vicissitudes and passed away at Delhi on 15th February 1869 at the ripe age of seventy-three years.

     The period preceding Ghalib's time was the epoch of formalism in Indian Muslim cultural expression.  The poets immediately preceding Ghalib, as indeed, some of his contemporaries, strove to perfect the art of expression in delicate language.  But their thought remained, on the whole, formal.  It was left to Ghalib to strike out a new path, both in expression and thought, though still within formal and well defined limits of the forms of Persian poetry.  He wrote both in Persian and Urdu.  He himself valued his Persian works more highly, but in recent times his Urdu works have attained a place of eminence in the estimation of scholars, probably unattained by the works of any other poet writing in Urdu.

     Ghalib appeals equally to the philosopher, the mystic, and the artist.  He is the only poet of modern Hindustan to have inspired an artist of first rank to interpret some aspects of Ghalib's thought in symbolical paintings of outstanding merit.  Abdul Rehman Chughtai's illustrated edition of Ghalib, with a preface by Dr. James H. Cousins and an introduction by Dr. Sir Muhammad Iqbal, is a unique creation in the annals of Indian art. It has rightly attained a place of honour and esteem in many a cultured Indian family.

     Ghalib's Urdu works were first "discovered" by scholars less than fifty years ago.  One enthusiastic and learned commentator was so impressed with the intrinsic merit of Ghalib's thought, that he wrote: "The inspired books of India are two - the sacred Vedas and the Works of Ghalib."  Certain it is that his works have had, and continue to have, a vital influence on the intellectual life of modern Hindustan.

     It is difficult to understand how Ghalib attained the high level of thought, leading the kind of life he did.  His eminent biographer, the great Maulana Hali, records that every night Ghalib used to get drunk on "French" wine missed with rose-water.  But he never took more than a certain measure.  The wine-bottle was kept locked up in a box, the key being in the charge of a trusted servant.  This faithful retainer had definite instructions to refuse to give his master more than the usual quantity, even if demanded!  When in a state of semi-intoxication, ideas would flit through his mind.  Whenever a fresh thought came, Ghalib would tie a knot in his cummerbund (waist-cord).  That was all.  When he woke up in the morning, sometimes there would be as many as eight to ten knots.  Maulana Hali, who knew Ghalib intimately, records that these knots were sufficient to revive the memory of the original thoughts of the night before, however varied, and usually Ghalib succeeded in giving definite shape and form to many such flitting ideas.  Could it be that he really was inspired?  He himself says, concerning his thought:

"What problems in Mysticism! How very well expressed!

O Ghalib! We should have taken you for a saint,

had you not been a wine-bibber!"

True it is that he was great inspite of his weaknesses.  Could he have been greater without them?  Who knows!

     There are many aspects of Ghalib's thought and expression.  Only one aspect is briefly touched upon in this short article, mainly with a view to interest those unacquainted with his original works in Persian and Urdu.  In life and thought, Ghalib was a non-conformist.  He was also an iconoclast.  At the same time his attitude towards life was definite and positive.  Unlike Omar Khayyam, he was not content to rest having proved the negation of life.  Perhaps the fundamental basis of Ghalib's thought was his conception of the Great Reality, call it God or what you will.  To Ghalib this Reality was a Unity and not a unit.  According to Ghalib everything exists in God: He is not an external Agency.  He expresses this fundamental conception in beautifully simple couplet, which, freely rendered, means:


 "When nothing was, God was - Had nothing been, God would have been;

(Verily) it is my being which has been my undoing;

If I had been not "I", what else could I have been


This is the reading suggested by Maulana Hali.  The more usual reading of the last line is: "Oh! That I had not been at all!"  The implication, of course, is that if "I" had not been "I", then "I" would have been "God", because if "nothing" (else) had been, (only) God would (surely) have been.  This same thought stressing the fundamental Unity of Life, is expressed in a couplet in another ghazal thus:

 "Who should be able to see HIM? - He is One and One Alone;

Meeting Him somewhere would have been possible, had there

been even the odour of duality (which in actuality does not exist)"

 All the same, Ghalib fully realized that this Mystery of Life is difficult of comprehension by the human mind.  What the human mind is capable of comprehension is the reflection of Reality.  This idea is akin to the Hindu concept of Maya.  At one place Ghalib expresses it in a way reminiscent of Hamlet's conversation with the pedantic Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, when the Prince speaks of our "ambitions" being "dreams" and hence "shadows of shadows" since dreams in themselves are but "shadows".  Ghalib says:

 "That which you take for clear evidence of Reality) is,

in truth, the Mystery of Mysteries; (therefore)

Those who (imagine they) are awake in a dream, are

(as a matter of fact) still dreaming!"

 Nevertheless, as has been said, his attitude towards life is positive.  He insists, like Shakespeare's Julius Caesar that, "the fault, dear Brutus, lies in ourselves".  We are incapable  of the true recognition of Reality, because of our own limitations: limitations which are, perhaps, inherent in the very state of manifested existence.  He says:

"It is you (O Man!) who are unaware of the Melodies of Mystery (of Life)  Each inexplicable thing (around you) is (like) the fret of a Musical Instrument"

     To enable one to hear this hidden Melody of Life, Ghalib stresses the need for correct attitude towards the basic principles underlying life n its widest sense.  Conventional belief is, to him, a sin against Life and an impediment to its true comprehension.  He says:

 "Steadfast fidelity is the very essence of Faith;

(Therefore) if the (idol-worshipping) Brahmin (who has faithfully spent his entire life and finally) dies in the idol-house, (you may rightly) bury him in (the holy precincts of) the Ka'aba"

     Nothing could be more emphatic in Muslim terminology and for a Muslim.  The "Ka'aba" at Mecca, is "the House of God", the Holy of Holies.  Ka'aba is the very negation of idolatry.  And yet, according to Ghalib, the idol-worshipper by his lifelong devotion to idol-worship has obtained the very essence or root of Faith; he has risen to the rank of a True Believer.  At another place he takes this thought to its logical conclusion and says:


"Devotion (in itself) is of value, and not (devotion)

in the hope of obtaining sparkling wine (said to be the reward of the Faithful in Paradise);

(That being so) let someone take Paradise and throw it into Hell-fire (and thus destroy it)"

     Ghalib means that true devotion is that which transcends the desire for reward, either here or hereafter.  Such a desire is in itself temptation, which must first be removed from the way.  To Ghalib, the very idea of reward for good action is pernicious in the extreme;  it must be destroyed before progress of the  soul is possible.  Sri Krishna taught the hesitant Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra: "Thy business is with action, not with the fruits of action."

     Desire pertains to the life of the "separated self", which is the only "idol" worth destroying.  He says:

 "However easy and elated one may feel after having destroyed (external) idols; So long as "I" remains, there is yet a heavy stone lying across the path (which needs must be removed)"

     Unity of life being the fundamental of his thought, it is not difficult to appreciate Ghalib's philosophy that:

 "The bliss of a drop (of water) is in being annihilated in the Ocean;

When pain becomes boundless, it becomes its own remedy!"

     This last statement presents another aspect of Ghalib's thought that pain, sorrow, and suffering are essential experiences and necessary steps that lead the individual from "the unreal to the Real, from darkness to Light, from death to Immortality."