Saturday, July 1, 2023



( Well known Bharatanatyam dancer ,Rama Vaidyanathan dancing on the  verses of saint poetess Lal Ded ) 


In 2012, I saw Rama Vaidyanathan , noted Bharatanatyam dancer mesmerising the audience in Srinagar  with her ecstatic dance on mystical verses  of Lal Ded ,the 14th century  saint poetess from Kashmir. I saw many painters painting her message and many singers beginning their singing  (generally spiritual  ) with her verses known as Vaakhs .
Lal Ded's poetry consists of a four-line structured theme called Vaakhs. Her Vaakhs represent the best teaching for mankind. Her poetry is the emblem of humanism and a treasure of wisdom, love, truth and above all Kashmir’s glorious Shaiva Darshana . Her poetry carries an insightful  message  so profound that it survived even when not put in any manuscript initially. It was  preserved by Kashmiris through the word of mouth . In this write up, we may not discuss about  the efforts and  invaluable contribution of Rajanka Bhaskara ,Lionel D. Barnett , Sir George  Grierson , Richard Temple ,Nila Cram Cook , Prof Jay Lal Kaul ,Prof B N Parimu ,P N K Bamzai ,P N Bazaz , Dr Shashi Shekhar Toshakhani and Ranjit Hoskote towards the  propagation of the message of the great Shaiva Yogini and mystic poetess  . Let us revisit  the poetry of Lal Ded and discuss certain  facets of her unique  philosophy and  message .


Many false  narratives have been woven around Lal Ded’s personality and most of which  are not supported by any historical , documentary or authentic evidence .Let us  take up one common belief that ‘she moved naked’ . In fact her moving naked  is attributed to  one Vaakh that goes as under:-
“ Gworan vonanum kunuyee vatsun
Neibara dopnam andhar atsun
Suyi lalli me  guv vaakh ta vatsun
Tavai hyotum nangai natsun “

(My Guru gave a single precept:
‘turn your gaze from outside to inside’,
fix it on the hidden self.
I, Lalla, took this to heart
and naked set forth to dance )
The common interpretation derived from this Vaakh ( verse  ) appears to be over simplification of the Vaakh itself especially word, ‘ nangai natsun’  ( naked dance) . This moving within from  the outer world is simply a  philosophical concept representing movement from materialistic world into the spiritual domain . One can also say a movement from Saguna ( form ) to Nirguna( formless ) worship of the  supreme reality .For Lal Ded , the clothing of the mind is Maya-Jaal ( illusionary web ) . This web needs to be thrown away to enjoy the blissful dance  of moving towards the 'Ultimate Reality'  .In the Vaakh under reference, Lal Ded means to convey  that one needs  to remove all the clothing of the  mind to make it pure and attachment free . Then alone the  Atman is capable of  merging with the  Brahman and attain Moksha  .
Further,  clothes, have been symbolic for many who write or speak of spiritual journey or realization. Here the clothes are synonymous with dropping of identities or societal dressings.
A spiritual giant and a poetic gem of Kashmir,Lal Ded's  poetic presentation of the universal message of Kashmir’s Shaiva Darshana and dynamic humanism remains beyond compare . And through her verses , she is responsible for shaping the contours of the  Kashmiri language and literature so as to grant it a worldwide recognition. In fact, it is  often said- ‘Lalla is to Kashmiri what Shakespeare is to English’. She was the originator of the style of mystic poetry called vatsun or Vaakhs, literally “speech” (voice). Known as Lal Vaakhs, her verses are the earliest compositions in the Kashmiri language, and are a crucial part in the history of modern Kashmiri literature. 
In his book  “The Trio of Saint Poets-1”, P N Razdan writes this:-

“Lalleshwari is credited with laying the reinforced concrete basis of the language [Kashmiri] by her dexterous coinage of apt idioms and proverbs to infuse life and dynamism into it from its very infancy. The language, thus enriched and ornamented by lively idiom pregnant proverb, depth of philosophical thought and messages of social welfare and peace, became the main vehicle of communication of ideas among the Kashmiri people. Her cryptic, terse sayings still continue to enliven scholarly discussion and resolve social problems.”

The enormous humanism in her Vaakhs is a dynamic force that has withstood the test of the time and transcended all man-made barriers . These Vaakhs are like fresh fragrant air that can be universally experienced or like the rays of the sun that warm up every particle on this planet or like the midsummer shower that gives relief to every creature from the scorching heat. Prior to Lal Ded  , we don’t find any structured verses in Kashmiri language.


Let us examine some Vaakhs of Lal Ded in the light  of the Neti  Neti concept of Vedanta . I quote some lines from her Vaakhs to support the belief that all along her spiritual journey , she has been a practitioner of  the method of Neti Neti to  arrive at perfection and encounter' Ultimate Reality '
‘Adha Lal ba vaatchis  prakash dhaam’
“Then I Lala arrived at that illuminated abode “
‘Adha Lala me praavim param gath’ 
( Then I lala attained the absolute state )
‘Adha kamei hilli phoal Lali pamposh’ 
( Thence from some marsh this lotus blossomed within Lala )
‘Vuchhum ta deuthum shili kani Vath’
( Then I realized it was just a mass of stone before me )
‘Ba kossa Lala Ded ta me kyaah naav’ 
( Who am I Lala ? what name do I propose for myself? )
There is every reason to believe that Lal Ded is the foremost practitioner of the’ Appraisal of Reality’ by application of the doctrine of Neti Neti . For this , one needs to understand what is not truth or Brahman ;not this ,not this or beyond this and beyond this , or not that , beyond that , a continuous rejection to arrive at pure reality .It also implies transcending all worldly experiences  for  attaining union with the absolute . This process  also annihilates our sense of self and the ego obviously has no place . This self inquiry and self investigation empowers a person to rediscover the real self and return to pristine awareness . Even Adi Sankara advocated the ‘Neti Neti’ approach . Neti Neti is a  process of negation that encourages the cultivation of a kind of Emptiness, but one that includes and is aware of everything. Because Neti Neti doesn’t just mean “not this, not that” — it also means “also this, also that” (or in other words, “Iti, Iti”).

Neti Neti comes very close to the “ Via Negativa “ concept in “ Apophatic Theology “ that arrived from ancient Greeks to the  'Western Philosophy' .


The philosophical concept of Emptiness is essentially of Asian origin. Be it Hinduism , Islamic Sufi tradition , Buddhism , Taoism , Neo-Confucianism or Japanese and Korean thought, one finds this Emptiness playing crucial role. Buddhists call it ultimate reality that happens to be the root of self and the world or the ultimate truth about our transient life .
Apart from being the first progressive poet of Kashmiri language , Lal Ded is the originator of the concept of  ‘Emptiness’ in Kashmiri poetic thought . Transcending all dogmatic religious beliefs, Lal Ded is the first poet to have propounded Kashmir’s Shaivism in her poetry or Vaakhs .After a careful scrutiny of some Vaakhs of Lal Ded , one is led to believe that for Lal Ded , a slippage to’ Emptiness ‘ is a union with   Shiva that resides in every particle of this universe . She also believes that this limitless and transcendent Shiva is the destroyer of darkness leading to emergence of light . For Lal Ded , Shiva is not only the destroyer from the Trinity of Brahma ( creator ) Vishnu ( preserver ) and Mahesha ( destroyer ) but the essential supreme ruler of Shunya ( Shinya in Kashmiri ) or Emptiness  .

Apart from Kashmir Shaivism , Emptiness as expressed by Lal Ded is also of Rig Vedic origin. To some extent,  the concept of Emptiness  appearing in her Vaakhs  ( Vaakyas  ) is influenced by the Vedic hymns of Nasadiya  Sukta. The primordial ocean mentioned in Rig Veda is  synonymous with the concept of Emptiness. And the concept of ‘ something out of nothing’  (Kenh’nas nishe kyah’taam draav) appearing in Lal-Vaakhs  is again of  Rig Vedic origin. I quote two hymns from Rig Veda :-
“Then there was neither death nor immortality
nor was there then the torch of night and day.
The one breathed windlessly and self-sustaining.
There was that one then, and there was no other.”
“And they have stretched their cord across the void,
and know what was above, and what below.
Seminal powers made fertile mighty forces.
Below was strength, and over it was impulse.”

I also quote three Vaakhs of Lal Ded :+

“Shuniiyuk  mae’daan kodum paanus
Mey Lali roozum bodh na hosh
Wai’zey sap’nas paanie paanas
Adhaaa kammi hilli phoal Lali pamposh “
( Lal Ded )
( Alone I traversed this vast ground of Emptiness ,
Intellect and consciousness too withdrew from  me .
Then alone I turned familiar to my own inner self ,
And here I appear like a lotus flower blooming in swamp . )
“Kenhi’nas pyaath kyaah chhuyii na’tsun,
Mwatchi kenh na ta natchun traav .
Poat pheerith chuyee totuyi atsun
Yohai vatchun tsetas thaav “
( Lal Ded )
( Why dance over this emptiness ?
Abandon this ballet for you too shall contract to emptiness .
And on your way back ,
you shall have to enter this emptiness
So bear this thought alone in your mind . )
“Goras  pratchhom saasi la’teiy
Yas na kenh vanaan tas kyah  naav.
Pratchhaan pratchhaan tha’cheiss ta loosis
Kenh’nas  nishe kyah’taam draav”
( Lal Ded )
“To my master , I asked a thousand times ,
By what name should we call the nameless one .
Drained I became from seeking this knowledge ,
And lo ! something emerged from emptiness  only.”

Once an Individual realises that the final truth or reality is Emptiness ,he carries a different outlook on qualms of mundane existence . This enlightenment also enables him to rise above the painful concerns of routine life . And accordingly , this concept of Emptiness comes up with a positive transformative power.


 The 17th-century French philosopher Rene Descartes believed , ‘ Man is the only animal who is conscious of his death’ . Is not an animal conscious of its death? Have we ever seen how a dog or a cat tries to save itself from a speeding car or a vehicle ? May be this consciousness is triggered at that very moment . May be this consciousness visits instantly whereby animals  also desperately try to avoid seeing the end. 
Descartes’s  belief could be a result of viewing issues of  human existence in isolation to other segments of life in this universe . Can we deal a part without connecting it to the whole ? In spite of this built in ‘Death consciousness’  , no one ever  believes in his own demise . For him, it is something that visits ‘ others’. Some tend to believe that Death  has passed them by and the fleeting existence is mistaken for a permanent earth residency .
Let us examine the  ‘Death Consciousness ’as it appears in Lal Ded’s poetry . 
In  many Vaakhs , Lal Ded advocates  for a serious consciousness of  death as paramount and fundamental to righteous conduct . A consciousness that is not to be confused with a fear of death. Never has she made this consciousness appear as alarm , dread or panic.
Lal Ded believed that man needs to be perpetually conscious of this reality and this consciousness could be of immense help in shaping his / her upright conduct . For her , ‘Death Consciousness’ is a reformative force and a fundamental strength within . I quote two popular Vaakhs  on this subject .
“ Raaz hans aasith sapadukh koluyi
Kus taam Tsoluyi Kyahtaam hyaath
Grata guvv bandh ta gratan hyot goluyi 
Grataa vol tsoluyi  phal phol hyath ”
( Lal Ded )
( Weren’t you a chirping royal swan ?
Who stole something within you ? 
Why you turned dumb suddenly ?
Stifled, the grinding mill within you, came to halt ,
And the mill owner carried away the grains .)
“Lalith  lalithh vadaai boh vaai
Tseita  muhuch peyi maai
Rozi na pataa loh Langarich Tchhaai 
Niz swroop  kyaah mothuaai haai”
( Lal Ded )
(Unending, I shall sob  for you ,
O mind , how you fell to this worldly greed.
Not even the shadow of this shall hang around at the end .
O mind ! why you ignored the real self within ?)


Though deeply rooted in Kashmir’s Trika Shaivite creed , Lal Ded had risen much above the world of creeds or labels. Born in the 14th century ( sometime between 1320 to 1335 AD ) ,one can safely call her  the torch bearer  of  ‘Mediaeval Mysticism’ and ‘Bhakti Movement’ of the country . Ramanand ( 1400-1470 ), Kabir (1440-1518 ),Guru Nanak  Dev ( 1489-1538 )and Sant Tukaram ( 1577-1650 ) followed her . Like Kabir , she also makes symbolic  use of swan ( Raazhans ), grinding mill ( Gratta ), washerman ( Dhob) , weaver ( Vovur ) , lotus flower ( Pamposh ) to put forth her philosophy and  spiritual thought . Her frequent use of Prakaash Dhaam or Prakash Sthaan is synonymous with Kabir’s Anahad Naad or “ Baaje anhad dol “ or the musical chimes that are created when the spiritual  seeker gets the glimpse of  the reality  transcending all worldly experiences.One finds close similarity between Kabir's Doha ,' paahan pooje hari mile' and Lal Ded's Vaakh, ' deev vatta divar vatta' .Lal Ded rejected  ritualism  , and instead emphasized the importance of direct personal experience of the divine. This is precisely what Kabir did later.

  During her life, Lal-Ded was not  engrossed in her spiritual pursuits alone . She has been a prime  witness to  the changes that were sweeping her native land with the arrival of Islam.A reflection of this can be seen in many of her Vaakhs.  She gives a firm,  loud and clear message to  the  practitioners of ritualistic religion apart from propounding Kashmir’s Trika philosophy  through her Vaakhs. 


In May 2019 issue of FII ( Feminism in India ), Pitamber Kaushik writes this :-

“The unique, simple-devotional character of her saadhana helped enable spiritualism as commonplace and household, for posterity. By ridding Shaivism of customary ritualisms and fringe practices, she made it readily accessible and universal in appeal. Her practice replaced esotericism with devout emotion. Lal Ded single-handedly rid mysticism of bearing privy to a particular creed, community or language, or even faith, and helped fashion Shaivism into a syncretic, all-embracing, queerness-welcoming sect. Seekers no longer needed to rely on Seers and High-Priests to liaise and initiate their way to God, as spiritualism became essentially a personal journey of self-discovery.”

Apart from simplifying the knowledge of Shaivism , she freed it from the clutches of a particular group or section of the people and made it accessible to the common man . 

In March 2016 issue of  Sutra journal, Prof M H Zaffar writes this :-

“Lal-Ded is the most significant historical bridge that connects the two shores of this gulf very effectively. She was the product of the spiritual creed that had been evolving in Kashmir for centuries and her immediate predecessors were saints and scholars like Vasugupta Rishi, Acharaya Somanand, Acharaya Utpal Dev and Acharaya Abhinavagupta. Her immediate successor and a great saint and scholar in his own right, is  Nund Rishi the founder of Muslim Rishi order in Kashmir.  And  Lal-Vaakh forms the foundation not only of the contemporary Kashmiri literature but also of Kashmiri culture as a whole”

Through her Vaakhs , Lal Ded has  unknowingly played a major role of a social reformer for the Kashmiri society of her period . Rebelling against certain ritualistic practices like animal sacrifice , idol worship, fasting  etc. , she tried to bring the Kashmiri  society towards the soul of spiritualism by making them free from  the burden of ritualism. She opened the doors of Nirguna Worship for the society at large . She also  guided the society not to run after  pleasure ,wealth or Ahaar ( tasty foods ). Her eloquent  message was to follow the ‘Middle Path’ for true happiness . By ‘Middle Path’ , she meant not less, not too much but moderate . Many scholars believe that Lal Ded played pivotal role in the continuity of  cultural ethos of Kashmir . In this context, Dr S S Toshakhani writes this:-

"While her 'Vaakhs' or verse-sayings continue to dazzle us with their high wattage incandescence, her role as a spiritual leader who resolved the crisis of her times caused by a clash of two belief and value systems-one indigenous and the other alien cannot but be regarded as momentous, whether or not history recognizes its true significance. In both these capacities it was her intervention that ensured continuity and saved indigenous cultural structures from a total collapse at a time when the advent of Islam in Kashmir was accompanied by an unprecedented political and social upheaval."

Lal-Ded has indelible impact on Kashmiri psyche . It has remained unabated in spite of a time lapse of about seven hundred years. This could possibly be due to the poet inside her envisioning mysticism and the saint within her writing verses .This is also a fact that we have failed to place Lal Ded on ground  geographically . She belongs to Pampore yet there is no visible  spot either  in Sempur or Pampore  or Laltraagh  ( that had reportedly  more than 60 Kanals of land)  to place her geographically. The Lal-traag  spring where the great saint poetess used to visit frequently stands completely encroached  upon.   She is yet to find a place in her own land . Does she also face exile ?

( Avtar Mota )

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