Book Excerpt

Who was Lal Ded?

Print edition : August 16, 2019

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Shonaleeka Kaul.

Siva and Parvati with Kartikeya and Ganesha, circa sixth century C.E. Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art

Many-armed Durga Mahishasuramardini in green chlorite from Tengpura, circa ninth century C.E. Photo: Vinay Kumar Gupta

The Introduction from ‘Looking Within’: Life Lessons from Lal Ded, edited by Shonaleeka Kaul (Aleph Book Company, 2019).

Who was Lal Ded?1 Fittingly for someone who espoused the insignificance of worldly identities, little is known about this Shaiva mystic saint except that she lived in Kashmir, probably in the 14th century. Her relative anonymity notwithstanding, perhaps there isn’t a single Kashmiri who has not heard of Lal Ded (Granny Lal) or Lal Maej (Mother Lal), whose full name was Lalleshwari, or of her many sayings that have seeped far and wide into popular usage. Such was the love and respect in which she was held by the masses in Kashmir that much later texts in Persian, like the Tazkirat ul Arifin and the Tarikh I Azami, written by Muslim scholars between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, were also impelled to mention her. In fact, her near-contemporary, the Islamic Sufi saint Sheikh Nooruddin or Nund Rishi, as he came to be known, was deeply influenced by Lal’s teachings and the order he founded came to be known as the Rishi-Sufi order, representing the syncretism for which Kashmir was once famous. It is worth noting, however, that Lal Ded herself did not found any movement or order of followers; she came and went alone, a wanderer—her message meant for the redemption of the individual soul.

The texts mentioned above provide us with some legendary biographical details about Lal, such as her birth in a Brahmin family of Pandrethan (near Srinagar), an early, bad marriage and many domestic hardships faced in her marital home, prompting a turn to spirituality. She is said to have been guided in this by a guru, Siddha Srikantha or Siddhamol (Enlightened Father). However, there is no way to know if all (or any) of this is true, for Lal’s own verses in the Kashmiri tongue, known as vaakhs (literally “sayings” or “utterances”, from the Sanskrit vaak), do not provide any such information. They do, however, refer to her guru. In any case, as scholars have pointed out, the greatness of Lal is hardly limited to her life story, as we shall see.

Though not speaking specifically about her own life, Lal’s vaakhs are deeply personal. In these vaakhs, she uses the first person and also names herself frequently, using her shorter, pet name. For example, the phrase “I, Lal” or even “Lalli” is a common refrain in the vaakhs, prefacing her sayings in a conversational style— where the conversation is often with herself. Seen in other mystics as well, talking to herself in her vaakhs is a technique that points to Lal Ded’s central teaching of turning inwards to arrive at life’s greatest truths. Thus she says:

My guru said just one thing:

“Turn within, turn within!”

This was Lal’s sole education:

To learn to leap inside herself.

I rejected every false belief,

immersed myself in my inner

voice alone.

Ultimately I saw myself looking

deeply into my Self.

And knew it to be You, God, in

every speck.

Indeed, Lal’s vaakhs take you on an individual’s journey through the woes of the human condition, disillusionment with the world, an anguished search for God, and, ultimately, to the realisation of the highest truth that liberates. They move from the outer to the inner world and take the listener/reader on this voyage too. The vaakhs translated in this book (each vaakh is a four-line lyrical verse, rendered in a colloquial style)2 are also arranged into four sections accordingly: The first, “Life of Illusions”, describes how we are mired in emotional and social attachments and material pursuits, and the futility of these attachments. The second section, “The Search”, describes the process of an individual wearying of the material life and seeking a way out by exploring different conventional paths, to no avail. The third, “The Realisation”, describes Lal’s breakthrough moment when she experienced pure consciousness and bliss. And, finally, section four, “The Way”, brings together Lal’s advice on how to go about realising one’s true Self and gaining liberation.

Again, despite being such a personal narration, Lal’s life lessons are universal. Her observations on the transience and futility of material pursuits and the emotions they generate, like greed, anger, pride and fear, apply to all of us. All of us have also known the sufferings involved in the wake of even positive emotions, such as worldly love and attachments. The terror and certainty of death haunt all humans, even the powerful and the rich, as Lal reminds us. Her frantic search for God and repeated failures while trying out the myriad paths to Him ring true to the experience of those of us who are spiritually inclined.

Therefore, despite the profundity of her teachings, her humanism makes it easy to relate to Lal. This explains why her sayings have been preserved, for the most part, not in any textual tradition but through popular collective memory, in songs, proverbs and hymns repeated by all strata of Kashmiris, generation after generation, over the six centuries since she walked the earth. In fact, these vaakhs that were strewn through popular culture were collected and compiled by various Kashmiri Pandit and British scholars only as recently as the nineteenth century. In this regard it is interesting to note that Lal’s vaakhs constitute one of the earliest compositions in the history of the Kashmiri tongue, after the thirteenth-century Mahanaya Prakash, thereby playing a pioneering role in the emergence and shaping of Kashmiri language and literature.

Despite her tremendous appeal among common people, Lal was quite uncommon, the most exceptional aspect of her life being her spectacular realisation of God—or rather of pure consciousness that transcends even the gods. She describes the splendour and ecstasy of that realisation in her own words and readers will get a taste of it in the third section of her verses in this book. For example, she says:

Like gold when burnished loses

all impurities,

I glowed bright in the fire of

pure consciousness.

Melting in love,

I found the fog of delusion lift

as the sun rose right beside me!

Pure consciousness was such

bliss,

all veils of illusion and thought

lifted.

Spontaneously I realised my

whole Self.

And Lal bloomed like a lotus in

the mud.

What was Lal really trying to convey and why? What was her philosophy and what her prescription? As her vaakhs suggest, Lal belongs to the Trika school of Kashmiri Shaiva mysticism or devotional Shivadvaita, which originated no later than the eighth century CE. Shiva-shakti worship in Kashmir dates to at least the second century CE, as glimpsed in gold coins of the period that depict Shiva, trident in hand and tiger sprawled at his feet. Colossal Shivalingas as well as sculptures of Maheshvara as Bhuteshvara, and of members of Shiva’s divine family, such as Durga, Ganesha and Kartikeya, are also to be found in the valley from at least the fifth century CE. In fact, the Nilamata Purana, composed in Sanskrit in the eighth century CE and the earliest extant account of Kashmir’s origins and sacred geography, tells us that Kashmir was founded from a primordial lake (Satisaras) where Sati, the consort of Shiva, resided. The Nilamata as well as Kalhana’s Rajatarangini (twelfth century CE), the earliest surviving history of Kashmir, unambiguously state that the valley of Kashmir is Parvati herself and the king of Kashmir but a portion of Shiva.

Alongside this theistic and iconographic form of Shaivism, there developed a deeply monist strand of philosophy in Kashmir that identified Shiva as pure consciousness. This school, that came to be called Pratyabhijna (Recognition) or Trika (triad of Shiva, Shakti and Nara), was represented in the works of great scholar-siddhas like Bhatta Narayana (eighth century), Utpaladeva (ninth century), Abhinavagupta (tenth to eleventh centuries) and Shitikantha (thirteenth century). Lal Ded belongs to this line of realised souls as do the other great Kashmiri mystics, like Roopa Bhavani (seventeenth century) and Lakshman Joo (twentieth century), who expounded the same continuous tradition long after Lal.

What is Trika? Though it is difficult to render this highly sophisticated belief system in simple terms, we can explain it thus: all of creation is replete with one indivisible super consciousness called Parama Shiva (the supreme principle). But human beings do not realise this truth since their intellect is clouded by delusions or amnesia induced by a sensory or material life. This makes them mistakenly identify themselves with their worldly forms and roles, causing them a great deal of suffering in the process, and obscuring their real identity, which is one with God, who is formless, nameless, pure consciousness.

In Lal’s vaakhs, she urges a simple (saral) and spontaneous (sahaj) realisation or recognition of this ultimate reality by turning inwards. This is because, according to her, Shiva himself is subtle and spontaneous and resides within each of us. Thus people could not and should not be discriminated against on the basis of their outward faith or customs. As Lal puts it:

Shiva is the sole reality and

witness

in whichever direction you look.

Don’t distinguish the Brahmin

and the Muslim then.

If you’re a Trika, go within,

know only yourself!

The inclusivism of Lal’s monism and of Kashmiri Shaivism is thus great indeed.

Lal also rejects the role of outward rituals and ostentation (including animal sacrifice) or pilgrimage and also extreme asceticism (including fasting and other forms of mortification of the human body) to attain this truth. She says:

To fly through the air

or stop the flow of gushing waters,

to douse fire by incantation

or produce milk from a wooden

cow—

all such miracles

and show of spiritual prowess

are but chicanery and deceit!

What is the point of forsaking the

home

and heading to the forest?

Why smear sacred ash

and ointments on yourself?

You are fine just the way you are!

Bear God in your heart, that’s all it

takes!

Indeed, Lal Ded’s way is the pathless path (nishpath). All that it requires is an intense, all-consuming love for God even as we go about our daily lives—a longing for Him who, according to Lal, Himself seeks out the seeker.

Why fear, oh Self,

when the Eternal itself seeks you

out?

Know not whom or ask why,

just heed the call when it comes.

God’s grace and an intent concentration on the Self through observing the inflow and outflow of one’s breath, which she describes as the natural mantra (ajapa gayatri), leads to the direct experience (anubhav) of the ultimate consciousness. Thus, according to Lal, liberation is Self-realisation—an expansion of the indivisible Self to include the whole universe by seeing beyond all dualities and differences in it. Further, she tells us that pure consciousness is a state of nothingness (shunya ati shunya), a state of sheer bliss and radiance. Lal explains:

I enquired from my guru

a thousand times:

What, after all, does nothingness

mean?

He was quiet; I gave up and

quietened too.

And it is from that silence, at last,

that no-thing emerged!

Practices (tantra) gave way to

knowledge (mantra).

Knowledge dissolved into

consciousness.

When consciousness dissolved,

nothing remained.

Nothingness dissolved into

nothingness!

One who experiences this state of nothingness or pure consciousness no longer knows any fear or grief, not even of death, and hence becomes genuinely free (swatantra) within one’s lifetime. Such a realised soul is known as jivan mukta. Lal, having tasted the nectar of the eternal truth, and suffused with Shiva (shiva-vyapti), was truly liberated. In her own words:

Alert, when Lal entered her heart

she witnessed the union of

Shiva and Shakti there!

She dissolved into an ocean of

nectar.

Transcending life while still alive

thus,

Death had no business with Lal

anymore!

The life lessons that one can learn from Lal Ded are not only spiritual; they are also deeply ethical and inspiring. Here was a brave, young, solitary woman, with a profound understanding of the human condition, striving with acuity and determination to find a way out of the confusing morass of everyday life, social relations, and emotional entanglements to the clarity and bliss of self-discovery. As her verses indicate, she stood aloof and alone in the face of apparent social censure for being such an intrepid and unconventional woman—and became her own light! Thus she says:

Whether the world venerates me

or shuns me

I alone will bear the consequences

of my detached actions,

which are offered to my own Self.

So wherever I go, I will prosper!

Let people abuse and taunt me.

Or let them shower petals in

adoration.

Nothing affects me.

I am pure consciousness.

Only when I can withstand

censure

will my inhibitions break down.

Let my pride be torn asunder!

Let not attacks bother me!

No ordinary person is capable of such exceptional self-awareness and fortitude. This is why Lal’s greatness and qualities such as indomitable courage, steely perseverance, and scintillating intellect can hardly be explained by any domestic challenges she may have faced in her early life. Lal was perhaps, above all, an extraordinary individual who rose high above the petty concerns and bondage of society in her pursuit of Self-realisation. As she says: “When the inner light lit up within me, off went the light outside.”

What is even more fascinating is that the dazzling knowledge she arrived at was not through being highly educated or versed in scriptures or complex ritual techniques (mantra, tantra). As she avers, “I was born simple and simple I will die.” Hence, in a strong reminder of that other great Indian saint from the fifteenth century, Kabir, who, though unlettered, preached high Upanishadic Advaita3 in the simplest of tongues on the streets of Banaras, Lal’s knowledge of the true nature of reality and the Self was intuitive and experiential. She belongs to a long line of brilliant and pious souls that came from the sacred land of Kashmir.

In our consumerist and hyper-connected modern world today, we are ironically cut off from our own inner selves. As a result, we suffer as a society from great violence and turmoil. Today, more than ever before therefore, Lal Ded’s luminous utterances shine brightly from across the centuries as a beacon of salvation and show us the way to redeem our true selves.

Notes

1. Lal is pronounced with a short a and a double l, like in gull. Ded in Kashmiri is an affectionate reference for an older woman.

2. At places in this book the vaakhs in translation have spilled into five, six or seven lines, due to constraints of page size.

3. Advaita or non-dualism is the idea that the soul (atman) and the highest metaphysical reality (brahman) are one.

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