Lalla, Lal Ded in Hindi, Lal Arifa for Muslims, or Lalleshwari in Sanskrit, are all names to represent the different faces of this 14th century’s Indian poetess. She lived at a time when tensions are felt between Hindus and Muslims, and when a loss of faith results in an urgent need of the people to find themselves in the spiritual masters’ wisdom. The 14th century was a flourishing period, and Kashmir has been recognized for several centuries already as the cradle of many spiritual traditions.
Lalla is one of the few women of the Indian tradition to be acknowledged and still find her place today among the most important poets of India. Originally from Kashmir, her geographical location allowed her to spread her thoughts and message both in North India and in Pakistan, each region considering her as part of their respective mystical traditions (Shaivism and Sufism). She is one of the great figures of Kashmir in India. The Pandit Anand Koul wrote about her that “apart from being the utterances of a holy woman expressive of grand and lofty thoughts and spiritual laws-short, apt, sweet, thrilling, life-giving and pregnant with greatest moral principles, her poems are simply pearl and diamonds and gems of the purest ray serene of Kashmir literature. They are current coins of quotations, a volume being packed in a single saying. They touch the Kashmiri’s ear as well as the chord of his heart and are freely quoted by him as maxims on appropriate occasions in conversation having molded the national mind and set up a national ideal.”
The poems of Lall Ded, or to call them more aptly, her “sayings,” have been passed down orally in certain families from generation to generation up to this day. Kashmiri literature, especially proverbs, find their source in her verses. In recent years, Lalla and her words have been widely studied, from a linguistic point of view, for the richness of the ancient Kashmiri, but also for their wisdom. These two aspects are inseparable to grasp the richness of these devotional texts. This is also the reason why Dr. Barnett and Sir Richard Grierson teamed up to make the first transcription (1920) of Lalla’s sayings which until then only existed orally, according to the principles of India’s oral tradition.
Lalla also comes from the yoga tradition that existed in Kashmir at that time, hence her Sanskrit name “Lalleshwari” which means “Lalla la yogini.” As a spiritual figure, she is part of the masters’ tradition of Kashmiri Shivaism as much as that of Sufism. It is often Shiva that she sings in her poems, and her life can be told through the devotion she devoted to Him.
The life of Lalla is surrounded by stories and anecdotes. She was born between 1320 and 1325 in Pampour into a Brahman family (The caste of priests in India). Her father, who followed the tradition of Kashmir Shaivism, would have been the first source of Lalla towards this path. Married at a young age, Lalla would have left to live with her husband’s family as required by Indian patriarchal rules. She is then mistreated by her mother-in-law (as are often the young wives who arrive in the family of their husbands, to the point that this recurring theme in the Indian culture gave rise to many songs or proverbs). One of Lalla’s verse, which has become a popular proverb in Kashmir, says:
Whether they killed a big sheep or a small one, Lal had always a stone to her dinner, covered with a few grains of rice.
It is said that her mother-in-law hid a stone in the rice dish to make the guests or family believe that her daughter-in-law was weak and lazy. But Lalla’s wisdom is praised because, despite the circumstances, she never complained. Even more, they became for her a way to God.
Another legend recalls that her mother-in-law tried by all means to convince her son of his wife’s infidelity. This is how one day, Lalla got late at the river as she was practising asanas (yoga postures) and pranayamas (breath work) according to the tradition of the trikas. On her return home, her mad husband threw a stone at her which broke the jug placed on his wife’s head, but the jug fell to the ground in a thousand pieces, but the water kept its shape on Lalla’s head. It was from this day on that Lalla left the house and set off as an ascetic, a sannyasin, naked, in the mountains of Kashmir, declaiming her poems. The poetess often refers to events of her life to draw adages of wisdom.
Sometimes they overwhelm me with reproaches or insult me
Let them follow their inclinations.
Sometimes they love me and give me flowers.
In my purity,I am indifferent to blame and praise.
This poem refers to an event where Lalla is said to have put two scarves, one on each shoulder. At each compliment, she made a knot on the left shoulder, and at each criticism, a knot on the right shoulder. Finally, at the end of the day, she found the perfect balance between praise and insults. In the same echo, Lalla writes that:
What happens to me good, or bad,
My ears cannot hear and I have no eyes.
When the call from above comes to awaken my heart,
My lamp lights up because there is no more wind
Only God is ultimate, and the worldly opinion is like a voice that becomes more and more a far distant background sound, as the inner being approaches divine intimacy. The wind recalls the fluctuation, which one can feel in the face of criticism or the different opinions that others have about my actions, causing moments of doubt. The lamp refers to the interior source, the one and only barometer that always places the being in its right place: Lalla explains here that this light must be the only guide, and that it can only burn when I sit into myself.
A large part of Lalla’s teaching is proclaimed through metaphors accessible to the illiterate population of her time. She uses images that everyone can identify with because she not only speaks about the ultimate ecstatic experiences, but a large part of her corpus is also dedicated to the theme of the difficulties of daily life through which everyone has the possibility to discover hidden wisdom.
Still in this simplicity, Lalla went naked, often shocking the people she met. Lal Ded, which means “hanging belly”, takes its meaning from the iconography representing the poetess: her belly hid her pubis, and her hair the rest of her body. Like the other legends running about her, it is still unsure if this one was amplified starting from real facts, or invented in order not to shock the monks or people who found indecent to imagine a completely naked saint.
Lalla vakyani, or Lalla’s sayings, express a deep message. Lalla is engaged in the most direct form of spirituality, beyond any hierarchy. Indeed, unlike the Brahmans of the upper castes who expressed themselves in Sanskrit in the sacred texts, Lalla chooses to use the vernacular language of her time, the old Kashmiri. This choice shows that she did not think she belonged to a particular caste, thus breaking the rules imposed by this system, and she did not fail to criticize the enlightened ones, the proud priests or even to blame the religious rituals.
Some are awake even in sleep
Others, who claim to be awake,
Are in deep sleep.
For Lalla, access to God is direct. It does not depend on knowledge, hierarchy, or even location. It is internal and is discovered in the heart of the most absolute egotistical nudity.
Lalla’s life remains surrounded by mysteries: have the poems inspired the stories of her life or is it the life of the poetess which truly inspired the poems? Like any prophet or mystic who becomes the instrument of the gods, the legends and miracles that are told about them are not always authentic. Often amplified from events based on their lives, sometimes invented, these legends give proof of the real spiritual power that surrounds these people and validates their teaching. Like the metaphors used by Lalla in her songs, this pictorial tradition allows people to receive the message conveyed by the holy person “In fact, although never verified, these miracles established the greatness of the saint in the heart of the people” (RN Kaul 1989: 9). We find the same trends in our western cultures; one can quote for example Jesus and his parables, as well as all the miracles which were built around his person.
Despite this fact, the particular style and the strong presence behind her words can only reveal the reality of the unique and inspired person of her time that was Lalla. The truth of her life is ultimately only anecdotal, given the importance of the wisdom she shared. With an unquestionable pedagogical and artistic sense, she found a way to bequeath accessible teaching full of simplicity, in direct contact with Consciousness, in such a way that 600 years later her verses still resonate with life and truth.
The date of Lalla’s death is even more enigmatic than her birth. R. Temple offers various versions in his introduction. One of the miraculous stories, true to her image, says that while she was meditating, a flame coming from her heart would have blazed her body, leaving nothing else behind than her poetic works.
To all these strong women who move forward in their path, braving judgments and difficulties. Beyond women, to all those beings who draw their strength from this feminine archetype that exists in each of us, man or woman, which teach us how deep strength comes from the most complete vulnerability. When there is nothing more to prove, that the whole being abdicates in front of life and can do no more than let itself be carried by it.
This article was first published on neverapart.com