CHAPTER 2: A Re-Appraisal of Lal Ded

by Prof. A.N. Dhar

Reappraising Lal Ded as a saint-poet and mystic is the need of the hour, and the present Seminar offers an excellent opportunity to the participants to engage themselves in serious: deliberations on the issue. Perhaps this task has to focus first on exploring what the genuine poetic outpourings or vaakhs of the great saint are (to be sifted from the spurious ones). Then a reinterpretation of the genuine utterances is to be attempted with a view to removing a number of misconceptions and erroneous notions about Lal Ded, some of them obviously based on deliberate distortions and even lies spread to serve a vested interest. All this will call for rigorous research-that is a challenging task in view of our present inaccessibility to the relevant and some indispensable materials lying unused in the State Research Library, that was years back shifted to the Kashmir University campus at Hazratbal, Srinagar.

In spite of the severe handicaps of Lal Ded scholarship, fresh research studies on the saint-poet can take off from the pioneering work in the background accomplished by such scholars as Bhaskar Razdan, Grierson and Barnett, Sir Richard Temple and Pt. Anand Kaul. To my mind, Prof Jayalal Kaul's "Lal Ded", a subsequent publication, is a monumental little volume that can serve as a guide-book to the prospective researchers. Compact and packed as it is with documentary details, it has to be tapped with care as a rich resource, being highly useful as a secondary source material. Professor Kaul has also done a pioneering job in raising sensible and legitimate questions about the authenticity of Lalla Vaakh -how best to establish it through a stylistic study of the utterances as they have come down to us by word of mouth. His intelligent grasp of what linguistic change, over a period of time, in its bearing on the vaakhs, involves in a cross-cultural context is praiseworthy. Some of the racial observations he has made further on the so-called evidence of various influences on Lal Ded are valuable too. And his forceful rebuttal of the claims some scholars have made about the fusion of various schools and creeds in her vaakh, as if consciously attempted by her, deserves to be specially complemented. His total rejection of the evidence put forward by a couple of scholars that Lal Ded at a later stage of her life came under the decisive influence of Islam, followed by her conversion to the new faith, is based on sound and convincing arguments.

Prof. Jayalal Kaul's outstanding contribution to Lal Ded scholarship in the book titled "Lal Ded" has been followed by another accomplished work- the saint-poet authored by Prof. B. N. Parimoo, which too is a significant contribution in terms of his detailed literary translation and interpretation of the vaakhs. Its chief merit lies in the chapter-wise sequencing of the verse-sayings aimed at demonstrating Lalla's spiritual ascent to the plane of supreme consciousness and her union with Parma Shiva as a yogini. Both Prof. Parimoo and his predecessor, Prof. Jayalal Kaul, have maintained that Lalla followed the Shaivite technique of meditation based on kundalini yoga.

Subsequent works on Lal Ded brought out in the past three decades or so include Nilakanth Kotru's "Lal Ded: Her Life and Sayings" published in 1989, a special 'Lai Ded' number of the Koshur Samachar brought out in the year 1971 and Prof. R.N. Kaul's "Kashmir's Mystic: Poetess Lal Ded alias Lalla Arifa" published in 1999. Nilakanth Kotru too has attempted his own English translations of the vaakhs, falling in line with the vaakh-sequence adopted by Jayalal Kaul before him. His meanings and explanations are plain and simple, reflecting, at the same time, a good grasp of the doctrines of Kashmir Shaivism. As regards Prof R.N. Kaul's recent book on Lal Ded, it has some novel features that cannot escape the attention of the thoughtful reader. It is readable and enjoyable in view of its literary charm and lucidity of expression. The interpretation of the vaakhs points very much to a perceptive and assimilative mind behind the book- inasmuch as the content of the vaakhs is made intelligible to the average reader, appealing, at the same time, to the scholar through the author's beauty of expression. The book would have gained further in value if the author had provided adequate details about the essentials of Trika or Kashmir Shaivism and mysticism in general in his account of Lalla as Kashmir's Mystic (which is the main title of the book).

The special number of the Koshur Samachar mentioned earlier is a very useful source-material for the Lal Ded scholar who cannot, in the prevailing circumstances, have an easy access to the materials available in the State Research Library. Besides providing English translations of Lalla's verse-sayings in a separate section, the journal contains useful and learned articles in English and Hindi contributed by many competent writers from our community and also by some well-known writers like Abdul Ahad Azad, Amin Kamil and Prof. Rehman Rahi. It also contains two short write-ups in English contributed by Swami Lakshman Joo and J. Rudrappa.

I should like to mention two more materials on Lal Ded before I switch on to the other related aspects of the topic of this paper. I was able to lay my hands on the small volume titled "Lalleshwari Remembered" by Swami Muktananda published in 1981. The Preface by Swami Prajnananda and the Introduction by Joseph Chilton Pearce, both thoughtfully written, are valuable as informative pieces on Lal Ded and her sayings. Then follow English renderings of the sayings in the form of poems attempted in the free-verse pattern. These poems capture the essence of the vaakhs without observing accuracy in keeping close to the form and content of the original text. They could be described as transcreations rather than translations. Joseph Chilton Pearce justifies this feature by observing that "a true translation is always a recreation".

The other book I acquired very recently was published in early 1999. It bears the title "Voice of Experience : Lall Vaakh of Lall Ded / Lali Shori of Kashmir" and contains English translations of 154 vaakhs attempted by the author, B.N. Sopori. The vaakhs are grouped under five headings chosen as the titles of individual chapters - 'Sadhana', 'Adventure in Space', 'Fortitude', 'Precepts' and 'Discourses with Guru (Master)'. In the Foreword, the author himself, as translator and commentator, describes his particular approach to the study of the vaakhs-involving scientific terms and concepts such as 'vibration', 'frequency', 'wavelength' etc. which, interestingly it seems to me, are drawn from his professional vocabulary as a former employee of the Department of Telecommunication. Since he is not a man of any special literary expertise, he has not been able to develop his ideas into a coherent and systematic theory sustainable throughout the study. He manages somehow to communicate intelligibly in English though his command of the language is faulty at places. All the same, he seems knowledgeable about the import of the vaakhs in terms of actual yogic practice. As he informed me himself, he plans to bring out a second volume as a sequel to the present one, which will contain another 150 vaakhs or so. I wonder if all the vaakhs the author has collected are authentic as Lal vaakh. The present volume has sold well despite what I see as its shortcomings. The author's attempt is a laudable one.

That Lalla was a rare genius-both as a saint and as a poet-is disputed by none, and is acknowledged by all Kashmiris, Hindus and Muslims alike. It is essentially through the vaakhs, which she uttered as direct outpourings from her heart rather than as consciously wrought poetic compositions, that Lalla became very popular as a saint-poet in Kashmir. As Professor Jayalal Kaul very aptly observes, there was no polarization between Kashmiri Hindus and Muslims in her time; the vaakhs made a tremendous impact on the collective psyche of the two communities. Perhaps most Muslims being only fresh converts to their new faith were as receptive to the wise sayings of the saint-poet as the Hindus who then must have still been in the majority as the natives of the Valley. Even after the latter got reduced to a minority in consequence of conversions, Lalla continued to be held in reverence as 'Lal Ded' by both the communities. She was also called 'Lalleshwari' by one community and 'Lalla Arifa' by the other, showing that both thought very highly of her spiritual attainment in accordance with their religious perceptions. if a Muslim hailed her as an 'Arifa', he did not mean to convey that she had been influenced by Islam in any remarkable way or had accepted a new faith. Later, some Muslim scholar made deliberate distortion of facts in asserting that Lalla had experienced inward "illumination" only after coming into contact with Sayyid Hussain Samnani and had then got converted to Islam. This wishful myth can't stand the test of reason and must be exploded. It has, however, done the mischief: I recall having read in a secondary source-material on Lal Ded that the saint-poet has been mentioned as a convert to Islarn in some encyclopedia. If Muslim scholars draw a parallel between Rabia and Lalla as love-mystics, this seems a befitting comparison and should be acceptable to us. But to distort history and try to perpetuate a lie about Lalla's faith should be rebutted with convincing arguments as Prof Jayalal Kaul has already done on the basis of his sound Lal Ded scholarship.

Significantly, it is Lalla's younger contemporary, Nunda Rishi or Sheikh Noor-ud-Din Wali, acknowledged by the Kashmiri Muslims as well to have been blessed by her at his birth, who has paid her this befitting and glowing tribute:

That Lalla of Padmanpora (Pampore)-she drank
Her fill of divine nectar;
She was indeed an avtaar of ours (dearly loved)
O God, grant me the same boon !

There are three crucial sacred terms used in the Kashmiri text of the tribute that are obviously derived from our shastras: deeva (god), avtaar (incarnation) and var (boon). The words confirm that Nunda Rishi held Lalla in great esteem and looked upon her as a saint of remarkable achievement, having all the qualities of a divine incarnation.

Evidently, he aspires to emulate her, craving to have "his fill of nectar" too as a boon from God. Keeping in view the content of the verse quoted, the responsive reader when informed of the following remark about Lalla made by Sir Richard Temple in his book titled "The Word of Lalla" (C.U.P., 1924) will hardly give any credence to it (the remark) but reject it as a piece of misinformation:

Lalla is said to have been influenced by the great national patron saint of the Kashmiris named Noor-ud-Din Wali of Tsrar-i-Sharif (see p. 3. of Richard Temple's book).

Prof. Jayalal Kaul, quoting the remark in his book titled "Lal Ded", makes his observation on it in these words:

As every Kashmiri, Hindu or Muslim, sees it, the truth is the other way round. Besides, Lal Ded should have been sixty, if not more, when Nunda Rishi was born. (Quoted from p. 72 of Jayalal Kaul's Lal Ded).

Yes, the real truth is that as a saint, Nunda Rishi was greatly influenced by Lal Ded. It was his unqualified veneration for the saint-poetess that had a great impact on the devout Muslims, his followers. That explains why for several centuries Kashmiri Muslims have continued to own her, delighting in memorizing and quoting her sayings as Kashmiri Hindus do, singing the vaakhs on appropriate occasions-festive events such as marriage ceremonies and at cultural functions. Another important tribute to the spiritual genius of Lal Ded has been paid by Shams Faqir in his poem :

O you enlightened one,

Recognize the vital air and attain gnosis

To realize God:

Real worship is performed

In life's workshop itself:

What the holy scriptures truly mean

By 'the house of idols';

Lalla achieved the fusion

Of her vital air and ether,

And thus realized God;

Sodabhai (on the other hand) got lachrymose,

What would he ask of the stone image?

Lalla dropped the pitcher of water

Inside the house of idols

And attained god-realization:

Intoxicated (as a mystic) she contrived

To bathe at the confluence of 'sixteen rivers',

And she built a 'bridge'

Across the ocean of temporal existence;

She knocked off the Devil's head

And gained self-recognition;

The 'unskilled carpenter',

Having built the palace in wilderness,

Learnt a lesson from Lalla!

She had to bear with the stone

Her mother-in-law kept concealed

In the plate of rice served to her

(She stood to gain from this austerity);

Lalla went to Nunda Rishi's to teach him her doctrine -

What the rinda mystics call gnosis (irfaan);

She played 'hide and seek' with Shah Hamdan

And had a direct 'encounter' with God;

O, you learned Shams,

The sun does not have a shadow;

Lalla ascended to heaven like a cloud,

Realize God (as she did).

(Translation by the author)

The poem is, in fact, Shams Faqir's extended tribute to the spiritual qualities and attainments of the celebrated poet mystic Lal Ded. Aware of her religious background and her upbringing in a Shaivite Kashmiri Pandit family, Shams Faqir uses conspicuous Kashmiri words of Sanskrit origin, derived from the Hindu scriptures, while paying his poetic homage to the noted 14th century saint-poet. The words include terms such as praan (vital air), jnaan (knowledge), aakaash (ether), karmavaan (meaning life's workshop in the poem); it generally means 'a performer of good actions' or 'a fortunate person having performed good actions in his or her past life'. Shams Faqir is categorical in duly recognizing Lalla's religious background and faith; he acknowledges her individual genius as a spiritual Master and her 'ascent' to the Highest Abode.

On the basis of the internal evidence from the uaakhs, the thoughtful reader is left in no doubt about Lalla's spiritual moorings as a yogini: her Shaivite upbringing in a Kashmiri Brahman family. We have unmistakable clues in some of Lalla's uaakhs about her initiation into yoga at the hands of her Guru, Sedamol, who was an accomplished siddha as a follower of the Shaivite path. The very first vaakh (from among many vaakhs) in which Lalla talks of her initiation into spirituality and of the remarkable effect of the guru mantra on her, convinces us that she immediately experienced "illumination of the Self'. She had no reason to roach any more in search of a spiritual guide:

The Guru gave me but one precept,

"From without turn inward",

It came to me "Lalla" as God's word;

I started roaming nude.

The vaakh explicitly conveys that Lalla experienced instant spiritual transformation and was thrown into a state of ecstasy on receiving the guru's word. Elsewhere she says (I found the all-knowing Self within -in the sanctuary of my own heart), I saw Shiva and Shakti conjoined in eternal embrace" and (that's how I attained the Abode of Light). A tone of confidence and self-assurance, based on a sense of spiritual fulfillment and an awareness of the ultimate truth, is clearly reflected in these utterances of Lal Ded. We are convinced that she has got to the root of the matter and attained self-realization. Her affirmative statements, such as those quoted, confirm her Hindu faith throughout (call it Shaivite if you see it as a distinct cult within Sanatan Dharma). The fact is that she had no reason to seek further direction or spiritual succour from any visiting divine or preacher belonging to a faith other than her own. All the so-called evidence given by the Muslim scholar to prove her conversion to Islam is nothing but an unacceptable tissue of lies.

I should like to mention a few scholars from our own community who have made some observations on Lalla that don't seem tenable. They seem to have supposed or imagined that she played the role of a committed social activist, a professional preacher or teacher of spiritual values and brought about fusion of diverse creeds and schools of thought. Forgetting that Lal Ded didn't compose her vaakhs as professional poets compose and publish their verses today, they draw their own inferences on which they base very facile and untenable views as if Lalla meant to preach and propagate a philosophy of her own through her vaakhs. Here are the two examples that Professor Jayalal Kaul has questioned in Chapter 5 of his book on Lal Ded:

(i) She brought about a "synthesis of the two philosophies" (the Trika and Islamic Sufism) and this synthesis "was given to the world in poetic sermons by the wandering minstrel through the rest of her life" (See "Daughters of Vitasta" by Prem Nadi Bazaz, Pamposh Publications, New Delhi, .1959, p. 129).

(ii) "The order she founded was an admixture of the nondualistic philosophy of Saivism end Islamic Sufism" (See "A History of Kashmir" by P.N.K. Bamzai, Metropolitan Delhi, 1962, p. 498). Again, in the view of Daya Krishen Kachru "Lalleshwari took the best of Islamic thought and fused it best with her own creed". (See Daya Krishen Kachru, "The Light of the Valley" Koshur Samachar, 1971, Lal Ded Number, p. 7). This is also questionable, especially the way it is worded.

Lalla's vaakhs convey a message of peace and harmony and one can see that she owes it as much to her educational background in a Shaivite Kashmiri Brahman family as to her spiritual enlightenment based on her own sadhana. There is a definite impress of the Shaivite thought and terminology on her vaakhs. Whatever her background, there is also evidence in the vaakhs of a state of awareness and of an outlook far transcending cults. Her teaching is, in fact, in tune with our Sanatan Dharma that is exceptionally catholic and all-embracing, acceptable as much to the emancipated Hindu as it should be to the liberal Muslim. It is her direct "encounter" with the ultimate truth as a true yogini or mystic that explains why Lalla vaakh appeals to men of all shades of religious thought (inasmuch as all religious paths lead to the same goal). When scholars read her vaakhs with pre-conceived notions, they interpret them to convey that Lalla aimed at achieving a fusion or synthesis of Vedantic philosophy and Islamic Sufism, as if with a conscious purpose (reflective of her outlook as a thinker and intellectual).

Professor Jayalal Kaul has been consistent in his description of Lal Ded as a Shaivite yogini. In this connection, he has been at pains to clarify in what ways Trika and Vedanta are distinguishable as non-dualistic philosophies. In particular, he characterizes Shankara Vedanta as illusionist and praises the Shaivite philosophy of Kashmir for its vie, of the world as real. As a student of the Gita and on the basis of my reading of some of the Upanishads (in English translation), I don't find Vedanta altogether distinct from Trika. Both philosophies are rooted in the Vedas end are complementary to each other. If according to Trika the world is real, a manifestation of the -pa, doesn't Lord Krishna affirm the same truth in the Gita?

[Shloka 19, Chap. 7]

At the end of many births (of striving), the knowing one makes Me his refuge, realizing that Vasudeva is All. A great soul of that type is rare to find.

So we see, as the Lord tells us in the, Gita, (All is Vasudeva), implying that God inheres in what we see as the external world, which is as such real- a manifestation of God. This is what Trika also emphasizes. In the Shivastotravali, Utpaldeva - celebrated Kashmiri Shaivite philosopher and poet-gives equal importance to seeing Shiva as (immanent in the world) as (transcendent or beyond the phenomenal world). As a devotee of Shiva, he wants to have (consciousness of the Supreme Self) in the wakeful state - while experiencing the world through the senses, and not merely when he is absorbed in meditation. If there were no compatibility between Shaivism and Vedanta, Abhinava Gupta (famous Kashmiri Shaivite philosopher after Utpaldeva), would not have attempted an interpretation of the Gita in terms of the Trika philosophy.

A word about Shankaracharya, who is branded an illusionist by some Shaivites. We must not forget that he is also credited with being the author of the Sanskrit work titled Saundarya Lahari. What is mayavaad for the Vedantin assumes the form of shaktivaad in the book mentioned as Shankara's point of view undergoes a change. In a Sanskrit poem attributed to him, he uses the line as the refrain and a statement that a Shaivite believes to be very true of the Self. I feel that the Lal Ded scholar must avoid seeing the saint and poet as an exponent of only a particular school of thought-Trika. So long as Lalla is a poet (and she is so preeminently), she cannot afford to be rigorously doctrinal as a systematic philosopher. No doubt, many of her vaakhs have the preacher's tone. She is a seeker too in a number of the vaakhs; her poetry is mystical as the poetry of aspiration as well as of fulfillment. If we over-stress Lalla's being a Shaivite poet, we then overlook her catholicity. In one of her vaakhs she says clearly that she sees Shiva as no different from Keshava. How true she sounds when she says (I forgot the shastras as my spiritual practice gained in depth and intensity). And as Lalla's practice advanced, as she went up the ladder of meditation and crossed all the hurdles-negotiated the chakras- her utterances became spontaneous as mystical outpourings, coming straight from the heart. What interestingly cannot escape our attention is that even when she has the preacher's tone in some of her vaakhs, she is not overtly didactic, we don't see a "palpable" design in the whole body of her verse sayings. That explains why her poetry is soul-stirring.

Finally, it is the vaakhs of Lal Ded-that are aphoristic and, as such, loaded with wisdom-on which her great popularity as a mystical poet largely rests. And she is a great poet precisely because she is intensely spiritual and, conversely, she is highly spiritual because she is gifted with an extraordinary poetic sensibility. The vaakhs bear testimony to Lalla's genius as a saint and poet in one. What the American literary critic, Helen C. White, remarks about the mystic poet is unreservedly applicable to Lal Ded as a poet:

"It is not a strange hybrid of poet and mystic who write a mystical poem. It is not a man who writes first as a mystic and then as a poet. It is not even a mystic who turns over to the poet who happens to dwell within the same brain and body the materials of his insight to be made into a work of art by the competent craftsman. It is rather that the same human being is at once poet and mystic, at one and the same time from the beginning of the process to the end. (The Metaphysical Poets: A Study in Religious Experience, 1936, New York, p. 22).


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Lal Ded: The Great Kashmiri Saint-Poetess