CHAPTER 5: Lal Ded - The Poet who gave a Voice to Women

by Prof. Neerja Mattoo

In the fourteenth century, a woman writing in any language was a rarity, but it happened in Kashmir. A voice, which set off a resonance heard with clear tone till today, spoke directly to the people and what is more, was heard with all seriousness, recorded in collective memory and later, the words put down on paper. This path-breaking woman is the mystic poet Lal Ded, whom the Kashmiris venerate to this day as a prophetess, moral guide and a fount of practical wisdom. Her word is quoted at every step in their lives. In fact the very language owes most of its richness of phrase and metaphor to her contribution to it. Apart from its spiritual message, her work, like Shakespeare's, has a timeless meaning accessible to people of different intellectual levels. Unlike most women who have left an imprint on history, she was not related to an important person in the social or spiritual hierarchy of the time. Nor was she located in a convent, or as some mediaeval Christian women mystics like, say, Saint Maria Maddalena de Pazzi, (Florence, 1566-1607) or the Beguines were in a community of women, where a band of devoted followers would note down every word as it fell from her lips. It was the import, sonority and direct appeal of her utterances that reached out to the peasant and the priest, the prince and the plebeian and stayed printed on their minds and travelled down the ages by word of mouth. This is the woman known simply as Lal Ded, the mother figure to the common men and women of Kashmir.

Lal Ded was born in the second decade of the fourteenth century-the exact year of her birth is not known-in a Kashmiri Pandit (Brahmin) family in Pandrethan, a village in the suburbs of Srinagar. Her early life was no different from that of any other girl of that time in her station. Before being married off at an early age (as was the custom in her community), into a family at nearby Pampore, she seems to have been given some education in religious texts by the family priest, who has been identified as a learned scholar and yogic practitioner Siddha Srikanth. He is the Guru to whom she refers in her vaakhs frequently, sometimes asking him questions, sometimes even playfully pointing out his inadequacies as a spiritual mentor.

The marriage, as is the case with most where the woman dares to steer an independent course, was doomed from the very beginning. The couple was ill-matched. The husband had none of the sensitivity or subtlety of mind to appreciate Lal Ded's deeper expectations from life. Besides, the mother-in-law was typical, oppressive, hostile presence, unable to understand that even though performing all the duties of a traditional daughter- in-law, Lal Ded's concerns lay beyond those a mere householder lived and drat she thought at a higher plane. She would miss no opportunity to find something to complain about in her behaviour. Lal Ded was thus a double victim-of an inimical mother-in-law and a jealous husband. There are innumerable stories of how cruelly she was tormented and the Kashmiri language is full of proverbs connected with Lal Ded's legendary patience, wisdom, deep insights and spiritual power. The best known story of her life concerns the patience with which she put up with her mother-in-law’s treatment, who did not even give her enough to eat.

But far from this treatment turning her into an object of pity, Lal Ded became, what is known in modem feminist critical idiom, a Subject Woman, or-to use the current jargon, an Empowered Woman, one who through her mystic poetry, set in motion a cultural, linguistic, social and religious revolution. Her work reveals that she conversed and discussed with the most learned scholars-all men-of her time on an equal footing, without a trace of gender inequality, self-consciousness or the so-called womanly reserve, yet her vocabulary is that of the common man. There is no elitist, Brahminical choice of word, phrase or metaphor-these are drawn from a woman's world of domesticity, even though she walked out of marriage and home. Her poetry is a woman's work and in the process she gives a voice to women. As an example, here is a popular vaakh:

ami panu sodras navi chhas larnnt

kati bazi day mayon me ti diyi tar

amyan takyan pony zan shraman

zua chhum braman garu gatshuha

(With thread untwisted my boat I tow through the sea,

Would the Lord heed and ferry me across?

Water seeps through my bowls of unbaked clay,

Oh how my heart longs to go back home!)

Let us analyse this vaakh textually first, without going into the mystic symbolism of the "Eternal Sea". Lal Ded's choice of metaphor is drawn from the lowly boatman and the potter and the emotional climax of the vaakh, the cry of an unhappy woman caught in a bad marriage who longs to return home. Of course she uses these to convey her mystic quest, but it is interesting to note that even when talking about abstract concepts, it is the woman's voice that rings out true.

In several vaakhs she even defies the patriarchic authority of the Guru, a figure normally highly esteemed by all mystics. The Sufis cannot take a step in the spiritual journey unless the Peer holds their hand. And so it is with the Trikaites. But Lal Ded is an exception in this. Of course she had a teacher, why, several mystics from whom she learnt, and with whom she had discussions to resolve problems in the spiritual path she had chosen to follow. But the abject surrender of the Sufi is not for her. She would "meet him equally on this", without false modesty or coy humility and is, therefore, quite unselfconscious in expressing her dissatisfaction if the Guru is unable to give an answer that appeals to her mind. The mind is important too, in her scheme of things, in spite of her belief in God's grace descending upon some privileged beings, enabling them to comprehend intuitively. The following two vaakhs are interesting in this context. In one she poses a query to the Guru and in the other proceeds to supply the answer herself :

he gwara parmeshwara

bavtam tseyi chhuy antar vyod

doshvay wopdan kandupura

hukavu turun tu ha kavu totuy.

(Oh my Guru, for me you are the Lord,

You who know the inner self, tell me do,

When both rise from the centre of the body

Why is the breath 'phu' cold and 'ha' so hot?)

It is a child-like question, curiosity about something that apparently does not make sense: why should the same breath have contradictory effects when blown out sharply with pursed lips and when exhaled forcefully with mouth open? One cools the palm while the other warms it. The Sufi would patiently wait for an answer from the Peer, but Lal Ded does not hesitate to venture an explanation for the peculiar phenomena, herself :-

nabhisthanas chhe prakarath zaiavuni,

brahmasthanas shishurun mwokh

brahmandas peth nad vuhuuni

phu' tavay turun 'ha' gav tot.

(The nature of the navel region is fiery like the sun,

The crown of the head icy like the moon

From which cool waters down the tubes flow,

That is why 'phu' is cold and 'ha' so hot.)

The second verse is a succinct explanation of the system of yoga practiced by Lal Ded. It believes that in the region of the navel is seated the 'bulb', i.e., the root of the 'nadis' (tubes) through which 'prana' (life air) circulates. Hence Lal Ded calls it 'kandapura' (the region of the bulb). It is interesting to note that it is the area that is known in human anatomy as the solar plexus. It is so named because the radial network of nerves and ganglia situated behind the stomach and supplying the organs here resemble the rays of the sun. For Lal Ded too this region is hot. But with practice, a yogi can rouse the coiled energy lying at the base of the spine and lead up through various levels in the spinal cord to the cool 'thousand petalled lotus' situated at the crown of the head. This is the blissful state of cosmic consciousness, where all hot agitations of mind and body are stilled. No wonder then, that breath should take upon itself the cooling and warming properties of the body, which after all, is sustained by it !

The fearless confidence of self-reliance such verses exude makes Lal Ded stand out not only among mystic poets, but among women and all other enslaved beings. To admit of human shortcomings in a Guru is rare, and then go on to say that ones own resources have helped finally is rarer still. Lal Ded appears as an individual voice unfettered by norms, ritual obeisance or conventions. In this respect she is a precursor to the later, better known Mirabai. It is also a pointer to the fact that Lal Ded had effortlessly transcended gender and struck a blow at the prevalent patriarchy even as early as the fourteenth century. The so-called liberated woman of the twentieth century appears much smaller in comparison. The total absence of the gender factor or any feeling of regret at being barred from seeking or following her own wishes because of her femininity or without the intervention of patriarchy, is a striking feature of her art. Hers is no weak, helpless voice appealing for succour or aid from a mere man. In fact, it is the powerful voice giving expression to the wishes of all those men and women who wish to find a way out of the labyrinth of the human situation in life. Perhaps to a real mystic like Lal Ded, the body which is responsible for male and female duality, is important not to emphasize the different ness between genders, but as a vehicle to carry the spirit in which there is no difference.

A striking feature of Lal Ded's vaakhs is the unsqueamish use of images of violence, but even here the metaphors are from everyday life. The porter, weaver, carpenter, blacksmith and other unprivileged classes, who form the backbone of village and town economies, find their work and trade celebrated in her vaakhs, even while they tackle abstruse Shaivite practices. She seems to have noticed the material world around her with a sharp, poet's eye, and used it as her vocabulary of choice, unfettered by the conventions of serious, philosophical discourse set down by male authority.

damadam kormas damanhale

prazalyorn diph to naneyam zath

andryum prakash nebar thsotum

gati manzu rotum tu karmas thaph.

(The bellows pipe I pressed gently, muffling its breath,

The lamp lit, in its radiance I stood revealed.

I let inner light burst out in the open,

Through the darkness caught hold of Him and would not let go.)

Lal Ded's metaphors are not obscure, they come from ordinary life. Here she uses one from the blacksmith's forge to explain a subtle concept of Trikashastra. She is talking about the intensely disciplined practice of breath control as part of samadhi (yogic meditation). The yogi is like a blacksmith pressing a bellows pipe in order to control his forge, or a flautist (Lal Ded would not mix metaphors, but to explain the richness of her thought here, one is forced to mix one from the smithy and another from the music room!). As a flautist plays upon the holes of his flute, modulating the notes and creating melodies and harmonies, the yogi seems to play upon the process of inhalation and exhalation in the same way to create a world of awareness within her. The light of true knowledge is made to shine in her consciousness, in the way a flame blazes into life as the bellows, which breathe life into it, are pressed. It is this Inner light that illuminates the self and once seen, the knowledge of the divine that the unforgettable experience brings with it is never lost. The poet uses the device of ellipsis as if to try and withhold something even while letting the secret, Inner light shine upon the uninitiated. In fact this is an example of the tension that exists in all mystic poetry, between the desire to tell of the secrets apprehended and the need to keep them from the 'non-­people', the large mass that is not fine-tuned to receive, comprehend or appreciate the subtle experiences with any degree of sensitivity. But in Lal Ded's case the urge to reveal wins over. The tension, however, gives the verse a dramatic quality, making the words into poetry. Of course, it can become obscure due to ellipsis and the tightly packed thought the very subject and nature of the esoteric must make it so-­but for the reader the thrill and intellectual excitement of unraveling a metaphysical teaser is reward enough.

nabadi baras atagand ,dyol gorn

dih kan hol gom heka kaho

gwar sund vatsun ravan tyolpyom

pahali ros khyol gom heka kaho

(The candy load on my back is loosened,

The body bent like a bow, how do I bear it?

The Guru's word hurts like a weeping blister,

A flock without a shepherd am I, how do I bear it?)

The lightness of touch in the first vaakh is in sharp contrast with the second verse, where the subject is dealt with in much greater poetic 'weight'. At first she would just weep at the thought of attachment to the material world, which she knows, must not next vaakh the complexity of the problem of attachment- detachment is brought into sharper focus. The dearly beloved worldly possessions are a load, yet it is not easy to let go of them, one's attachment makes it a sweet load, even though the back may be bent under its weight. Therefore the Gurus word to let the weight fall off, galls like a suppurating blister, strong as the yearning for bodily pleasures remains, even though with advancing age and decaying powers, enjoyment of luxuries may no longer be possible, suggested by the image of the bent body. The agony such a predicament brings with it has been described in a sharply jolting metaphor of a blistering wound. The sense of bewilderment and loss is beautifully summed up in the picture of a shepherd less flock. The need for the healing touch as well as guidance of a shepherd in these circumstances is quite understandable Apart from its aptness as a metaphor, the image of a shepherd and the flock of sheep is also a reminder of Christian religious poetry, which is often dressed in similar pastoral imagery. Instances of such cross-cultural phrases and figures of speech come up with pleasant regularity in a study of literatures from different languages pointing to the universality of the image used. While her images coincide with those used by mystic poets in the west on the one hand, they also occur in the poems of the Hindi Bhakti poets., Surdas and Kabir, on the other. The following vaakh of Lal Ded's, which is a fine summing up of the complex Trika doctrine of spanda, the divine vibrations that are playfully creating and recreating the world constantly, also reminds us of Surdas' choice of word when describing the preparations Radha made to cleanse and deck herself in 'new' clothes before she presented herself to Krishna, her beloved Lord, in the verse which begins as, "Naiyo neh naiyo..." (My body new, new my clothes, the whole world is renewed with me!)

tseth navuy tsandram novuy

zalmay dyahum navam novuy

yanu petha lali me tanuman novuy

tanu lal bo navam navuy chhas.

(My mind cleansed and new, the moon is new too,

Everything in this ocean of the world I saw as new,

Since I, Lal, washed my body and self,

Forever renewed am I !)

This feeling of perpetual renewal that is felt by a true Trika aspirant when an insight is gained into the reality of things, is not applied to a change in her thinking alone, but to everything, including the material world, which as a result of cosmic vibrations (spanda), is in a state of flux, constantly recreating itself Our corporeal body is very much a part of this world, so its basic tools of understanding, our physical senses, also experience a renewal. Going beyond them, the faculties of understanding also undergo the process of renewal, Therefore, comprehension, rather apprehension, is now a new, fresh experience, because things are bathed in the light of the awakened senses and faculties. Readers of English literature will be struck by a similar thought expressed in his well-known poem, "Ode on Intimations of Immortality", by Wordsworth, where he describes his experience after falling into a mystic trance. He has a vision and sees the whole world of nature "bathed in a celestial light", looking fresh, different. It seems that to him too what he was seeing now, in the 'new light', appeared to be 'new'.

It is believed that Lal Ded, after she left home in a final break with material ties, went about unclothed. This suggests that the life of the spirit rather than that of the flesh became real for her. It is not out of a desire to shock, nor in a mood for self- mortification, nor even as self-flagellation in the manner of the mediaeval women Christian saints, that she exposed herself to the elements. It is just that in her 'fine madness', she seems to have become completely unself­conscious, almost unaware of her body. She was thus happily, effortlessly able also to transcend the gender factor that occupies so much of the mental space of women intellectuals, thinkers and writers today. She refused to be bothered by what the world would say when she went about naked. When she was asked whether she felt no shame at showing her body to all the men around her, she asked whether there was a man around! To her the ordinary mass of people was no better than sheep or other dumb animals. This story is similar to that of Mirabai, whom Tulsidas is supposed to have refused to meet because he only met men and not women, to which she is said to have retorted in the same way, asking who, apart from the Lord, was a real man?

The two following vaakhs are illustrate,

gwaran vonunam kunuy vatsun,

nebra dopnam andar atsun

suy me lali gav vakh tu vatsun

tavay hetum nangay natsun

(The Guru gave me but one word of wisdom-

From the outside bade me turn within

That word for me, Lal, is the surest prophecy,

And that is why I dance in naked abandon!)



lyakh tu thwakh pethu sheri hetsum

nyanda sapnyam path bronthu tany

lal chhas kal zanh nu thsenim

adu yeli sapnis vyepe kyah?

(Abuse and spit I wore like a crown,

Slander followed or preceded my steps;

But Lal I am, never swerved from my goal

­My being suffused with God, where is the room for these?)

The confidence that these words exude is no hollow self­satisfaction, but real faith in her own worthiness as an instrument of the Supreme Being. In the first vaakh, Lal is condensing in a few telling phrases, an important tenet of her philosophy of life: the need to go beyond the apparent to the underlying truth of Reality. One's gaze, she seems to say, must transcend the exterior, which alone is revealed by the physical senses, and go even beyond what our mental faculties reveal, in order to find and see the Spirit in it real truth, in its 'nakedness'. Here Lal Ded should find herself suffused with His presence and thus unruffled by public opinion.

loluki wokhulu vaalinj pishim,

kwakal tsajim tu ruzus rasu,

buzum tu zaajim panas tsashim,

kavu zanu tavu suuti maru kinu lasu.

(In love's mortar I pounded and ground my heart-

­Evil passions fled and I was at peace­-

Roasted and burnt and consumed it myself,

Yet know not whether I die or live!)

Pounding or roasting or eating up of the heart, it is all done through love, as in the way of the Sufi. It should not be mistaken for the self-flagellation of the mediaeval Christian monks or nuns, nor of the prescription of a bed of nails for the Hindu ascetic, but the similarity of idiom in all these different schools of mysticism demands our attention. Here we are also reminded of the ceremony of the Eucharist, which is such an important focus of women Christian mystics' thought and practice through the Middle Ages. One reads of the ecstasy of some Christian women saints, in which they actually felt as if they were eating the flesh of Christ and drinking His blood in a perfect state of union with Him. In this state, sometimes, the wounds Christ suffered on the Cross, appeared as stigmata upon their own bodies in a miraculous way. They would describe all this in elaborate detail and their companions in the abbeys and convents have faithfully recorded it. Thus it is apparent that though it may assume different forms, the basic thread of mysticism seems to link so many beads and pendants from multitudinous locales and cultures to make a beautiful necklace. No discussion of Lal Ded's work can afford to overlook the importance of the stanza form she used. After all it was the cadenced, rhymed form of the verses that enabled her vaakhs to survive in collective memory even while 'official' history preferred to stay silent on her. Of course her use of flit, language of the commoners, Kashmiri, in preference over the language of scholars, Sanskrit, was responsible for its popularity with the masses, but because these were verses and could easily be sung or chanted, they were easy to memorize and thus they could live through the ages. Let us now take a close look at mechanics of this verse form she used, the vaakh. When written down, it consists of four lines, each of which is a loose tetrameter. The first syllable is stressed and then the stress falls alternately, the last syllable being generally unstressed. In fact, after beginning with authority, the end of the line is like a fade out. But this does not jar, the soft touch at the end soothes the ear and makes the message go down even more easily to the uninitiated. The gravity of tone suits the seriousness of the message conveyed. Roph Bhawani used the same meter later in the seventeenth century, fording it most suitable for her mystic utterances. Besides, Roph Bhawani called Lal Ded her Guru, acknowledged her debt both in the content and form of her poetry, therefore her choice of this stanza form is quite appropriate. The gentle cadence of these solemn numbers is like a warm, comforting breath of air on a cold night. But at the same time, this medium" slow moving and thereby allowing the thought to develop and come to a resolution in the four lines of the stanza-is well able to convey, in a finely condensed way, the subtle, sometimes elusive thought processes involved in a mystic experience. And the great advantage of the rhythm of this form of verse is that it makes them easily recitable, which is one of the reasons for the survival of these works in an oral tradition through unlettered ages. Whether Lal Ded herself forged this meter or it was already in existence and her words naturally fell into its musical mode is difficult to know. But in Kashmiri, it was certainly she who first honed and fore-tuned it to se­as her voice.

The most significant contribution of Lal Ded is that she brought the difficult Shaiva philosophy out from the cubicles of the Sanskrit-knowing scholars into the wide, open spaces of the Kashmiri-knowing common people. In the process of translating its highly evolved, in fact highly subtle, concepts and her personal mystic experiences into the language of the masses, she not only made these accessible to them, but also enriched the Kashmiri language. The mystic's dilemma of how to communicate the incommunicable personal vision, seems to have been effortlessly resolved by her through the use of common idioms, images and metaphors with which people could easily relate. Thus she is able to explain ideas and experiences which would otherwise lie beyond the reach of ordinary people. The medium of the mother tongue and the use of the easily recitable verse form of the vaakh, made her utterances pass into common parlance and secured for them a place in collective memory. What gives her words authority even though as a woman she might have lacked it in that society and time, is that she has a personal experience of reality, a direct relationship with Shiva, without the aid of an intermediary male figure. In this we can compare her to the mediaeval Christian women mystics once again. For them too the only way to validate their words, and to get out of the all-pervasive, constricting presence of male authority, was this claim of a personal relationship with God. After all, it was from God Himself that all the authority of the Church, all of whose top functionaries were male, was drawn. These women were thus able to establish some authority of their own. We can say that in this 'confession', they did not need a 'confessor', they could be alone.

Lal Ded: The Great Kashmiri Saint-Poetess