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" The Holy Land is everywhere "

Black Elk

There’s Only the Soul: Poetry and Mysticism from Kashmir

Published by Philip Carr-Gomm

In the fourteenth century, in northern India, a female mystic named Lalla achieved fame with her lucid aphoristic verses that have made her one of Kashmir’s favourite poets. Little is known of Lalla’s life, and what is known is apocryphal. It is said that she was born in a village near Srinagar around 1320 and died in 1391. Her husband and his family mistreated her, but she never complained and meditated instead at holy shrines whenever she could. One day her husband believed she was wasting time, and as she returned home from fetching water he struck the pot with a stick. The pot shattered, but the water remained intact above her head and became a sacred lake.

By the age of 24 Lalla had had enough of the marriage and left home to follow the Hindu teacher Sed Bayu. Soon she was so filled with ecstasy that she began wandering and dancing naked in a state of ecstatic clarity. One of her songs clearly conveys her feelings about being skyclad:

Don’t be so quick to condemn my nakedness.
A man is one who trembles in the Presence.
There are very few of those.
Why not go naked?
The ram of experience must be fed
And ripened for the sacrifice.
Then all these customs will disappear like clothing.
There’s only the soul.

A number of different religious impulses converged in fourteenth century Kashmir, and Lalla was influenced not only by Shaivite Hinduism, but also by Sufism, as was the religion of Sikkhism born two centuries later, in the Punjab just south of Kashmir. It is said that she studied with the Sufi master Ali Hamadani, but as with all true mystics her insights transcended the confines of religious affiliation, as she insisted ‘There is no reality but God’.

One of her translators, Coleman Barks, writes ‘Ecstasy is only one of her moods, and not the primary one. Political disgust is another, and a Hopi-like prophetic mode: “A time is coming so deformed…”’ He stresses the point that Lalla has essentially feminine qualities in: ‘her firm location in the breath; her sense of being dissolved into the lovemaking [of Shiva and Shakti] in the jasmine garden; and her attention to a truth which is very much in motion, and which can include her doubt and her lostness.’

Another translator, Jaishree Kak, writes of the way Lalla’s songs are embedded in Kashmiri culture: ‘Gowing up in Kashmir, I have memories of spectacular Himalayan Mountains, magnificent lakes, and countless rivers snaking through the valley, and accompanying all is the echoing on festive occasions of the melodious singing of Lalla’s verse-sayings, popularly known as Lalla-Vakh. Her outpourings are timeless and people of all faiths have treasured them. The oral transmission for centuries illustrates the extent to which she has been a part of folk memory. My old aunts who grew up in Kashmir have memories of women reciting Lalla’s verses while they spun fine shawls at the spinning wheel. Over the centuries, Lalla became the wise woman of Kashmiri culture. She was invoked not only at moments of personal dilemma but also to celebrate moments of social togetherness. I myself remember my mother singing Lalla’s verses and occasionally quoting them in her conversations.’

Whatever the actual facts of her life, Lal Ded or Mai Lal Diddi, Grandmother Lalla, as she is also known, has become a legendary figure, with her poetry esteemed as much as that of Rumi and Hafiz. In Sanskrit she is called Lalleshwari, the great yogini – a prophetess and practitioner of yoga. It was said that this great yogini proved she had found a freedom that was impervious to praise or blame when one morning some children were making fun of her nakedness. A cloth merchant scolded them for their disrespect, and Lalla asked him for two strands of cloth equal in weight. She then flung these over either shoulder, and through the day, whenever someone mocked her she tied a knot in one cloth, and whenever someone praised her she tied a knot in the other. At the end of the day she asked the merchant to weigh both – surrounded no doubt by all the villagers and their children. Both naturally weighed the same, and her point was made: praise and blame have no substance.

Reading Lalla we are invited to let go of our attachments, to live from the soul, and to be free:

The soul.
Like the moon, is now, and always new again.
My teacher told me one thing, live in the soul.
When that was so, I began to go naked,
And dance.

[See ‘Naked Song’ by Lalla, translated and introduced by Coleman Barks, Pilgrims Publishing, Varanasi  1992.]

Philip Carr-Gomm