Of Vakhs and Shruks: The gnostic exchange between two Kashmiri mystics 

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“If Lal Ded roasts our hearts on the fire of love, then Nund Reshi does nothing less than move a mountain.”

Lal Ded’s famous vakh (verse)—‘You were not ashamed of being born, why then of suckling’—addressed to Nund Reshi is perhaps the first esoteric spiritual exchange of the two. 

Legend has it that Kashmir’s patron saint—Sheikh-ul-Alam—has drawn guidance and inspiration in a state of communion with Lal Ded. 

Such notions could be potentially true as researchers and commentators like Pandith Anand Koul, Abdul Qayum Rafiqi, Chitrilekha Zutshi among others suggest that Nund Reshi was born towards the end of the 13th century when Lal Ded had already become a household name spreading the firmament of her spiritual enigma. 

It’s widely believed that Lal Ded happened to visit Nund Rishi’s home at the time of his birth. His mother wanted to feed him, but Nund Rishi was not responsive. It was then Lal Ded uttered the first vakh—‘You were not ashamed of being born, why then of suckling’—and Nund Rishi responded by suckling. 

Praising Sadr mouj (Nund Rishis’ mother), Lal Ded revealed another vakh. Thus, began the spiritual exchange of the two. 

Tas Padmānpor chi lale Tami gale’y amrit pivo Tami Shiva vuch thale thale Tyuth mye var dito divo 

(That Lalla of Padmanpore The one who drank the nectar The one who kept gazing at Shiva God, give me a gift like that!)

The abovementioned shruk (verse) by Nund Rishi eulogises the mystic stature of Lal Ded and her level of knowingness. This could be well in response to Lal Ded’s vakh mentioning Nund Rishi at the time of his birth. While it speaks of a higher communion, the uncanny connotations of the shruks and vakhs seem to seep out one from the other. 

The oneness of humankind, hypocritical religious scholars, and subjugation of society into castes and classes are similar didactic thematics across certain vakhs and shruks. 

Nābadi bāras atu’ gand dyol gom Deh kād hol gom hẏeke kaheo Gọru’ sund vanun rāvan tyol pyom Pahli ros khyol gom hẏeke kaheo

(I’m carrying this sack of candy, its knot gone slack on my shoulder I took a wrong turn and wasted my day, what’s to be done? I’m lost, my teacher’s warning blisters me like a whiplash. This flock has no shepherd, what’s to be done)

Lal Ded experiences a state of crisis as she utters the said shruk. The translation of Ranjit Hoskote rightly puts that Lal Ded in vakh above, unveils the realisation about how worldly pleasures ensnare us and we lose our way to the right eternal path. 

Rahman Rahi’s explanation of the vakh presses the reader to pay attention to the inner strife of Lal Ded as she has been exposed to the truth of the impermanence of the world and wants to be guided to the purposeful path. 

Rahi in the comparative analysis of the abovementioned vakh and the below-mentioned shruk, says that Lal Ded’s vakh can be identified to be nearer to the human situation, while Nund Rishi’s shruk goes towards higher spiritual attainment. 

Ganbar prakat karān chum kāv Tīr chanẏem anbar bāvu’ kas Sạr gom gur tu’ wọkhu’l gayam nāv Bor gom gob tu’ trāvu’ kas

(The crow reveals a serious word that makes it shed All its feathers which gather at its feet The burden has become heavy I cannot even leave it for someone else.)

Rahi in his seminal essay on the poetic persona of Nund Rishi—Sheikh ul Alam Senz Shairana Hasiyath—is faced with serious conflict about the right way to read and absorb Nund Rishi’s shruks. 

“It’s not about narrating an idea nor is it about lending a feeling to a thought,” notes Rahi in his essay. “This is about the re-appropriation of an experience which is singular, untouched, and unspeakable. This is not the story of beholding a fairy-faced or a kohl-eyed person but rather it is the extraordinary experience of encountering the creator of the universe, of annihilating one’s self in seeing the creator’s unity.” 

Rahi often endures saying that Lal Ded supersedes Nund Rishi in poetic virtuosity but also cannot help but acknowledges the similar core philosophy of some of Nund Rishi’s shruks and Lal Ded’s vakhs. 

Nund Rishi, Rahi reckons, appears to elucidate the power of knowingness and how the state of knowing the eternal truth turns everything in this transitory world haywire. 

Again, there seems to be an exchange of expression going on between Lal Ded and Nund Rishi as Lal Ded also reveals a similar theme in the vakh above but in a more relatable general situation. 

Nund Rishi in the shruk appears to convey that, one can overcome inner strife by dealing with it themselves rather than looking for a solution outwards. He seems to be implying that it all lies inside every human being, all the answers that we seek in this world lie within us.

Shiv chuy thali wuchhan: Mo zan hiyond tu musalman. Trukai chuk skillet panun parzanav, Soi chhay sahibas suiati zaan

(Shiva abides in all that is, everywhere. Then do not discriminate between a Hindu and a Muslim. If thou art wise, know thyself. That is true knowledge of the Lord.)

Lal Ded in the vakh, sheds light on the omnipresence of the creator and shuns the religious disparities that have got people entwined. Alluding to the emancipation from religious orthodoxy, Lal Ded implies that there is only one God, same for all, and one can reach God only by illuminating oneself from within. 

Ȧkis mạ̄lis māji handẏen Timan da’y trạ̄vith ti kyāy Musalmānan kyāv hendẏen Kar bandan toshi khọday 

(They are born of the same parents. Why would God abandon them? To both the Muslims and the Hindus May God send his blessings.)

In his shruk, Nund Rishi calls for oneness. He says that all of the creation has been sourced from a single creator. The creator shall never abandon any of His creation and never favours anyone more than the other. 

This shruk revolves around the same theme as Lal Ded’s vakh. It’s a reaffirmation of the previously mentioned vakh, thus another example of a higher gnostic exchange. 

GaTulah akh vuchum boachi saet’ maraan pan zan haraan pohni vaavi laah nyashibod akh vuchum vaazas maaraan tani lal bo praaraan tshen’am na praah 

(I saw a learned man dying of hunger. Trembling like dried leaves falling in the harsh winter wind. An utter fool I saw beating his cook. Since then I, Lal, am waiting to be free of worldly attachments.)

Lal Ded on seeing the injustice and discrepancies of the society wants to throw off the world. Such a vision invigorates Lal Ded’s higher conscience nudging her to take a step ahead in her journey. 

“Lal Ded reveals more of the stages of her spiritual journey and the distance and turns that separate the human from the divine,” Rahi says. “And in those stages expresses her states and reveals the unity of the parts and the whole.”

It could be well established in the vakh above that Lal Ded traces a reason that sets her on a journey, transcending the trappings of the world. A precursor for the following shruk of Nund Rishi, it looks like Lal Ded had set cues for the saint to turn his attention to pre-eminent touchstones of the mystic journey. 

Khānan handẏen yiman robe khānan Jānan dapān apạ̄ri gatsh, Sọndru’ vuchmakh harvakh nāvan, Tsamro sạ̄tẏen duvān latsh, Tạth māli dīthu’m kapas bovan Naṣru’ mye vuch, tu’ tsu’ vuchni gatsh

(These intimidating residences of the rich. The moment they see you, they turn you away. I see beautiful women singing in those palaces. And dust being swept with chowries. The same residences are there no longer. People now grow cotton over there I have seen all this, Nasr, you go and see.)

Nund Rishi takes note of the unfortunate class division and, as Rahi rightly opens the interpretation of the shruk, “we see the khāns (the chiefs and the nobles) shoo away the poor. The women of these houses are beautiful and sing songs as dust is being swept off with chowries. But it is the same palace, that is in ruins over time, and people reclaim the land to grow cotton. Here, death is not only a way of thinking of one’s ends but also becomes the basis of a radical social critique which pushes us to rethink political equality from the standpoint of our existence as temporal beings and the ruination of things, and beings, in history.”

The shruk again comes as an appendage to the abovementioned vakh. Lal Ded on witnessing the brutal and unjust social division enunciates her desire for departure from the world. Similarly, Nund Rishi asks his disciple Baba Nasr-al-din to take note of such societal makeup, as he has already seen it and purged himself from worldly pleasure. 

Asking Nasr to witness it, piques one to think that there is some connection between witnessing such happenings and attaining the highest of all states. Here, again, is evidence of the mystic exchange that kept taking place between Lal Ded and Nund Rishi at different intervals of time. 

Lal Ded and Nund Rishi are eternal companions of the higher realm, much like how Shams Tabrizi and Rumi were in higher companionship. 

Though Nund Rishi’s era began after Lal Ded’s ended (an era in the sense that Lal Ded passed away soon after Nund Rishi’s birth), their exchange continued as is reflected by the subtle thematics of their verses. 

“If Lal roasts our hearts on the fire of love,” Rahi writes, “then Shaikh does nothing less than move a mountain. Lal searches for herself in the fields of Nothingness. But Lal turns to the inside from the outside. The Shaikh leaves behind the world and takes to the forest.”

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