Friday, March 16, 2018

Lala-Dad: Sufi Kashmiri Poetess

I trapped my breath in the bellows of my throat:
a lamp blazed up inside, showed me who I really was.
I crossed the darkness holding fast to that lamp,
Scattering its light-seeds around me as I went.

I learnt dohas by Kabir and Fraid,but the vakhs of Lal Ded — the 14th century Kashmiri mystic — blew me away more powerfully. Perhaps because her spiritual and spirited poetry has been a part of folk memory. 

My friends who grew up in Kashmir have memories of women reciting Lalla’s verses while they spun fine shawls at the spinning wheel. Over the centuries, Lalla became the wise woman of Kashmiri culture. She was invoked not only at moments of personal dilemma but also to celebrate moments of social togetherness.
the Chitta (the mind), is ever new
the ever-changing moon is new
and ever new the shoreless expanse

 of waters that I have seen
Since I, Lalla, have scoured my body and mind,
(emptied it of dead yesterdays
and tomorrows unborn),
I live in the ever-present Now
(and all things always are to me)
forever new and new

Lal Ded, Kashmiri medieval poetess and representative of mystical thought, is called by a number of names. She is LallaArif(Lalla, the Realised One) for Muslim scholars, Lalla Yogishwari (Lalla, the adept in Yogic practices), Lalleshwari or Lalla Yogini for Hindus (Kashmiri Pandits) or simply Lalla or Mother Lalla – as lay Kashmiri people of all faiths like to call her.

There is no precise date of Lal Ded’s birth. The sources differ and it is generally assumed that she was born around 1320-1352 into a Kashmiri Pandit (Brahmin) family. Her place of birth was Pandrethan, a village located few miles to the southeast of Srinagar, in Kashmir Valley, which today constitutes a crucial part of Indian Administered Kashmir. All her life passed into a legend and along with her verses became a part of local storytelling and oral performance tradition, handed down from generation to generation.

She was born in a Brahmin family and received brief education in religious texts, but very soon she was married off at the age of 12, in accordance with the customs of her community. She was unhappy in the bridegroom’s house as her husband and mother-in-law mistreated her. According to a popular legend, she never complained, even when she was humiliated and did not receive proper food which made her constantly half-fed. 

There is even a Kashmiri saying:

“Whether they killed a goat Lalla had always a stone for her dinner” as her mother in law used to put a flat stone on her plate and cover it with rice so it would look as a bigger heap of food. It can be assumed that she did not want to complain as she gradually turned to ascetic exercise which required deeply rooted self-imposed discipline.

Being unable and unwilling to withstand constant control and limitations resulting from rigid rules of family life, Lal Ded abandoned her marriage and material life and became a shelterless mystic without any possession, wandering in rags and reciting poetry. 

For a woman, it was an unprecedented courage to renounce the culturally imposed traditional role of self-sacrificing wife, abandon the family and enter the patriarchal world of metaphysical/poetic experiences. It was also an exceptional proof of dauntless spirit when she openly questioned
the authority and unassailable position of the then educated elite of Sanskrit academia. 

Without any doubts she consciously chose a life of a rebel, addressing her words to a man in the street.

By the age of 24, Lalla had had enough of the marriage and left home to follow the Sufi teacher and embraced Islam. 

Her rebellion was unprecedented: She challenged the validity of all the socio-political and religious structures and was deadly against maintaining the status quo, thus she was perceived as a threat to the established social order. 

The idol is but stone
The Temple is but stone, 

From top to bottom, all is but stone
Whom will you worship, O stubborn Pandit?”
It covers your shame,
Saves you from cold,
Its food and drink, mere water and grass
Who counselled you, O Brahmin,
To slaughter a living sheep as a sacrifice
Unto a lifeless stone?”

To neutralise the impact of this rebellion, the elite of the times, the custodians of the tradition declared her to be mad and insane.

One of her translators, Coleman Barks, writes ‘Ecstasy is only one of her moods and not the primary one. Political disgust is another, and a Hopi-like prophetic mode: Sifting through scattered clues, rumours and oral narratives, he concludes: “She is the play of versions, not an absolute entity… Lalla, to me, is not the person who composed these vakhs; rather, she is the person who emerges from these vakhs.” That could well be true, whether she was a single yogini or a composite of many ever-questing beings who straddle yoga and Tantra, Kashmiri Saivism and the solo soul.

She articulated the spiritual path and message she had inherited; in Kashmiri language which was the language of the man in the street. By doing so, she made it available to all the people irrespective of caste, creed, colour, sex, religion or region like a true Sufi.

O fool right action does not lie
In providing for bodily comfort and ease
In contemplation of the self alone is right action and right council for you.
The pilgrim sanyasin goes from shrine to shrine,
Seeking to meet Him
Who abides within herself.
Knowing the truth, O soul, be not misled;
It is distance that makes the turf look green
Some leave their home, some the hermitage
But the restless mind knows no rest.
Then watch your breath day and night,
And stay where you are
I have worn out my plate and tongue reading the holy books,
But I have not learnt the practices that would please my lord.
I have worn thin fingers and thumb telling my rosary beads,
But I have not been able to dispel duality from my mind.”
The thoughtless read the holy books
As parrots in their cages recite “Ram, Ram”
Their reading is like churning water,
Fruitless effort, ridiculous conceit.

She had her own revolutionary views regarding the rituals like idol worship, animal sacrifice, fasting, visiting sacred places and reading sacred books. In the light of her own intense spiritual experiences, she re-evaluates these rituals and comments:
By opposing vehemently the ritualistic aspect of Trikmat, Lalla revolted against the powerful clergy of the times who had transformed these rituals into a means of exploitation and a tool for perpetuating their hereditary hegemony. She also revolted against the objectification of women in Saiva rituals. She totally rejects the secondary dependent status allotted to women in these rituals and emerges and dominates the scene as a subject.

Realization is rare indeed, Seek not afar, it is near, by you
First slay desire, then still the mind, giving up vain imaginings
Then meditate on self within and lo! The void merges in the void

Or this one:

Let go the sacred tantra rites
Only the mantra sound remains
And when the mantra sound departs
Only the chitta is left behind
Then lo! The chitta itself is gone
And there is nothing left behind
The void merges in the void[iv]

In the true Sufi spirit Lalla-Ded advocates the ego-annhilation as the path of liberation and we may consider the following Vᾱk in this regard:

By pandering to your appetites and desires
You get nowhere
By penance and fasting,
You get conceit
Be moderate in food and drink

You will be moderate
Your path will surely be illuminated*”[v]
She wrote about non materiliasm and
In life, I sought neither wealth nor power,
Nor ran after the pleasures of sense,
Moderate in food and drink, I lived a controlled life;
Patiently bore my lot, my pain and poverty,
And loved my god
O fool, right action does not lie
In observing fasts and ceremonial rites
O fool, right action does not lie
In providing for bodily comfort and ease
In contemplation of the self alone
Is right action and right counsel for you
My guru gave me but one precept
From without withdraw your gaze within
And fix it on the Inmost self."
Taking to heart this one precept,
Naked I began to dance.

These Vᾱks give us an idea of the spiritual discipline that Lal practised and prescribed for us. Now let us see the fruit of this spiritual labour:

Thou wert absorbed in Thine Own Self,
hidden from me;
I passed whole days in seeking Thee out
But when I saw Thee in mine own Self
O joy! Then Thou and I
disported ourselves in ecstasy
I traversed the vastness of the void alone,
Leaving behind me reason and sense,
Then came upon the secret of the self;
And, all of a sudden, unexpectedly,
In mud the lotus bloomed for me.
Like a tenuous web Siva spreads Himself,
Penetrating all frames of all things,
If while alive, you cannot see Him,
How can you see Him after death?
Think deep and sift the true Self from the self.

The last two Vaks are a bold statement that absolute reality can and is to be realized in this very life. Notice the interrogative emphasis in the two lines:

If while alive you cannot see Him,
How can you see Him after death?
And relate it to the last line of the earlier Vak which reads:
In mud the lotus bloomed for me.

Through dismantling of ego, one has to realize the blooming of the flower upon the dirty ground covered with litter, mud and dirt (world) something valueless (representing human body). To recognize one’s soul is to walk on the path toward Allah.

This vibration is not physical, it is not vibration in the sense of movement, it is the creative power of consciousness which is beyond all human communication. Lal says:

Here is neither word nor thought,
Transcendent nor non-Transcendent
The vows of silence and mystic mudras,
cannot gain you admittance here,
Even Siva and Shakti (tattva-s) remain not here

Illusions are the part and parcel of this worldly life, The more one is spiritually evolved the fewer illusions will he or she entertain.

Resilience: to stand in the path of lightning.
Resilience: to walk when darkness falls at noon.
Resilience: to grind yourself fine in the turning mill.
Resilience will come to you


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