Written by Randeep Singh
The Buddha and Ghalib are two of the best known philosophers and poets of the Indian subcontinent. The Buddha’s teachings, the Dharma, elucidate the relationship between suffering and desire. In his collection of Urdu poetry, the Dīwān-e-Ghalib, Ghalib, ponders over desire and whether one can ever be content.
We each see new meanings in the mirror of Ghalib’s verse. His poems reflect his thoughts on suffering and desire. They also elicit new understandings on the nature of desire, challenging one’s view of the Dharma.
The first two noble truths of the Buddha are that life is suffering and that the cause of suffering is desire. Ghalib’s couplet (sh’er) poignantly reenacts this drama:
hazāroñ ḳhvāhisheñ aisī kih har ḳhvāhish pah dam nikle
bahut nikle mire armān lekin phir bhī kam nikle (219.1)
A thousand such longings, I’d die with each one
Many wishes escaped only to prove too few
We die with each longing. We remain unfulfilled, desiring more than we can attain. The Buddha taught that wanting what we cannot have is a form of suffering.
And yet, desire has its uses:
havas ko hai nishāt̤-e kār kyā kyā
nah ho marnā to jīne kā mazā kyā
What joys of action has desire
What joy has life without death
Would one act without desire? Would the world exist? Desire underlies life and action. And we enjoy life, knowing it will end.
Can we ever be desire-less? Without desire, Siddharta Gautama would not have become the Buddha, he would not have desired to end suffering. For those of us who aren’t monks, desire is fulfilled in moderation and ultimately, transformed from something self-centered (‘tanha’) to the positive desire to better oneself and do good to others (‘chanda’).
Ghalib’s sh’er reminds us that life cannot be lived without desire. It seems that “positive” desire has its joys of action as well.
 Siddhartha Gautama (c. 563-483 BCE or 480-400 BCE).
 Mirza Asadullah Beg Khan (1797-1869).
 ‘Desire, lust, concupiscence, inordinate appetite; — ambition; –curiosity’. Platts, John T. (John Thompson). A dictionary of Urdu, classical Hindi, and English. London: W. H. Allen & Co., 1884, 1241.