In 1207 Molana Jalal-od-din Mohammad-e Balkhi, famous as Molawi or Molla-ie Rumi (the master of Asia Minor) was born into a family of great theologians in Balkh (present day Afghanistan). Being an extremely clever boy, he was recognized at the age of five by Farid-od-din Attar-e Nishaburi (the great poet and master of love and knowledge) as a man who would move the world. By the age of thirty three he was one of the greatest theologians and philosophers of his time. He had more than ten thousand followers in his headquarters in Kunya (present day Turkey) among whom were kings and paupers, scientists and illiterates. He was not a superficial scholar but a true seeker of direct realization of truth.
However, Rumi did not attain this state until the age of forty, when he was set on fire by Shams-od-din Mohammad-e Tabrizi, a wandering master of great attainment who in a flash of lightning, with a single word in his ear, awakened the state of higher awareness. Following forty days of Khalwat (retreat of master and disciple) Rumi attained the state of universality and transcended all cultures, Islamic, Greek and Indian. On the fortieth day his surprised followers witnessed their great theologian in the street, chanting and dancing. The children, taking him for a madman, threw stones at him while Rumi sang ecstatically:
'I was an ascetic,
You made me a troubadour,
You made me the first ring of the chain
Of the seekers of wine.
I was a ponderous prayer;
You made me the plaything of wandering children.'
Little is historically known about Rumi's master. Swami Sivananda once said that he had been a Sannyasi of the Puri order living in Multan. At any rate, Shams was certainly a highly realized being. He received his sufi training from Sheikh Abu-Bakr Zanbilbaf-e Tabrizi (basket weaver). In a short time he attained a state of being in which the Sheikh was no longer able to guide him. On the advice of the Sheikh he began to travel seeking the blessings of masters and observing the world.
Through his travels he became aware of the limitations of conventional life and revolted against scholasticism and classical Tasawuf. He freed himself from all kinds of authority, internal and external, and criticized all who merely repeated the opinions of others. He travelled all over the world in the quest of reality and enlightenment and even after attainment he continued his travelling so as to bring this light to the hearts of seekers of truth, amongst whom Rumi was foremost.
Shams stayed only fifteen months with Rumi before leaving Kunya for Damascus. Rumi could not endure this separation from his master and sent his son, Sultan Walad and some followers to search for him. Shams came back for a short time, but disappeared again during a riot against him in 1248. On the same day Rumi's son Ala'od-din, who joined the plot against Shams, was killed. This was powerfully symbolic - Rumi's inner conflict was manifested in his destiny. Ala'od-din, representative of Rumi's conventional life and pride of clan and ancestors, was killed. However, his other son, Sultan Walad, representative of his cosmic self, continued Rumi's mystic order, which persisted for thirty generations.
Shams disappeared physically because his mission was fulfilled with Rumi's awakening. Rumi wanted to follow his master, but it was not possible. On the day of his departure Shams was seen at the four gates of the city, leaving in four different directions, at the same hour. This was his parting lesson. A realized self doesn't belong to one disciple, one city, or one direction. He belongs to east and west, north and south, all humanity, the whole universe. Shams' grave has never been identified, but there are several graves in Iran, Turkey and even Java which are all reputed to be his.
After this second separation from his master, Rumi was unable to eat, sit or sleep. He wept and cried without ceasing and expressed himself in whirling dances for days and nights together, without rest. He gave away whatever he possessed, mostly to the musicians. The dance (rags), one of the sufi practices on the path of love and devotion, became an independent spiritual practice from this time; those who adopted it became known as whirling dervishes.
Rumi was forever dancing and chanting in the state of ecstasy resulting from the practice of sama, into which Shams had initiated him. Sama is a high practice in which the dancing sufi concentrates on the musical sound produced either by instrument or voice. The music may stop but its vibrations continue to manifest within the sufi himself and he is thus able to continue to listen to this inner music for hours and hours. This practice, akin to nada yoga, enables him to recognize, listen to, purify and manifest his inner sound.
During his sama, Rumi used to chant the most beautiful impromptu odes, in which his identity was usually surrendered to Shams. On many occasions he even became Shams, reciting odes to his disciples, such was the degree of his surrender and identification with his master. These odes were written down by his disciples and reassembled in a massive volume known as 'Diwan-e Kabir-e Shams'. In these mystic odes, admitting that words cannot fully describe Shams, Rumi calls him 'the sun', symbolic of the union of individual and universal consciousness, 'the sun of truth' and 'the secret of secrets':
'My master and my morad,
my pain and my remedy,
I declare these words openly,
my Shams and my God I have reached truth because of you,
Oh my soul of truth,
I have accepted your prayer, my Shams and my God.
I am checkmated by your love,
For you are the king of two worlds,
So that you stare at me, my Shams and my God.'
Here, morad refers to the beautiful love between a real master and a true disciple, as, for example, in the guru/shishya relationship in tantra. At this level the master becomes morad, the beloved, highly desired; and the disciple becomes morid, strongly desiring.
Twelve long years passed, a time of great turmoil and hardship for Rumi, but he did not falter in his quest. After this difficult stage of his evolution he was reborn:
'I was death,
I became living; I was tears,
I became laughter;
The fortune of love arrived
And I became eternal fortune.'
Each spiritual rebirth is always followed by a time of creativity. During this period, disciples came to Rumi from all over the world. He venerated his master by fulfilling his mission.
'He (Shams) told me:
You are master,
You are the head of the line;
You are the pioneer
And you are the guide.
I am not master or pioneer;
I am only your obedient slave.'
Finally Rumi describes his transformation in a long ode which indicates that he had even passed beyond Shams' state of being. At the end of this ode he says:
'I am not Shams (Sun) of Tabriz,
I am pure light;
Beware, don't tell anyone
That you have seen me.'
By this time (1261) Rumi had already integrated his personality, and experienced the oneness with all:
'Oh! happy is the man
Who is freed from himself
And united with existence
Of the universal one.'
Then, at the request of a close disciple, during his nightly dances he interpreted his conception of the human situation and the seeker's path to realization. To the accompaniment of the reed, he related the essence of man's inward state. This practice continued for ten years and it resulted in about 25,000 lines of poetry contained in six volumes known as 'Mathnawi-e Ma'navi' (The Spiritual Ladder).
After the Koran and Nahj-ul-Balagha, the Mathnawi is the most important scripture of Tasawuf. It is composed in allegorical poems and one cannot understand its real message without reading it entirely, several times. The recitation of Mathnawi produces very powerful vibrations in the consciousness of both reciter and listener. Rumi names it 'the root of the root of the root of religion in respect to its unveiling of the mysteries of attaining truth and certainty'; 'the call of reed'; 'workshop of union'; and the 'ladder of heaven':
'This speech is the ladder of heaven;
Whoever undertakes it arrives at the roof,
Not to the roof of the sky which is blue,
But the roof higher than all the universe.'