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
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
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
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)