Were the poet Rumi and Shams gay lovers? (or was it simply Bhakti love?)

Via on Aug 8, 2011

In a recent article here on Elephant, Yogijulian writes that Rumi, the 12th century ecstatic poet and mystic, was probably murdered because he was gay.

I have heard it suggested by some scholars and writers, including Coleman Barks, that Shams, Rumi’s beloved teacher, was murdered. I have also heard it rumored before that Rumi and Shams were gay lovers, most notably by writer and spiritual activist Andrew Harvey, who himself is openly gay.

This idea, that Rumi’s beloved was actually his gay lover Shams, has become controversial. What is not controversial is that Rumi was never killed. He died of natural causes on December 17, 1273.

Coleman Barks writes, “On the night of December 5, 1248, as Rumi and Shams were talking, Shams was called to the back door. He went out, never to be seen again. Most likely, he was murdered by the connivance of Rumi’s son, Alaeddin; if so, Shams indeed gave his head for the privilege of Mystical Friendship.”

This image of giving your head for your guru, to God, to the Divine, to gladly die because the spirit does not fear death, is common also in Kabir’s and Mirabai’s poetry, the Indian bhakti mystics, whose wild and piercing love poetry resemble Rumi’s in so many ways.

In the annals of spiritual lore, it is not unusual that members of spiritual groups and religious orders express jealousy, infighting, betrayal, even murder. A disciple of the Buddha supposedly attempted to murder him; and we all know the story of Jesus and his betrayal by Judas.

In contemporary times, my own guru, Anandamurti, was falsely imprisoned on politically motivated charges. Uncommon for an Indian guru, he spoke out against the caste system, and he even suggested capitalism was anti-human and wanted to replace it with a more cooperative economy.

Consequently he angered politicians, the rich, and also the Brahmin priests, and a conspiracy was concocted to get rid of him. 8 years later, in 1979, after being poisoned in jail, he was freed of all charges with the help of Western lawyers who called the case “politically motivated.” This all happened in the seventies, when Indira Gandhi was ruling India with dictatorial powers by banning, jailing and torturing many opposition leaders and progressive organizations.

So, controversy is not new in spiritual circles. But why the jealousy against Rumi, who only seemed to espouse ecstatic love of the Divine? Was it really because Rumi and Shams were gay lovers?

Personally, I think the idea of Rumi and Shams being gay is one big contemporary projection. Not, of course, that being gay itself is a problem, but in this case I think it is unlikely. In the West, we don’t really have a tradition of the guru/disciple relationship we see in Sufism, Tantra and other ecstatic traditions of the East. Hence we tend to be overly skeptical and distrustful.

We often equate this kind of intimacy in sexual terms, even though it may not be there at all. That some contemporary gurus indeed had sexual relationships with their disciples just compounds the confusion.

The use of terms like Beloved and Lover toward one’s teacher is not common in the West. There is no Bhakti tradition to speak of in Western mysticism (except, perhaps, in some black Baptist churches!) that parallels the ones found in Sufism and Yoga. We just do not hug, hold hands with and gaze into the eyes of our priests in the West the way these ecstatic Easterners have done for centuries. Nor do men walk the streets holding hands the way people do in India and Iran where Rumi lived.

There is also no tradition of sexual imagery in the spiritual poetry of the West. In the East, sexual union also signifies inner ecstasies, Tantric kundalini energies. We have no deep tradition in which words like “wine” and “drunkard” and “tavern” signify spiritual states of whirling drunkenness.

We just don’t have a tradition for getting high on God in the West the way they do it in the East. Those wild yoga rhythms are coming to us slowly, but they are not yet in our bones and in our blood. We are still way too spiritually timid for those rhythms.

The only time we Westerners truly leave or enter our bodies in wild abandon is during drugs, sex and rock & roll. Hardly do we ever whirl with and make love to God or our teacher the way Rumi or Kabir or Mirabai did. When was the last time you fell on the floor in trance during kirtan the way they do it in India?

In other words, we distrust people who claim that they are talking to God the way that Ramakrishna talked to Mother Kali, the way that Mirabai talked to and made love to her Beloved Krishna. We put people like that in institutions over here. In India, they are sometimes declared saints.

In India, sadhus can dance naked in the streets and still be considered holy. In our Calvinist piety, we Westerners have been sitting on our hands too long in church. We distrust people who are both sane and talking to inner images at the same time.

By saying that hearing voices only happens to crazy people, or that sexual imagery in poetry only represents sex, we neglect a whole tradition of spirituality that expressed itself even in the mystical West, in people like St John, St Francis and Teresa of Avila.

Truth is, sometimes these people are truly crazy, but sometimes they are not. Sometimes they are called mystics.

I have seen plenty of people roll on the floor, cry in ecstasy and talk to inner visions; hell I’ve done it myself. And none of us have been institutionalized; not yet.

So to conflate Rumi’s love for his Beloved teacher Shams to a gay relationship is probably as mistaken as to conflate Ramakrishna’s spiritual genius, who is considered the Einstein of consciousness by many Indian scholars today, to a babbling lunatic. That, I think, is reductionism at its worst.

That, I think, is like mistaking a mild kundalini awakening with an insect crawling up your back. Or, conversely, to mistake the crawling insect for kundalini. Nothing but a projection. The inner world is both real and unreal. It all depends, and sometimes, only those who have taken the journey can tell the difference.

So, in a strange way, I suggest that those who reduce the rich inner world of the spiritual mystic of the stature of Rumi to simply being gay (in reality, it does not matter whether he was gay or heterosexual, of course) is doing the opposite of what they think they are doing; they sanitize his image; they block the view of the full spectrum of the mystic consciousness by reducing it to the realm of the flesh only.

The spirit lives in the body and it lives in the heart of love. It lives in the earth and it lives in the sky. It is subtle and it is gross. In the case of Rumi, the spirit freely crosses all boundaries. It lived in the body and it lived in the mind. But when he made love to Shams, he did so with his aching spiritual heart, just the same way that Mirabai made love to her inner Krishna.

Why? Most of Rumi’s love poetry was written during the years after Shams’ death. And Mirabai’s love poetry was written nearly two thousands years after Krishna supposedly walked the fields of Vrindavan.

While looking for Shams after his mysterious disappearance, Rumi finally realized:

“Why should I seek? I am the same as He.

His essence speaks through me.

I have been looking for myself!”

While looking for ourselves, we sometimes need guides, gurus, mystics who have walked the path before us. Love, said Krishna, in the form of Bhakti Yoga, can quicken and intensify that road considerably.

But ultimately, love for the teacher, the Beloved, Rumi understood, is simply love for our own inner Self. So, ultimately, the spiritual journey is not about finding a gay (or heterosexual) lover, but simply about loving ourselves. About finding ourselves.

About Ramesh Bjonnes

Ramesh Bjonnes was born in Norway and lived for nearly three years in India and Nepal learning directly from the masters of tantric yoga. He has written extensively on tantra, yoga, culture and sustainability, and his articles have appeared in books and numerous magazines and newspapers in Europe and the US. His forthcoming book on Tantra will be published by Hay House India soon. He is currently contributing editor of New Renaissance and a columnist for Fredrikstad Blad, a Norwegian newspaper. He lives in an eco-village in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Visit his blog here: Eight Fold Path. His book Sacred Body, Sacred Spirit: A Personal Guide to the Wisdom of Yoga and Tantra can be purchased here.

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27 Responses to “Were the poet Rumi and Shams gay lovers? (or was it simply Bhakti love?)”

  1. Ramesh says:

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    Mario Garcia Antelo Given the obvious magnificent work of Rumi, the issue of his sexual preference is completely irrelevant.
    35 minutes ago · LikeUnlike
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  2. Ramesh says:

    I agree, it is irrelevant, until, that is, people bring it up and makes it a part of his work… or say he was killed because he was gay….
    I also think the issue of sex and spirituality is relevant and also the issue of sexual imagery in spiritual poetry, etc… at any rate, i thought it an interesting enough issue to write about.

  3. Julian Walker yogijulian says:

    first of all thanks for pointing out my factual error – what was i thinking!? yes of course it was shams who was murdered.

    second i think it is wild that we could read the hundreds of lines written by rumi addressing shams in utterly romantic and passionate terms and still be compelled by our homophobia to rationalize this love as some kind of spiritual metaphor or chaste expression of divine revelation. sure it is about spiritual awakening, but there is no mistaking the depths of a deeply personal, sexual love.

    i have been immersed in rumi's poetry for a long time and have used it in my classes for almost two decades. i often speak about how certain of his poems have the double meaning of romantic love with an external beloved and a kind of inner relationship with what we might conceive of as the authentic self/soul or as kabir calls it the "guest"…

    seriously, i get this whole position that rumi should be interpreted through this non-sexual ecstatic ethereal lens, but come on! consider these as one small segment:

    i would love to kiss you
    the price of kissing is your life
    now my living is running toward my loving shouting
    what a bargain i'll take it!

    when you're with we we stay up all night
    when you're away from me i can't get to sleep
    praise god for these two insomnias
    and the difference between

    The minute I heard my first love story,
    I started looking for you, not knowing
    how blind that was.

    Lovers don't finally meet somewhere,
    they're in each other all along.

    I have phrases and whole pages memorized,
    but nothing can be told of love.
    You must wait until you and I
    are living together.
    In the conversation we'll have
    then…be patient…then.

    There is a smile and a gentleness
    inside. When I learned the name

    and address of that, I went to where
    you sell perfume. I begged you not

    to trouble me so with longing. Come
    out and play! Flirt more naturally.

    Teach me how to kiss. On the ground
    a spread blanket, flame that's caught

    and burning well, cumin seeds browning,
    I am inside all of this with my soul.

    When it's cold and raining,
    you are more beautiful.

    And the snow brings me
    even closer to your lips.

    The inner secret, that which was never born,
    you are that freshness, and I am with you now.

    I can't explain the goings,
    or the comings. You enter suddenly,

    and I am nowhere again.
    Inside the majesty.

    There is some kiss we want with
    our whole lives, the touch of

    spirit on the body. Seawater
    begs the pearl to break its shell.

    And the lily, how passionately
    it needs some wild darling! At

    night, I open the window and ask
    the moon to come and press its

    face against mine. Breathe into
    me. Close the language- door and

    open the love window. The moon
    won't use the door, only the window.

    as a straight man and a spiritual seeker it took me a while too to get past my homophobia and my own longing for some kind of higher otherworldly experience enough to see what is plainly there in the text.

    • Ramesh says:

      It is way too simplistic and reductionist to call this homophobia.. read into these poems what you want, but be open to the fact that there is a spiritual tradition of which you obviously know very little but which brings in the nondual mystic states by balancing sensual and spiritual imagery . This tradition is as old as mysticism itself. As i pointed out, most of Rumi's love poetry was written after Shams vanished, a lot of the other sexual imagery in his poems are heterosexual.. I understand that this is hard to grasp if you think that any mention of spirit is dualistic, and that is the point, that in these nondual poems–body and and spirit merge to make a point–metaphoric and real–that all is sacred. Still that does not make it homeoerotic poetry… few scholars would agree…and even if it was, it would not reduce the spiritual power.

      • Julian Walker yogijulian says:

        yes! after shams was murdered because of the scandal of taking rumi away from his family and responsibilities as a leader/teacher of his community – the bulk of what we have as his poetry is the process of his grief, longing and epiphanies for and about shams.

        let me reiterate – i find rumi's poetry to be amongst the greatest ever to exist and use it in my work all the time – have done for almost 2 decades. personally i find the probability that a lot of it is about his romantic love for another man less important than the power, beauty, and artistry of the words themselves and the universal resonance they can strike in ancient, modern, gay, straight, male, female and people of all ethnicities…

        however i think it is a powerful testament to the nature of homophobia that we buy into the notion that when rumi writes/speaks with direct reference using sexual imagery about his great love for shams that this is meant as metaphor.

        let me also reiterate – i am one to always be lobbying for metaphorical literacy – most spiritual material: mythology, chakras, claims about altered states etc are taken literally when they indeed should be seen through metaphorical eyes and celebrated as such – but in the case of rumi writing about great love, longing, kissing, being embraced, lying down together, and many more explicit sexual references i think it is fishy that in the name of non dualism or anything else we claim that this is not literal!

        when we was the last time you spoke or you heard someone speak in overt homoerotic tones (or even heterosexual imagery) about another person and it was meant as a "spiritual metaphor?!"

        if i said: oh ramesh your words are so beautiful, it makes me want to kiss your lips and cradle your head to my chest, when can we be alone together so we can begin our great and secret conversation and come into divine union with one another? finally my true love has arrived…. would anyone seriously think this was asexual!?

        what if a female student wrote a poem about a male teacher taking her into a secret place and stripping her naked, teaching her the ways of complete bliss and union, lying in each-others arms and whispering about the deepest meaning in all things, and changing her life forever, and then leaving her alone and empty, devastated – would we think this must be a metaphor about meditation and pranayama?!

        here again i think we have the case of buying into the idea of an esoteric otherworldly reality that certain special exotic people have been in touch with that is beyond this world, beyond the body and sex etc and so therefore there MUST be some occluded and mysterious object of reference in all of this imagery that would mistakenly be perceived as "merely" sexual were we not in the know…. i mean because where would be the spiritual glamor in that, right?

        what about this: rumi fell madly, passionately deeply in love with a man. a man who was a gifted teacher, a man in who's presence his heart exploded, his mind expanded and his eros was aroused. this was complicated because he was married and a prominent spiritual teacher/leader – but he dove in headfirst because it was the most powerful thing he had ever experienced. then his beloved was killed, most likely it appears by rumi's son – and rumi then wrote/spoke hundreds and hundreds of lines about his lost love, the gift of their connection and the powerful insights and epiphanies that came from all of it.

        now most conventional accounts say all of this – but add the caveat that it surely was not sexual….. but this beggars belief if you just bring the whole thing down to earth.

        clandestine sexual practices and their relationship to esoteric spiritual traditions have always existed – it is much more likely that this has been glossed over because of our conflict (especially spiritual conflict) about sex, than that sexual language is being used in a metaphorical way. why not use other kinds of metaphor if there is nothing erotic going on?

  4. Julian Walker yogijulian says:

    also i think we should be very careful about the tendency to both a) poo-poo what medical science and psychology have identified as treatable mental illnesses and b) to romanticize brain pathology as spiritual rapture.

    the biggest reason is that many people with mental illness are drawn to spirituality, i have had them as students and all who do what we do will…… being able to be of service to these people lies in being able to guide them towards getting appropriate care for their condition instead of enabling their dangerous fantasy that their delusions, paranoia, hallucinations etc are proof of their spiritual progress.

    this is such tricky and loaded territory, i think precisely because so much of religious belief most likely has it's origins in the reports and claims of those with temporal lobe epilepsy, bipolar mania, schizotypal disorder and OCD. this in no way means that there is not legitimate spirituality to be experienced, explored and pursued that is not deeply beneficial – it just demarcates the difference between madness and the supernatural preoccupation it has seeded and the greater levels of sanity that are possible through effective spiritual work.

    i would encourage anyone really interested in this fascinating subject to check out a few professors who have brilliant theories and research into this subject:

    sapolsky, ramachandran and persinger.

    i know, i know this makes people mad because we so want to believe that there is some hidden supernatural reality visible to the select few prophets and seers who were either gifted or avatars or touched by god's grace, or perhaps who did tons of spiritual practice, maintained celibacy and because of being pure in heart were granted direct experience of this other worldly reality. but just ask yourself – what if there was nothing supernatural, what if the reason we have no proof of anything of the sort and only a tiny handful of human beings claim experience of it is because it is a hallucination? IF that were true, what would spirituality be like for me without belief in such things?

    we should also mark a clear difference between psychospiritual experiences of the body unwinding, altered states of consciousness, emotional release and and ecstatic revery – all of which are available to people with healthy brains even though they are outside the norm of our repressive culture (and all of which i am deeply familiar with) and on the other hand actual immersion in hearing voices and seeing beings that are believed to literally have independent disembodied identity, believing that god or the devil is actually visiting and speaking with you and having this be a part of your daily reality.

    the former is a short lived, interesting and often powerful set of phenomena that we can work with and integrate within a sane framework of reality, the later happen only to people in the grip of the kind of psychosis made possible through one of the conditions i mentioned above.

    we should no more romanticize all mental illness as spiritual experience than we should label all spiritual experience as mental illness – but though there is some overlap, the progress of human knowledge allows us to draw a pretty strong and clear distinction between the two.

    a simple way to elucidate this distinction: people who are not mentally ill do not have full blown experiences of externalized voices and visions – unless they are on very powerful hallucinogens!

  5. Ramesh says:

    I am not romaticising brain pathology as spiritual rapture. those of us who have spent some intense years pursuing ecstatic states either in kirtan, meditation, fasting or other pursuits, and have been hanging out with saints and sages of authentic renown, know quite well the richness of the out-of-this world experiences possible. I am not going to try to convince you, as these things has to be experienced first hand…
    But I do see in your second to last paragraph that you are open to the existence of these states as being authentic, and that is good enough to perhaps have further dialogue…

    true mystics know that the visions and voices that may be experienced are not the ultimate reality, that they are the product of the mind, that they are fleeting, and that they are not in themselves a goal… rather the goal is that realm beyond phenomena, beyond or within the all… that which transcends and includes all reality…

  6. Ramesh says:

    Sarah, you misunderstood my point. Of course I am not reducing being gay to a purely sexual act, but I am also not equating sexual love with spiritual love. That is the point of the article. Why reduce mystical love to sexual love? Why reduce sexual imagery of kundalini by negating the existance of kundalini? Why negate the nondual mysticism in Rumi's poetry to just sexual love? I

    besides that, I mostly agree with the rest of your points… well said!

  7. Jackie says:

    It seem everyone is gay here on Elephant. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

    • Ramesh says:

      Yes, gay, as in having fun, for sure! But seriously, this article is not for or against gays, or gay sex, or sex in general, but simply highlighting the idea that sexual imagery is often used in mystical literature as poetic metaphors.. that is really my point: that Rumi, Hafez, Kabir, Mirabai and others used this technique extensively.

    • LOVE IT. Best comment ever….

      :))

  8. Tanya Lee Markul tanya lee markul says:

    "Those who dance are considered insane by those who can't hear the music" – George Carlin. Thank you so much Ramesh!

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Assoc. Yoga Editor
    Like Elephant Yoga on Facebook
    Follow on Twitter

  9. Tanya Lee Markul tanya lee markul says:

    Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

  10. Karen says:

    Does it really matter what kind of sexual relationship Rumi had? Why do any of us care????? True love transcends sex.

    • Ramesh says:

      On a personal level it does not matter, of course… gay or heterosexual makes no difference on the spiritual path… it only matters for us history, philosophy and mystical poetry buffs… otherwise, I agree, makes no difference…

  11. Tanya Lee Markul tanya lee markul says:

    Just posted to "Popular Lately" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

  12. Ramesh says:

    Carol, thnaks so much for your reply. Most of the scholars having studied Rumi, his poetry, the culture, times of his teachings etc do not think their relationship was sexual. Rumi himsself took over as teacher from his father; he was a well known teacher before he met Shams. What Shams introduced to Rumi was a deeper mysticism; thus it is universally acceted that he was Rumi's guru. The term Beloved is commonly used to address God/Divine/Teacher in Sufism and Tantra. This is also similar to the tantric guru-disciple relationship which runs deep throughout ypga history. So most scholars think that the rift was philosophical and religious–that Shams was simply too unorthodox. Sufism really started with these two, and Sufism like Tantra was unorthodox and hard to accept by the clergy, just like Tantra was for Brahmanism in India.

    As I have said also, I agree that it really does not matter on a personal level what his sexual orientation was–that was not my point in the article.

    I also agree with you about the mental illness/mystic states issue. I once had a friend who had incredible mystical insights but also was schizophrenic and he ended up taking his life as he was not able to integrate his experiences. Others expereience similar psychic states and are able to integrate them and become more balanced and spiritual in the process.

    I did not mean to make a blanket statement about the non-ecstatic tradition in the West; as you say, it does exist, even in western yoga circles it is starting to blossom, and this is gratifying. I also see it in many Christian churches (and i mention Black Baptists in my article).
    So, yes, I agree. Still the East have had a much larger segment of the population engage in these types of yoga/spiritual practices.
    What is different perhaps is that in yoga there is more insight into using emotions to go beyond emotions– from psychological sentiments to spiritual sentiments… there is a whole Bhakti psychology tradition of the various stages of bhakti yoga which does not exist in the West.
    But i personally love the gospel tradition and find many gospel and bluegrass tunes to be similar to kirtan, and that kind of music evokes bhakti in me just the same way as kirtan.

  13. Jiivadhara says:

    In post modern art I once discussed about the "superiority of the living." This means that those who are alive can interpret the past according to their understanding of the past in todays terms. As we are the once alive and come up with stories of what could have happened between the saints love to the devotee and the other way around, we can only say that we were not there. We don't know really what happened. We know however that the sensuality in which spiritually ecstatic states are often expressed have most likely little to do with the actual reality at the time. We who are alive now must guard carefully guard against the perhaps "self-righteous"notion of feeling superior as we are alive NOW and falling prey to our post modern longings and interpretations of spiritual mysticism. It is hard enough to put ourselves into our friends position and how much harder must it be to put ourselves into the position of the sages of the past from a totally different culture. It is very possible to see these ecstatic expressions as a purely internal manifestations of Highest spiritual union. Perhaps we learn with experience to become our own best friend as our relation with the Divine evolves into a limitless and lasting love relation.,less Much less outward expressions are needed then as that would only take energy away from THAT GREAT LOVE which is already part of us within – all the time. Hence in your love to the Divine – be your own best friend. We have it all inside. Namaskar!

  14. Jiivadhara says:

    In post modern art I once discussed about the "superiority of the living." This means that those who are alive can interpret the past according to their understanding of the past in todays terms. As we are the ones alive, and come up with stories of what could have happened externally between the saints love and the devotee and the other way around, we can only say that we were not there. We don't know really what happened. We know however that the sensuality in which spiritually ecstatic states are often expressed in todays terms have most likely little to do with the actual reality at the time. We who are alive now must guard carefully guard against the perhaps "self-righteous"notion of feeling superior as we are alive NOW and falling prey to our post modern longings and interpretations of spiritual mysticism. It is hard enough to put ourselves into our friends position and how much harder must it be to put ourselves into the position of the sages of the past from a totally different culture. It is very possible to see these ecstatic expressions as a purely internal manifestations of "Highest Spiritual Union." Perhaps we learn with experience to become our own best friend as our relation with the Divine evolves into a limitless and lasting love relation. Much less outward expressions are needed then as that would only take energy away from THAT GREAT LOVE which is already part of us within – all the time. Hence in your love to the Divine – be your own best friend. We have it all inside. Namaskar!

    I double posted! :-o (did some spelling corrections)

  15. [...] Were the poet Rumi and Shams gay lovers? (or was it simply Bhakti love?) [...]

  16. [...] Were the poet Rumi and Shams gay lovers? (or was it simply Bhakti love?) [...]

  17. [...] Were the poet Rumi and Shams gay lovers? (or was it simply Bhakti …Aug 8, 2011 … I have also heard it rumored before that Rumi and Shams were gay lovers, most notably by writer and spiritual activist Andrew Harvey, who … [...]

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  19. jatd says:

    This is just my personal opinion, but when you have a love like this, which very few are lucky enough to experience.. this transcends physical sex. The physical is the human expression of what the heart feels (Spiritually, which I believe comes from source, the highest form of love possible) but even still when we as physical human beings experience a love so great, we can't help but desire to express it, and sex would be the way to express it, Loving, touching, embracing, kissing … these truly seem so minute in the grand scheme of THIS kind of love. This kind of love is enough to send you soaring by just one glance. "Floating" it's like heaven .. their smell, the familiarity. You cannot help but desire to become one with it. Its so hard to put into words but I believe Rumi did a fabulous job in his writings.

  20. Faraz says:

    No, they were no as such, they were & are lovers, every one defines love in the way they feel convenient with, which they can easily understand, they see love in there perception, love is love only when there is no perception.

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