CHAPTER 9: Lalleshwari the Liberator

by Dwarka Nath Munshi

At the outset I must confess of my not being equal to the task of speaking before this august gathering of researchers, scholars and recognized and accomplished students of the subject of this seminar-Lal Ded-of whom I know but little. I will, therefore, be brief and ask for your indulgence.

Much of whatever relates to Lal Ded-her birth, life, work, philosophy, her vaakh, their actual number and import, her beliefs in short everything about her has been variously put. It will not be far wrong to say that no two persons have agreed on much about her. Nor have they been able always to reach and produce the depth of meaning and import in translation which has generally been literal and superficial as one can discern when one reads or listens to the vaakh. For even such vaakh as are seemingly put in straight words are pregnant with an extraordinary depth and loftiness. It was perhaps the entirely new light thrown on a long dark period that this had naturally resulted in giving currency to contentious, conflicting facts, misunderstandings, miscon­ceptions, misrepresentations et al consequently confusion persisted. The more that has been written and researched about the subject, the more has the confusion grown.

Basic Facts

Yet there are basic facts that can be stated without fear of any contradiction, for instance, that she was born a Hindu and married in a Hindu family. Available evidence also ­makes it out that women in those hoary times were imparted general and spiritual education which Lalla must have received in large measure during her early life. Clearly, she must have imbibed it all, which is evident from the superb quality and content of her vaakh.

Another important aspect related to her being is that she believed in the concept of transmigration of soul as well as of the cycle of yugas, the changing aeons of time through creation destruction and regeneration of the universe. According to what we have of her tete-ted with her Guru Sidha Mol, she had reminded him, of what both knew, of their past several lives of which she had vivid memories. She may have accumulated more light and knowledge in that process. Further, she must have received ethereal inspiration. All this would have resulted in her attaining super­consciousness. Above all, Lal Ded was a sublime person of piercing perception, a great humanitarian philosopher and, indeed, the greatest of Kashmiri poets to this day.

I like to believe that there may not be a Kashmiri Hindu, Muslim or others who have not heard of her greatness or who do not revere her even in these times when irreverence is an article of facetious modernity.

Rebel of Her Time

Lal Ded lived the life of a rebel in many ways. Whatever she said or did had some innovation and mission behind it to correct the prevailing wrong beliefs and practices, and show the path to piety. Before her, Kashmiri verse was primarily written in a way as could be used to memorise esoteric doctrine. But she created vaakh to express aspiration and experience, thought and feeling in her own effective way, sometimes vivid and direct and sometimes allegorical. She was thus a pioneer of Kashmiri language and verse as only a poet of an extraordinary force of originality could be a poet whose poesy is in one of her great admirers Richard Temple's words "aflame with red fire of a thought that burns".

Grierson who is reputed to have researched her works and is considered an authority, has observed that the vaakh are besides "an account, often in vivid and picturesque language, of the actual working out in practice a religion previously worked out in theory. It is a unique contribution to the body of evidence that must necessarily form the basis of a future history of one of the most important religious systems of India."

More than the style thus, it was the content that was wholly revolutionary. For instance, she minced no words in expressing her revolt against the traditional ways of worship or offering sacrifice to the deities and idols. I will offer one striking example which says it all, and more. Lamented she in a much quoted vaakh against animal sacrifice offered to stone idols thus: "This animal, the sheep, gives you wool to protect you from cold and cover your privacy, and for itself it subsists just on God-given grass and water. Who then has ordained you, O ignoramus Pandit, that you slaughter it to offer to a stone?" The vaakh, as many others, also lays before us the extent of the Sanskrit- rooted Kashmiri language put together in soft yet powerful hard knocking words, cutting criticism of the practices in vogue.

Here I also make bold to suggest what I think needs to be understood and interpreted quite differently than how even Grierson did. It is about the vaakh in which she mentions of having received her Guru's precept of "From without withdraw your gaze within, and fix it on the inmost self”. She is then made out to have cast away her apparel to go about dancing in the nude. Some scholars have, no doubt, disputed or rejected this interpretation. Lal Ded was too serene and knowing a yogini to have taken such a frivolous meaning of a profound expression. When one analyses it in the context of the profundity of both the Guru and the disciple Lalla, it most likely was meant for her to recognize that the external world is only an illusion of no value. So Lal Ded lived on as a wandering savant in total abandon, unmindful of the external world and only seeking God-consciousness.

A vaakh of hers illustrates this, e.g., "Thou were absorbed in thine own self, hidden from me, I passed whole days in seeking the out. But when I saw thee in mine own self, O, joy then Thou and I disported ourselves in ecstasy ". Or, again, "Pilgrim sannyasi goes from shrine to shrine expecting to meet Him who abides within his own self"

Among the most telling of Lal Ded's vaakh are those which bear a constant refrain of the Upanishadic tenets of the equality and oneness of all which is the cardinal principle enunciated and dilated upon in Gita in many of its shlokas. I give here a summary of a few : "Shiva abides in all that is, everywhere, then do not discriminate between one and the other. If thou art wise, know they self. That is the true knowledge of God."

In another one she advises, "Not by ascetic practices is the self realized. Nor by desire can you gain the portals of Release." It goes on and on and deeper as well as clearer all the way. In fact she had practised what she was professing, she had risen above the feelings of pain or pleasure, love and hate, heat or cold and all that we normal humans experience. She was leading people to attain liberation from the mundane ills and pains as she had attained it herself.

These translations of the various vaakh have been taken from the masterly works of the late Prof. Jaya Lal Kaul and abbreviated by me for the present purpose. Any mistakes that may have crept in are however only mine, with apologies to the revered Professor.

To measure the greatness of Lal Ded is to attempt to measure the dimensions of the oceans. Therefore when we talk of her we can only pay our humbly obeisance and salutations in her repeating to ourselves her greatness as if we need to prove it.

Lal Ded, Lalla, Lalleshwari or Lala Arifa or Lalla Mats, are among the numerous names by which she is called, but always with extreme reverence and love and adoration. She does not belong to any one community or creed or religion for she had risen above these distinctions. She was too great for them. She had attained to being a universal phenomenon in her own life time and then to being a priceless heritage for humankind. Trying to appropriate her to any one religion whose narrow limits she had set out to demolish, is to try to contain a sea in a tea-cup, a meritless task.

Lalla's sublime philosophy is humanity's immeasurable treasure of pure spirituality, quintessentially she had reached divinity and merged with the divine. And divinity is not divisible. Humanity's part in it is to understand it and live up to it which was never needed more than now when narrow and laboured fundamentalism and materialism is corroding the roots of harmony and nobility.

I will not take any more of your time in going into other details to establish the pre-eminence of Lal Ded as a poet­philosopher of the highest order. But I will put before you enigmatic points which need to be examined and explained for a better and clearer understanding of the priceless contributions our Lal Ded has made for the betterment of humanity. My trouble arises when I see that the works of the person of Lal Ded's eminence have remained confined to the Valley and that too not spread out to all sections of the society there. And what is no less important is that she has remained only a name in the exclusive academic circles of the country as a whole when poet philosophers in other languages, neighbouring and distant, and not necessarily of the same merit and impact as of Lal Ded, have earned extensive exposure and appreciation and popularity. Is it because her vaakh were not appropriately and intensively translated into their languages for the benefit of the masses who could not understand the meaning and depth of Lal Ded in the original vaakh of Upanishadic and Trika heights. Or is it because most other poet saints projected saintliness and sin in terms of the body, its pains and ultimate death, when Lal Ded largely disregarded that and expounded on the super consciousness and the liberation of the soul. I put it in all humility to you persons of scholarship and wisdom, for enlightenment.

Lal Ded: The Great Kashmiri Saint-Poetess