Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan
by Shams Kairys
All quotations, including passages in italics, are from Pir Vilayat, unless otherwise noted.
Pir Vilayat loved to fly. Often his guided meditations would transport one to resplendent vistas at rarefied altitudes dazzling the mind into a state of cosmic wonderment. It is no surprise that the camp he convened high in the French Alps for many summers, where sudden storms shook the crags upon which our tents were perched, was called Camp des Aigles. In fact, he kept eagles and falcons throughout his life, some of which he rescued from mistreatment, enjoying their flight as if it were his own. He did fly himself, first training as a pilot with the Royal Air Force during the Nazi advance, later just for delight, even hang-gliding in his seventies. And seeing him conduct a choir, one of his utmost joys, with his eyes flashing and his robes flapping, one could imagine he might soar aloft on the strains of Bach like a great bird in the brilliant sky.
My joy was making a half loop, then turning off the engine and drifting in the wind amongst the clouds upside down, hanging on my straps in an open cockpit. Here I was at home, set free in the vastness. My dearest wish would have been to live up there permanently. I would exult in the many splendoured array of colors in the clouds, and their evanescent formations, and I would turn my plane into the sun, drinking in its sheer effulgence as I glided upon thin air.
I first saw Pir Vilayat in 1969 giving a talk in a little chapel on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. The princely man standing on the dais seemed dropped into place from a faraway realm, wearing distinctive garb from the East, speaking in a melodious voice with an Oxford accent and an astounding vocabulary. He was aristocratic yet engaging, erudite yet ardent, earnest yet not dogmatic. I don’t remember the subject of the discourse, but my response is indelible. At that time, my training in literary criticism was at such a pitch that everything I heard and read was subject to critical analysis. Yet that evening I found myself simply listening to what was said on its own terms, even when those terms would ordinarily have roused skepticism, disarmed by something about the speaker that I now would call authenticity.
The measure of your greatness is the measure of your magnanimity, your willingness to carry people in your heart. If we are encapsulated in our self-image, we are puny. A great being has stature, something cosmic comes through. Think of people who have really dedicated themselves to service. If we're great enough, then we have room in our heart even for a person who has hurt us. So we can counter resentment, which can degenerate into hate, then to cruelty and even to war. As a dervish would say: “Shake yourself awake! You have been invited to the divine banquet! Don't you realize that the divine being is present in you?” In fact, the whole of creation is an act of magnanimity, talking in Sufi language now. God descended from the solitude of unknowing so that a further knowledge could be acquired by experience in the world. But more so, God descended from the solitude of unknowing out of love for the possibility of you. So it was love rather than understanding. Rumi certainly put it right when he said, “Would the gardener have planted the seed if it were not for the love of the flower?” The whole of Sufism turns round this very powerful force of love.
Pir Vilayat gave abiding devotion to his own teacher, his father, the renowned Indian musician and sage Hazrat Inayat Khan, who died when Vilayat was just ten years old, leaving him with a treasury of teaching, a mandate to succeed him, and the freedom to fulfill it in his own manner. While raised a Muslim, Inayat Khan embraced early in life the mystics and prophets of all traditions, and was encouraged by his teacher in the Chishti Sufi lineage to bring a message of universal wisdom to the West. He embarked for America in 1910, stepping into the unknown with mighty conviction. On his first tour there he met his future wife, Ora Ray Baker, who, despite differences of ethnicity, nationality and custom, left her family and her country to devote herself with grace and willing sacrifice to supporting his work and raising their four children. In the following sixteen years he traveled throughout Europe and the United States, speaking to the hearts and souls of those he met, while tirelessly developing an international school and movement to awaken humanity to the divinity within the human heart, and to inspire lives of fruitfulness, kindness and service. As Pir Vilayat noted, “Hazrat Inayat Khan announces the spirituality of the future—making God a reality, rather than a belief, by incorporating more and more of the bounty of the universe in that wonderful work of art that is the personality.”
Many children used to play in the field opposite Fazal Manzil, our home in Suresnes, near Paris, when their parents would come for the summer school—Dutch, French, English, German, Swedish, Italian. We would lie down and peer through the high grass waiting for the moment when the front door opened and we could see that kingly figure emerge, descend the front steps and wend his way slowly along the path to the lecture hall. Such great majesty came through as he walked, and he seemed to be carrying the whole world on his back. One could feel love and reverence emanating from those assembled as he entered the hall and, speaking from the depths, greeted them with, “Beloved ones of God…” There was a pervasive air of sacredness, yet his discourse was often punctuated with hearty joviality. He could not possibly be my daddy or that of my brother or sisters! No, he was the father of us all, young or old, the grand patriarch around whom our lives revolved. He made a little spot on Earth a paradise by his presence.
Years later, introducing a recording of a “mantrum chanted by the Tibetans” to a retreat group, Pir Vilayat provides a glimpse of his own sense of mission, and his utter dedication to it: “You'll observe the tremendous power that comes through, incredible power. It takes that degree of commitment to unleash the divine power. It's not something that can be done half-heartedly. It means a total commitment.”
As a young man, my mother tried to save me from all the hardships that my father underwent, and so encouraged me to be a musician like my brother and sisters. Then one day Murshida Fazal Mai, the lovely old lady who lived with us and was like my grandmother, said, “Vilayat, if you become a musician, that will not prepare you for the task that your father cast upon you to be his successor.” So all that came back. I must have been about 15 or 16. Then I knelt down like a knight and made a pledge: “I dedicate my life totally to my father’s wish, and to do whatever it takes to prepare myself for it.”
Pir Vilayat did not choose a soft path. While he might have acceded to circumstances as presented, or preferred to go off and meditate in a remote cave, he willingly entered the fray of life in accord with his acute sense of commitment and justice. Although an essential thrust of his practice was to experience transcendent states and apply the spiritual insight thus gleaned in everyday life, his forceful call for the awakening not only of consciousness, but of conscience, is perhaps the most challenging and invigorating aspect of his teaching. It entails recognizing and amending one's shortcomings, and strengthening one's impetus to align actions with ideals. And it required that Pir Vilayat address the real ills of people, and the real horror in the world, a sobering task for one focused on building “a beautiful world of beautiful people.”
He did not shrink from evil, but faced it fiercely. In the face of the Nazi onslaught, he decided to volunteer as an officer on a British Royal Navy minesweeper, an extremely dangerous mission. As a young journalist, his intrepid reports of French atrocities in North Africa resulted in United Nations and other international pressure on the French government to stop these actions. There are stories of him rushing to the front of a bus in India that had been stopped by a band of dacoits, commanding that they remove the log they had placed across the road and let the bus pass—and they did. Another time he made a taxi driver who had swerved at a dog pull to the side of the road so that he could disembark. He was wary of personal anger, but he was a great exponent of righteous indignation in defense of others, and led an Amnesty International letter-writing campaign for many years on behalf of prisoners of conscience around the world. Perhaps his signature legacy is the Hope Project, a model program he founded that provides food, education and medical and social services for the destitute shanty dwellers of the neighborhood surrounding the tomb of his father in the Nizamuddin area of Delhi. Year after year he would modestly proffer his beggar’s bowl after his seminars to collect crumpled bills for the dark-eyed children of poverty whom he carried in his heart.
Yes, the heart is broken, but it is alive! We need a conspiracy of conscience, a collective chivalry where everybody is committed to working together on behalf of the whole. In our dismay at a disturbed world teetering at the edge of disaster (or is it being afflicted by exceedingly hazardous birth pangs?), as we quiver at the threat of wreaking further unimaginable escalating havoc upon our erstwhile beautiful planet and killing or causing excruciating pain for millions, perhaps billions, of innocent people, we are shaken out of complacency and challenged into exploring the core issues at the social scale and in ourselves. Discovering the degree to which the emotions of hate and disregard of suffering erupt mercilessly when people are threatened or frightened is so distressing! War, violence, cruelty, with all its trail of misery, starts in each one of us. Our spiritual values are at stake. Never has the message of the awakening of conscience been so urgently relevant! What if we emboldened ourselves to turn the tables on violence by bestowing pardon and forgiveness? What if we gave love a chance?
For all his extraordinary qualities, Pir Vilayat was very human. He had loves and losses, lapses and surges, regrets and forgivings—and profound sorrows. His revered father returned to India and died when only 44 years old, leaving the whole family bereft. Later, the looming menace of the Third Reich darkened his youthful prospect, and soon he experienced war close at hand, including horrific loss of comrades and narrow rescue when his minesweeper was torpedoed and sunk. Then, within a few years, he suffered the death of his sister in the war, the death of his fiancée in a motorcycle accident, and the death of his mother. Shaken and shattered, he listened to Bach’s B minor Mass every night for months to heal his spirit.
Of these losses, most stinging was the demise of his beloved sister Noor after her heroic work as an undercover radio operator in occupied France. Imagine him anxiously searching for news of her day after day at the end of the war, his heart wrenched when he finally learned that she had been betrayed and captured, tortured, and then executed at the concentration camp at Dachau, uttering “Liberté!” with her last breath. The ache of this devastating loss stayed with him his whole life—he said he could not enjoy tasty food without thinking of the acrid potato-peel soup Noor was forced to eat—impelling him to personally grapple with resentment and forgiveness. Over fifty years later, Pir Vilayat conducted a performance of the B minor Mass at the Dachau memorial to commemorate Noor, and all victims of oppression. The day was overcast, darkening as the Mass moved through the Crucifixus section, when suddenly, as the Resurrexit was sung, a great shaft of light broke through the clouds and shone upon those gathered.
After this sorrowful series of events, another crushing blow fell when Pir Vilayat, at last ready to lead, was denied his position in the Sufi Movement founded by his father. Bracing himself, he faced life anew, and, renewing his resolve to carry on his father’s work, he painstakingly began forging his own legacy. This struggle is echoed in a saying from Goethe that he often cited: “That which you inherit from your forefathers, you must conquer in order to possess.” Reclaiming his lost inheritance became a lifelong quest that led him to sit with ascetics in the Himalayas; take rigorous Sufi retreats at Ajmer, Hyderabad and the Mount of Olives; delve into the world’s treasury of spiritual revelation; and ultimately develop a counterpart organization, Sufi Order International, that would provide the scope for him to bring a new dispensation to the heritage of the past and rally a new generation to the message of love, harmony and beauty brought by Hazrat Inayat Khan.
My father once told me to find the great rishis at the source of the Ganges and the Jumna. Then I had an opportunity to go to India at last. In fact I hitchhiked to India several times because I didn’t have much money. It was a wonderful way of visiting the world. I was still quite young when I had my first encounter with a rishi sitting in a cave. I had come a long way. I had walked three days and three nights in the snow, and had caught pneumonia. I was also rather scared because there were tracks in the snow that I thought might be the tracks of a bear. But they turned out to be the footsteps of a rishi. The first thing he said to me was, “Why have you come so far to see what you should be?” I was rather inexperienced, so I just said, “It is so wonderful to see this.” Today, I suppose I would have said, “To become what I might be, I have to see myself in another myself who shows me who I truly am.”
Considering his solar nature and his tendency to dispel darkness, it’s no wonder that Pir Vilayat grappled with Jung’s warning, “If you do not face your shadow, it will appear in the form of your fate.” In response, he confronted the pitfall of using spiritual practice as a means of “getting high” without attendant self-assessment, and advocated scrupulously shining the light of awareness into the recesses of one’s mind and heart. Opening to his own struggles and failings, and deconstructing the role cast for him by his followers, brought him to a new level of candor.
It has become clear to me that, because I have been emphasizing the idyllic dimension of people while underplaying the “shadow,” some have been lulled into a highfalutin image of themselves and of myself which matches neither the reality of their being nor of mine, and brooks contradictions in how they handle situations. Anyone volunteering to embody the archetype representing people’s higher self will have to choose between artfully concealing one’s shadow and, when discovered, justifying it hypocritically, or alternatively, exposing oneself to scrutiny and criticism by all. Should one have the honesty and courage to confront one’s shortcomings, one will better understand people’s problems through seeing oneself in others and others in oneself, thus affording real help to those who also need to transmute their shadow elements.
Pir Vilayat’s passion for freedom led him to challenge constraints of convention, conditioning and “sclerosed” ways of thinking. His was a quest to fashion himself afresh, to garner the prerogative to participate in the unfurling of creation.
Once while on retreat in the Alps, after a stormy night in the mountains precariously sheltered beneath the roof of a shepherd’s shed, I observed the dark clouds and heard the thunderclaps gradually receding into the distance, swept away by a raging wind. As if in sympathetic resonance, my consciousness began to melt away, scattering into an infinite, edgeless universe. Vanishing along with the storm were my concepts about the world, the cosmos, my personal circumstances, unresolved problems, values, actions, even all my teachings—suddenly all these thoughts seemed so futile, worthless and misleading! Rather than flounder in a “dark night” of negativity brought on by the collapse of these mental structures, I clung to the very meaningfulness that had just shattered my commonplace thinking. It was the consummate quantum leap, bringing vividly alive the last words spoken by my father, Hazrat Inayat Khan, on his deathbed: “When the unreality of life pushes against my heart, its door opens to the reality.” All my life I had prided myself on what I thought were valid theories about unmasking the hoax of habituated responses to life. But instead of dismissing all these constructs, I realized that they had acted as stepping-stones that led me to this ultimate breakthrough, while “I” became immersed in the sublime, wordless state of unity beyond life—existence unveiled into eternity.
Brandishing the mantra “What if . . .?” he explored the advancing verge of evolution and pioneered a forward-looking spirituality that would transcend the limited and limiting thinking of the past. Indeed, for him, as epitomized in one of his favorite sayings, “The pull of the future is stronger than the push of the past” (L. Euler).
Since the challenges of our times are, in some ways, more demanding than those faced by our predecessors, our free-wheeling into the future must integrate a greater complexity. Meditation needs to give us the means to reduce stress, improve decision-making, and overcome resentment and poor self-image. We need in meditation to honor our concerns about the environment, the population explosion, political oppression and social justice. We need to take into consideration futuristic views in physics and in psychology, and join the nascent trend to explore new expressions of our need for the sacred, emancipated from hackneyed forms of sanctimoniousness, superstitions, prescriptions, and dogmatism.
Pir Vilayat delivered a resounding message of meaningfulness that offers a healing prospect for beleaguered souls. For him, the perceptible realm is a revealing veil behind and through which a sublime resplendence transpires. Our life is an extraordinary opportunity to fulfill the “divine intention”—to bring to light the treasure hidden in our being that is wanting to manifest, thus conferring a unique bequest upon the whole of creation. So he affirms a momentous potentiality for the human being as a consecrated laboratory for the evolution of the universe. Our lives are a dynamic process in which potentialities unfurl as we interact with the world. Thus even our problems can be regarded as a way we are drawn out and shaped so that, ultimately, we conspire with the universe to bring forth something of eternal value through our temporal lives. This establishes experientially a means for our participation in the universe, wherein remembrance of the sacred can be renewed at a moment’s notice. “Training oneself to see things from the divine point of view is key to understanding the essence of Sufism: it is the ‘global compass’ that offsets the personal vantage point, the 'true north' orienting one's direction in life. There can be progress only by shattering your understanding to allow a greater understanding to come through.” Thus spirituality is about reaching beyond limited notions of ourselves to discover and embody the wonder and mystery of a vaster reality.
The more one penetrates the mystery of life, the more one is bemused, and amazed. It starts by being overwhelmed by the meaningfulness of life, with all its drama and the tremendous achievements of our great civilizations. There is a kind of enthusiasm that goes with this realization—that we are able to be part of all this is the greatest privilege that one could ever imagine! Physicists say they never cease to be amazed not only by the meaningfulness, but by the elegance of the universe. So it goes beyond understanding—your admiration is superceded by ecstasy, by your state of be-wondering, and it reaches beyond that into glorification.
The cells have the faculty of absorbing light, not only from the sun, but also from the stars and from cosmic rays, because the whole of space is not just studded with lights—it is an ocean of light. Dynamized by this light, the electrons within the atoms within molecules within the cells start using that energy to free themselves from the constraint of their routine orbital, and they begin to dance. The freedom that they enjoy because they are feeding on light is something that one has to experience. The dance of the atoms! As matter of fact, they exult in joy. If we become conscious of what's happening in our body, then our souls exult in joy and participate in the choreography of the heavens.
If human life is an expression of the divine impetus bursting into existence through the material of the cosmos, then awe-inspired response is natural. Religion no longer needs to be about binding people to creeds and admonitions, but may become primarily a message of spiritual liberty that celebrates our ineluctable life in God.
You could say that divine freedom is delegated to each one of us, so instead of thinking that our free will violates or even contrasts with the divine will, consider that it customizes and thereby enriches it. The beauty here is that there is order and there is freedom within the order, and there are degrees in which that freedom can manifest itself. A very wonderful example is St. John's Passion where you have “It has been fulfilled,” the words of Christ have been fulfilled. There is this voice, along with the viola da gamba playing a bit different line, and they never dovetail but are just listening to each other. It is like two eagles in a sky that are free and at the same time they are watching each other and maintaining some kind of contact. I am thinking of the words of Bach when he says (unconfirmed quotation): “In the science of my art and the art of my science I am trying to create a model for the human commonwealth. Not a melody with subsidiary accompaniments, but for each theme an instrument and for each instrument a theme. Not the imposition of one theme upon another, but rather, each enjoying a degree of freedom yet each trimming its initiative in the interest of the whole. Such is the symphony of the stars.”
Spiritual awakening was not an abstract goal for Pir Vilayat, but an experiential cauldron of intensive investigation and practice. He conjoined Yogic, Buddhist and Sufi teachings to elucidate ascent through the stages of awakening, and drew on contemplations from the mystical traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam to inform his own course of transformational meditation. He elaborated traditional Sufi practices of zikr and wazifa in an endless stream of new variants and formulations, and sounded the call of the dervish to “Die before death and resurrect now!” He expounded “stereoscopic consciousness,” toggling between cosmic and personal points of view to extrapolate a perspective which encompasses both, what he called “awakening in life rather than beyond life,” or “samadhi with open eyes.” Declaring “the map is not the terrain” (A. Korzybski), he invoked the holographic paradigm of a dynamically interwoven universe, and acclaimed the numinous reality transpiring “within us, through us, as us”—as God. Barely skirting paradox at every turn, he posited “eternity in a temporal act, infinity in a finite fact” (P. Mulford), and “reconciling the irreconciliables,” in the quest for the “impossible possibility.” He extended our comprehension of the divine by describing realms often considered beyond depiction, employing “creative imagination” to exult in pristine vistas and plumb archetypal landscapes of the soul. And he worked throughout his life with breath, thought and light to fashion a subtle technology for igniting realization and illumination.
He sometimes used obscure terms like perspicacity, precellence and synarchy to distinguish qualities and capacities beyond the ordinary (often sending his listeners to the dictionary!). And he evoked compelling images that could transport one into new perspectives: the human as an individuated vortex within the universe vortex within the vortex of time, all inextricably interconnected in a living and evolving whole. He sometimes described this awakening as the wave realizing itself as the forward expression of the ocean, or as the vast horizon that ever recedes as one advances.
Imagine that you are infusing your aura with a flood of light. Now what does that mean in practice? It could be illustrated by a mother showing her child a picture with a pixie hidden in the tree. The mother asks the child, “Can you see the pixie?” “No Mummy, I can't see it.” “Look again.” “No, l don't see it.” “Okay, now look again, look closely . . .” “Yes!” All of a sudden the child sees the pixie, and her face, her whole being, light up! That is what is meant in the Qur’an by “a light upon a light,” when the light of intelligence strikes and your whole aura bursts into brightness more intensely than ever before.
In one distinctive practice, Pir Vilayat drew upon his lifetime apprenticeship with the wise and holy guides of humanity—from Plotinus to Buddha to Christ to Ibn ‘Arabi to Bach to Einstein—convening an inner interchange with them across time and space, then opening the dialogue outward for us all to hear, as he did in his final opus, In Search of the Hidden Treasure.
Among the many things I am looking for, perhaps paramount is awakening. If I feel that I am caught in a perspective, I'd like to know how to awaken from it. Hazrat Inayat Khan offers an all-encompassing embrace that integrates the sometimes antinomous points of view of the great beings of the past in a cosmic symposium. They are there, but I'm like the bee that makes honey out of the pollen. By contemplating them we build a bridge with our thoughts and our hearts through which they can inspire, and thereby guide us. I'm looking to the know-how that has dawned upon us from these holy beings, to explore what light their views, realizations and attunements project upon our human problems, and to keep abreast with the forward thinking of humanity as it advances towards a unified world-view.
In light of his solemn undertaking, Pir Vilayat could be surprisingly funny. His impish humor, outbursts of laughter (sometimes at his own jokes), or animation at a serendipitous thought—eyebrows rising, eyes wide, mouth open round—could kindle sudden delight, even hilarity, amongst those gathered. This merriment was the leading edge of a deeper ecstasy, where pain and joy converge. His soulful, often spirited, singing of verses from his father, such as “Why O my feeling heart?” or playing Kol Nidre on his cello, poignantly blended power and tenderness. When he entered a room the atmosphere became charged with the vigor of his magnetism. He was the life of any party, full of fascinating stories, witty comments and penetrating questions. And he could just as quickly be moved to tears when recounting stories of great spiritual courage, remembering his sister Noor, or feeling the suffering of others.
His tremendous personal warmth touched even those unknown to him whom he met in his travels, and his unmistakable brilliance drew many to him. He spoke at a continuous succession of seminars, conferences and retreats, always pressing the threshold of the ineffable, perhaps mindful of the fierce dervish he had met in Pakistan who exclaimed, “Wrap yourself in my beard, lose yourself in my glance, and never say anything you think can be said!”
I remember my father saying, “You think that my purpose is to give talks?” He said, “No, I am working on the higher planes with people.” So I hope that we have been working on several levels at the same time, because ultimately it can't be said in words.
Pir Vilayat’s life was kaleidoscopic, if not gyroscopic. He swept into town like a whirlwind (stories of storms accompanying his arrival are legion), summoned us to retreats in remote mountains and deserts, led us into uncharted realms like a sure-footed guide, lifted our sights and our spirits, and left a flurry of new life in his wake. His penchant for change, visionary flights and ideas for new projects could be maddening to those attempting to organize things. Yet he said he preferred honesty to efficiency, and he dauntlessly eschewed the mundane, the mid-range, the mediocre. The multi-cultural, multi-lingual influence of his Indian father, American mother and European education expanded ultimately into a multi-dimensional perspective that was expressed in many facets: distinctive social inventions like the Cosmic Mass, a pageant that dramatized the message of the spiritual guides of humanity - the Abode of the Message, a community based in a former Shaker village in the Berkshire Mountains - Omega and Zenith Institutes, which provide innovative experiences for spiritual growth - interfaith symposia and cutting-edge conferences; his love of science, about which he read avidly; the astonishing cornucopia of words, names and ideas that he drew upon; the seven books and myriad articles he wrote; his deep listening to the world’s classical music for renderings of the compass of emotion, human and divine; his advocacy for the kinship of all life. He inspired thousands of people with a heightened sense of purpose and possibility—to become what we might be!—by stirring “nostalgia” for communion with the divine, and initiated many into the Sufi Order esoteric school. And he drew together a motley group of good-hearted rebels, seekers and angels in many countries as an extended spiritual family, assigning tasks and roles that often stretched, even over-stretched, our capacities, while unleashing enormous creativity as we formed widespread centers, built an international organization, and contributed to the larger world.
Pir Vilayat chose to not insulate himself from others. During his incessant travels he met with a continuous stream of people—at airports, during car rides, at the homes of those who hosted him in each city, before and after his talks or meetings, at breaks and at meals. He was friend to many. Everywhere he went, people sought to have some moments with him, for inspiration and insight, for initiation and guidance, for counsel, consolation or blessing, or simply to enjoy his presence. All the while he dealt with organizational demands, scheduling (and rescheduling), seminar preparation, music selection, rehearsals, interviews, equipment failures, lost items, book deadlines, long-distance phone calls, express mail packets, e-mail, special requests, and needs of friends and family. His spaciousness and good cheer in the face of this deluge, his little gestures of kindness and gratitude, never failed to touch those around him, making parting from him all the more poignant.
I feel that we've been sharing something very beautiful together and that will always remain even if I don't see you again or you don't see me. I hope that we'll always be in touch on a deeper plane. We shall carry each other in our hearts.
One evening, arriving home to his family in California from a trip of many weeks, with piles of business to attend to, Pir Vilayat was surprised to find me waiting in the pod—a snub-nosed conical spaceship of a structure outfitted as his office—in preparation for an individual retreat that had been scheduled months before. He graciously gave me an orientation, then I went down into the back garden to set up my tent. As night fell the temperature dropped, and I soon put on all the clothing I had brought and wrapped myself in my sleeping bag, while trying to focus on the prescribed practices. It grew quite dark, when suddenly I heard a sound of rustling in the bushes, then a little “knock” at my door as my name was spoken, and I unzipped the tent flap. There stood Pir Vilayat, with a folded blanket in his hands, looking at me with a warm gaze. He passed it to me, saying only, “I thought you might be cold.”
As Pir Vilayat’s health failed over many months in a cascade of often-painful ailments (lightened by the loving care of his younger son Mirza), I received this message from my friend Sharif in Suresnes: “I hope Pir Vilayat lasts until your visit; he seems very weak. This morning he asked me, ‘Are you going to the galaxies?’ I said, ‘I hope so. Are you going there?’ He answered with an enthusiastic ‘Yes,’ and I said, ‘Well, then, I'll see you there.’ Then he smiled, the first smile I have seen in some time.”
When I did arrive I found my beloved Pir looking less wizened than I had expected, his skin smooth, his breathing steady, “asleep” on his side. With his great hands, silvery mane, white beard tinged with gold, high brow and deep set eyes, he reminded me of an aged lion curled in the grasses, recapitulating vistas from his life on the savanna as his body closed out its mission. In an atmosphere of prayer, remembrance, and rapt quietude, he passed away gently the next day, surrounded by beloved family—Mary, his wife of 52 years, Clare, his sister, his sons Zia and Mirza, and their mother, Taj—and a handful of friends, on June 17, 2004, two days before his 88th birthday.
Before Pir Vilayat’s body was taken to Delhi to be interred near the tomb of his father, it was placed in a simple coffin in the temple in the garden, draped with Indian silk, an embroidered winged-heart emblem just above his heart, surrounded by an arc of tall candles. Soon an aura of many-colored rose petals grew on the floor around the coffin as pilgrims arrived from near and far to sit in the peaceful atmosphere and share moments of tender reminiscence. On the third day, a grand Cosmic Celebration was conducted, including music, song and chant from many traditions, as well as quotations from scripture and sayings from Pir Vilayat, commencing a series of such memorial services held around the world. At the opening I played Pir Vilayat’s violin. Meditative melodies mixed with cosmic sounds as the music welled from the depths, then through the heart, ending with a chord on the higher strings evoking a light-like brightness, repeating, intensifying, then slowly softening into silence.
Shortly after, Pir Vilayat’s son and successor, Pir Zia Inayat-Khan, wrote: One of his favorite practices is to meditate looking up into the stars at night. I think if you do so you’ll find the imprint of his spirit, as he always reminded us that the physical body is only the hard core of a larger identity, of which one of the dimensions is the aura, which pervades space at the astounding speed of 186,000 miles per second and is the means whereby the personality, the sum of one’s experience, is sublimated, subtilized and radiated into the heavens to become a ripple within the great wave interference pattern of the galaxies. We can discover Pir Vilayat truly in that great moiré of the heavens. The signature of our beloved Pir's inimitable spirit is inscribed in the starry sky.
This article is hosted on the Universel website, home of a Course in Meditation by Pir Vilayat, and many other resources relevant to his work.