It was yet another time that I attempted to read this novel cover to cover. The first time I had tried to read it was as a teenager when I overheard my father mention that the classic Robinson Crusoe was inspired by this very book.
This time the intentions were different as I remembered reading the book earlier, had mentioned in the beginning that there existed a great difference in perception of religion by a common man and by the intelligentsia.
The book in mention is the philosophical novel called ‘Hayy bin Yaqzan’ ( meaning Alive the son of Awake), written in 12th C by Ibn Tufail. This is the third most translated book from Arabic to other languages the first two being Quran and Arabian Nights.
The story in summary is that somehow (these details need another blog in itself) a newborn infant named Hayy, seems to land on the shores of an uninhabited island. His cries are heard by, a doe (a she-deer), who had recently lost her newborn kid. Her maternal instincts still afresh, she grabs the baby, suckles him and raises him under her protection, until she dies some seven years later.
The little boy being exceptionally brilliant, not just acquires survival skills, he begins to question and investigate things around him. He covers his exposed private parts with leaves, seeing other animals had them hidden behind fur.
Death of his mother doe perplexes him and he dissects her to realise the all that organs that his Mom was made of, are intact, except for some invisible ‘thing’ that is missing. And hence he gets a hint of the concept of soul.
He learns to light fire that enables him to cook, keep warms and protect from predatory animals. The fire also symbolises the ‘fire within him’ for the quest of knowing how things happen.
He notices animals and plants though being different, have a common factor, that they were living and need nourishment to survive . He compares the difference between the living and the non living objects around him like rocks, but then they were alike that they all decayed with time.
He was amazed at the interdependence of living and non living objects on each other, and that all had their their needs being fulfilled in harmony.
It hints to him that he too had a role in helping others around him. He takes care of the sick and injured animals, saves plants entangled by the parasitic vines and unblocks the streams by removing boulders from their path. He experiences an unprecedented tranquility in doing so, and realises this attainment of happiness is far beyond his worldly pleasures.
Through various observations he sees ‘one common reality’ of all existence ( of the living or non living) and that all of them are ultimately passed on to nothingness.
He gradually gets convinced that all the disciplined occurrences governed by Laws of Nature are controlled by ‘some power’ which perhaps is a Divine Power.
The experiences make him undergo a spiritual awakening which, according to author, is beyond the description in words. The book describes him whirling like the ‘sufi dervishes’ in spiritual ecstasy.
As he was living and experiencing spirituality in isolation, on a neighbouring island, the inhabitants were practicing religion with all it’s worldly rituals. They had associated material values with their faith and they refrained to delve deeper into the essence of faith.
However, one man amongst them, not satisfied with this practice of faith gives up the social life and comes to inhabit the island where Hayy was living. Their encounter enables Hayy to learn the man’s language. The man identifies that Hayy has understood the religion better than those who were socially taught through scriptures. Hayy gets enthusiastic to change them and the superfluous practises. He decides to go to the island and convince people.
In the society, Hayy is well received by the people, as long as he agrees with their literal interpretation of their scriptures. But when Hayy attempts to encourage them to dig deeper to understand —of ‘one reality’ and of a ‘peaceful coexistence’ they get aggressive and reject him. Hence after sometime, convinced that their capacity to think beyond what they think, is not possible, he begs sorry to them, gives up on them. He tells them to follow what they think is right and comes back to his solitary world to continues his ‘practice’ of faith.
Reading through the novel, I could not help but think and relate it to the current scenario. The common man has resorted to a certain worldly guidelines and have refused to shake their brains to think ‘indepth’ of the true purpose of faith, which is more to support and help each other, rather than shun or kill anyone who differs.
One lesson that this 12th Century novel conveys is of human mind’s innate capacity to discover Laws of Nature and even the capability of some to discover abstract mystical secrets unaided by scriptures or social pressures..
Second lesson that Ibn Tufail mentions in the beginning but is more clearly put by a commentator of the book Israel Drazin is “…that wise people, philosophers, and religious leaders, must refrain from telling what they understanding to the general population. This is especially true, he states, about religion. Organized religion, as understood by the masses, is necessary for the masses, but wrong for people with understanding because it is not true.”
And I for once is still unsure of the second lesson…
If true then… .. it even sends into me shivers, that will there be the same end to our saga as that of this novel, that those who attempt to think out of the box, shall have to beg them sorry and let them carry on with their business. And the masses shall remain as ignorant as ever.
At least, knowing Kabir, Bulleh Shah and other mystics’ in history, the same had been their fate so far.
Comments on: "Alive, the son of Awake" (5)
I would love to read this book!
I think I understand what the second lesson is about: Tell others only that much as they can comprehend. One cannot teach particle physics to a 11-year old; to that child, “light travels in staright lines” and it is only when the child is capable of grasping other stuff that you say “sometimes, light travels in waves as well”.
The second lesson is true of several scientific discoveries as well, no? Even now, in our present world.
In continuation…I think that second lesson is another way of stating the principle of “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”
Thanks Anindita, 🙂
This mentioned book “Hayy bin Yaqzan” is also inspired by a Persian myth with same name written by Avicenna, you can read more about this great thinker here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avicenna
I’m looking for that book written by Avicenna, let me know if you could find it !