Tuesday, Dec 06, 2022
Inter-Faith Dialogue

Hopes For Reconciliation In Kashmir

Kashmir's rich tradition of Sufism and Rishism, and Islamic, Hindu and Sikh perspectives on communal harmony are a rich resource to build on for the struggle against violence and injustice.

Hopes For Reconciliation In Kashmir
| Jitender Gupta
Hopes For Reconciliation In Kashmir

In this understanding of the Kashmir conflict, as in the case of inter-communal conflicts in the rest of South Asia, Hindus and Muslims are perceived as two, well-defined, homogenous communities, neatly set apart and unambiguously defined, and as having been fiercely opposed to each other ever since the two 'communities' first came into contact with each other.

In other words, the conflict in Kashmir is understood as being but the latest stage in over a thousand year history of unceasing, relentless conflict between Hindus and Muslims, whose religious beliefs are said to be so different from, and so contradictory to, each other as to make constant strife between them inevitable. The existence of shared beliefs and values between Muslims and Hindus is thus totally denied.

The notion of Hindus and Muslims being two, separate monolithic blocs is, as historians are increasingly coming to realise, a fairly modern construct. In pre-British India, community identities were often fuzzy and ambiguous, permitting considerable overlaps and sharing between groups and individuals who may not have even been aware of being either 'Hindu' or 'Muslim'. Even in cases where identities were clearly separate, many Hindus and Muslims shared a common cultural universe, holding certain common beliefs, cherishing certain common values and respecting common saints.

Kashmir provides some of the clearest instances of shared religious identities, remnants of which are still to be found, in however attenuated forms, today. As numerous writers have noted, the Kashmiri Muslims and Pandits had several customs and beliefs in common, and the numerous Sufi shrines that dot the Valley attracted Hindus as well as Muslims in large numbers.

While Kashmiri Hindus and Muslims were undoubtedly aware of their differences, popular Sufism served to promote a common way of understanding the world. Belief in the powers of the Sufi saints and attendance at their shrines thus helped promote what could be called a 'dialogue of every-day life' between Muslims and Pandits.

To the south, in Jammu, as in adjacent Punjab, Sufi saints had a large following among Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. Despite consciousness of their separate identities, Hindu, Muslim and Sikh devotees at Sufi shrines shared a common way of looking at the world, holding common saints in reverence and worshipping together at their shrines. Although this shared popular tradition was not powerful enough to completely erase differences between the different groups, it was crucial in the promotion of organic ties and relationships between them.

The Sufi traditions of Jammu and Kashmir still play an important role in the lives of people in the region, despite the efforts of groups such as the Ahl-i-Hadith and the Tablighi Jama'at among the Muslims, fiercely opposed as they are to popular Sufism, and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad among the Hindus, hostile to any manifestation of what they see as Muslim or Islamic culture.

Besides, scripturalist Islam, and more 'mainstream' forms of Hinduism, too, contain ample resources that can play an important role in helping build bridges between people of different faiths. The task before the concerned believer today is to seek to uncover and highlight these religious perspectives on inter-faith dialogue and cooperation that can play a vital role in challenging the politics of religious hatred that continues to play havoc with the lives of the people of Kashmir, leading to seemingly endless death and destruction. 

The Kashmiri Sufi Tradition 

To the Kashmiris, their land is also known as 'Pir Vaer' or 'Rishi Vaer', the valley of Rishis and Sufi Pirs. Shrines dedicated to these men of God [and, a small number of women as well] are to be found in almost every village in the region. Most of these saints were Sufi masters, belonging to various different mystical orders.

The earliest known Sufi in Kashmir about whom firm historical evidence is available was the thirteenth century Suhrawardi from Turkistan, Hazrat Sayyed Sharuddin 'Abdur Rahman, fondly remembered as Hazrat Bulbul Shah. He arrived in Kashmir in 1295 C.E., and was instrumental in the conversion of the Buddhist ruler of Kashmir, Rinchen Shah, to Islam. Several Buddhists and 'low' caste Hindus, groaning under the oppression of the Brahmins, are said to have followed Rinchen and joined the Muslim fold.

The next major Sufi to enter Kashmir was the fourteenth century Iranian Kubrawi,  Hazrat Mir Sayyed 'Ali Hamdani [1314-1384 C.E.].  He is credited with having secured numerous conversions to Islam, owing principally to his own teachings and charisma.  He is popularly remembered as the amir-i-kabir ['the great leader'] or the bani-i-musalmani or the 'founder of Islam' in Kashmir. He was accompanied by several of his Iranian disciples, who travelled to and settled down in various parts of Kashmir, peacefully spreading Islam and the principles of the Kubrawi Sufi order in the region.

Islamisation through the agency of the Sufis now grew into a powerful social movement.  Thousands of 'low' caste Hindus and Buddhists began converting to Islam in the search for liberation from the shackles of the caste system and the Brahminical religion. As Hangloo remarks, conversion to Islam was seen as 'an answer to the problems of injustice'. Popular reaction to Brahminical oppression, he says, 'took the non-violent form of conversion to Islam'.

A product of this initial encounter between Islam and local traditions in medieval Kashmir was the emergence of the Muslim Rishi movement, the only indigenous Sufi order in the region.  Rishism, as it developed over time, represented a fierce challenge both to the 'corrupt 'ulama' ['ulama-i-su] associated with the courts of the Sultans as well as to the Brahminical establishment.

While firmly rooted within the Islamic tradition, it stressed universal values such as peace, harmony, love and fraternity between all creatures of God, irrespective of religion. In essence it was, as Teng puts it, 'the religion of love' [mazhab-i-'ishq] or the 'religion of humanism' [mazhab-i-insaniyat].  As such, then, it had a remarkably universal appeal.

While it is to the peaceful missionary efforts of the saints of the Rishi order that the mass conversion of the Kashmiris to Islam can be traced, the Muslim Rishis came to be held in great esteem by even those who remained wedded to their ancestral faith. The shrines of the Rishis grew into popular places of pilgrimage for both Muslims as well as Hindus, bringing them into common participation at shrine rituals as well as helping build bridges between people of different castes and faith traditions.

The origins of the Rishi movement go back to pre-Islamic times. In the Vedic period, Rishis were world-renouncing hermits, who retired to caves in forests and mountains to meditate and subject themselves to stern austerities. In the later, Buddhist, era, Rishis took the form of bhikkhus, who lived a simple life and dedicated themselves to serving the poor and the needy. The founder of the Rishi movement in Kashmir, Hazrat Nuruddin Nurani {1377-1440 C.E.], sought to mould the pre-existing Rishi tradition, transforming it into a vehicle for the spread of Islam, using local institutions and methods to make Islam more intelligible to the Kashmiris.

For Nund Rishi, as he is more commonly known, or, as his Hindu followers remember him, Sahazanand ['the blissful one'], Islam was a universal message, one that stressed love, tolerance and service and at the same time crusaded against social injustice. The breadth of Nund Rishi's own Islamic vision can well be appreciated from the fact that he accepted as his first spiritual preceptor, the Shaivite female mystic, Lalleshwari, fondly remembered by the Muslims as Lalla Mauj ['Mother Lalla'] or Lalla 'Arifa ['Lalla, the Realised One'].  Although born in a Brahmin family, Lal Ded crusaded against the superstitions and soulless ritualism of the Brahminical religion. Bitterly castigating the priests for having reduced religion into a bundle of rituals devoid of any social concern, she cried out in anguish: 

O fool! Right action does not lie in fasting or other rituals. 
The idol is but stone, the temple is but stone. 
From top to bottom all is but stone. 

Lal Ded insisted that Hindus and Muslims realise their common humanity, being creatures of the same God. Thus, she says in a well-known  verse [vakh]: 

Shiva is All-Pervading. 
Do not differentiate between a Hindu and a Muslim. 
If you have understanding, then realise your own self. 
In truth, this is the means to realise God. 

Inspired by her dedication to the one formless God, known to Hindus and Muslims by different names, Nund Rishi prayed thus: 

That Lalla of Padmanpore, 
Who had drunk to her full the nectar. 
She was an avatar of ours, 
Oh God, grant me the same spiritual power. 

In another mystical verse [shruk], Nund Rishi says: 

Lalla drank fully at the fountain of immortality. 
She has witnessed the omnipotent glory of Shiva. 
Hence, we treasure utmost adoration for her in our hearts. 
She carved for herself the stature of an exalted one. 
O God, grant that very boon to me.

Although, or perhaps because, he remained a firm Muslim, Nund Rishi's understanding of Islam was broad enough to be open to inspiration from people of other faiths as well. Thus, the story is told of how greatly he was moved by the example of a Hindu peasant girl called Bhawan, who earned her livelihood carrying water to a village and spent all her earnings on feeding her birds while she would herself starve. In her memory, Nund Rishi prayed to God: 

That little girl in a small village 
Who quenched the thirst of the thirsty 
Flew in the high heavens with her pet birds. 
Bestow on me, my Lord, the same grace.

The realisation that Hindus and Muslims were children of the same God, variously named, served as a powerful message of harmony and reconciliation. Worshipping the one God, Hindus and Muslims must realise their common spiritual origins. Thus, Nund Rishi says: 

Children of the same parents, 
When will Hindus and Muslims cut down the tree of dualism? 
When will God be pleased with them and grant them His grace? 

We belong to the same parents 
Then why this difference? 
Let Hindus and Muslims worship God alone. 
We came into this world like partners. 
We should have share our joys and sorrows together.

Service of others, then, was a corner-stone of the Muslim Rishi tradition under Nund Rishi. Worship of God was meaningless if it did not translate into actively helping those in need, irrespective of religion.  'Oh Nasruddin', Nund Rishi told his khalifa, Baba Nasru, 'He shall win the world who serves others'. 'He shall be among the people of paradise', Nund Rishi says, 'who shares his meal with the hungry'.

'Oh Hindus and Muslims', he warns, 'How will you attain salvation if you don't take good deeds with you?'. Prayers and ritual performances, if not accompanied by good deeds, not only do not please God; rather, they condemn one to damnation in Hell. Thus, Nund Rishi announces: 

The Mullah in the mosque 
And the Brahmin before the idol of stone 
Perhaps only one out of a thousand of them will be redeemed 
Otherwise, Satan will grab them all. 

The wrath of God shall be upon religious leaders, Hindu as well as Muslims, who, unconcerned about the plight of others, thinking that mere ritual worship shall win them God's favour. Thus Nund Rishi says: 

The fake Darwesh counts his beads, 
And derives joy from hearing their sound, 
But closes the door of the mosque and does not say is prayers. 
Remember O cheat! 
You are not God's friend but His foe. 

The fake Rishi is always worried about his stomach. 
Eating delicious food, he has forgotten God. 
Donning the dress of a Rishi, he misleads others. 
If he is a Rishi, then who is a thief?

The Mullah is happy with gifts and feasts. 
The Shaikh is driven by greed and lust. 
The Sufi stops not from cheating others. 
Eating three seers of mutton and a maund of rice, 
The old, infirm Pundit searches for a young virgin wife. 
Near to his funeral pyre, he refuses for a wife a widow.

O slave of God! You have a rosary in your hand, 
But it is actually a knife. 
You have opened a shop in the bazaar of this fleeting world to rob others. 
Pay heed lest you shall be used as fuel in the fire. 
Oh! What a pity! 
You have cut off your own feet with your axe.

After Hazrat Nuruddin Nurani's death, the Rishi movement spread further in Kashmir under his various 'deputies' [khulafa]. Like their master, they, too, played a central role in the peaceful spread of Islam in the region, while also bitterly critiquing social injustices, inequalities and superstitions, the stern ritualism of the court 'ulama and the crude practices and oppression of the Brahmin priests.

In addition, they also propagated the message of love and harmony between Hindus and Muslims. Till this day, the Kashmiris, both Muslim as well as Hindu, consider Nund Rishi as their 'national saint' , and as the 'spiritual and cultural symbol' of Kashmir , fondly remembering him as the Shaikh-ul 'Alam or the 'preceptor of the World'. 

Sufism In Jammu 

As in Kashmir, as indeed in the rest of South Asia, in Jammu, too, the Sufis were the principal vehicle in building bridges between Hindus and Muslims, while, at the same time, actively working for the spread of Islam in the region.  Today, scores of Sufi shrines are found all over the Jammu province, where Hindus, Muslims Sikhs and Dalits gather together. In many cases, non-Muslim heavily outnumber Muslims at these shrines. What is particularly interesting about the stories that are told about these Sufis is the central role of Hindus in these traditions, making Sufism in Jammu a truly inter-community project.

The first Sufi to visit Jammu, according to available sources, was Pir Raushan 'Ali Shah. According to the Gulab Namah, he was a contemporary of the Prophet Muhammad and  arrived in Jammu the seventh century C.E.., although this is not verifiable. He is said to have so impressed the Hindu ruler of Jammu, Raja Sarpala Dhar, that the king requested him to settle down in Jammu, where he lies buried. 

Pir Lakhdata, who is also buried in Jammu town, is said to have been blessed by Baba Nanak as  'Sultan Lakhdata' or the 'Giver of Millions'. Although a Muslim, he is particularly popular among the Hindu agricultural castes.  Like him, Baba Budhan 'Ali Shah, whose dargah is located near the Jammu airport, is widely respected by Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims alike. A descendant of Prophet Muhammad, his real name was Sayyed Shamsuddin, and he is said to have been a close friend of Baba Nanak.

The fifteenth century Iranian Pir Mitha, whose dargah is located on a hillock on the banks of the Tawi in a locality named after him, is regarded as the patron saint of the Hindu Kashp caste. He is said to have been a close friend of the Gorakhnathi yogi, Garib Nath, and to have lived together with him in a cave, Pir Khoh, which is now a major Gorakhnathi centre in the outskirts of Jammu town.  

The nineteenth century Sufi, Hazrat Baba Jiwan Shah, whose dargah is also in Jammu, is said to have had numerous Hindu disciples, including Maharaja Ranbir Singh, the Dogra ruler of Kashmir. One of his principal followers was a Hindu Rajput trader, Sain Chup, who is buried in an enclosure near his dargah.  Another Sufi whose legend is associated with the Dogra rulers of Kashmir was Hazrat Sayyed Ghulam 'Ali Badshah, whose shrine at Shahdara Sharif, near Thana Mandi, in the Rajouri district, is the single largest dargah in the state.

The rich Sufi traditions of Jammu and Kashmir have thus played an important role in bringing people of different castes and faith traditions together. Numerous Sufis have had Hindu disciples, and today Hindus heavily outnumber Muslims as pilgrims to several Sufi shrines in the Jammu region. Not all, or even most, of the pilgrims who flock to the shrines may be aware of the details of the life and teaching of the saints. Yet, the very fact of people of different communities intermingling at the dargahs itself can lead to radical changes in the way  they perceive religion, religious identities and inter-community relations.


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