Sufis are mystics rooted in Islamic spiritual traditions; they emphasize the religious experience over religious orthodoxy and legal interpretations. The word Sufi comes from the Arabic word Suf, meaning coarse wool garments, since this is what they traditionally wore.
By the time we left Bahram Ghat, the sun was already settling down in the west after the day’s hard work, and showing its happiness by entertaining us with various shades of red. Every now and then we saw cluster of gulmohar trees along the roadside in full bloom. The flamboyance exhibited by red-orange flowers beautifully challenged, yet complemented, the sun’s colors. By the time we reached the Sufi festival, the stars had already appeared in the dark, moonless sky - the North Star was leading a caravan of flickering lights from heavenly stars. In my teenage bewitched imagination, I was jumping from star to star in a hypnotic trance, when the sudden brakes and a voice saying that we have reached the festival broke the spell.
I couldn’t believe my eyes; people of all sizes and shapes, Hindus and Muslims alike, were joined in strange ritual of oneness. They were walking on burning coals as if they were walking on the bed of rose petals. Hatred and division were lost in eclectic dances of universal brotherhood. What I know, having seen it even at a young age, is that the demons of history are buried skin deep in India, a slight scratch of a rumor like Muslims killing cows or Hindus throwing dead pig in front of a mosque, and dance of death starts. Often, religious extremists from one faith discriminated against the other and refused to mix. So, this was an extremely different experience for me – I was mesmerized by the different expression of faith, beautiful beyond belief. The image of religious Hindus and Muslims walking on burning coals with spasmodic flames conjured images of dancing Shivas smeared with ash metamorphosing into even higher Gods.
Amma showed me the beauty of humanity not by quoting scriptures, but by sending me to a place where I could see the breaking of the illusion of separation. She showed me that God is bigger than religion. Whenever I think of that festival, I recall the following couplet by Indian poet, Mirza Ghalib:
Ever since thy oneness I perceived
Rituals and creeds, I do not need
All things that divide from my faith
Ever since I saw thine oneness face
In order to create a casteless and raceless society, the tenth Guru of Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh Ji, pronounced, ”Manas Kee Jaat Eko Pehchanbo” meaning that all human beings belong to same caste and race. The scene I saw at the festival would have put a great smile on his face. Everybody over there was simply a member of human race without any affiliation to caste and creed.
As I think about my experience at the festival, questions about the significance and symbolism behind walking on fire emerges. In my opinion, it tells us that the attachment to suffering is like walking on fire, but in the state of non attachment and acceptance, just as walking on burning coals does not hurt, the pain instead of producing suffering flips into acceptance, and perhaps even joy. While failures, illness, and pain in life are inevitable, we have the power of how to react and experience them. This point is made in a beautiful Sufi parable. A famous Sufi mystic was carrying a portable wood oven and she came across a very curious man. He asked her where was she coming from. She said that she wanted to bake some bread and there was no fire at home, so she had gone to hell to get some fire. The man responded, “But, I do not see any fire.” The mystic said, “You are right. I was sent back by the gatekeeper since he told me that there is no fire in hell; everybody brings his/her own fire.”
The thought and the lesson that pain in life is inevitable but suffering is optional reminds me of a beautiful poem by Wu Men Hui Kai:
Ten thousand flowers in spring,
The moon in autumn,
A cool breeze in summer,
Snow in winter,
If your mind is not clouded by unnecessary things,
This is the best season of your life.