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How Nund Rishi's Poetry Became an Enduring Mediator Between Cultural Paradigms in Kashmir

'Nund Rishi: Poetry and Politics in Medieval Kashmir by Abir Bazaz' serves to unknot some of the complexities that define Nur-ud-Din’s oeuvre.   

In June this year, a group of school students in Kashmir were corralled into the sprawling, granite-overlaid lawns of the mausoleum of Shaykh Nur-ud-Din in the central Kashmir district of Budgam. Dressed in uniforms, the students quickly settled on their individual mats as they repositioned into various asanas or postures as part of observing the ‘International Day of Yoga’ organised by the Army. Of course, the event was part of a series of similar gatherings that have proliferated over the past four years, each one lending itself to manufacture a certain political impression about the region.

Nur-ud-Din was a hermit-mystic of 14th-century Kashmir. His rise as the famous Rishi whose poetic utterances and ascetic lifestyle resonated with a society in flux, turned him into a spiritual touchstone for the region’s people at a time when Kashmir was breaking away from its Hindu past and anchoring itself into new religious philosophy.

Nund Rishi, as Nur-ud-Din is also called, was born in 1378 AD to a tribe of shepherds in what is today the Kulgam district of south Kashmir. He travelled to different parts of Kashmir as his Rishi movement, with its emphasis on monism and austerity, gained large adherence and brought more and more people into the fold of Islam.

‘Hagiopolitics of repression’

The decision to hold an event commemorating yoga at Nund Rishi’s shrine in June did not go down well with large segments of the public in Kashmir, where anxieties over the permanence of cultural and religious peculiarities of the region have been simmering over the last few years.

The Bharatiya Janata Party-led Union government, which directly governs Kashmir, has faced questions over political crackdown, censorship, lack of democracy and everything else that we know but cannot utter. This has begged a question — can the ideological basis behind such a political programme have (or deserve to have) any overlap with the pacifist philosophy that Nund Rishi espoused? A number of commentators on social media have appeared to suggest that it can.

This is what scholar Dean Accardi has termed as the “hagiopolitics of repression” that relies on harnessing the legacies of medieval cultural and religious icons to rationalise distinctly modern, often undemocratic, political ends. Indeed, one of the responses to the opposition to the yoga event was the argument that Nund Rishi was a ‘yogi’ himself — invoking the Hindu connotation of the term — and would not have objected to such an exercise.

Conflicting legacy

Abir Bazaz
Nund Rishi: Poetry and Politics in Medieval Kashmir
Cambridge University Press, 2023

The facts surrounding Nund Rishi’s life and his legacy are deeply contested. For example, while scholars assert that his Rishi movement was instrumental in popularising Islam, they also admit that Nund Rishi’s poetry (as opposed to his hagiographies) did not demonstrate any passion towards evangelism. If affirmation of the creed of Islam reverberates distinctly through his poetry, what also seeps through is the echo of Tantric Shaivism and Mahayana Buddhism.

A new book, Nund Rishi: Poetry and Politics in Medieval Kashmir by Abir Bazaz, thus serves to unknot some of these complexities that define Nur-ud-Din’s oeuvre.

Nund Rishi’s birth is timed with a very crucial moment, when the newly coronated Muslim sultans of Kashmir welcomed an inbound stream of Sufi mystics, many of whom were fleeing the political turmoil occasioned by Timur’s military campaigns against the Ilkhanid Mongol state in Persia. They were looking for newer sources of patronage. Some of them, like Mir Sayyid Ali, brought new ideas and perspectives about Islam to the region that was culturally rooted in Hindu mores.

These interactions became the basis for new conversions and set the stage for a gradual religious reordering in Kashmir. Sayyid Ali was attached to the Kubrawi monastic code that originated in Iran. But there were other Sufi Orders also, like Suhrawardi, Nurbakshi, Qadri and Naqshbandi, that became vehicles for the spread of Islam.

But as Bazaz correctly points out, their activities (barring the Suhrawardi Order) were centred around the royal court in Srinagar, leaving out vast swaths of the Kashmir region for an indigenous new Islamic Order to sweep through. Nund Rishi became the pioneer of this movement, and the principal instrument through which he reached a large audience was not his claim to knowledge of complex Islamic theology, but a mystical form of poetry called shruks.

The synthesis of different cultures

His recourse to these ways, that were more aligned with the pre-Islamic cultural traditions of Kashmir, catalysed tensions (at least initially) between him and the Central Asian Sufis who had a more orthodox approach to Islam.

Yet shruks were exactly what struck a chord with Kashmiris because of their orality and intelligibility with the larger public. They spoke to the anxieties of people in a state of disquiet. The shruks became an arena where the Kashmiri vernacular pivoted away from Sanskrit, and bared itself open to influences from Persian. The shruks is where the Islamic and Sanskritic concepts were fused together to generate a common grammar of religion.

In poems like ‘He Alone is A True Muslim’, the concepts invoked to hash out the attributes of an ideal Muslim are Sanskritic. Nur-ud-Din uses the terms like krodha (anger), moh (attachment) and ahankar (pride) to define vices that a perfect Muslim should stay away from. In ‘My nafs is like a mad elephant’, Nund Rishi likens an Arabic term for self, mostly given to mean ego, to the angry elephant featured in the parables associated with Buddha.

The historic rivalry with Central Asian Sufis

Among the major themes in Rishi poetry is the criticism of mullas, or clergy. But these weren’t necessarily stemming from religious differences. As Bazaz writes, such criticisms “reveal a tension between the settler Sufis and (native) Kashmiri Rishis”.

Rishis’ aversion to theological knowledge was a critique of its capacity to reproduce and reinforce social hierarchies. He also criticises the caste system for the same reasons. And Nund Rishi is hardly an outlier in articulating these apprehensions.

The trope of inauthentic mulla in Islamic mystical poetry predates Nund Rishi, and naturally also outstays him, well into the 20th century. The poetry of Muhammad Iqbal (1877–1938), for what it’s worth, is redolent of such themes. Bazaz observes that these criticisms “must be situated in the intellectual history of Sufism itself, which developed with a view of corruption at the heart of Muslim political centers, and the concomitant idea that a reversal could be effected from the periphery”.

To counter the Kubrawis, who often furnished exalted genealogies linking them to Prophet’s family members or his successors, Nund Rishi invoked Uways Kurani, a Yemeni Sufi who had claimed direct initiation at the hands of Prophet Muhammad. In forging a direct spiritual connection with Uways, who hadiths refer to as having accepted Islam without being conversant with its tenets, Nur-ud-Din elevates the idea of inward piety over the ceremonial observance of the religion. Does this mean that Nur-ud-Din was pitting himself against Islamic Shari’ah?

Abir Bazaz. Photo: Ashoka University website

Far from it, his shruks likened Shari’ah with embankments without which a river would lose its direction. He used a different term sahaja “as a way of translating the political universalism of Islam into the Kashmiri vernacular at a time when the Persian Sufis in Kashmir articulated a Sufi metaphysics inaccessible and alien to the local population,” Bazaz writes. By doing so, he did not undermine Islam but increased its translatability to make allowances for forms of asceticism that descended from Buddhism and Hinduism.

“The legend of Uways clearly suggests the possibility of an Islam beyond doctrine and universal in its appeal,” Bazaz writes. “It opens up Islam to the political demands of the subaltern and makes the question of lineage (race, caste, class, or ethnicity) irrelevant to living and experiencing Islam.” It is this experience of religion that Bazaz refers to as ‘Negative theology’.

This philosophy of Nund Rishi is reflected in his poems that are centred around the idea of death. These death-suffused shruks evoke a horrifying picture of human demise which he contrasts with sanguine descriptions of life in the hereafter. It is poems like these that have made death a centrepiece of everyday Kashmiri vocabulary – marun chunne yaadie (don’t you remember dying?)

The role of Suhrawardi Sufis

Coming back to “hagiopolitics of repression” involving Nund Rishi: The reason for his widespread fame wasn’t because he recycled the older yogic traditions by articulating them in Islamic idiom. As scholar Muhammad Ishaq Khan has noted, Nur-ud-Din’s “movement stood in radical contrast to the pre-Islamic concept of a mystics’s role in a society. The Rishis who lived in Kashmir long before the advent of Islam lived in obscurity as ascetics. The yogi philosophers of Kashmir Saivism as Vasugupta, Somananda, and Abhinavagupta did not have an appreciable influence on the masses.”

It is rather a more peculiar combination of various elements that made Nund Rishi a great emblem of Islam in Kashmir with which people could imagine a spiritual connection. His schtick lay in his poems that his followers used varied methods to reach the masses with. One of his poems Gongal-nama is very illustrative in this case. In the poem, Nund Rishi likens the people who toil the land as the “chosen people of God.” The poem draws on the daily lives of peasant classes of Kashmir and elevates practices associated with farming to the status of religious rituals. Small wonder then that the majority of Kashmiris threw their weight behind his Order.

It is for this reason that Nund Rishi’s philosophy fired the imagination of Suhrawardi Sufis who became the influential vectors of his shruks. The small band of disciples of Hamza Raina, a popular 15th-century abbot of the Suhrawardi monastery on Koh-i-Maran hill in Srinagar, were among the first to compose hagiographic accounts praising Rishis.

Baba Dawud Khaki, a prominent disciple of Raina, invoked Persian literature (from Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh to Hafez Shirazi’s poetry) to justify Rishi practices such as vegetarianism, celibacy, and non-injury to animals. Others like Baba Nasibuddin Ghazi utilised dancers, bhands and acrobats, dambael maet to disseminate the poetry of Nund Rishi to the wider audience across Kashmir.

We later also find that Suhrawardis became intermediaries connecting Kubrawis, the former rivals, with the Rishi Order. Writing in the 19th century, Sir Walter Lawrence, a British officer in Kashmir mentions a procession taking place between the Kubrawi mosque of Khanqah-e-Moula in Srinagar and Nund Rishi’s shrine in Budgam.

What also shines out in Nur-ud-Din’s hagiographies is the important roles he is said to have given women that stand in sharp relief to the popular narratives about Islam. One account speaks of two Persian speaking sisters who were among the disciples of Nur-ud-Din and would do the talking on his behalf to the visiting dignitaries. In another account, a courtesan — who was sent to entice Nur-ud-Din only to get admonished by the saint into the state of repentance — was initiated into the Order and eventually made a mujawir (caretaker) of a shrine.

It is when stories emphasising on altruism, social concern and equality of human beings reached a variegated audience across the region that Islam gained widespread acceptability in Kashmir. Bazaz’s book may not recount some of these stories but it does a good job of decoding Nund Rishi’s shruks and helps us understand better how his legacy became an enduring mediator between different cultural paradigms in Kashmir.

Shakir Mir is a Srinagar-based journalist. He tweets at @shakirmir.