This year marks the 700th anniversary of the revered Kashmiri yogini, Lalleshwari or Lal Ded (‘Granny Lal’). Though iconic in Kashmir, she is little known outside the Valley. This is despite the fact that the metaphysical tradition she represents—Shiva advaita or trans-sectarian monist consciousness—and some of its expressive forms share a good deal with other monist/gnostic traditions across India.
For example, Shankaracharya (Kerala), Kabir (Banaras), Guru Nanak (Punjab), Namdev (Maharashtra) and Akka Mahadevi (Karnataka) all variously espoused, like Lal, devotion to God culminating in realisation of, or union with, the supreme Absolute. Lal Ded is, then, as Indic as she is Kashmiri and offers yet another instance of Kashmir’s deeply connected histories with the rest of India. Let us reprise here the life of this extraordinary saint and her significance for our times.
Though little is known about Lal, except that she was perhaps born in Pandrethan, near Srinagar, in the early 14th century and left her marital home at a young age in pursuit of God, her many sayings (vaakh) that seeped far and wide into popular usage in Kashmir speak for her. They also deeply influenced the local Sufi saint, Sheikh Nooruddin or Nund Rishi.
As I explain in my book Looking Within, Lal’s vaakhs are often in the first person and addressed to herself. Seen in other mystics as well, this is a technique that points to Lal Ded’s central teaching of turning inwards to arrive at life’s greatest truths.
Thus she says: “I rejected every false belief / Immersed myself in my inner voice alone / Ultimately I saw my self looking deeply into my Self / And knew it to be You, God, in every speck.”
Lal takes you on an individual’s journey through the woes of the human condition, disillusionment with the world, an anguished search for God and, ultimately, to the realisation of the highest truth that liberates.
Her teachings are universal: the transience and futility of material pursuits, human attachments, and emotions they generate like greed, anger, pride, and fear of loss and death.
Lal’s humanism thus makes it easy to relate to her. This might explain why her sayings were preserved, till as late as the 19th century, not in any text but through popular collective memory, in songs, proverbs and hymns recited by all strata of Kashmiris. They also constitute one of the earliest compositions in Kashmiri, pioneering the emergence of literature in that tongue.
As her vaakhs suggest, Lal belongs to the Trika school of Kashmir Shaivism, which was represented earlier by scholar-siddhas like Bhatta Narayana, Utpaladeva, Abhinavagupta and Shitikantha (8th–13th century), and after Lal, by Roopa Bhavani (17th century) and Lakshman Joo (20th century), among others.
Simply put, according to Trika, all of creation is replete with one indivisible super consciousness called Parama Shiva or Omkara (the supreme principle). But human beings do not realise this truth since their intellect is clouded by delusions induced by a sensory or materialistic life. This makes them mistakenly identify with their worldly forms and roles, causing a great deal of suffering in the process, and obscuring their real identity, which is one with God, who is formless, pure consciousness.
Lal urges a simple and spontaneous (sahaj) realisation or recognition of this ultimate reality by turning inwards. This is because Parama Shiva himself is subtle and spontaneous and resides within each of us.
“Shiva is the sole reality and witness / In whichever direction you look.”
Thus people were not to be discriminated on the basis of their outward faith or customs. The inclusivism of Kashmir Shaivism was great indeed.
Lal also, like most bhakti saints, rejected external rituals, ostentation and extreme asceticism. She prescribed instead a passion for God and the quintessential yogic technique—intense concentration on the Self through observing the inflow and outflow of one’s breath, which leads to the direct experience of pure consciousness. One who experiences this state no longer knows any fear or grief, not even of death, and hence becomes liberated within one’s lifetime (jivan mukta).
Lal’s life is inspiring for not only spiritual but ethical reasons. Here was a brave, young, solitary woman, with a profound understanding of the human condition, striving with acuity and determination to find a way out of the confusing morass of everyday life, social relations and emotional entanglements to the clarity and bliss of self-discovery. She stood alone and aloof in the face of apparent social censure for being such an intrepid and unconventional woman.
“When the inner light lit up within me / Off went the light outside.
Let people abuse and taunt me! / Or let them shower petals in adoration! / Nothing affects me / I am pure consciousness!
Only when I can withstand censure / Will my inhibitions break down / Let my pride be torn asunder! / Let not attacks bother me!”
No ordinary person is capable of such exceptional self-awareness and fortitude.
In our consumerist and hyper-connected modern world, we are ironically disconnected from our own inner selves, and suffer great violence and turmoil as a society consequently. Today therefore, more than ever before, Lal Ded’s utterances shine brightly from across the centuries as a beacon of salvation, beckoning us to reclaim our Self and sanity.
Associate Professor, Centre for Historical Studies, JNU (email@example.com)