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Kashmiri Pandits Traditions at Cross Roads

Piyaray Lal Raina

Have you ever wondered why we Pandits do not observe our festivals like other Hindus? Diwali, Holi, Dusshera etc are celebrated by most Hindus in a lot of enthusiasm and fanfare. But we Kashmiri Pandits hardly celebrate them but instead celebrate Shivratri with much more fervor than most other Hindus from other regions. What could be reason for such dichotomy? The answer lies in our religious philosophy.

Religious Philosophies

Superficially, Hinduism looks like one religious philosophy with beliefs in trinity of Gods and performance of rituals to propitiate them. But if one delves deeper there are beliefs so divergent that one can get confused with the very fundamentals of Hinduism.

Broadly, we can divide Hindu belief into two broad philosophies or beliefs – Shaivism and Vishnavism. Shiava philosophy which one associates with tantra is well developed in Kashmir, Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu, and to some extent in Andhra Pradesh. Hindus elsewhere follow Vishnavism predominantly. It has nothing to do with vegetarianism as some may believe.

Vishnavism broadly denotes the philosophy of Vedanta which recognizes that Brahman (not to be confused with Brahma) as the Supreme God - the ultimate Reality who is Transcendental and thus beyond any description. The manifestation of Universe that we observe takes through His immanent aspect called Ishwara. The manifested Universe that we observe is not like the one we know it. It is in reality, an illusion, caused by divine power called Mayashakti. Shankaracharya who is considered the master of this philosophy called this manifestation of cosmos as “Brahmasatyam, Jagatmithya” (Brahman is Truth, manifestation is illusion). He explains this further by giving an example of mistaking a rope for a snake in dim-light. Though when seen in full-light, the real rope is recognized and imaginary snake (illusion) disappears. Likewise, when through Karmic and other means when our ignorance (illusion) is removed, we begin to realize the true nature of Brahman. The goal of the human life for a Vaishnavite is therefore to remove this illusion or ignorance which is binding him to endless cycles of life and death (samsara). The goal of liberation of from these cycles of life and death is termed a Moksha. Ishwara is equated with Vishnu who incarnates from time-to-time to guide people towards liberation.

In comparison, Shivites (Kashmiri Pandits are Shivites) while agreeing that the Brahman is at the substratum of all manifestation, do not reconcile with the assertion that this manifestation of cosmic world is a mere illusion (mithya). The philosophy contends that how could a world of such diversity, a world of so many names and forms be unreal? Shivites on the other hand argue that Supreme Consciousness called Parmshiva cannot get involved in any manifestation process directly as that would bind Him in the process of ‘cause and effect’ like humans. The philosophy postulates that manifestation is just a reflection of Pramshiv as personality seen by us through His dynamic aspect of energy called ‘Shakti’. While Shiva represents the male aspect, Shakti represents the female aspect of Parmshiva. Parmshiva is formless and static. He is witness of all that His Shakti aspect manifests.

Kashmiri Pandit Aspect of Shaivism

Shakti has been identified as the mother of manifestation and has been given the name of Durga, an incarnation of Parvati (Lord Shivas wife). Although Shivite philosophy does not lay stress on the performance of Karmic rituals as a means of liberation, it stresses observance of mental discipline through Pranayama and Jap. However, the philosophy recognizes the role of rituals as ‘helpful’. Durga over a period of time was accepted by Vaishnavites as Goddess. Vishnavism associated her with their Goddess Lakshmi (wife of Vishnu) and other Goddesses such as Sarawati etc.

While the Isht devtas (family deities) of the Vaishnavites are male Gods such as Vishnu and his incarnations such a Rama, Krishna, Dattatreya etc, among Kashmiri Pandits, Durga in her forms as Ragnya, Sharika, Jwala and Tripursundari came to be recognized as Isht Devis. Thus Kashmir became associated with Shakti worship. Vishnu and His incarnations do get the same reverence among Kashmiri Pandits as they get among Vaishnavites. So much so that all the temples built in Kashmir during Hindu rule (ending 14th century) were totally dedicated to Lord Shiva, not withstanding the fact that the murals on walls of some of these temples depict Vishnu and His incarnations as well.

Even the mountains of Kashmir are named after Lord Shiva or Mata Parvati. Neelmatpuran describes “Kashmir is Parvati, know that its king is portion of Shiva”. The peak overlooking Srinagar city is known as Mahadev (the great Shiva). Harmukh (Shivas face) stands on the east and Amarnath in the South. The famous temple on top of Shankaracharya hill in Srinagar with a recorded history of more than 2000 years is also dedicated to Lord Shiva. All the shrines in Hariparbhat are dedicated to Durga and her incarnation.

Festivals and Rituals

Our festivals and rituals are a reflection of our religious philosophy. Shivratri, the night of union of Shiv and Shakti has to be recognized as an outcome of this basic philosophy. Absence of our involvement in festivals such as Diwali, Dusshera, Holi etc which are related to Lord Vishnu or His incarnations, can also be understood in the same way.

The division between these two traditions is not sharp. Centuries of interaction between the followers of these traditions has brought about a mixed tradition. Thus while Kashmiri Pandit observe Janam Ashtami as birthday of Lord Krishna, but Kashmiri Pandits celebrate it as ‘Jarm-e-satm’ (Saptami of Lord Krishnas birth). The reason behind this is that while arrival of such a luminary as Lord Krishna is an occasion of great importance and necessary preparations are needed in advance to pray for His arrival and once Lord Krishna has arrived amongst us, it is not a day of fasting but rather a day of celebrations. The same theme applies to Shivratri one day ahead, when it is celebrated in rest of India.

In our ritualistic worship we attach great importance to the worship of deities as our mothers. Hence we not only worship them as our Isht devis, but they also receive extensive worship in their other forms as well.

In our ‘Prepun’ –which is ubiquitos in all our pujas as in act of offering bhog to deities, Durga is not named only as Parvati, consort of Lord Shiva, but she is named as the source of all alphabets in the words.

A part of the Bhog in Prepun called ‘chatu’ is again meant for offering to 14 sky deities. In the performance of pujas on the occasion of various samskaras such as Kahnether (tonsure), Mehkhal (thread ceremony), Khandhar (marriage) etc besides the worship of usual female deities such as seven mothers (known as Spt grt matrikas) or sixteen mothers (known as Shodsh Matrikas) or sixty four Yoginis (chtush –shshti yogni), we perform puja of sen mother (which is different from Spt grt matrikas) by offering them Kheer (rice pudding) with moongyr (cake prepared from moong flour).

In our stutes (recitations) as well, the mother aspect is overwhelmingly. Bhavanishastranama, which has 1000 names of Durga, is recited regularly on important occasions and used in home as well, is purely the work of Kashmiri Saints. Similarly, Panchastavi and Indrakshi, Leela rabda recitations are not recited by non-Kashmiri Hindus.

On marriage our daughters wear dejhour with athor on their ears as a symbol of being or getting married which is symbolized by wearing Mangalsutra (a necklace) by non-Kashmiri Hindus. The wearing of Dejhour by the ear itself represents male and female aspect of Paramshakti the Supreme power, one is called Shivakona and other Shaktikona.

In the end we may conclude that we Kashmiri Pandits are Shakti worshippers. Shakti is the dynamic power of Lord Shiva, represented by consort Parvati in Her various aspects. Shakti worship in common in West Bengal and South India also. In the plains of India, worship of Vishnu and His incarnations as Rama, Krishna etc is common. The ritual that a group of people observe represents the philosophy of their faith.  

How to save our traditions

Our Baradari members keep on lamenting over the unfortunate situation in which we have been caught up due to non availability of our priests for performance of our rituals and samskaras which are so dear to us. Yet we do not bother to see how we can save this institution from total collapse. We pride ourselves as Kashmiri Pandits, inheritors of great traditions from our ancestors, yet we are helplessly witnessing the end of these traditions.

During the last five years, I have been trying to study the causes of this indifference. I think the following three are the main causes:

  1. The disrespect that we have had for the priest community at social level and also not paying them due wages for performance of rituals. Our priest community has shrunk in numbers. We do not have young priests. The youngest priest practicing may be above 50 years in age.
  1. Karmkandas are usually regional in character. They are based on Greha sutras which is the work of knowledgeable persons. The Karmkandas followed by us has been written by Lagukrishi centuries ago and copies of this are non-existent. About 80 years ago, a teacher by the name of Keshav Bhat published relevant portions of this book used in the performance of samskaras which have also become prized processions of few now. The instructions for performance of rituals documented in these books are given in Sanskrit. Present day priests do not understand Sanskrit and hence they are not following proper instructions. Some senior priests have remembered relevant mantras by heart and they have passed it to their juniors. The younger generations of priests are totally ignorant about our Karmkanda.
  1. All over India, Karmkanda followed by a particular group of people has been revised from time-to-time, keeping pace with the change in times and providing instruction in their vernacular language. However, no such effort has been made by Kashmiri Hindus. Some pamphlets written by our priests, lack of essential details to be followed by a novice.  

The cumulative effect of all these factors has lead to our younger generation in the loss of faith in our traditions and unless some changes take place we may lose this knowledge base completely.

I recommend few changes for revival of this important institution in our community:

  1. We should get our Karmkanda books translated by learned scholars who may or may not be from Kashmir.
  1. To make up shortage of our priests, we may find out if our priest class is prepared to train their younger ones in this profession. If they are not (as is likely the case), then we should train priests from other communities in our Karmkanda. It may be a part-time or a full-time job for them.
  1. Our baradari seniors have tremendous responsibility in preserving this institution too. They should try to learn at least the basics of our pujas offered on certain occasions such as birthday, shivratri etc rather than using audio cassette. This would ensure that the youngsters in the family can make sense of what is going on these days. Unless we invest time in understanding why we do things the way we do, it is just a matter of time before these rich rituals will die.
  1. We have 24 samskaras among Kashmiri Hindus. In comparison, most other Hindus follow only 16 Samskaras. Most our samaskaras are in dire need of rationalization to keep up with the times. For example, our priests recite about 22 of these samskaras on ‘Mekhal’ of young boys. These are not only time consuming but quite irrelevant also.  Samskara of Garbhadana is to be performed when women gets pregnant. The performance of this samskara during ‘Mekhal’ makes no sense. Similarly, our Antyeshti samaskara (death ritual) has also a very lengthy ritualistic tradition, which is difficult to follow in the modern times. The learned ones of the community should work out a strategy to make performance of our samskaras brief and meaningful – keeping in touch with modern times.   

About the Author

The author has written a book (800 pages) titled “Socio-religious traditions of Kashmiri Pandits” which is in the process of being published in India. Besides discussions about religious philosophies, the book has extensive coverage of Karmkanda and performance of samskaras with mantras written in Roman Script and Sanskrit along with translation. The book also covers all the recitation (stutes) made by Kashmiri Pandits in above format. The book also covers details about social traditions of Kashmiri Pandits such as festivals, saints, pilgrimages and calendar followed by Pandits.

The author can be reached by email at pl_raina@yahoo.com or by phone (In USA – 770-754-9567 or in India (0124) 505176 or mobile in India at 9891664644.

Kashmiri Writers P.L. Raina

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