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.
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
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.