Santa Shishunala Sharif ( 1819–1889)

Santa Shishunala Sharif was a saint poet, philosopher and social reformer from the state of Karnataka in India. His compositions of tatvapada (moral poems) are in Kannada language. Sharifa is recognised as the first  Muslim poet in Kannada literature.

Birth and Early Life

Santa Shishunala Sharif was born on 3rd July 1819 in Shishuvinahala, a village in Shiggaon taluk (in Haveri district), Karnataka. He was the son of Imam Saheb, who was a disciple of Hajaresha Qadri, whose dream it was to unite Hinduism and Islam. Hajaresha Qadri used to give “Linga Deeksha”, or initiation by tying a linga around the neck of a disciple, as per the Hindu Lingayat tradition. His father used to teach him RamayanaMahabharata, and even the teachings of Allama Prabhu. Legend has it that Shishunala Sharifa was conceived with the blessings of Basavanna.

Even when Shishunala Sharifa was a boy, he was taught the tenets of both religions. In his birthplace Shishuvinahala, even today, both Hindus and Muslims revere him as a saint at the same temple.

Meeting Govind Bhatta

Govinda Bhatta, a Brahmin, was famous in the region as an unconventional Master. He cared little for caste or religion, and he used to spend time with anyone who invited him, and used to eat anywhere he felt like. Other brahmin’s could not stomach his approach.

One day, Govinda Bhatta came to Shishuvinahala, and Sharif’s father found him seated under a tree. He asked him to accept his son as disciple. In front of the father, Govinda Bhatta called the young boy and said, “Hey Sharif, who is your father?”. The villagers laughed, but were shocked when the boy brashly said, “What kind of question are you asking? Your father and mine are the same!”. Govinda Bhatta laughed, patted the boy on the back and said, “Excellent, Sharif! The land is fertile, the seed will sprout well. O Imam, leave him to my care! from today, He is my son!”

Sharif followed Govinda Bhatta back to his village. The boy was found to be curious about matters beyond logic and the world, and about the secrets of creation. These qualities were nurtured by Govinda Bhatta. Society was surprised by their closeness. In the eyes of Muslims, the Master was a Khafir (infidel) and for Brahmins, the boy was a Mleccha (outsider).

Incidents during their time together

The thorn bush

One day, Govinda Bhatta called all his young disciples to follow him to the temple. On the way, they were blocked by a thorn bush. Govinda Bhatta stepped on the bush with his slippers and climbed to the other side. The disciples, however, were bare-footed. Govinda Bhatta tossed his slippers across to them, but they hesitated. “A Master’s Padukas must be kept on the head, not worn on the feet”, they said. Bhatta looked at Sharifa, and said, “Will you at least join me?” Sharif, without hesitation, puts on the slippers and crosses over. The two of them leave the others behind and go to the temple alone.

The Mullah

One day, a Mullah asks Sharif, “So, I see you’ve stopped coming to the mosque! Do you even remember what Namaz is?” To this, Sharif calmly replies, pointing at his own body, “I dwell in this mosque, so why go and come? I am in constant worship of “I AM”, so what can be greater Namaz?” The Mullah was dumbstruck.

Vomit incident

One day, Govinda Bhatta was sick and vomited. Then he turned to Sharif and asked “Keep this vomit so no man steps on it”. It is said that Sharif drank it.

Later years

Sharif’s parents force him to marry. Sharif goes to Guru Govinda Bhatta and asks, “If I become a Samsari, won’t I get stuck in desire and illusion?” The Master replies, “Why are you worried? Even in the worst rain, does wind become wet? Does light become soaked? So go and get married!”.

Sharif married, and had a daughter. He joins work as a schoolmaster in Karadagi, to support the family. However, his wife passes away shortly. Sharif’s neighbours adopt the child, and Sharifa quits his job. He starts participating in folk dramas, teaching simple lessons through daily experiences. Sharif went through extreme poverty, often going without meals. However, Govinda Bhatta stood by him through all his troubles.

After Govinda Bhatta left his body, Sharif lived on for another twenty years. When he started falling ill and realised his days were few, He decided to give up his body according to “Sharana” tradition, in which ash is smeared on the body, and the feet of a Jangama, or Shaivite monk, are worshipped. The monk’s feet are then placed on the head, and life is given up. Nobody agreed, but on his insistence, a Jangama by name Hirematta Karibasavayya agreed. Shishunala Sharif left his body on 3rd July 1889 .

The people were left confused. Sharifa was born a Muslim but lived with Hindu. The leaders of both communities came together and agreed to perform the last rites as per both religions. The Quran was read simultaneously with the Hindu Mantras.

Shishunala Sharif was known to compose poems as per the situation and sing them to spread the message. Though he never wrote down his compositions, by word of mouth many of them have been passed down to future generations.

A Samadhisthan was constructed in Shishuvinahala, in a vast compound. There, statues of both GovindaBhatta, Sharifa and Lord Basavanna, are visited by both Hindus and Muslims, to this day. Shishunala Sharif is known as the Kabir of Karnataka.