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Nund Rishi: A fresh academic reading

It is the first study of its kind that puts Shayhh al-Alam in dialogue with important twentieth century thinkers from Nisthani to Heidegger
12:00 AM Feb 01, 2024 IST | Muhamad Maroof Shah
nund rishi  a fresh academic reading

After decades we have been greeted with a book on Nund Rishi that breaks new ground in introducing him to the international audience and questions many received perceptions and academic orthodoxies. It is the first study of its kind that puts Shayhh al-Alam in dialogue with important twentieth thinkers from Nisthani to Heidegger while making illuminating comparisons with major figures across traditions from al-Hallaj to Eckhart.


It makes several contributions to Nund Rishi studies including articulation of what it calls sahaj Islam which is reworking of Unitarian/wujoodi ideas that were quite familiar in Kashmiri landscape. As Bazaz notes, “The powerful currents in Nund Rishi’s poetry belong as much to Tantric, Yoga and Nātha spiritual movements, Kashmir Shaivism and Mahayana Buddhism, as they do to early Islamic asceticism, medieval dervish traditions and Sufi theology.” The middle path that Bazaz finds Nund Rishi advocating is well known in Buddhist, Chinese and other traditions and is elaborately reworked in Ibn Arabi and other Sufis.


Bazaz rightly notes, “The middle path between asceticism and worldliness Nund Rishi advocates in many of his shruks can be seen in relation to both Abu Hāmid al-Ghazāli’s synthesis between the sober and ecstatic tendencies in medieval Sufism but it also resonates as powerfully with the attitudes of North Indian siddhas.”

Bazaz draws our attention to the fact that Kashmiri tradition remembers Nund Rishi as Sahajananda - “the one who had tasted the ecstasy of sahaja. Sahaja is the new universal in medieval North India and Nund Rishi translates Islam into this environment of the sahaja.” The term sahaj employed by Nund Rish as “a way of translating the universalism of early Islam at a time when the Persian Sufis articulated Sufi metaphysics largely inaccessible to the local population” created space “within the practice of Islam in Kashmir for forms of asceticism that had their origins in the Hindu-Buddhist yogico-tantric milieu. Sahaja had been, as Harder has noted, ‘a reference point for the siddhas’ criticism of Buddhist ritualism, scholastic involvement, and excessive yogic obsession, so that it occupied a soteriological, moral high ground excluding the artificial.’


Bazaz’s Nund Rishi as an advocate of sahaj Islam bypasses scholarly and spiritual elite as direct spiritual initiation from the Prophet (PBUH) is claimed and antinomian streak of Sufism of al-Hallaj is appropriated though cautiously. Building on al-Hallaj and others he argues that for Nund Rishi, the way of going about being Muslim is the commitment to a difficult love. He analyzes some poems to conclude the Muslim is “the subject of a self-transformation and not necessarily a member of a particular religious community.”


For Nund Rishi a Muslim requires uniting Shiva with Sunya – a daring reading of pre-Islamic traditions that we have largely ignored – controlling senses, not getting angry – a difficult moral idea that few can countenance – seeing everything in the unitary light of kunear, leaving greed, attachment and pride, perfecting patience – conveyed in number of bone chilling images like swallowing poison and holding fire, practizing death/askesis – Nund Rishi calls death the “sweet drink” which “heals,” and what is universally emphasized across mystical traditions on khilwa and attention to breath.


Bazaz’s characterization of the path of Nund Rishi is understandable in terms of Akbarian emphasis on direct tasting/realization that bypasses need to formulize a doctrine. Bazaz has neatly encapsulated the idea in Kashmiri tradition in approaching the Rishi thought in general, and Nund Rishi’s negative theology in particular, as “a mode of understanding the world which never formalized itself into a body of doctrine but instead founded in the Kashmiri tradition a mode of what Michael Sells has called ‘mystical saying and unsaying.” He further notes that “such a tradition is incapable of formalizing a doctrine.”


Bazaz’s key insight developed throughout the book concerns the positive correlation between the spiritual task of narrowing the distance between oneself and the Real and “search for truth and justice in the present.” Nund Rishi is all for prophetic activist mysticism that engages with injustice and class oppression and works for the disempowered.

Bazaz deftly addresses such issues as vegetarianism of Rishis to counter criticisms from religious circles as he notes that they didn’t criticize anyone who took meat or consider it unlawful to take. They just abstained for reasons well known to spiritual practitioners across traditions.

Furthermore, Bazaz notes that Nund Rishi avoids using technical Sufi terms for expressing his idea of true or good Muslim. He uses instead more general, moral universals and indigenous/Sanskrit concepts of krodha (anger), lobha (greed), moh (attachment), ahankār (pride), and mad (lust). The terms are significant in the Sikh tradition and are also used by the Chishti Sufi of the Punjab, Baba Farīd. One can point other parallels across traditions including Buddhism.

Patience and resisting temptation to express anger are connected with the key concept of preparation for death that constitutes converging point of religion with traditional philosophy, mysticism and literature. The chapter titled “Practicing Death” is key to sahaj ideal. His thinking of death as a healing and life as a practice of death can be better understood in this context. Nund Rishi connects Islam to “a necessary askesis marked by a lack of anger (krod, or krodha) and the possession of right thoughts combined with right action.” This seems to recall Buddha ad verbatim.

Bazaz advances number of other theses that call for attention of scholars working on Kashmir and its mysticism:

The Rishis, unlike Sayyids, didn’t actively pursue conversion of non-Muslims. Abdul Auyum Rafiqi has engaged with this thesis extensively.

Nund Rishi was anti-establishment, unlike Sayyids. One may note here that Sayyids didn’t follow but seek to guide the Sultans though didn’t get great response.

His negative theology and its anti-establishment posturing is not an echo of a strain of mainstream Sufism represented by immigrant Sayyids but something very unique.

His critique of the mullah is “difficult to separate from critique of theological knowledge and imperial power,” and that Nund Rishi’s mystical poetry interrupts, “Persian political theology dominant at the court of the new Kashmir Sultanate of the Shahmiri dynasty to reclaim Islam for an alternative thinking of the religious and the political from the standpoint of the Kashmiri subaltern.

Following Ranjit Hoskote’s approach to Lal Ded, Bazaz inclined to approach the body of shruks as the ‘Nund Rishi corpus’ with “multiple authors, rather than as the work of a single individual.”

His reading of tawhid, like that of some classical Sufi sages, connects its meaning to “not just an ethics of relation but also to that of a unity between the different religious traditions of Kashmir. It is not just the metaphysical unity of tawhid which is at stake for Nund Rishi in his translation of the core Islamic idea but an existential unity as well as the unity between the Hindus and Muslims of Kashmir.”

Practicing death in Nun Rishi has ethical and political ramifications and creates an agent with responsibility. Justice must be done. Nund Rishi’s project is not just a personal spiritual project but has huge consequences in community building and actualizing justice.

The key notion of Nothing makes a clean sweep of absolutes that Nietzsche diagnosed as pathological and creates a space and subject for ethical, spiritual and political agency – a space for existential politics, challenge to positive theological politics and a call for “political equality at a time when new Muslim Sultanate appears as mired in caste, clan, and race as the order it had displaced.” Bazaz thus states his central claim in “Becoming Nothing” “Becoming Nothing in Nund Rishi’s shrukhs doesn’t signal as ascetic withdrawl from the political but a new existential politics. The historical memory of this existential politics persists in the political unconscious of Kashmiris” And it is this repressed unconscious that most concerns contemporary Kashmiri reader of Nund Rishi. One may also point out in this connection that becoming Nothing is knowing Godhead or God the Absolute of Eckhart that is the ultimate discovery of poverty of spirit. Iqbal’s idea of riches of faqr – faqr as the king of kings – on the other side of death of self-centred life, is what come close to Nun Rishi’s project.

“Vernacular apocalypse of Nund Rishi is concerned not merely wi the destruction of end times but also with the possibility of new life.” Bazaz brings about political or worldly consequences of apolcalypse. One may well recall here Faiz’s similar treatment of apocalyptic that has earth shaking meaning for us He presents a Nund Rishi who is our standard bearer or Measure here and now as well. Transposing de Gaulle on Sartre, one may say Bazaz shows Nund Rishi is Kashmir.
Some of his assertions including “The sahaja Islam of Nund Rishi made the Kubrawiyya insistence on the Shari’ah appear as empty scholasticism” need to be qualified by taking note of Akbarian influence on Sayyids in Kashmir. Nund Rishi unlike other advocates of sahaj, wasn’t an esotericist who rejected rituals or authority of religious scholars outrightly but practized exoteric religion though emphasized need to deepen it to get to the spirit underneath. His work is replete with references for following religious forms. The fact that negative theology sides with revealability against revelation needn’t be understood as constituting or giving rise to a tension between Rishi movement and Sufi orthodoxy as the later itself has significant legacy of negative theologians and it doesn’t appear that the authority of revelation was felt threatened; in fact great negative theologians amongst Sufis weren’t necessarily known for problematic relationship with shari’ah or “mainstream” Sufism. Both Kubrawi saints and Rishis recognize the centrality of the esoteric/the natural or primordial spiritual impulse and taste (zawq) of spiritual life which is what sahaj is about. Sages of both traditions are critical of empty ritualism and excesses of dry scholasticism or legalistic hairsplitting. Bazaz rightly notes that “Both Sayyīd ‘Alī Hamadānī and Nund Rishi were seen as Sufi exemplars, and the Kashmiri tradition gradually smoothed out any historical memory of differences between the two Orders (on the question of conversions and the Sharī‘ah)”