In Vadan Tanas, Hazrat Inayat Khan offers us a brief but very illuminating conversation with Death, beginning with this exchange :
Death, what are you?
– I am the shadow of life.
When some friends gathered online recently to talk about life and death, one question arose concerning this saying – specifically, what is meant here by ‘shadow’?
In some contexts, such as in some fields of psychology, the word ‘shadow’ can refer to a person’s shortcomings, the dark side of one’s nature. Sufism is certainly cognisant of the errors and limitations we all display – in tedious persistence and in spectacular variety – but here shadow is not related to morality or psychology. Typically Hazrat Inayat Khan uses the term shadow in a wider sense, to distinguish between the illusion of the outer world and the reality of spiritual truth, as, for example, in this saying from Gayan Boulas : The external life is but the shadow of the inner reality.
When we stand in the sunlight, the shadow we cast is similar in appearance to our physical body, but only in general form, in the outline and not in the detail. If we speak to the shadow it will not respond; if we touch the shadow, it does not feel the caress. If we ask the shadow to defend us in a battle, it will do nothing except parrot whatever movements our body makes. The shadow, we could say, is evident but unreal.
And what does it mean, to say that ‘life’ has a shadow? The current of life, which we call the soul, puts on a material garment, borrowing earth and water to clothe itself, but it is only the garment that casts a physical shadow; the soul itself, unseen, does not. By the law of the world, the form must someday change into something else; the gathered elements were only assembled temporarily and must someday be scattered by the forces around them. It is this change that we call ‘death,’ but metaphysically it is the shadow which dies, not the vitality which animates us.
In other words, the external world, to which we devote so much of our time, so much of our belief, is insubstantial and not at all what we take it to be. It is no exaggeration to say that the outer is false, and only the light within is true. The external is formed according to the internal, but it is not the same. Therefore we have these two sayings from Gayan Suras :
Where the body goes the shadow goes also; so is truth followed by falsehood.
* * *
There is as much likeness between falsehood and truth
as there is between the person and his shadow,
the difference being that while the former has life
the latter has none.