Rabia of Basra, an eighth-century Sufi saint, was on her deathbed when Sufyan visited her. He asked if she needed any help. A peerless mystic, Rabia said she had given herself to God, so no help was necessary. He then asked if she desired anything. Rabia answered: “My desire is meaningless. I have given all my desires to God.”
Sufyan’s ego got a great jolt. The famed and powerful scholar of his time felt dwarf in front of a frail old woman. He fell to his knees, and said: “O God, forgive me! My devotion is not as strong as this woman’s.”
Rabia smiled, and remarked: “You don’t get the point. You are seeking forgiveness for yourself. Forgive God first, and you will be forgiven.”
Thus goes the story. Believing it or not is up to us. We can either draw valuable lessons from it or set it aside as a myth. A mind open to truth can find many gems of wisdom in this little story.
Perhaps the most obvious gem here is that of bhakti, or true devotion. Sufyan considered himself a man of God, but in front of the God-attuned saint, he saw his own meagerness. But still he couldn't get the point. What could be the point here?
Rabia told him to forgive God instead of seeking forgiveness for himself. For a true devotee, God is not different from yourself. When you consider yourself different from God, bhakti gets corrupted and trade begins. And the corrupted bhakta (devotee) pleads: "O God! Please do this for me. If you do this, I will visit your temple. I will make offerings to you."
For Rabia, God is not different from her. It's His desire that she desires, it's His plan that she is working out. If He has planned destitution and disease for her, why try to change? Since she has God with her, any outside help would be redundant. Why would God—the ultimate source of all help—need anybody else's help? If you have got the ultimate itself, what else would you desire?
Rabia's oneness with the ultimate is rare. And when you are in total unison with it, you know what works and what doesn't. You know the rules that govern this world. One such rule that Rabia was trying to tell Sufyan is that you leave aside your desires. You leave aside your selfish motives. You leave aside even the wish of forgiveness for yourself. Instead, you wish everything for God. When you are one with the ultimate and you wish something for it, you will find fulfillment for yourself, in higher degree, imbued with a higher potency. That happens with faultless devotion, or true bhakti, the way Rabia lived.