Decoding Omar Khayyam: the truth behind the obvious

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Pause for a few seconds: When you think of Omar Khayyam, what comes up in your mind? Suggest a few adjectives……

How it appears

At a literal surface level, the poems of Khayyam can be understood as a dalliance – of bread, wine, love and poetry. Luxury and hedonism appears apparent, with sights of roses, sounds of nightingales streaming across his stanzas. The poems bring visuals of wine and cups and vessels and taverns and the bright eyes of women. As such, he is mistakenly labelled as a romantic and an alcoholic. He wrote in Farsi, but his work was translated by Fitzgerald (1809) who found the manuscript in Kolkata, who made his work well known globally. However, his work does not reflect the authenticity, or even a literal translation, but a ‘construction’ identifying him as a ‘material Epicurean’.

What it is

The fact is that Omar Khayyam (1048 – 1131) was a Sufi mystic, a celibate and a who never drank wine and a famous mathematician, astronomer and poet. Scott Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat (reference to the four line quatrains) misses the point completely, totally opposite to what he wished to convey:  it is about divine ‘wine’ and ‘beauty’ and not about women (to Sufis God is a women). The cup which is laced throughout the book is the symbol for life and the act of living. His poems are about the alchemy of between the lover and the beloved, between the seeker and the sought, between man and divinity. The picture you see is an abstract painting, but when you turn it upside down becomes something wholly different.

Let’s examine Stanza 11 as an example.

Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,

A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse — and Thou

Beside me singing in the Wilderness —

And Wilderness is Paradise enow.

The challenge of reading Khayyam lies in the deciphering of the heavy coded symbolism and not so obvious theme (at least for the uninitiated). The fact is that ‘Thou’ is the beloved God, the food symbolises communion, and wine the divine ecstasy in the union, while the wilderness refers to the heart. The meanings become clear when you develop a Sufi like orientation.

Let’s take another verse: “Drink! For you know not whence you came, nor why;/ Drink! For you know not why you go, nor where.” In this one can fall into assuming that the poet is saying life is finite and ends soon. So we can seize the day and get drunk. However, if wine is seen as living life then the message is to forget about tomorrow and living for today.

Khayyam was just not just misunderstood by Fitzgerald, but by his own society as well. His books were burned and his ideas thought to be too dangerous by the priests. Does that remind you of anyone else?

If you enjoyed reading this, you may enjoy another article on Rumi I had written on earlier.

Do comment on this post. Do you think we need a deeper lens in studying literature of the East?

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