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Volume 1, No. 1 - June 2001

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Lal Ded - Lalleshwari
Forerunner of Medieval Mystics

"Her sayings echo and re-echo to this day"

P.N. Kaul Bamzai
Koshur Samachar

As in the rest of India, the middle of the 14th century was a period of religious and moral fermentation in Kashmir. Buddhism had practically disappeared from the Valley, though we find mention of Buddhist priests and viharas in the later Rajataranginis. Tilakacharya, described as a Buddhist, was a minister of Zain-ul-Abidin. Most of the Buddhist theologians and saints finding the Valley uncongenial, had left for Ladakh and Tibet. The long period of political instability which followed the peaceful and enlightened reign of Avantivarman (855-83 A.D.) was responsible for the ossification of the predominant religion, Shaivism, into elaborate and complicated rituals which dominated all social and cultural activities. Shaktism, born of the love for Durga worship, had degenerated into grotesque forms of rites and ceremonies. Vaishnavism was not a strong element in the religious fabric of the Valley, but in the 11th century it received further nourishment from the teachings of Ramanuja who travelled all the way from Madras to Kashmir to fight Shaivism at its fountain-head. And with the destruction of temples and images by several Hindu kings like Harsha, as well as by Muslim zealots, Hindu worship was driven to the seclusion of the home or of 'natural' (Svayambhu) images - rocks, or ice formations, or springs. Sanskrit became the domain of the learned few, the common man having taken to a form of Prakrit which though retaining its essentials, was yet wholly different from the 'Language of the Gods'.

Impact of Islam

In this troubled period of political uncertainty and changing social values, the people of the Valley were subjected to the impact of Islam. From a close contact between the two religions and their deep influence on each other, there resulted the evolution of what may be called Medieval Reformers or Mystics.

For more than two hundred years Islam had, in central Asia and Persia, been similarly influenced by the teachings and dogmas of Mahayana Buddhism and Upanishadic philosophy, resulting in the emergence of a cult of Islamic mystics. Fortunately, the new religion entered the Valley in this form, being carried there by enlightened Sufis like Bulbul Shah. With their humanistic approach to religion, they found a ready and sympathetic response from the Kashmiris, already permeated with the teachings of mystic saints and "seers".

For, it was during this period of religious fermentation that a need had been felt for a new approach to religion embracing all creeds and castes appealing to the 'heart' rather than the 'head'. Thanks to its rich religious and philosophic traditions, Kashmir rose to the occasion and produced a number of mystics and saints who by their teachings and their lives of complete self- abnegation were the living embodiments of true religion and morality.

Mother Lalla Appears

Foremost among them was the great mystic "seer", Lalleshwari, popularly known as Lal Ded (Mother Lalla), who profoundly influenced the thought and life of her contemporaries and whose sayings still touch the Kashmiri's ear, as well as the chords of his heart, and are freely quoted by him as maxims on appropriate occasions. She was born in about the middle of the 14th century of the Christian Era in the time of Sultan Ala-ud-din. Lall's parents lived at Pandrenthan (ancient Puranadhisthana) some four and a half miles to the south-east of Srinagar. She was married at an early age, but was cruelly treated by her mother-in-law who nearly starved her. This story is preserved in a Kashmiri proverb: Whether they killed a big sheep or a small one, Lalla had always a stone for her dinner - an allusion to her mother-in-law's practice of putting a lumpy stone on her platter and covering it thinly with rice, to make it look quite a big heap to others. And yet she never murmured.

Her father-in-law accidentally found out the truth. He got annoyed with his wife and scolded her. This incident invited more curses on Lalla. Her mother- in-law poisoned the ears of her son with all sorts of stories. Ultimately, the anomalies and cruelties of wordly life led her to renunciation and she discovered liberty in the life of the spirit.

She found her guru in Sidh Srikanth, whom she ultimately excelled in spiritual attainments:

Gav Tsatha guras Khasithay
Tyuth var ditam Diva
The disciple surpassed the Guru:
God grant me a similar boon
She pursued Yoga under Sidh Srikanth, until she succeeded in reaching the 'abode of nectar'. But she did not stop there. All around her was conflict and chaos. Her countrymen and women needed her guidance. She had a mission to perform, and well and effectively she did it. Her life and sayings were mainly responsible in moulding the character of her people and setting up tradition of love and tolerance which characterises them even today.

As Wandering Preacher

Eventually she gave up her secluded life and became a wandering preacher. She led a severely ascetic life, clad in the bareness of one who had forsaken comforts, and by example and precept conveyed her teachings to the masses. Like Mira she sang of Siva, the great beloved, and thousands of her followers, Hindus as well as Muslims, committed to memory her famous Vakyas.

There is a high moral teaching which Lalla demonstrated when during her nude state a gang of youthful rowdies were mocking her. A sober-minded cloth vendor intervened and chastised them. On this she asked the vendor for two pieces of ordinary cloth, equal in weight. She put them on either shoulder and continued her wandering. On the way some had salutations for her and some had gibes. For every such greeting she had a knot in the cloth, for the salutations in the piece on the right, and for the gibes in the piece on the left. In the evening after her round, she returned the pieces to the vendor and had them weighed. Neither had, of course, gained or lost by the knots. She thus brought home to the vendor, and her disciples, that mental equipoise should not be shaken by the manner people greeted or treated a person.

So that her teachings and spiritual experiences might reach the masses, she propagated them in their own language. She thus laid the foundations of the rich Kashmiri literature and folklore. More than thirty per cent of the Kashmiri idioms and proverbs derive their origin from her Vakyas.

Spiritual and Philosophical Vakyas

These Vakyas or sayings are an aggregate of Yoga philosophy and Saivism, expressive of high thought and spiritual truth, precise, apt and sweet. Her quatrains are now rather difficult to understand as the language has undergone so many changes, and references to special Yogic and philosophic terms are numerous therein.

Some of these sayings have been collected and published by Dr. Grierson, Dr. Barnett, Sir Richard Temple and Pandit Anand Koul and apart from the consideration that they explain the Saiva philosophy of Kashmir through the Kashmiri language, they exemplify the synthesis of cultures for which Kashmir has always been noted.

Lalla fills her teachings with many truths that are common to all religious philosophy. There are in it many touches of Vaishnavism, the great rival of Saivism, much that is strongly reminiscent of the doctrines and methods of the Muhammadan Sufis who were in India and Kashmir well before her day, and teachings that might be Christian with Biblical analogies, though Indian's knowledge of Christianity must have been very remote and indirect at her date.

Lalla is no believer in good work in this or in former lives, in pilgrimages or austerities. In one of her sayings she criticises the cold and meaningless way in which religious rituals are performed:

God does not want meditations and austerities
Through love alone canst though reach the Abode of Bliss.
Thou mayst be lost like salt in water
Still it is difficult for thee to know God.
All labour, to be effective, must be undertaken without thought of profit and dedicated to Him. Exhorting her followers to stick fast to ideals of love and service to humanity, paying no thought to the praise or condemnation that might follow from their observance, she says:
Let them jeer or cheer me;
Let anybody say what he likes;
Let good persons worship me with flowers;
What can any one of them gain I being pure?

If the world talks ill of me
My heart shall harbour no ill-will:
If am a true worshipper of God
Can ashes leave a stain on a mirror?

She is a strong critic of idolatory as a useless and even silly "work" and adjures the worshippers of stocks and stones to turn to Yogic doctrines and exercises for salvation:
Idol is of stone temple is of stone;
Above (temple) and below (idol) are one;
Which of them wilt thou worship O foolish Pandit?
Cause thou the union of mind with Soul.
She further castigates the fanatical followers of the so-called "religions" in the following apt saying:
O Mind why hast thou become intoxicated at another's expense?
Why hast thou mistaken true for untrue?
Thy little understanding hath made thee attached to other's religion;
Subdued to coming and going; to birth and death.
But Lalla is not a bigot; she constantly preaches wide and even eclectic doctrines; witness the following and many other instances: "it matters nothing by what name the Supreme is called. He is still the Supreme;'' ''Be all Lhings to all men;" ''the true saint is the servant of all mankind through his humility and loving kindness," "It matters nothing what a man is or what his work of gaining his livelihood may be, so long as he sees the Supreme properly."

She puts no value on anything done without the saving belief in Yogic doctrine and practice, one of the results of which is the destruction of the fruits of all work, good or bad. The aspirant should try to auain perfection in this life. He only requires faith and perseverance:

Siva is with a fine net spread out
He permeath the mortal coils
If thou whilst living canst not see
Him, how canst thou when dead
Take out Self from Self after pondering over it
She is a firm believer in herself. She has become famous and talks of the "wine of her sayings" as something obviously precious, and alludes often to her own mode of life, fully believing she has obtained Release:
I saw and found I am in everything
I saw God effulgent in everything.
After hearing and pausing see Siva
The House is His alone; Who am I, Lalla.
The removal of confusion caused among the masses by the preachings of zealots was the most important object of her mission. Having realised the Absolute Truth, all religions were to her merely paths leading to the same goal:
Shiv chuy thali thali rozan;
Mo zan Hindu to Musalman.
Truk ay chuk pan panun parzanav,
Soy chay Sahivas sati zaniy zan.

Siva pervades every place and thing;
Do not differentiate between Hindu and Musalman.
you art intelligent recognise thine own self;
That is the true acquaintance with God.

The Great Mystic

The greatness of Lalla lies in giving the essence of her experiences in the course of her Yoga practices through the language of the common man. She has shown very clearly the evolution of the human being, theory of nada, the worries and miseries of a jiva and the way to keep them off. The different stages of Yoga with the awakening of the Kundalini and the experiences at the six plexi have been elucidated by her.

Much can, indeed, be said on her work as a poet and more, perhaps, on her work in the spiritual realm. But at a time when the world was suffering from conflict - social, political and economic - her efforts in removing the differences between man and man need to be emphasised.

The composite culture and thought she preached and the Orders she founded was an admixture of the non-dualistic philosophy of Saivism and Islamic Sufism. As long back as the 13th century she preached non-violence, simple living and high thinking and became thus Lalla Arifa for Muhammadans and Lalleshwari for Hindus.

She was thus the first among the long list of saints who preached medieval mysticism which later enwrapped the whole of India. It must be remembered that Ramananda's teaching and that of those that came after him could not have affected Lalla, because Ramananda flourished between 1400 and 1470, while Kabir sang his famous Dohas between 1440 and 1518, and Guru Nanak between 1469 and 1538. Tulsidasa did not come on the scene till 1532 whereas Mira flourished much later.

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