CHAPTER 10: Lal Ded

by Prof. Jayalal Kaul

The Life and Legend of Lal Ded

We have no record, contemporary or near-contemporary, of Lal Ded in any chronicle or otherwise. It is only as late as about the middle of eighteenth century that she begins to be taken notice of Khwaja Muhanunad Azam Dedamari writes:

Lalla Arifa, a saintly mystic of the highest order, devoted to God, flourished during the reign of Sultan Alau-ud-Din. In the early period of her life she was bound in wedlock, a prisoner of family life and household chores, but at the same time she became God-intoxicated and having given herself up to a life detachment and retirement, she passed sometime in seclusion away from the people. She passed away during the reign of Sultan Shihab-ud-Din.

For these reasons, Lal Ded's date of birth may be presumed to be sometime between 1317 and 1320, may be earlier but very likely not later than 1320. It may be earlier, as early as A.D. 300-01, if chroniclers Hasan and Miskin are to be believed, and there seems to be no reason why the others, like Shayiq for instance, should be believed in preference to them. The corresponding date of her death, then, would be about A.D. 1372, that is, during Shihab-ud­-Din's reign as Dedamari has told us, if the date of birth be taken as 1301; or it would be sometime between A.D. 1388 and 1320 respectively, calculating 71 years as a fairly advanced age for the times.

Like the lives of saints everywhere else, the life of Lal Ded is shrouded in myth, miracle and legend, but in the words of Tor Andrae, "We need to become acquainted with the great personalities of the world religions in those garments in which the pious faith of their followers have clothed them... Something of the magic of their personalities which we might not understand in any other way, speaks to us through the poetry of faith". Myths and miracles that surround saints' lives not only enrich hagiology or indicate the veneration in which the saints have been held but, often enough, they also illumine their teachings and become spiritually significant allegories.

All legends are agreed on Lal Ded's having been born in a Brahmin family where, from a child, she not only imbibed the atmosphere of piety and religion but also where she came under the influence of Siddha Shrikantha or Siddha Mol (venerable Siddha), and learned certain spiritual sadhanas (disciplines). There is evidence of the fact that in those times, liberal education was imparted to women. From a study of her vaakh, one is persuaded to believe that she was educated during the early part of her life at her father's house. There is unanimous agreement also that she was married in to a Brahmin family of Pampor where she was cruelly treated by her mother-in-law.

Lalla Vaakh: The Test

We have several collections of her verse sayings but there has been no attempt at collecting them, except partly, by Grierson and Barnett ; and there has hardly been any textual criticism worth the name. They were not contemporaneously collected and recorded in a manuscript; the manuscripts of a later date that have been available are not complete and "no two agree in contents and text"; and there is no doubt that they have largely been handed down by oral tradition. But as Sir George Grierson rightly observes, the want of a complete manuscript of Lal Ded's compositions need not make us doubt the authenticity of them. For to quote his words, "the ancient Indian system by which literature is recorded not on paper but on the memory, and carried down from generation to generation of teachers and pupils, is still in complete survival in Kashmir. Such fleshy tables of the heart are often more trustworthy than birch-bark or paper manuscripts". After all, the Vedic hymns were handed down by word of mouth for centuries. Moreover, Sir George had a proof of the almost infallibility of such oral tradition in the collection of folktales by Sir Aurel Stein in 1896. Sir Aurel had taken them down in writing from the mouth of a professional story teller and when, fifteen years later, at Sir George's request, he got the story teller to repeat certain passages, they were repeated by him verbatim, literatim et punctuatim.

I therefore made searching enquiries for them in different parts of the Kashmir Valley and my labours were fortunately rewarded by my being able to obtain 75 more sayings, there are a few more verses besides those contained in these two collections, making it all a total of 258 vaakh.

Speaking of Grierson's scholarly edition of Lalla Vakvani, I said that, on the whole, he succeeded in giving us an authentic text of Lal Ded's verse-sayings. As I shall endeavour to make clear, we cannot vouch for the authenticity, beyond doubt, of each one of the verses included in the edition.

Nor can any reliable inference regarding the authenticity of authorship of these verses be deduced from their being rhymed, unrhymed or written in blank verse. It is argued that since blank verse is a recent, a post-1947, literary phenomenon in Kashmiri, therefore the 'blank verse vaakh' attributed to Lal Ded are either spurious or a corrupted form of the original. This argument may be summarily dismissed. Firstly, Persian, and therefore rhyme as an indispensable adjunct of verse, had not yet become a subject for study in maktabs which indeed had not till then come in to existence. Secondly whatever education Lal Ded might have had would be in Sanskrit and Old Kashmiri, then prevalent. And thirdly Sanskrit and Old Kashmiri need not have, and usually do not have any rhyme at all though Shiti Kantha's Mahanayaprakasha does have rhyme, each quatrain rhyming ab ab. The opposite is, indeed, a true argument: other things being equal, the absence of rhyme would indicate an earlier origin of the verse. And two hundred years or more later when the first copy of Nurnama came to be written, rhyme had become popular and necessary for verse under the predominant influence of Persian. Nor may we underestimate the predilection of folk poetry or scribes and calligraphists to substitute rhyme and more familiar word wherever possible or even to change the sense of the verse somewhat for the sake of rhyme, particularly when these slight changes and easy exercises in verse would, in the words of Ibn Khaldun, confirm their "attachment to certain opinions and schools of thought".

In these circumstances and in the absence of all external evidence we have to fall back upon the internal evidence of the text itself, whatever its probative force. Even this has severe limitations. There are no allusions or references in Lalla vaakh to contemporary events or to any to any events that can be firmly dated. To determine their authenticity, therefore, we are left with only the evidence of diction and prosody, and the quality of cast of thought, the way it is organized in the process of expression, in a word, the characteristic style of Lal Ded. Fortunately there are a fairly substantial number of them which are indubitably hers and have been up to date regarded so by all. These can help us as nothing else can to tell her vaakh from those that have been the creation of others but are wrongly ascribed to her, for these do not bear the characteristic Lal Ded stamp. Caution, however, is necessary in at least two respects. First, we may not test the authenticity of her vaakh merely on the basis of any one of these criteria, taken singly. The better test will rather be the totality of impression gathered from judging the vaakh in question on the bases of all the criteria as a whole. Secondly, it should be evident that a trustworthy judgement can be based only on a careful and sufficient study of the whole body of Lalla vaakh with all their variants (of which there are indeed many) and not on a selection or a part of them. It need hardly be stressed that whatever the criteria and their soundness and sufficiency, we have to depend ultimately on the sensibility and discrimination, theoretical intelligence, of the critic. Perhaps, a third caution should be suggested, namely, a comparison, linguistic and literary, with whatever Kashmiri literature is available to us of the contemporary period, both preceding and succeeding Lalla vaakh, which would obviously demand a competent knowledge of works like Shitikantha's Mahanayaprakasha, Bhattavatara's Banasuravadha, Ganaka Prashasta's Sukhdu­khacaritam and, possibly, also of the snatches and fragments of old Kashmiri that occur as quotations in several Trika Darshana texts. But there is herein a snag, already hinted at. Undoubtedly Lalla vaakh were composed in, what may appropriately be called Old Kashmiri; but for reasons already discussed above, they have come down to us in a language surprisingly modern. They were transmitted by word of mouth and underwent change according as language itself changed insensibly from generation to generation. "Nevertheless", as Sir George Grierson rightly observes, "respect for the authoress and the metrical form of the songs have preserved a great many archaic forms of expressions". And I may add, this preservation has been possible because 'Omen and women direct in line of gurushishyaparampara, in the direct line, that is, of guru-disciple succession, memorised the vaakh to become a part of their daily morning prayer and swadhyaya, self-study. Obviously, it is they who preserved them with religious care and exactitude; for even while they did not understand words and phrases here and there, they had the honesty to refrain from any conjectural emendation to make the verses intelligible". It is for this reason that Sir George holds such a record in some respects more valuable than any written manuscript.

Lallavaakh: The Content

At the very outset, it should be pointed out that the vaakh already available have not been arranged on any clear­cut basis. Lal Ded did not compose her vaakh as a deliberate contribution to literature or philosophy, she did not sing them nor write them for kirtan, devotional recitation and singing, as the later-day bhakta saint singers did. Nor was she a preacher, an evangelist, or a reformer. Her verses, mainly the outpourings of her soul, are an expression of her inner experience and, sometimes though rarely, of her comment on what she observed around her. This notwithstanding, it is possible to arrange the vaakh as to facilitate discerning her progressive spiritual ascent, and they have been so placed here in their translation at the end. There are we may discern, a few (not many though) vaakh which express the state of her mind when she has an overpowering sense of desolation and aloneness. She seems to have developed an almost oppressive sense of emptiness within her and in the world about her. She feels alone, towing her boat upon the sea with a rope of untwisted thread; she is wasting away like water in cups of unbaked clay; there is a yawning pit underneath and she is dancing overhead. It is not the usual sad generalities about the world, this vale of tears, this house of pain, and the like that we have; on the contrary we have a direct impact of her misery, her tension, her earnest expostulation with herself:

I will weep and weep for you, my Soul,

The world has caught you in its spell.

Though you cling to them with the anchor of steel,

Not even the shadow of the things you love

Will go with you when you are dead.

Lal Ded: The Maker of Kashmiri

Lal Ded has, however, not merely the chronological distinction of being placed first in time in the order of modern Kashmiri poets. She is, more significantly, the maker of modern Kashmiri, language as well as literature. As poet, in her own genre, vaakh, as well as generally, she remains unsurpassed. This appears to be the language of exaggeration; and I am conscious of the fact that, often enough, we have double standards for critical judgement which we use in favour of the mahakavis (the great poets) of modern Indian literatures. I am conscious also of my inability to put across in an alien language the full import and impact of Lal Ded's vaakh.

Lal Ded : Her Times and Milieu

I have found it difficult to establish any relationship between the vaakh of Lal Ded and the age in which she lived, the relationship between literature and society of the kind that would satisfy what we have come to call a "progressive modern mind", except perhaps in a very general and meaningless way. I have felt that a more profitable line of research would be to discover whatever literary tradition we might, that is, the continuity of it, sometimes obvious, sometimes less obvious, in those remote days and, for the purpose, to study Mahmayaprakasha and even the earlier fragments of quotation which which we meet in some Shaiva texts and commentaries on them. That would, I hope, not only enrich our understanding of Old Kashmiri and its literature but also give us a sense of the continuity of development, a historical perspective, as a whole, of whatever literature we have. If this were done (and it cannot be done here), we could, so to say, place Lal Ded, against the background of her times, that aspect of it, those literary and extra-literary events and influences which help in understanding individual talent and its creative expression.

Lal Ded: A Reappraisal

A reappraisal of Lal Ded has become necessary. I have endeavoured to determine certain probabilities regarding the dates of her birth and death, and pointed out the improbability of some of the anecdotes and legends that have cluttered the meagre material of her life story. I have also tried to examine the authenticity of her vaakh and to identify and isolate the spurious among them, again with a good measure of probability perhaps but not certainty. I have subjected to scrutiny some of the well-meaning but inexact, even incorrect, laudatory things said about her; for it is time we stopped building her image on such facile opinions.

After clearing all this out of the way, we may well ask ; What then have been the significance of Lal Ded ? Her role as the maker of Kashmiri, both language and literature has been discussed in chapter four. We may here say that though Kashmiri has had a much longer history, and Kalhana records for us what is said to be "the earliest specimen" of Kashmiri, yet we can for good reason acclaim Lal Ded as the progenitor of modern Kashmiri. She is the first among the moderns not only chronologically but in the modem quality of interrogation and expostulation in her poetry. Her poetry is modern because it comes alive for us even today. Indeed she helped us Kashmiris, to discover our mother-tongue and our soul as a people.

Translations - some examples

1. ami pana so’dras navi char laman...

With a rope of loose-spun thread am I towing

My boat upon the sea.

Would that God heard my prayer

And brought me safe across !

Like water in cups of unbaked clay

I run to waste.

Would God I were to reach my home !



2. atshyan ay to gatshun gatshe...

For ever we come, for ever we go;

For ever, day and night, we are on the move.

Whence we come, thither we go,

For over in a round of birth and death,

From nothingness to nothingness.

But sure, a mystery here abides,

A something is there for us to know

(it cannot all be meaningless)



3. kenh chiy ne 'ndri ha' by vudiy...

Some though asleep are yet awake.

Some though awake are yet asleep;

Despite ablutions some are unclean,

Some, by their actions, are untouched.

(Condensed by Bhuvanesh Kaul and Maj.Gen. A. Kaul)

Lal Ded: The Great Kashmiri Saint-Poetess