A Higher Love

Posted by Nizam-un-Nisa Ayeda Naqvi on November 12, 2009

Not too far from where I live, in Lahore, Pakistan, is a little shrine. It is not the mausoleum of a famous poet or a Sufi saint, but the resting place of two star-crossed lovers who were denied the sanctity of marriage by their society almost five hundred years ago.

And yet this tomb is treated with the same reverence and etiquette as the shrines of any of the great mystics that dot the landscape here. In fact, if the visitors’ emotions are anything to go by, this shrine seems to have unparalleled power, for on any given day, devotees can be seen sitting in corners of the marble mausoleum, sobbing softly as they contemplate the tragic story of the beautiful Heer and the devastated Ranjha.

Images of the young, romantic Ranjha, with his long hair, sitting alongside the shy Heer on the riverbank watching the cattle graze as he played his soulful flute for her, dance above the devotees’ heads. Visions of her angry uncle spying on them, her parents forcefully marrying her off to a suitor of their choice and sending her to a distant town while the devastated Ranjha becomes a yogi, continue to haunt the visitors.

Dressed like a beggar with ash rubbed on his body, wearing large earrings and carrying a begging bowl, Ranjha takes to the streets, going from house to house and village to village, outwardly seeking alms but inwardly seeking Heer. Pining and longing for each other, burning in the fire of separation, anguished over a union not meant to be, the two eventually do find each other, Heer recognizing Ranjha by his eyes.

They convince the Raja of Heer’s marriage against her will and receive his permission to get married. But before they can do so, Heer is poisoned by her uncle and buried. When Ranjha finds out, he collapses at her grave and prays to be united with her, at which point the grave opens up and swallows him.

It is a poignant story, one that continues to live long after the lovers’ bodies have disintegrated. Even today, the music, art, poetry and literature of Pakistan are replete with allusions to this tragic tale, the unwavering perseverance of Heer and Ranjha kept alive as a lesson and as a source of solace.

In The Mystic Love of Heer and Ranjha, Umair Ghani describes an old, bare-footed woman who regularly frequents the shrine of Heer and Ranjha in the town of Jhang, today.

He describes the wrinkles that fill her face like deep trenches in dry land, of how she walks up to the grave, kisses it, closes her eyes and clasps her hands for several minutes as if taking part in a secret ritual. And then, like a whirling wind, she begins to dance in the tomb. Her bare feet strike the floor with a loud thud. “Two bodies in one grave, but body is nothing,” she says as she dances. “The soul is everything. The soul is dance. I am a soul and I will dance!”

What is it about this story, one wonders, that continues to hold the hearts of so many people captive, more than five centuries after the lovers passed? Is it the timelessness of the motif of separated lovers that runs through every culture and every age or something deeper that touches the soul?

Like other traditional love stories from the Punjab like Mirza-Sahiban, Sassi-Pannu and Sohni-Mahiwal, the Qisa i Heer Ranjha is more than a tale of unrequited love. As Syed Waris Shah, the great Sufi saint of the Chishtia order who immortalized this story through his poetic rendition of it in 1766, explains in his introduction, the story of Heer and Ranjha is not just a tale of ill-fated lovers; it is also about the journey of the soul in its quest for God.

In fact, the intense yearning of the two lovers can be explained by a deeper spiritual longing, a primordial desire to be united with our Source. Rumi speaks about this longing in the first part of the Mathnawi as the plaintive song of the reed flute lamenting its separation from the reed bed. Likewise, the profound longing to be united with another often carries with it more than just physical desire; it also carries the innate need to find our way back to our Source, which we try to find in our beloved.

And yet the physical longing of Heer and Ranjha for each other cannot be dismissed. In fact, on the Sufi path, Ishq-i-Mijazi, love for the physical, is often a stepping stone for Ishq-i-Haqiqi, love for the Divine. Contrary to what the orthodox would have us believe, these are not mutually exclusive but rather complementary expressions, Ishq-i-Mijazi being a powerful tool that can eventually lead to Ishq-i-Haqiqi. To quote Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

Ai jogi naheen, roop hai Rab da (“He is not just a yogi; he is a form of God.”) says Heer when she sees Ranjha after their long period of separation. Even though she does not recognize his physical appearance anymore, there is something in her soul that does recognize the presence of the One in her beloved.

Pir-o-Murshid Hazrat Inayat Khan describes love as a fire. He compares the glow that rises from its flame to the wisdom that eventually rises from the devotion of the lover. For “In love,” he writes, “abides all knowledge.” It is this knowledge, these lessons on the spiritual path, that the Qisa i Heer Ranjha describes.

An example of futuwa, or the Sufi concept of chivalry, the Qisa i Heer Ranjha describes the unwavering faith of two lovers in the face of all adversity. Despite their separation, they hold steadfast to their belief in their love, and through their suffering are elevated to the status of sainthood.

The Ishq-i-Mijazi of Heer and Ranjha leads them to Ishq-i-Haqiqi because the lessons on the Sufi path are no different from the lessons imparted on the path of love.

Ranjha, Ranjha kaindi ni, main aap hi Ranjha hoi, says Heer (“I spoke Ranjha’s name so much, I became him.”). This is a line that recurs again and again in contemporary Punjabi music and poetry, not just because it shows the devotion of Heer, who can see no one but Ranjha when she is separated from him, but because it explains the age-old concept of fana—the annihilation of the self and the subsequent absorption in the object of one’s devotion.

This is the very idea that Zikr, or Sufi chanting, is based on. In Zikr, the attributes of the Divine are invoked in the hope that they will rub off on those chanting. So by repeating Ya Rahman, Ya Raheem, one is aspiring to develop the qualities of compassion and forgiveness just as, through the invocation of other Divine names, different qualities are being fostered.

Thus when Heer starts seeing herself as Ranjha, erasing all distinctions between the lover and the beloved, she has accomplished what Sufis spend their whole lives trying to do: she has emptied her self and become a reflection of her object of devotion.

Heer’s claim that she is no longer herself but Ranjha can be compared to the statement made by Rumi when he names one of his books the Diwan i Shams i Tabriz, or literally, the collection of poems by Shams of Tabriz. By signing his poetry with the name of Shams, he too is saying that despite his physical separation from Shams, their souls are one.

In the story of Yusuf and Zulekha, the only love story in the Holy Quran, Zulekha, is so enamored by Yusuf that, for decades, she sees nothing but him. Rumi explains how, “She loved him so much she concealed his name in many different phrases, the inner meanings known only to her … anything she praises, it’s Yusuf’s touch she means, any complaint, it’s his being away.”

“The miracle Jesus did by being the name of God, Zulekha felt in the name of Yusuf,” writes Rumi. “When one is united to the core of another, to speak of that is to breathe the name hu, empty of self and filled with love.”

So through a continual concentration on her object of devotion, Zulekha finds Yusuf within herself and is eventually united with him—just as Rumi sees Shams within himself, writing verses, and Heer sees Ranjha in her own tear-soaked eyes.

Another lesson on the Sufi path, concentration, is taught as the secret of every attainment in life. For it is through concentration, mystics believe, that they are able to achieve mastery over all things in the world. While many seekers struggle to center their mind on one object, holding the vision of the beloved is the most natural thing in the world for the lover. So as Heer is being carried away to another man in her palanquin, all she can see is Ranjha. And in his quest for his beloved, as Ranjha limps from one dusty village to another, he sees in every passerby the face of his beloved Heer.

Pir-o-Murshid Hazrat Inayat Khan once wrote that you cannot lose in love. If you master the situation, you are a master. If you lose everything, you are a saint. Heer and Ranjha did not win in the eyes of the world. But it was their courage, their conviction and their willingness to be burned by the fire of love that elevated them to the status of saints.


Nizam-un-Nisa Ayeda Naqvi has been a journalist by profession for seventeen years. She specializes in the fields of Sufism and interfaith issues and has a double Masters in Journalism and Near Eastern Studies from a joint New York University/Princeton University program. Currently she lives and works in Lahore, Pakistan, where she writes for numerous publications, leads spiritual retreats and teaches meditation.


Comments (10)
  • A beautifully written peice…Love transcends…all and everything…Yes you are right the Ishq-e-majazi…is the begening of Ishq-e-HaqiqiYou cannot find God..till you find yourself..As you say….. “The profound longing to be united with another often carries with it more than just physical desire; it also carries the innate need to find our way back to our Source, which we try to find in our beloved.”....Thankyou..for such pure and deep thoughts on LOVE!

    — Samina Munir on November 13, 2009

  • Heer Ranjha is a folklore that every child of this soil is aquainted with. Among many others,Sufi Saint Shah Hussain, paints a mystic version of this folk romance, ‘Mahi Mahi kukdi mein aapey Ranjha Hui, Rajhan Rajhan aakho Heer na aakho koi’. it can also be depicted as a tale of separation between body and soul.

    — fatima on November 13, 2009

  • great article it goes to amazing depths.Starting from worldly love goes to divine love with fluidity and ease.

    — shafaq on November 13, 2009

  • Yes, thank you for such a beautiful contemplation of the path of love, lover and beloved. May the fragrance of this love pervade the earth and sky everywhere.

    — Junayad Moore on November 13, 2009

  • I love it, it’s so deep. Everyone should be able to experience this type of love.

    — Abenaa Muumin on November 14, 2009

  • Absolutely love your article, completely mesmerizing!

    — Saima Abbasi on November 14, 2009

  • Thank you, Ayeda!

    — Sonja on November 18, 2009

  • contemplating pure love… how it is disallowed so much in this world, how it is so misunderstood… yet the complementarity of the physical joy and affection with the divine radiant love is mystical inexplicable yet so essential that it becomes the poetry of what we seek…... beautiful piece very inspiring

    — john khalid on November 22, 2009

  • Beautifully written article, though comparing the tale of zulekha to that of heer ranjha is like comparin bronze to platinum. Zulekha’s love was of a lower order- junoon, while or heer ranjha it transcended this world- it reached “ibadat” and “maut”. Zulekha can’t be thought of as a pure woman. Her only merit is that she remained obsessed with the same man for decades. This wasn’t pure love. She did not hesitate to put the same guy in jail to save herself.

    — Rohit Chauhan on November 22, 2009

  • I am a divine poet from Bangladesh. I am immensely benefited by these articles.Its a great site for those who believe in divinity.

    — Ershad Mazumder on November 24, 2009

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12 November 2009

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