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Jul 2015 - Jan 2016



Basavaraj Naikar’s Light in the House: A Hagiographical Novel

Meenakshi Sundaram

Dept. of English, Post Graduate College, Bundi (Raj)

Light in the House is a commendable effort by the author to document the scattered and uncollected events of the saint’s life. While lesser mortals view the world in parts, Sharif Saheb viewed the world in its entirety.  India has a long history and tradition of sainthood and from times immemorial, people have sought divine intercession, visiting their shrines and making various petitions. A revelation of a shrine and an account of the saint’s miraculous deeds encouraged people to seek divine aid. Successful petitions intensified the people’s faith and the corporal remains of such saints and the surrounding places consequently became sacred places, particular spots where saints in their lifetimes had demonstrated their higher powers and became channels of the Divine Agency.  Through their corporal remains they continue to be living presences long after their exit from the mortal world.  While they augment the sacredness of the space they individually inhabited in their mortal frames, the space itself assumes the power of becoming a concrete link between the seeker and the Sought, the devotee and the saint.

Basavaraj Naikar’s book Light in the House is a hagiographic account of the life of one such saint. It details the life of Sharif Saheb of Shishunala (1819-1889), a saint poet of the stature of Kabir, born to Imam Saheb and his wife Hajjuma of Karnataka, by the grace of Hazaresha Khadari, whose shrine the childless couple visited with the greatest purity of heart and devotion of mind. Despite his Muslim antecedence, the boy Sharif began to take interest in Hindu scriptures from a tender age and mastered the mystic literature of Virasaivism and the Saranas. The book traces the gradual development of the saint from his childhood, through adolescence to a final period of mature wisdom.  In all these stages, the saint exhibits a consistency, comprehending all but inkling particularly towards none. His receptor was the revered Govindabhatta, who took an instant liking to the boy despite stiff opposition from his other Hindu disciples.  With the passage of time, the two, the preceptor and the disciple became inseparable.  Modern prejudices need not be deterrent to the understanding of hagiography, which is fundamentally different from either history or biography.  In the study of the mortal life of a saint, it is not the life of a saint that is of particular interest to succeeding generations, rather it is the ability of the saintly mind to transcend religion, which elevates him in the common man’s view. Sharif Saheb’s sainthood lies, not in the fact that he was a Muslim, who embraced the Saiva Faith, rather it lies in the fact that he transcended religion towering over it like a Titan. Light in the House is a commendable effort by the author to document the scattered and uncollected events of the saint’s life.  Sharif Saheb exhibits equanimity of mind which is illustrative of the fact that he believed in the fundamental unity of all things.  This apparent in almost all his words throughout the text, which reflect one world view made up of several complementary ideas pertaining to several major philosophies. Only the highest mind could have possessed such a comprehensive view of human condition, while lesser mortals view the world in parts.  Sharif Saheb viewed the world in its entirety.  Existence for him was not confined to isolated philosophies; his religion was a higher one, the religion of humanity.  It is precisely this catholicity of view, which places him in the corridors of the greatest.

Sharif Saheb, as he came to be called became a wandering minstrel, as itinerant singer, singing of karma, Omkara and Sunya. His secular bent of mind adheres to no particular philosophy but revels in their fundamental unity.  His songs remind one of the Tiruvachagam or the sacred utterances of the great Tamil poet and seer Manikka Vachagar whose songs are an illustration of the great south Indian system of religion and philosophy called the Saiva Siddhantam. Medieval Indian Literature is best presented by the ecstatic verses of the Sufi saints and the saints of the Bhakti Movement.  Stalwarts of this movement like Kabir and Nanak shunned caste-ism, religious intolerance and the accompanying evils and effected a harmonious bridge between the erstwhile warring groups.

Kabir among others was the best blend of the Sufi and the Bhakti strains as is reflected in his verses.  Sharif Saheb’s songs, like the verses of the saints of those great movements are an effusion of the best and highest philosophies of the time, their transmission coming straight from his heart to the hearts of the listeners.  There is nothing sectarian in these songs which stir up the divine within the listener, elevating his heart to a rare degree of purity:

This is the song of meditation
On Gurugovinda.
This is the song of Omkara Pranava.
This is the song of the Lord
Of Shishunala.
This is the song that dispels
The vices away from you (LH, 45).

It was Sharif Saheb’s conviction that any action done in the name of Allah and Allama was namaz and to this effect he sang:

Let us get the sheep of karma butchered
Chant the guru’s mantra and boil it.
Let us take the consecrated food of awareness
To the mosque wherein resides the lord.
Let us climb the big stairs there
To the mosque of knowledge divine
Wherein resides the Lord of Shishunala (LH. 63).

Sharif Saheb was always accompanied by a disciple by the name of Basappa, who belonged to the community of potters.  The reference to Basappa and the community of potters may not be accidental, for the twelfth century saw an active movement initiated by a Brahmin called Basaveswara, who called for a revolt against the hegemony of Brahmins, despite being a Brahmin himself.

Light in the House is a melting pot of several faiths, a dexterous blend of the Islamic, Saivite and Buddhist ideas.  Govindabhatta, the preceptor puts a question to the young Sharif about his father which elicits the response:

A soul is born countless times and at each birth it has a father.  Thus a man has several fathers. I therefore wish to know which of these fathers you refer to.  Do you want to know my physical father or spiritual father? (LH.37)

Sharif continues in the same vein:

The physical father gives us birth and brings us into the world of mortality and bondage, whereas the spiritual father enlightens our soul, releases us from attachment to the mortal life and gives us spiritual liberation (LH. 37).

According to the Saiva theory, all existence is transformational and Siva is ever ready to retrieve souls from the bondage of matter.  Sharif Saheb was a non-dualist in his philosophy and it is a fact well worth noting that non-dualism merely means that the divine element is so pervasive that it cannot be differentiated from the world.  Non-dualism does not necessarily imply oneness, rather it means inseparability.  The subtle difference between oneness and his mother regarding the nature of his relationship to Govindabhatta:

I am the wife, this is my husband. Our souls are married spiritually (LH. 107).

While Sharif Saheb does not deny the misery of the human condition he affirms the idea that slipping down into the mortal world, meaning giving into the baser self is relatively easy, but hoisting oneself up again is possible only when one has the right values in life and when one craves for divine grace:

But Shiva is full of grace and is waiting through successive aeons to receive the recognition of the soul and his adoring lovers.  A personal tie binds the soul to God.  The grace of God is the road to freedom. It demands childlike trust in Shiva.

Sharif cannot bear separation from his Govinda Gurunatha. On his part the guru too craves the company of his disciple.  The bond between them is inexplicable to their own selves and bewildering to others. Sahrif is so immersed in the devoted service of his guru that he has no thoughts of anything else.  The light of knowledge that he is in quest of is to be found only in the sanctuary offered to him by his guru.  He tells his mother:

I shall therefore go into his spiritual gymnasium where I shall burn to ashes the taint of mortality and live in the service of Lord Shiva. I shall follow that path from which there is no return (LH.54).

In his well-known work, The Dance of Shiva, Ananda Coomaraswamy says:

Where and what is the burning ground? It is not the place where our earthly bodies are cremated, but the hearts of his lovers, laid waste and desolate. The place where the ego is destroyed signifies the state where illusion and deeds are burnt away; that his crematorium, the burning ground where Sri Nataraja dances, and where He is named Sudalaiyadi, Dancer of the burning ground.

Shiva is the supreme reality in Shiva thought, the beginning-less, causeless, flawless Doer and Knower of all things, freeing individual souls from the sea of bondage. Shiva is Sacchidananda, embodying the eight attributes of self-existence.  Shakti is his instrumental cause and he operates through her.  The Saundarya Lahari or the Waves of Beauty, a famous literary work in Sanskrit, is traditionally ascribed to Adi Shankaracharya.  Part I of Saundarya Lahari begins with the affirmation:

Shaiva Shaktya yukto yadi bhavati shakta prabhavitam na chedevam devo na khalu kushalaha spanditumapi.  (Shiva is enabled to create only when He is united with Shakti; without her, he cannot move an inch (Translation mine).

This metaphor runs throughout the powerful statements made by the saint in all his daily transactions. Another equally powerful metaphor which occurs consistently in Sharif Saheb’s words is that of the body as a temple of the Living God.  This view is subscribed to by almost all the major religions of the world.

Shiva is often referred to as Pasupati, a name of Rudra-Shiva in the Atharvaveda meaning the Lord of Cattle. The name has also been interpreted as the “Lord of Creatures”.  He is the lord of numberless souls who are like cattle.  He is the potter, the individual souls, his clay.  Notwithstanding the Saiva elements, Sharif Saheb’s simple statements have an inextricable train of Buddhist thought embedded in it although he does not profess to be a Buddhist. This precisely is the charm of this unassuming and endearing saint.  He professes no single faith, yet he spouts the best ideas of all.  Although Saivism was in many ways opposed to Buddhism, there are several points of similarity between the basic ideas of Hinduism and the Buddhist stand.  Both strive for salvation of the individual, which results in the cessation of the cycle of innumerable births and deaths, the difference being that Hinduism talks of the expansion of the self to its fullest degree and Buddhism believes in the complete dissolution of the self. This is the Buddhist theory of Anatta or non-self.  In Hindu thought, the expansion of the self to the fullest degree ends in its final union with the Universal self. In the Buddhist theory there is no expansion to its fullest height, rather there is a contraction of the self to its lowest degree wherein dissolution and non-existence become possible.  This is nirvana. This idea is reflected in Govindabhatta’s words, “One should abolish the ‘I’…” (LH, 155). A considerable portion of the text is tempered with Buddhist thought. Paradoxical though it may sound, in the Buddhist way of life, one rather strives to shrink and in that shrinking lies the reward of being freed from the endless tangle of births and deaths. Rather than the idea of becoming fulfilled, there is in Buddhism, the idea of emptying, in place of merging, there is the idea of withdrawing to a level where one becomes conscious only of emptiness, the Shunya referred to in Sharif Saheb’s song (LH, 45). Becoming one with the great emptiness simply means that the imprints and impressions of earlier states of existence which the Hindus call samskaras and which the Buddha referred to as sankharas, have been wiped out sufficiently to result in a cessation, a Nirvana. Anatta is thus the Buddhist theory of non-self, a negation of the idea of self.

This draining oneself of the idea of self, the complete emptying is captured beautifully in the book. Sharif Saheb’s preceptor, Govindabhatta is nearing his end, meaning the end of his mortal existence and undergoes an agitated spell of vomiting.  Sharif Saheb refers to this as the guru’s prasada and gratefully cups his palms to receive it.  Seeing that none of the other disciples wish to have anything to do with the disgusting stuff, Govindabhatta weakly tells Sharif to throw it away in a place which nobody treads:

“Which is the place on which nobody treads?  Where shall I throw this phlegm on the earth, into the water or into the sky?  Even if I threw it into one of these places, it is trod by some human beings or birds or worms or beasts, which might be the place, which is not trod by anybody? O now I understand. Now I understand.  My spiritual father has granted me everything.  I shall throw it into a place where nobody can desecrate it.” Then Sharif Saheb suddenly quaffed it (LH, 156).

One longstanding argument against the Buddhist theory of Anatta or non-self has been that if Buddha’s silence on the question of self is to be understood as there being no self, what or who can be said to experience the karma and what or who takes rebirth? Herein lies the solution to the riddle by Buddha’s thought.  The self in Buddhist Thought is an error of human judgment, a superimposition by the conscious, thinking mind of something which has no substance.  It is a vanity which leads to the forging of inextricable bonds. What is true is that in the course of a series of births and deaths, all that is residual is merely an amalgam of impressions which contracts itself and frees itself from all bonds and having fully reduced itself to a point where it has no attachments and no affinities, not even the consciousness of a name or a form annihilates itself. It is an expression of this philosophy that Naikar brings out in Sharif’s words, “my soul defies any kind of naming” (LH, 129).

Existence in both Hinduism and Buddhism is transformational.  The scene of Sharif’s own exit from the world is strongly reminiscent of the Buddha’s Mahaparinirvana or the great passing.  Sharif Saheb tells his disciples: “You have a big bundle with you.  Please give it away to me” (LH, 166).

 In his discourse known as ‘Bhara Sutta’ meaning burden, Buddha spoke of the five aggregates namely form, meaning, perception, fabrication and consciousness which were burdens carried by human beings: “A burden indeed are the five aggregates and the carrier of the burden is the person. Taking up the burden in the world is stressful.  Casting off the burden is bliss” (Bhara Sutta) Sharif’s warning to a young man called Fakirappa who desires to enjoy the pleasures of worldly life reflect the Buddhist thought and the Buddha’s concept of life as all or sorrow:

“Then note down, young man.  After marriage, you will have four daughters totally.  When the first daughter attains sixteen years of age, you will marry her off to a young man of Malligavada village.  She will fall a prey to evil habits.  She will commit suicide on a New Moon Day and bring you deep sorrow.  You will marry off your second daughter to a man in Rottigavada village. She also will go astray and bring deep sorrow to you. The other two daughters will be born blind in course of time and have your leg broken and suffer limitlessly.  Finally you will die of starvation.  This is the chart of your further life.  Now tell me, young man, do you want to get married even after knowing your future? (LH, 149)

Naikar’s book offers food for thought.  Written in the form of a novel, this hagiographic work avoids any intellectual discussion of philosophy.  Although it is a serious and scholarly study the text is streamlined to cater to the lay individual.  The working of miracles by the saint takes on the garb of a highly intuitive mind in constant communion with the powers that be.  Added to this is the rare charm of the saint’s songs which makes the work extremely readable and a rewarding experience.  It is an effort to shape the record of the past keeping in mind contemporary goals.  The past thus offers a hope to the turbulence of the present. Legends pertaining to saints function as established paradigms for human behaviour in the present time.  The idea of universal brotherhood, so central to human peace and prosperity is not such a distant thought after all if one would only look within and adopt an attitude of self-abnegation.  In this age of dissonance and discord, the book opens a fresh pathway for true seekers after knowledge.  Simplicity, clarity, symbolism and allegory jostle with one another in Naikar’s work.  Light in the House has an edge over other works of this genre in that it is an effort to promote the higher values of life.  Unlike other authors of Western hagiographic writings who have at times felt the need to tactfully alter the past in order to accommodate an established contemporary view, Naikar’s book is an objective description of a saint without the embroilment of ideologies. Nowhere does it appear that the past has been constructed, in fact the text has very little to do with the particular historical period it deals with.  Just as the saint has transcended religion, the text has transcended the temporal. Naikar has winnowed the grain from the accompanying chaff and presented only the salient, meticulously doing away with all that is superfluous.  Sharif Saheb is a unified presence in a divided world.

The book is also a reflection of the Jaina theory of Anekantawada.  Anekantawada comes from the root word Anaya, which means that a particular statement is made from a particular position and so it cannot be exhaustive.  This theory, applied to Light in the House has several important implications.



Works Cited

Naikar, Basavaraj, Light in the House, Delhi: Authors Press, 2009, p.168 (abbreviated as LH).
Radhakrishnan, S. Indian Philosophy, New York: Macmillan, 1930, p.728.
Coomaraswamy, Ananda, The Dance of Shiva, New York: Sunwise Turn Inc, 1918, p.61.
Mishra, Prabhudayal, Saundarya Lahari: Tantra Drishti Aur Saundarya Shrishti, Varanasi: Vishvavidyalaya Prakashan, 2007, p.1.
Bhara Sutta: The Burden (SN), Trans. From the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikku. Access to Insight, June 8, 2010, http//