August 8, 2011

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

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.

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