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Kashmir and its Identity

Revisiting the culture of learning and sacred geography of early Kashmir
12:00 AM Feb 29, 2024 IST | Muhamad Maroof Shah
kashmir and its identity

Very few know why Kashmir is the prized cultural, intellectual and spiritual space that should interest us all. Kashmir has been a model ecumenical space, a laboratory for interfaith dialogue, prized destination of scholars, poets, philosophers, cradle of new schools of philosophy and meeting point of most of major world religions and the best minds and artists. Rich, beautiful, tolerant, refuge of persecuted and shrine for saintly, Kashmir is the crown jewel of great cultures whose legacy continues to inspire. In this context it is heartening to read Routledge published The Making of Early Kashmir: Intercultural Networks and Identity Formation  by Prof Muhammad Ashraf Wani and Amman Ashraf Wani that has painstakingly documented different elements of the culture of learning – sciences, arts, philosophies, technologies – trade, cultural exchange and multifarious material prosperity.  This book should interest everyone interested in Kashmir and its identity. I will focus on only one theme – promotion of learning and its association with the sacred to give a glimpse of it so that we educate ourselves about our past and educate new generation about its responsibility to be worthy hier of it. It is singularly unfortunate that nit even 0.001 percent of students or teachers in Kashmir are even aware of key names or works in Kashmir history.


What Athens has been for Europe, Kashmir has been for much of Asia. It had the reputation that Oxford and Harvard have for contemporary intellectuals and scholars across the world. It was a privilege for an author to be recognized in Kashmir.  The titles of Sardhapeeh and Saraswati are recognitions of this intellectual capital of intellectually gifted Sanskit speaking elite. Kashmir’s most important contributions to philosophy have been Sarvastivada school of Buddhist Philosophy, systematization of Mahayana Buddhism¸ formulation of Kashmir Saivism as distinctive school (distinguishable from traditional six orthodox and other heterodox systems) of Indian philosophy – its impact on world thought is being, of late,  registered slowly, key contributions to aesthetics, literary criticism, medicine, grammar and philosophy of language besides distinctive Reshi-Sufi culture and its great mystic poetry.


Despite being landlocked, Kashmir has been so rich culturally and open to major powers and cultural forces across the world that we can see it as  the heart of the world as it saw major world powers and cultures influencing and criss-crossing it.  Muhammad Ashraf Wani and Aman Ashraf Wani (known for Prehistory of Kashmir) have shown in their erudite and illuminating review of relevant work on the formative period of early Kashmir – The Making of Early Kashmir – how Kashmir emerged as “a cosmopolitan space, and a great centre of learning, a site of innovations and a hub of technologies, crafts and commerce” and become “a meeting place of different communities, races, religions and cultures.” They have given us, hitherto, the most comprehensive work on cosmopolitan nature and international connections of early Kashmir and documented wealth of evidences of its tolerant ambience. It is our misfortune that so far the world knows certain cosmopolitan spaces or centres of global culture but not Kashmir for want of historians who could have focused on early Kashmir and built readable narratives.

Kalhana reported towards the mid-twelfth century that Kashmir has been unique in intellectual and material prosperity which, to borrow his poetic language, “could not be found even in heaven,’ “Learning, lofty houses, saffron, icy water and grapes; things that even in heaven are difficult to find, are common here.” It is here that patronage was extended to the connoisseurs of the then advanced architecture and civil engineering to construct great stone temples and cities, introducing lift irrigation. Observatory was installed. Scholars and physicians of repute from other countries were given almost the status of ministers. Comprehensive law codes were formulated and the veterans in public administration, brought from outside to introduce new institutions as well as to man them.  Jayapida, according to Kalhana, honoured the scholars so much that even the princes approached them for getting positions in the government – he made scholarship a top priority of the state programme. The earlier phase of Harśa’s reign (1089–1101) has been portrayed by Kalhana as the “period of efflorescence in different languages, poetry, music, dance, dress, cosmetics, coiffure, court etiquettes, delivery of justice, pleasure gardens and the like thanks to Harśa’s love for learning, extraordinary talent in ‘all sciences of knowledge’, passion for glamour, beauty and entertainment; and consequently his hunt for talent and search for his likings in other cultures.” Kalhana repeatedly recounts Harśa’s great abilities in the field of knowledge:


Knowing all languages, a good poet in all tongues, and as a depository of all learning, he became famous even in other countries. ... Surely, not even Brahaspati is able to name clearly all the sciences in which he was versed. Even to this day, if one of the songs which he composed for the voice, is heard, tears roll on the eye-lashes even of his enemies.


Bilhana, the famous poet counted Kashmir as one of the great centres of learning -- “a centre of excellence in the Sanskrit cosmopolis that the outside scholars would consider it a privilege to receive Saraswati’s seal of approval.” The celebrated poet Srihara sought from Kashmir the acceptance of his poem. Al-Biruni has mentioned Kashmir’s distinguished position in grammatical science and noted that Kashmiri brahmana had undertaken the great innovative task of explaining the Veda and committing it to writing lest they might be forgotten.  Kashmiris devised their own calendar and originated the famous alphabet Siddhamatrika. Waninand Wanin list number of great master-rhetoricians, grammarians and philosophers, namely, Vamana, Rudrata, Udbhata, Mammata, Ruyyaka, Bhatta Tauta, Jayanta Bhatta, Anandavardhana, Abhinavagupta, Mankha, Bilhana and Kṣemandra who made Kashmir “a great centre of highly sophisticated philosophico-linguistic theories, such as dhavāni, the science of poetics (alamkārāśāstra), the model poetry and Śiva philosophy.” They quote  Sheldon Pollock, “A new philosophical-religious aesthetics was elaborated by the eleventh century Kashmiri scholars, namely, Bhatta Nayaka, Bhatta Tauta and Abhinavagupta, to name a few, which transformed Sanskrit literary theory fundamentally and permanently.”


Undoubtedly, the patronage of learning and tolerance of different faiths made Kashmir a popular meeting place for scholars and saints belonging to different countries and beliefs. The fact that Massignon, the author of the celebrated work, The Passion of al-Hallaj (originally in French), reports Hallaj visited Kashmir to take benefit of the argumentative environment of Kashmir and quotes the contemporary sources saying that the court of Utpala rulers had become a great centre of intellectual debates in which foreign and local scholars took part and held discussions “on the Thura (Torah), the Injīl (Gospels) and the Zābār (Psalms).”


Carving the sacred geography for Kashmir, Nilmat Purana creates for Kashmir the most auspicious landscapes for which the Aryavarta stood apart as a sacred space, namely, Kailaśa, Ganga, Yamuna, Prayaga, Badarikaśrama and Varanasi.   Kashmir is a place “the whole world [of divinities] have made their abode there.” While the major gods—Brahma, Viṣṇu and Śiva—assumed the form of the mountain peaks, the wives and mothers of gods “assumed the forms of rivers.” As a result, all “the sacred waters, the oceans and the rivers went to Kaśmīra and her vicinity”; and Kashmir became a “holy region” of all sacred places. There are “holy mountains,” “holy rivers,” “holy lakes” and “sacred temples. Although Mahesh Sharma says that by devising a sacred space parallel to the subcontinental cosmos, the Nilmata Purana was also mapping a political vision “for a Kashmir kingship that desired to rule over the entire earth, a nuanced way of devising hegemony over the seventh to tenth century north India” and it can be “the working out of a Vaişṇava world vision that is also a Kashmiri imperial wish.” We may assert that popular mystical belief in Kashmir continues to exist to the effect that the world is controlled by spiritual empire of saints mostly stationed in Kashmir. The idea of pir waer (abode of saints) may be seen as reworking of the idea of region of devinities articulated in Nilmata Purana. Belief about certain area in Kashmir such as one in Harwan that it is imported from Heaven may well be corroborated by noting that  Kashmir has all enviable features—tranquillity, learning, material prosperity, “spiritual merits” and natural beauty.

Our authors have emphasized special features of Kashmir’s cosmopolitan culture where cultural capital such as books or poetry was greatly prized and diffused. He quotes Bilhana, peripatetic pandit and kavi (poet) of Kashmir, “There is no village or country (janapada), no capital city or forest region, no pleasure garden or school where learned and ignorant young and old, male and female alike do not read my poems and shake with pleasure.”

According to Al-Biruni, “Hindu Sciences have retired from those parts of the country conquered by us [the Muslims] and have fled to places which our hand cannot yet reach, to Kashmir, Banaras, and other places.”  Sheldon Pollock substantiates it and states:

 In Kashmir ... the production of most major forms of Sanskrit court poetry ceased after the twelfth century, but this seems to have resulted from internal processes of civic disintegration unrelated to the Central Asian powers, whose control over the Kashmir Valley was not consolidated until the fifteenth century, who in fact sought thereafter, with only mixed success, to revitalize Sanskrit culture.

Authors list the most famous Buddhist scholars who went to Tibet, took part in the first and second propagation of Buddhism and translated the Buddhist texts into the Tibetan language in collaboration with Tibetan scholars, includes  Dharmākaradatta (eighth century), Ananta (ninth century), Jinamitra (ninth century), Dānaśila (ninth century), Sraddākaravarman (tenth century), Ratnavajra (tenth century), Guhyaprajna, Noropa, Bodhibhadra, Jnanasribhadra, Janardana, Lakshmi (eleventh century), Subhūtiśriśānti (eleventh century), Mahājana, Suksmajana, Prahitabhadra, Bhavjaraja, Kumarasri, Tilakalasa, Kanakavarman (eleventh century), Jayananda, Kumaraprajna, Gunākaraśribhadra, Sugataśri (eleventh to twelfth century), Śākyaśribhadra, Śākyaśri, Sarvajñāśriraksita and Dharmādhara. The royal project of patronage of learning  was helped by “relative peace (till the beginning of twelfth century), contact, circulation, toleration and material prosperity owing to global trade.”

Our authors note how Kashmir embodied a model of freedom of expression and faith that is enviable for even the most modern of nation states.  Kashmir’s religious and philosophical and social identities have been fluid and as such margins were accommodated. Mankha, Jayanta Bhatta, Ksemendra and Jonaraja disapprovingly refer to the impressive presence of atheists. Indeed, the atheists of Kashmir were not a unique body of non-believers. They were an integral part of pan-Indian tradition. In this regard mention may be made of Carvākās. And, as a modern scholar says, “Note also that Kalhana portrays an intellectually pluralistic and highly diverse picture of Jayāpīda’s court, with Vaidikas, Buddhists and possibly even Caravakas inhabiting the same realm.”

Post Script: I think we should have specific institutions of excellence carved to study major sciences in which Kashmiris/scholars stationed/nurtured in Kashmir made pioneering contributions such as philosophy, aesthetics, art/literary criticism, historiography, medicine – to name only few broad disciplines.  Schools, colleges and universities need to introduce sciences that constitute our legacy. Imagine Abhinavagupta or Sarfi visiting our universities and trying to interact with faculty on niceties of metaphysics and exegesis of scripture. Which departments would host them or organize engaging interactive sessions with them?