Monday, December 4, 2023



                     BOOK REVIEW

                                                                              NUND  RISHI
(Poetry And Politics in Medieval Kashmir )
Published by Cambridge University Press
ISBN 978-1-009-10045-8
Year of Publication.. 2023

 Abir Bazaz teaches English at Ashoka University, Sonept (Haryana). He holds degrees from the Universities of Chicago and Minnesota .Having studied intersections of mysticism and politics in Kashmiri literature, he appears  well equipped for the subject that he has dealt through  the book under review. While reading the book , one observes that  the study of the author is deep and profound  done with a  mind  that is  open and free from already set  notions  or beliefs . This book represents   Abir Bazaz's long-term assignation with the poetic corpus of Nund Rishi (1378–1440) who is revered as the 'flag-bearer of Kashmir' ('Alamdār-e Kashmir) . Considered as a spiritual successor of Lal Ded , the poetry of Nund Rishi resonated with a society in flux accepting new faith  ( Islam )while retaining some centuries old  beliefs and  practices . Nund Rishi  reached a large audience  not through the  complex Islamic theology, but a mystical form of poetry called shruks through which he tried to present ‘Sahaja‘ ( simple or natural )’ Islam and also  amalgamate the core philosophy of the  new faith ( Islam )  with the old faith ( Hinduism ) .This amalgamation  is clearly evident when Nund Rishi says, ‘Baar Khodaaya Paap Nivaar‘. Like Lal Ded , Nund Rishi also brings in Shiva implicitly or  explicitly at many places in his Shruks thereby  owning Lal Ded  and her philosophy . He even desires to reach the high pedestal of Lal Ded when he says this in one of his Shruks ;-

“Tas Padmaan Porichay lalle 
Yemi gali amrit pivo
Tami shiv vuch thali thali
Tyth  me var dito divo”……( Lal Ded )


( Homage to that Lala of padmanpur (Pamore )
Who drank her fill of nectar 
The one who saw Shiva here and there 
Grant me the same boon  my Deva ( God) )

Apart from this book , Bazaz’s research includes subjects like Indian cinema ,religion, violence  and literature .Along with Alexandra  Verini, he  has edited a book titled, “Gender and Medieval Mysticism  From India to Europe “.

Published by Cambridge University Press , this 281 page book is  divided into four chapters titled , The Sahja Islam Of Nund Rishi , Practicing Death , Becoming Nothing and Vernacular Apocalypse. About 33 pages at the end have been devoted to Conclusion, Bibliography and Index. The author has dedicated the book to Haneefa , Shamshad and Trilok. There is a stream of names in the acknowledgements list which includes the author’s friends and  teachers in Kashmir , Sonepat ,New Delhi and  overseas Universities .The book is available on major online platforms like Amazon and Flipkart .From the bibliography and footnotes at various pages , one is impressed by the hard work and study of the author for this book . To explain the beliefs and mysticism of Nund Rishi , Bazaz brings into discussion  the philosophy of Lal Ded , Rishi Order of Kashmir ,Nirguna Bhakti , Tawheed ,Kubrawiyya Sufis , Sayyid Ali Hamdani’s role ,Via Negativa philosophy of Greeks , Philosophy of Jacques Derrida , Socrates, Heidegger etc. Before reading the book, one needs to know the peculiarities of the Rishi Order of Kashmir of which Nund Rishi happened to be a towering personality . In Kashmir ,the Rishis ( mostly Muslims ) were wandering saints who never married. They did penance and meditation .  Having  put control over  Kaam , Krodh Lobh , Moh and Ahankaar , these  Rishis had no temptation for material objects .They never denounced men belonging to other faiths . They  planted fruit trees for others  .They were vegetarians .

“Hachivih  harinji  Petsiyuv  Kaan  Gom
Abakh  chhaan  pyom  yath raazdaney
Manz  baag bazaaras kulfa ross vaan gom
Tiratha ross paaan gom kus maali zaaney”……(Lal Ded )


( A grass arrow to lightwood bow I have become
An unskilled carpenter fell upon this capital
A shop without a lock ,in the middle of the bazaar, I have become
A self without a future , who knows my state )

The book starts with above popular Vaak of Lal Ded .The Vaak aptly conveys the predicament of Kashmiris in general  after the arrival of Pakistan sponsored armed insurgency  in the Kashmir valley  .This violent  insurgency  changed many things in Kashmir foremost being the spirit of accommodation , tolerance and peaceful co-existence .

In the first chapter titled , ‘The Sahaja Islam of Nund Rishi ‘, the author discusses  in detail salient features of  the Islam as it  was  practiced in the  Kashmir Valley. The Islam in Kashmir has been exclusive and distinct in its nature and one can’t think of the same without taking into account the  Rishi Order of Kashmiri Sufism as distinguished from the Shariah oriented Persianate Sufi  Orders. According to Bazaz , Islam as preached by Nund Rishi had Sahaja ( easy or natural ) elements carried down from Tantric traditions common to both Hinduism and Buddhism. Through Sahaja , Nund Rishi tried to evolve common religious vocabulary in Kashmir. The author emphasizes that for practicing Sahaja , Kashmiris also named him Sahajanand or the  one who tasted the bliss of being natural or simple. The Sahaja Islam of Nund Rishi  connects him with Sahaja of Gorakh Nath , Kabir , Ravidas and Guru Nanak. Like Kabir   , Nund Rishi also had been a critic of  the Mullah/ priest . According to Bazaz , Nund Rishi urges  a Muslim to train in spiritual exercise lest his prayers are reduced to merely bending his body . According to Bazaz, Nund Rishi calls the   ascetic practices of exercising control over the senses as the true Namaz  or Salah. For this Nund Rishi  uses the phrase ’danthra namaz’ or  the Tantric Namaz. Bazaz feels that the word  danthra (Tantra) appearing in the Shruks of Nund Rishi  is indicative of ‘Saiva milieu ‘ in which he composed his mystical verse .

“Poz yodh bozakh pantsh nomarakh
Nata maz nomarakh soi chhai namaz
Shiv ta shuniyas muil yodh karakh
Sidho soi chhai danthra namaz “…..( Nund Rishi )

( if you are true , you will bend the five senses
Or else you will be bending only your frame
You must unite Shiva with  Nothingness
O Sidha , that alone is the Tantra Namaz)

What Nund Rishi emphasises for self correction is closer to Neti Neti concept of Vedanta . Neti Neti comes very close to the ‘Via Negativa ‘ concept in ‘Apophatic Theology‘ that arrived from ancient Greeks to the  Western philosophy .

The 17th-century French philosopher Rene Descartes believed ,‘Man is the only animal who is conscious of his death’ . Like Lal Ded ,death is a major theme appearing in  the poetry of Nund Rishi. The second chapter titled , ‘Practicing Death’ deals with  ‘Death Consciousness’ and impermanence of life  in the Shrukhs of Nund Rishi. According to Bazaz , Nund Rishi  advocates for a serious consciousness of  death as paramount and fundamental  to righteous conduct . A consciousness that is not to be confused with the fear of death  . For Nund  Rishi  ,‘Death Consciousness’ is a reformative force and a fundamental strength within .The author discusses  Rahman Rahi’s work on Nund Rishi  in this segment to shape his argument . Nund  Rishi  also reinforces the Islamic tradition that death is inescapable and it does not spare the  prophets and the saints .In some Shruks , he compares death to a  healing or a curative experience . He  calls death a sweet drink which heals : ‘Margitch sharbat chana ros no balizeh’  ( death is a sweet drink without which you shall not heal ). Nund Rishi also speaks about “die before your death” or  ‘Marno bronh marizihe’ . This is broadly a Sufi  concept  of voluntary dying. The Quran says ,”Surely we are for God and to Him , we shall return “   implying death is simply a  return to  benevolent fold of the creator. In chapter two, Bazaz deals  this subject in a brilliant manner .
 In chapter three of the book titled , ‘ Becoming Nothing ‘ Bazaz discuses the concept of Shunyata or Void or Emptiness as it appears  in the Shruks of Nund Rishi. After Lal Ded , Nund Rishi appears to be deeply engrossed in the study of Shunyata ( shinya ) or Emptiness / Nothingness/ Void. This void or Emptiness has a Rig Vedic origin  especially in the  Nasadiya Sukta . The primordial ocean mentioned in Rig Veda is synonymous with the concept of Emptiness or Void. Emptiness' or 'Void' is an expression also used in Mahayana  Buddhist thought primarily to mark a distinction between the way things appear to be and the way they actually are, together with attendant attitudes which are held to be spiritually beneficial. Bazaz has skillfully  dealt Nothingness or Void   appearing in the  Shruks of Nund Rishi in this chapter bringing Mahayana Buddhism , Kalima (La Illaha illallah ) ,Japanese philosopher Keiji  Nishitani, poet Rehman Rahi, philosopher Jacques Derrida ,Samuel Beckett, Kabir, Dadu Dayal, Guru Nanak and  Fazlur Rehman ( Islamic scholar )  into discussion to support his arguments.  We also know that Nothingness  or  Void also echoes in the poetry of almost all the  prominent Sufi poets of Kashmir  including Sochh Kraal, Rehman Dar , Shamas Faquir, Wahab  Khar ,Samad Mir and many more .Even  one Sufi poet used “ Kenh-nai’ ( Nothing ) as his pseudonym . Bazaz is of the view that Nothingness in Nund Rishi’s poetry also comes from a serious thinking of political equality at a time when new Muslim Sultanate appears as mixed in caste ,clan and race as the order it had displaced . Bazaz believes  that the concept of Nothingness or Void  in Nund Rishi’s poetry also gives rise to existential politics ; a challenge that the thinking of death and  Nothingness in Nund Rishi pose to the positive theological politics that tied monarchical power to Islamic  theology .Bazaz  concludes that the political impulse in Nund Rishi is not anarchic but utopian.

The fourth and the last chapter is titled .’Vernacular  Apocalypse’  that deals with the vernacular vision of Islam as appearing in the Shruks of Nund Rishi. Apocalypse genre is fundamental to all Abrahamic religions . Bazaz believes that the traditional Muslim apocalyptic  is deployed by Nund Rishi and hurled against the political structure of his time ( the new Shahmiri  Muslim Sultanate ) and also displaced on to  metaphors of a  sudden inner transformation .

“Ha ha aki sangar taar zan vazaan
Gunbad vazaan dun dun kith
Su zan isharav satyen bozaan
Ko zan bozan nu dum dumu  gath ..”  (Nund Rishi)


( A single breath and the mountain will blow off
like carder’s wool off a string.
The domes resound with the blows
The good shall recognise it from its signs
The evil shall not even hear the revolutions of the drum.)

 According to Bazaz, this Shruk clearly deals with the theme of the apocalyptic and defines the relation between political and religious thinking of Nund RishiThis Shruk refers to  Damaru , a percussion drum of Shiva  together with Surah Al- Qar’ia ( chapter 101 of the Quran )where the apocalyptic emerges as the disappearance of the ground and the moment when the mountains blow off like wool from the carder’s string. Bazaz uses Rahi’s essays on Nund Rishi  to base his discourse in this last chapter apart from bringing in  the writings of G N Gauhar.

 Bazaz concludes  with a  truthful note saying   ,“ I may have raised more questions here than I have answered . But it is in the hope that future researchers are able to present a more complex and fuller picture of the intellectual and political legacy of this revered  Kashmiri saint , popularly called ‘Alamdar e Kashmir ’ or the flag-bearer  of Kashmir .” Bazaz also admits that he could not discuss several other themes like nafas(ego), ishq (love),ilm (knowledge),faqr (asceticism ) etc. that appear prominently in the Shruks of Nund Rishi  as these deserve  separate treatment. According to Bazaz,  even Sahaja needed more detailed discussion. He believes that a comprehensive study of Nund Rishi and the Rishi Order of Kashmiri Sufism needs to be more interdisciplinary to engage it with the fields of South Asian history, anthropology, Indology ,Islamic philosophy and post colonial theory.  The book opens many windows and doors for a more holistic and serious research on  Nund Rishi , the tallest saint of the  Rishi Order of Kashmiri Sufism . I recommend this book or love’s labour to all who are interested in something new and serious written on  much loved and revered  saint of Kashmir  .

( Avtar Mota )


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