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Death as meditation on life: Rishism in Kashmir 

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An eldery shrine caretaker sitting at the entry of Khanqah-e-Moula. [FPK Photo/Wasim Nabi.]

Rishism in Kashmir was an opportunity for women to find new ways of spiritual and literary expression.

Kashmir’s indigenous Sufi order, Rishism was founded by Alamdar-e-Kashmir Shiekh Noor ud Din Noorani among others. Nund Reshi’s poetry, shruks, were a means of spreading his teachings. Translated into Persian, Urdu and English, the mystic’s work informs the social and literary history of Kashmir, be it accepting women into asceticism, or signifying self-negation to bear witness to the absolute presence of God. Rishi thought contemplates death as an origin of life, one free from the base deviations of the nafs and worldly matters. 

Social Reformation

Yoginder Sikand accounts the role of women in Kashmiri Rishism in a chapter in Speaking Peace: Women’s Voices from Kashmir. The writer describes Rishis as ascetics who approached salvation through a practice of austerity. Hazrat Nuruddin Nurani R.A. is credited with transforming Rishism into a movement for social reformation and equality. Sikand describes how the dawah of the Rishis changed according to geography, to be inclusive of traditions familiar to the Hindus and Buddhists of Kashmir. This included using vegetarianism and meditation as practices of self-restraint (43). Female rishis are also revered to this day in Kashmir, the prime example of which is Lal Ded. Her spiritual practice revolved around monotheism, criticism of inequality in society and transcendence of petty differences in favour of understanding the self, and God as a result of that (46). This sentiment is echoed in Ghazi Muhammad’s book A Thinking Person’s Guide to Islam where he labels knowing oneself as the first gift of Allah swt and by extension, knowing one’s Creator. 

Sikand discusses how classical Brahminism did not allow women access to sanyaas. But Hazrat Nurani took two women, Dahat and Bahat Bibi as his disciples. This is seen as a departure from the prevalent order in the valley, which did not see women as spiritual equals. Sham Bibi, credited with writing the first marsiya in Koshur was another disciple of Hazrat Nurani. She is said to have led him to greater austere practices by remarking on him eating fresh wild plants i.e. instrumentalizing plant life (50). 

Rishism in Kashmir was an opportunity for women to find new ways of spiritual and literary expression. Shang Bibi, a disciple of Baba Shakoor Deen Rishi, was a disabled ascetic who lived a fully abstinent life as an equal to her able-bodied counterparts. Sikand concludes his chapter by highlighting the transformative nature of the Rishi order in the lives of women in addition to that of labourers and peasants. 

Man reciting the holy Quran in Dastagheer Sahab. [FPK Photo/Wasim Nabi.]

In contemporary Kashmir, poet Zareefa Jan writes Sufi works through a self-fashioned language of circles. Poet Shabaz Khan of Kashmir talks about the existentialism and self-realization of Zareefa’s work. She writes,

“Yaavun myoun chambe dulvunye,
ye chu samsaar napaidar.
gase toer kyuth sule saarunye,
lalvunye thovthamye naar”

My youth faded
in this transient world
And made me seek solace in the hereafter,
my existence became my burden.

Zareefa brings attention to the transitory nature of human life, where each stage passes as quickly as it arrives. The only thing to rely on is the afterlife, an existence outside of the constraints of time and old age. Mortal life becomes a weight to carry till death, which is the gateway to a lighter life, one beyond the enclosure of the ephemeral body. 

The Negative Theology of Nund Rishi by Abir Bazaz 

This critical study of Nund Rishi’s poetry delves into how the Rishi movement approached Islam from the standpoint of local concerns of its new Kashmiri converts. It was a movement of middle and lower-class people, with non-elite tenors (29). 

Bazaz characterizes the shruks by death-contemplation, and a facing upto the imminent reality of death. This is an exercise in seeing everyday life as already signifying death. This idea echoes Khalil Gibran’s “Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.”

What might seem to be a binary: life and death, or joy and sorrow, are seen in a fullness that renders them emergent from each other. Death is the origin of life, one that is not limited by mortality. Moreover, the shruks argue for dying before death, an emptying out of the self. The author argues that the contemplation of death does not seek to frighten, but brings a meditative quality to daily life. The writer quotes from Moti Lal Saqi’s Kulliyāt-e Shaikh al-‘Ālam to illustrate this point:

“Wūjūd travith mūjūd myūlum
Adu’ bu’ votus lā makan”

Abandoning existence, I found presence
Thus have I reached the place-less place

The preparation of the self for yawm-al-qiyamah is tied up with the upturning of social orders at the end of time. Not only does the self cease to commit injustice towards itself in the form of worldly investment, but God’s final judgement also puts an end to social inequity. Bazaz characterizes the Kashmiri readers’ response to the shruks as hope, as a promise of a radically different life. 

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