The recent attempts of the Vice Chancellor of the University of Agriculture Faisalabad, Pakistan, and a Professor at the University of Jadhavpur, Kolkata, to diminish women’s identities and reduce them to symbols of “purity” compelled me to think about empowered women in the fourteenth century in my native state, Kashmir.
Kashmiris have taken pride in inhabiting a cultural space between Vedic Hinduism and Sufi Islam. The traditional communal harmony in Kashmir enabled the peaceful coexistence of Muslims and Hindus, mutual respect for their places of worship, and an ability to synthesize not just cultural but religious practices as well. Deep reverence for each other’s shrines and the relics housed in those shrines is a well entrenched aspect of the culture.
A fitting symbol of this syncretic ethos of Kashmir is Lalla-Ded, a figure revered by both the Pandits and Muslims of Kashmir. Lalla-Ded was born in 1334 into a Kashmiri Brahmin home in village Simpur, about four miles from Srinagar, the summer capital of Kashmir. She was brutalized in a marriage that was arranged for her by the elders once she crossed the threshold of puberty. Unwilling to acquiesce to the constraints placed on the “traditional” woman and questioning the self-abnegation of women that disallows them from reconciling their private selves with their roles as public contributors to the community, Lalla-Ded disavowed the psychosocial narratives inscribed on the female body in defiance of the continued conscription of women (Bhatnagar, Dube and Dube 2004: 30).
Challenging a Patriarchal and Hierarchical Society
I would argue that by committing the sacrilegious act of crossing the threshold of the husband’s house in order to choose a life of asceticism, Lalla-Ded subverted the traditional reliance on male authority. She was a yogini, a professed woman ascetic, who disseminated the yogic doctrines with an unquenchable zeal. Her passionate pursuit of self-knowledge led her down the tortuous path of a yogic life, but the flame of her devotion blazed bright. Lalla-Ded is a watershed in the cultural and spiritual development of Kashmir. Bazaz’s assessment of the “splendid” role that Kashmiri women of ancient times played in the social and cultural life of Kashmir is glorious but romanticized, and discounts the disparagements that intellectually inclined women had to combat in order to emerge as public figures.
“Broadly speaking, from early times to the thirteenth century they enjoyed remarkable freedom, wielded ample power and exercised responsibility, which gave them a high position in society. . . . At times Kashmiri women have risen to pinnacles of glory and distinguished themselves as rulers (Yashomati, Sughandha, Didda and Kota) in their own right, as regents of minor princes, as powerful queens-consort (Ishandevi, Vakpushta, Ananglekha, Srilekha, Suryamati and Jayamati), as diplomats in peace and war (Radda Devi, Kalhanika), as commanders of armies (Silla, Chudda), as thrifty landladies, as builders and reformers and as preceptors of religious lore.” (Bazaz  2005: 12)
But unconditional freedom from sexualized hierarchies does not exist in any social matrix. Bazaz’s assessment of Kashmiri women in ancient times is sanguine but mythical in that it ignores the “internal dynamics of patriarchal and hierarchical societies, essentially biased against women. Rigid, reprehensive customs and conventions placed women inferior to men in status, rights, power and freedom in these societies. Discrimination and inequality were accepted as a natural scheme of things” (Misri 2002: 7). The women whose positions on the political and artistic zenith Bazaz chooses to foreground were affiliated with the royalty in a monarchical regime basking in the freedom from economic constraints and societal limitations that women of other classes were tormented by. But Lalla-Ded sought, in the social arrangement to which she had access, concepts and tools for a new society which would be liberated from gendered forms of oppression. 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.
Religious Humanism in the Teachings of Lalla-Ded
Although a Sufi mystic, childless Lalla-Ded eroded the construct of woman as goddess or mother that binds her to a form of subordination that is the ultimate paradigm of social relationships in traditional societies. Most historians are of the opinion that Sheikh Noor-ud-Din Wali, the founding father of the predominant Sufi sect in the Kashmir Valley, Rishiism, acknowledged Lalla-Ded as his spiritual mentor. There is a legend that the infant Noor-ud-Din adamantly refused to be suckled by his mother, Sudra. When the infant was brought to Lalla-Ded, she reprimanded him for his rejection of nourishment. Subsequently, the boy allowed his mother to nurse him. Later, Lalla- Ded facilitated Sheikh Noor-ud-Din Wali’s immersion into the intellectual radicalism generated by her philosophy of Religious Humanism (Bazaz  2005: 138). The recorded poems and paradigmatic sayings of Lalla-Ded and of Sheikh Noor-ud-Din Wali enrich Kashmiri literature and add layer upon layer to the culture.
After extensive research on poetry and literature in the Kashmiri language, Sir George Grierson (1911) drew the inference that Lalla-Ded 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).
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.
Self-Awareness Erodes Constrictive Conventions
She pre-empted the modern-day psychoanalytic promulgation of the concept of self-awareness. Recognizing one’s strengths and weaknesses enables one to pave the tortuous path toward self-advancement – a much sought after goal that would allow people of different intellectual dispositions to relegate life’s peripherals to the background and face the vicissitudes of fate with courage and faith in themselves.
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.
In an age in which the culture was pervaded by conservative sensibilities, well-defined gender roles and the confinement of women to home and hearth, Lalla-Ded’s blatant mockery of confining conventions was condemned by the upholders of the hegemonic order.
Her honed self-knowledge and sublimation of needs highlighted by society taught Lalla to maintain an unscarred mind in the face of thoughtless condemnation and adversity. Critical intelligence, particularly when expressed by a woman to break down societal, religious and cultural edifices, has always been intimidating and has invited virulent criticism, as it did in Lalla’s case. The ravages of time and the putative liberation of women in the twenty-first century have not diminished the potency of Lalla-Ded’s radicalism, the tangible beauty of her poetry, and its pertinence in this day and age.
Lalla-Ded’s unsurpassed Sufi mysticism and the eloquent verse that ensued from it led to her being owned as much by the Pandits of the Valley, as Lalla Ishwari, as by the Muslims of the Valley, as Lalla Arifa.