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Education Can’t Be Held Hostage in Kashmir

Education can’t be held hostage to anyone’s politics. Kashmiris of my generation are well aware that the tradition of critical thinking existed in the Valley way before this concept gained currency in traditional pedagogy.

After extensive research on poetry and literature in the Kashmiri language, Sir George Grierson (1911) drew the inference that Lalla-Ded, a fourteenth-century saint revered by both the Pandits and the Muslims of Kashmir, is the oldest Kashmiri author. Her verses retain their relevance in various parts of the Valley even centuries after the decline of mysticism: “Lal Vakyas [wise sayings], rich in philosophical theme and content, rolled down to generations through word of mouth in Kashmiri, language of the masses” (Misri 2002: 9). A prolific scholar of Lalla-Ded’s religious philosophy, Professor Amar Nath Dhar, sent me an eloquent e-mail (on 18 April 2008) about her composite spiritualism and its cohesive impact on Kashmiri society, which dissipated because of the relegation of the syncretism that was lived by Lalla-Ded and Noor-ud-Din Wali to circumscribing political, literary and cultural realms:

Nund Rishi alias Sheikh Noor-ud-Din Wali was greatly influenced by Lalla-Ded. Holding her in very special regard, he was not averse to the Hindu belief in the avtarhood of Lalla-Ded. The Rishi order founded by him evolved in theValley itself after the advent of Islam. It was Sheikh Noor-ud-Din Wali’s unqualified veneration for the saint-poetess Lalla that had a great impact on devout Kashmiri Muslims, his followers. That explains why for centuries the Muslims in the Valley have continued to own her, delighting in memorizing her sayings and quoting them on festive occasions such as marriage ceremonies and cultural functions, as the Kashmiri Pandits do as well. The Sufis in Kashmir, especially those who were not alien to the Valley but rooted in the humanistic Rishi tradition nurtured by Noor-ud-Din Wali (Nund Rishi) and his followers, contributed a lot to the preservation of the composite Kashmiri ethos.

Although she was born into a Hindu family, Lalla-Ded “was greatly influenced by Islamic Sufiistic thought and may, in truth, be said to be above all religious conventionalities” (Sufi 1979: 167). The most significant contribution of Lalla-Ded to the Kashmiri language and literature is that she translated the sophisticated, esoteric concepts of Saiva philosophy and her mystic experiences into the vernacular and made them accessible to the many. She employed metaphors, idioms and images from experiences with which ordinary people could relate, in her translations of abstruse concepts. Her deployment of the easily recitable verse form of the vaakh in Kashmiri, the language of the masses, enables the incorporation of her utterances into the common mode of speech. She sought to forge a relationship with her Creator which did not require the intercession of a religious male figure, a Brahmin priest or a Mullah.

It is a herculean task not just to recognize the self, but to channelize the confidence which the said recognition fosters. Self awareness enabled Lalla-Ded, unobstructed by a false consciousness, to practice religious, cultural and social iconoclasm in an idolatrous and cult worshipping society. Again anticipating the psychoanalytic emphasis on maintaining serenity and verbalizing destructive emotions in order to defang them,

Lalla-Ded exhorts the believer to

“Keep thy mind calm as the Peaceful Sea,
Slaking and quenching the fires of Wrath,
Lest from thy bondage thou set them free
And the words of rage, as flames, break forth:

Words that shall sear, as with fire, thy mind
Burnt in anger to be healed in truth.
What are they? Nothing. Nothing but wind,
When thou hast weighed them in scales of Truth”

(Richard Carmac Temple: 181).

Lalla-Ded’s ability to be alert to how a woman’s aspirations for personal emancipation are mediated by her responsibility towards her community, and the ways in which this sense of responsibility inflects her own emancipatory thought, underscores her importance for me. She rejected a sexualized persona in order to break the power nexus that underlined the objectification of “the damsel in distress.”

Subsequent to 1947, the year India threw off the British yoke, there was a regeneration of interest in folk literatures, mythologies, poetry, etc. Cultural organizations that had been in dire straits because of the lack of intellectual and financial support were rejuvenated and reclaimed in the nationalist climate.This revival of cultural activities in Kashmir echoed the ramification of nationalist pride that was making inroads all over the Indian subcontinent.

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Nyla Ali Khan is the author of Fiction of Nationality in an Era of Transnationalism, Islam, Women, and Violence in Kashmir, The Life of a Kashmiri Woman, and the editor of The Parchment of Kashmir. Nyla Ali Khan has also served as an guest editor working on articles from the Jammu and Kashmir region for Oxford University Press (New York), helping to identify, commission, and review articles. She can be reached at nylakhan@aol.com.

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