“Though He is One, Alone, and All,
Yet I am caught in the War of Two.
Though He has neither colour nor form,
Yet I am caught in His wondrous forms.”
~ Lal Ded (14th Century)
In the wake of the 14th century, Kashmir was an extraordinary place, at the crossroads of major religious influences: Kashmir Shaivism, Buddhism, Islam through the rise of Sufism, not forgetting the Vedantic tradition in place for centuries. Great political changes were taking place as the first Muslim rulers came into power. It was there, in a beautiful valley south-east of Srinagar, in the profuse nature of this area, close to the Himalayan mountains, that one of the brightest star of spiritual achievement was born. Her name: Lallā, which can be translated as ‘seeker’ or ‘darling’. Lallā, which Baba Dawud Mishkati would later present in these terms:
“In the cradle of the earth, absorbed in god, was she, Lalla Arifa, constantly aware.
She was one of those who wander in the wilderness of love wailing and lamenting (for the Beloved);
and she was a knower of the path of the valley of truth.”
~ Baba Dawud Mishkati (in 1654)
Lallā was born in a Brahmin family around 1320, close to Srinagar. It is said that she was married when she was twelve. She left to live nearby, with her in-laws family, as is the tradition in India. She had a good education and developed a strong spiritual interest even as a child. It is said that she was martyred by her mother-in-law, and that she was the target of many reproaches and critics, which lead her to become unhappy and resentful of her new family and husband. Probably some questions must have risen in her mind, due to her actual state of affairs and her growing religious inclinations:
“For ever we come, for ever we go;
For ever, day and night, we are on the move.
Whence we come, thither we go,
For ever in the round of birth and death,
From nothingness to nothingness.
But sure, a mystery here abides,
A Something is there for us to know.
(It cannot all be meaningless).”
“I will weep and weep for you, my Soul.
The world has caught you in its spell.
Though you cling to them with the anchor of steel,
Not even the shadow of the things you love
Will go with you when you are dead.
Why then have you forgot your own true Self?”
Something was brewing in her mind. At the age of twenty-four, displeased with her life, she found the courage to leave her husband and took refuge under the wing of the shaivite guru Siddha Srikantha, of whom she became a disciple. We can imagine the relief it must have been, in the harsh and unsecured society of Kashmir at the time, for a young woman, how she must have found there many answers to her questions and a new direction for her thirsty soul. The direction being: within. Within. This became her mantra as she completed discipleship and left alone, as a mendicant, into the world. “Dance then, Lallā, clothed but by the air: Sing then, Lallā, clad but in the sky.”
“My guru gave me but one precept;
‘From without withdraw your gaze within,
And fix it on the inmost self.’
I, Lalla, took to heart this one precept,
And therefore naked I began to dance (roam).”
“Why do you grope thus like the blind ?
Pray, doubt not what I say to you:
If you are wise, enter within
And see the Lord Himself is there.
You need not search Him here and there.”
“Realization is rare indeed:
Seek not afar, it is near, by you.
First slay Desire, then still the mind,
giving up vain imaginings;
Then meditate on the Self within,
And lo ! the void merges in the Void.”
This is the time when she started to write her poetry, her vākhs (utterance), which comes from the Sanskrit ‘vāc’, meaning ‘speech’, or ‘vākya’, ‘sentence’. This poetry came to be for her her support and guide, and later appeared to everybody in Kashmir as the splendour that they truly are, the tale of Lallā’s patient progression towards the heights of spiritual realisation. “My vākh brought me the wine I drank.” she said. For these vākhs were never about her social or personal difficulties, but were all directed towards the understanding of God. They became for her the vector of her own investigation, questioning, and discerning abilities.
“Why do you dote upon someone, my Soul,
who is not your true love ?
Why have you taken the false for the true?
Why can’t you understand, why can’t you know?
It is ignorance that binds you to the false,
To the ever-recurring wheel of birth and death, this coming and going.”
“Siva abides in all that is, everywhere;
Then do not discriminate between
a Hindu or a Mussalman.
If thou art wise, know thyself;
That is true knowledge of the Lord.”
“Who dies? Who is slain ?
He who forsakes God’s Name,
And gets involved in worldly cares.
It’s he who dies. It’s he who is slain.”
As her understanding deepened, she began sharing and teaching her experience and path. She expressed herself in the colloquial Kashmiri language, with simplicity, touching people’s hearts, which brought her some fame. She became known by many affectionate names like Lal Ded, which means ‘grandmother Lal’, Lalleswari, which refers to her status as a yogini, or Lal Arifa to the Muslims, ‘the one who knows’. For many, her attitude and lifestyle appeared too wild and outcast, too critical of orthodoxy, too free, to put it simply. She didn’t need to attend to any decorum or sense of respectability. She was married to truth and cared for one thing only, which is to abide in God’s eternal presence in her heart.
“O fool, right action does not lie
in observing fasts and ceremonial rites.
O fool, right action does not lie
in providing for bodily comfort and ease.
In contemplation of the Self alone
is right action and right counsel for you.”
“Thou alone art the heavens, and Thou alone art the earth.
Thou alone art the day, the air, the night.
Thou alone art the meal-offering, the sandal inunction, the flowers, the water of aspersion.
Thou alone art all that is. What, therefore, can I offer thee?”
~ Trans. by George Grierson
“Think within thee, till the light of day
Be as the darkness of every night —
Till the self-illuminated Way
Shows thee the Darkness to be but Light.”
~ Trans. by Richard Carnac Temple
Lallā’s commitment to her quest was total. She had reached the utmost heights of spiritual endeavour, and this transpired in many of her vākhs. In Anand Koul’s translation: “I saw and (found) I am in everything; I saw (God) effulgent in everything. … The house is His alone : who am I, Lalla?” She gave great emphasis on will, effort, keenness to reach the goal. She was earnest, committed, absolute in her search.
“I, Lalla, searched and sought for Him,
And even beyond my strength I strove.
Finding His doors bolted and barred
I longed the more;
And firmly resolved, I stood just there
with longing and love,
Fixing my gaze upon His door.”
“What is bitter at first is sweet in the end,
What is sweet at first is poison in the end.
(To everyone is given the choice)
It all depends on the effort put in,
and the unflagging determined will;
For whoever strives must soon arrive at the city of his choice.”
“Keep your mind intent upon
the path that leads to immortality.
Should it stray from the path,
it will fall into evil ways.
Be firm with it and have no fear;
For mind is like a suckling baby,
which tosses restless even in its mother’s lap.”
“On nothing else I built my hopes,
In nothing else I put my trust —
My vaakh brought me the wine I drank,
My vaakh gave me the strength to seize
The darkness that within me lurked.
I rolled it up and knocked it down,
And tore it to pieces.”
In the sayings of Lallā is found all the subtleties and intricacies of the spiritual path. This is why she appears to be so modern. Many a spiritual seeker nowadays would recognise in her expression the many stages and pitfalls that they experience too. And if she stresses the necessity for a strong and unabated will, she stresses with equal force the importance of letting go, the ultimate power of surrender.
“Not by ascetic practices is the Self realized;
Nor by desire can you gain
the Portals of Release.
In contemplation you may be absorbed
as salt in water,
Yet hard it is for you to gain
the true knowledge of the Self.”
“Searching the Self, I wearied myself;
For none by searching ever gained
The secret knowledge beyond the mind.
I stopped searching, and love led me
to the Tavern door.
There I found wine jars aplenty,
But none desiring to drink from them.”
We know very little of Lallā’s factual life, but really her sayings and poetry say it all. They say of her courage and unabated will, of her strength and clarity. The whole world became so intimate to her that it was seen as one with her own quest, with her Self, with the presence of God. Every step of her path was intermingled with her surroundings. The world and its multiplicity were fading in an unequivocal oneness.
“A thousand times my Guru I asked:
‘How shall the Nameless be defined?’
I asked and asked but all in vain.
The Nameless Unknown, it seems to me,
Is the source of the something that we see.”
“Like a tenuous web Siva spreads Himself,
Penetrating all frames of all things.
If while alive, you cannot see Him,
How can you see Him after death ?
Think deep and sift the true Self from the self.”
“When water freezes in the cold,
it turns to snow and ice.
Reflect, O man, that one becomes
three different things;
And when the sun of pure Consciousness shines,
The world of living and lifeless things,
the universe and whatever exists,
are, in the Supreme, seen as one.”
“Thou dost pervade all shapes and forms,
Though breathest life into all frames,
The whole creation hums with Thy silent sound.
Who can measure the Immeasurable, O Lord!”
“By oft-repeated practice, the wide expanse
of manifested universe is lifted to absorption;
And the saguna world, of forms and qualities,
merges in the vastness of the Void
with a splash of water on water falling;
Then the ethereal Void dissolves,
and the Ineffable Supreme alone remains.
This, O Bhatta, is the Truth to gain.”
“It is a lake so tiny that in it a mustard seed findeth no room.
Yet from that lake doth every one drink water.
And into it do deer, jackals, rhinoceroses, and sea-elephants
Keep falling, falling, almost before they have time to become born.”
~ Trans. by George Grierson
Lallā was always marvelling at the potency of the spiritual endeavour. She saw God everywhere, including in herself. Again and again, she would notice her own absence, being only aware of what truly is: the presence of God. Treading along with giant steps, she was seeing herself melting, and disappearing in Him. In Anand Koul’s translation: “I, Lalla, remained then in peace, when I remembered ‘I’ (to be) His name.”
“Foulness from my mind was cleared
as ashes from a mirror,
Then recognition of Him came to me
unmistakable and clear.
And when I saw Him close by me,
He was all and I was not,
(and there was nothing else).”
“Thou wert absorbed in Thine Own Self,
hidden from me;
I passed whole days in seeking Thee out.
But when I saw Thee in mine own Self,
O joy! then Thou and I
disported ourselves in ecstasy.”
“Self of my Self, for Thou art but I,
Self of my Self, for I am but Thou,
Twain of us in one shall never die,
What do they matter — the why and how?”
~ Trans. by Richard Carnac Temple
It is remarkable to see that, though isolated and without followers, and with only her bare words, Lallā‘s presence has resonated over the centuries to become a truly influential landmark amongst the Kashmiri people and beyond. In Kashmir, it is said that the two most significant words are Allah and Lallā. People have felt Lallā’s genuine message and realisation. She was always generous and honest, never shying away from expressing and describing all the nuances of her inmost realisations and blissful journey. Coming upon the mystery, she would exclaim: “The lotus bloomed for me” or “I saw the Pandit in my own home”.
“I traversed the vastness of the Void alone,
leaving behind me reason and sense,
Then came upon the secret of the Self;
And, all on a sudden, unexpectedly,
In mud the lotus bloomed for me.”
“For love that would not let me be,
I, Lalla, set forth in search of Him.
And toiled and toiled for days and nights.
Then lo ! the most auspicious moment of life —
I saw the Pandit in my own home.”
“The soles of my feet wore off on the roads
while I wandered in search of Him.
Then lo ! on a sudden, I saw
That He was all and everywhere,
I had nowhere to go in search of Him.
This was the Truth of a hundred truths.
Whoever learn of it, will they not wonder?
Will they not be mad for joy?”
To live and wander on her own must have been a real challenge for Lallā, and there is no doubt that the depth of her understanding and the true recognition of her intimate self must have been a constant guide and help. God has a divine hand.
“Have no fear, O restless mind,
The Eternal One takes thought for you.
He knows how to fulfil your wants.
Then cry to Him alone for help,
His Name will lead you safe across.”
“I came straight,
And straight I shall return.
How can the crooked lead me astray?
Surely, no harm can come to me:
He knows me from the beginning of time,
And loves me.”
Lallā is said to have died when she was around seventy.
“Would you understand what Oneness is?
It has turned me into nothingness.”
Poetry by Lal Ded (14th century)
Paintings by Jahar Dasgupta (born 1942)
Text by Alain Joly
Unless otherwise stated, I have used here the translation by Jaya Lal Kaul, in the book ‘Lal Ded’, and occasionally the ones by George Grierson, Anand Koul, and Richard Carnac Temple.
– “I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded” – Translated by Ranjit Hoskote – (Penguin Classics)
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