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Cultural and Religious Pluralism in Kashmir

Rattan Lal Hangloo
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Cultural and Religious Pluralism in Kashmir

Pluralism has always been the bedrock of Kashmir’s religious and cultural life. After World War II, colonialism withdrew from the Indian subcontinent/South Asia in 1947, leaving behind the scars of partition due to the prolonged conflict between Hindus and Muslims. On the eve of partition, when communal riots contributed to the mutual suspicion in the region, Kashmiri leader Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah (1905–1982) tried to instill a spirit of harmony in politics, guiding Kashmiri civil society to strengthen the already existing relations, and fostering social networks and mutual trust. Kashmiri artists and writers of the time articulated the necessity of pluralism and religious harmony for the stability of society. Poet and historian Mohammad Ud Din Fauq (1877–1945), for example, wrote:

Jo Insane hoke Insan Se Mazhabi Tosuf RakheNa voh Hindu, Na voh Muslim Na Esai Na Musai.”

(“Those who discriminate between one human being and the other

They are neither Hindus nor Muslims nor Christians or Jews.”)

The poet Mahjoor (1887–1952) echoed these sentiments when he wrote:

Hend chu Shakar Dod chu Muslim Saf SafDod ta baye Shakr Ralayev Pana veinNai Traviv Mai thavie panvein.

(“It is clear that Hindus are sweet and Muslims are milk

Both can be treated equally to remove

Conflicting tendencies and achieve greater harmony.”)

In Kashmir this acknowledgment of pluralism and religious harmony was not merely the outcome of modern ideologies generated by education or social reformation. Instead, this phenomenon can be attributed to the religious beliefs and cultural practices prevalent in Kashmir from early in the region’s history. From antiquity, Kashmiri society evolved out of local tribes and the waves of migrants who accompanied Aryans, Kushans, Greeks, Parthians, Tukharians, Hunas, Mongols, Iranians, Turks, Turaniyans, and others during travels to the region. The evolution of Shaivism out of varied tribal traditions of Buddhism and other animistic cults helped to encourage pluralism and religious harmony, a trend that was later strengthened by the Reshi (ascetics) as well as Ṣūfī philosophy.

Shaivism (a Hindu tradition that reveres the god Siva), popularly known as Trika philosophy, developed in Kashmir around the eighth century. According to its devotees, truth cannot be grasped by mere intellect; it can only be comprehended through direct experience. Because Kashmir Shaivism regards itself as a practical system of spiritual realization, it has come to place great emphasis on its oral tradition, preserving and passing on this understanding as a guide to the direct, living apprehension of its truth. Shaivism can be considered an expression of that development, in which religious devotion is considered to be a continuous wave of energy that uplifts its adherents. The preachers and practitioners of Shaivism believed that this philosophy should be given to all people, regardless of religion, caste, creed, gender, or ethnicity.

According to Abhinavagupta (d. 1016), the principal preacher of Kashmir Shaivism, Trika philosophy is filled with infinite diversity similar to the transcendent deity Siva, often referred to as the supreme light of Consciousness In this context, the external objective world is nothing but the expansion of Siva’s energy, filled with the radiance of his consciousness. Lord Siva is thus the nature and existence of all beings. Every individual can recognize Lord Siva through the universe, not by abandoning human beings, but by observing and experiencing this consciousness in the very activity of the world itself. The first requirement for achievement of this goal is that the mind (manas) be absolutely clean. A “clean mind” knows no duality; it is a mind that has feelings of sameness for everyone in the world. This “sameness,” known as samabhava, means that one does not overexpress or underexpress love for any one person in particular but has same attitude for everyone. Before the arrival of Islam, the concept of samabhava became the center around which Kashmiri society evolved, and strongly influenced the waves of migrants both from rest of India and from the trans-Himalayan regions. Indeed, this philosophy of Trika Shaivism prepared the ground for accepting and adjusting to migrations from neighboring regions.

As the process of state and social formation progressed, and the state incorporated Shaivism into its political ideology, Trika philosophy shifted from a popular philosophy to an elaborate ritualized institutional apparatus with a hierarchical landed aristocracy. Ironically, this state recognition was used by the region’s political establishment to contain the perpetual tension between the state and other dominant social groups that grew in Kashmiri society.

The institutional foundations of Shaivism were supported by feudal arrangements based on sparsely spread assignments of land (agraharas) given to Shaivite priests for maintenance of temple establishments. However, this degenerated into institutionalized feudal establishments and contributed to the exploitation of peasants. The Shaivite saints remained busy with the metaphysical aspects of Shaivism, thus monopolizing knowledge of religion, leading the common people to turn to seers or sages known as reshis. The number of reshis grew in number and carried forward the tradition of religious harmony and plural society. Even in modern times, their shrines are located throughout Kashmir. In this way, they reinvigorated the basic tenets of Trika philosophy. The reshis were not associated with a particular ethnic group, instead forming a shared community. They were bonded together by the ties of common interest and attachment to their region’s Kashmiri identity and character. This is why, although they might have personally loathed some of their fellow members or found their lifestyles, views, and values unacceptable, their mutual commitment as members of a shared Kashmiri community remained largely unaffected despite the political conflicts of the region.

During the fourteenth century Kashmir became vulnerable to outside threats and influences—in particular, Arab, Turkish, Persian, Caucasian, and Central Asian ideas and institutions. Among these influences, Islam emerged as a prominent institution. The Ṣūfīs and Sayyids were among those who entered Kashmir along with armies and migrants. Some of the most prominent among them were Sayyid ʿAlī Hamadānī, Mir Muḥammad Hamadānī, Sayyid Ḥusayn Sīmānī, Sayyid Haider, Sayyid Tajuddin bin Sayyid Hassan, Sayyid Jamaluddin, Alai, Sayyid Kamal, Mir Sayyid Kāẓim, Sayyid Ruknuddin, Mir Sayyid Jamaiuddin, Mir Sayyid Muḥammad Qureshi, and Mir Sayyid Muḥammad Abdullaha. Sayyid ʿAlī Hamadānī, for instance, is revered in Kashmiri society even into modern times. These Sayyids and Ṣūfīs were well versed in Islamic theology and Ṣūfī philosophy and received state patronage to build their own network of khānqāhs (gathering places) and shrines. While this new development undermined the declining influence of Shaivites, it also led to a blending of Islamic preaching with the indigenous ideas of the reshis.

With the advent of Islam in Kashmir, Persian studies gained popularity among the literate sections of the society, which included Hindus and Muslims alike. This led to an interchange of concepts such as Vedanta and Sufism between the two communities. The Ṣūfīs, including Sayyid ʿAlī Hamadānī, practiced asceticism and penance, preaching their doctrine through love and gentle persuasion. Many Ṣūfīs spent their lives as wandering faqīrs (a person who lives solely on almsgiving). The Ṣūfī way had its impact not only on the Muslims themselves, but also impressed on the devout communities in Kashmir as well. This led to a healthy interaction and mutual accommodation. The receptiveness of the indigenous culture, especially characteristic of the Hindu ethos, as well as the liberal attitude of the Ṣūfīs, created a composite culture that continues to have a rich legacy.

It was amidst this transitional period that two important reshis, Lal Ded (Lalleswari, d. 1392) and Nund Rishi (Sheikh Nuruddin, d. 1440), again displayed their zeal in upholding the philosophical foundations of religious harmony and pluralism. The first woman Shaivite saint poetess of Kashmir, Lal Ded articulated in the Koshur (Kashmiri language) the necessity of not losing sight of Trika philosophy, saying:

Shive chui thale thale rozanmov zan heund ta musalmanTruk hai chuk ta pan parzanavSai chai sahibas seeth zani zan.

(“Shiva abides in all that exists anywhere;

don’t discriminate between Hindus and Muslims

Self-realization is true emancipation;

recognize your true self that is how you will realize God.”)

Sheikh Noor ud-Din Noorani (1376–1438) also known as Nund Rishi or Sahajanand and Alamdar of Kashmir, was a close contemporary of Lal Ded. His poetic compositions, known as “shruk” (derived from the Sanskrit shloka), preach love, equality, nonviolence, tolerance, and respect for all beliefs. Nund Rishi was an illustrious proponent of the taṣawwuf in Kashmiri poetry. He had a mystical rapport with Lal Ded, and his shrukhs are full of proverbs, parables, and wise sayings. His mystic verses speak of catholicity of vision, righteousness, and purity of mind and heart. Like Lal Ded, all his mystic verses are written in the common language. Nund Rishi became the founder of the rishi silsila (order) of Kashmir, incorporating the humanistic principles of Islam and local traditions.

By stressing values such as as human dignity, autonomy, liberty, critical thought, and equality, Nund Rishi defined them in several ways, of which spirituality was only one. The interaction of local reshis, their creeds, traditions, and restricted practices saw broad diffusion at the popular level and the accessibility with the coming of Islam entered into a new phase that institutionalized the concept of taṣawwuf. In Kashmir the notion of taṣawwuf is a product of a variety of intended and unintended consequences of religio-cultural, philosophical, and folk cultural, spiritual traditions, nuances and practices in each area cutting across the boundaries of religion without tampering with the faith. It envisions human consciousness in an unrestricted noninstitutional manner and its expression is imbued with ecstatic content that assumes various forms. The most common cultural manifestation is Kashmiri folk poetry. Thus the phenomenon of taṣawwuf in Kashmir is at a level beyond institutionalized religions.

Lal Ded and Sheik Noor ud-Din Sheikh ul-Alam were succeeded by generations of Kashmiri poets, including Abdullah Bihaqi, Momin Sahib Swochha Kral, Shah Gufoor, Mahmood Gami (1765–1855), Abdul Ahad Naazim, Rasul Mir, Saifudin-Tarbali Nyama Saeb, Maqbool Shah Kralwari (1802–1877), Shah Qalandar (d. 1880), Rehman Dar, Abdul Ahad Azad, Shamas Faqir (1849–1904), Wahab Paray (1846–1914), Hajin, Hassan Driver, Waza Mahmud, Amir Shah Kreeri (1846–1905), Ahmad Batawaari (1842–1912), Wahaab Khar ((1842–1912), Peer Ghulam Mohmmad Hanafi(1876–1937), Ali Shah Haril (d. 1935), Rajab Hafiz, Syed Habib, Makhen Lal Hangloo, and many others.

With the end of cold war, the radical Islamic resurgence which had been growing due to various reasons in the Middle East and South Asia made its appearance in almost all areas of globe that are inhabited by Muslims. Kashmir became a major landing point for this movement. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the radical Muslim mercenaries who were aiding Pakistan and Afghanistan against the Soviets were tutored to liberate Kashmir from India. Their penetration into Kashmir, in collaboration with local people who were imbued with radical Islam in the 1990s, triggered a war that forced Kashmiri Hindus to migrate to other parts of India. Although many pandits (Brahmin scholars) were forced into exile, the local tradition of taṣawwuf was again revived in order to heal the scars and bring the two communities together.

Despite the division of Hindus and Muslims at the institutionalized religious level, the constant mediation of the taṣawwuf through a common language (Koshur) remained. Even after the current political crisis taṣawwuf mediated through Kashur (the Kashmiri language) again played a very significant role as the indigenous instrument in maintaining the religious and cultural pluralism of the region. A new generation of scholarly works have analyzed the resilience of this concept in the region, including Aparna Rao’s The Valley of Kashmir: The Making and Unmaking of a Composite Culture? (2008) and Nyla Ali Khan’s The Parchment of Kashmir (2012). As a result, local and non-local ethnic groups such as Udambaras, Tantrins, Ekangas, Khasas, Nisadas, Persians, Afghans, Turks, Arabs, Mongols, Mughals, Tajiks, Kazakhs, Pakhtuns, Caucasians, Baloches, and varieties of other tribal or ethnic groups from other parts of India who entered Kashmir from elsewhere assimilated into the region as pandits and Muslims.


  • Abhinavagupta. Tantra Sara. Edited by Pandit Madsudan Sashtri. Bombay: 1918.
  • Hangloo, Rattan Lal. “The Sultanate of Kashmir.” In Social History of Medieval India, vol. 7,. Indian Society and Culture, Part 1, edited by J. S. Grewal. London: Oxford University Press, 2006.
  • Hangloo, Rattan Lal. “Kashmiriyat: The Voice of Past Misconstrued.” In The Parchment of Kashmir; History, Society, and Polity, edited by Nyla Ali Khan. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
  • Hughes, John, ed. Self Realization in Kashmir Shaivism: The Oral Teachings of Swami Lakshmanjoo. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994.
  • Kaul, Samsar Chand. “The Institutions of Kashmir Saivism.” In Aspects of Kashmir ‘Saivism, edited by B. N. Pandit. New Delhi and Srinagar, Kashmir: Utpal Publications, 233.
  • Khan, Mohammad Shaq. Kashmir’s Tranisition to Islam: The Role of Muslim Rishis (15th to 18th century). New Delhi: Manohar, 1997.
  • Kotru, Nil Kanth. 1989 Lal Ded Her Life and Sayings. Srinagar, Kashmir: 1989. See also Gopi Nath Raina, Lala vakh and Laleshwari (both in Urdu): Srinagar, Kashmir: 1954.
  • Rao, Aparna, ed. The Valley of Kashmir: The Making and Unmaking of a Composite Culture? New Delhi: Manohar, 2008.
  • Ray, S. C. Early History and Culture of Kashmir. Calcutta: Job Press, 1957.
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