In the Shloka that identifies eighteen Shakti Peeths of the Universal Mother – it is declared that Devi in the form of Saraswati – Goddess of Knowledge – resides in Kashmir. Therefore, quite literally and symbolically it is the ‘head/mind’ of Bharat Mata. While Kashi has been the site of Sastras and Agamas, the seat of Learning in Ancient India has been Kashmir.
It is said that none other than Lord Siva himself revealed Siva Sutras to Vasugupta at the Mahadev Mountain that stands behind current day Shalimar Gardens in Srinagar. Therefore, the secret of Supreme Knowledge is inscribed in the mountain that overlooks the Kashmir Valley. That being the case, it should not be surprising that the finest philosophical minds – be it on Supreme Identity, or on the interconnections between the Seeker of knowledge, Supreme Knowledge (Siva) and the Means to acquire that knowledge (Shakti), or on Language, Logic, Laughter, Theater and much more – came from Kashmir. These philosophies stand unparalleled to this day.
Despite the comprehensive nature of their philosophies and force of their arguments and clarity of thought, this school of thought has been confined primarily to departments of Sanskrit and perhaps to ancient theater (if that exists at all), even that minimally and has not reached a wider audience. In other parts of the world theories, be it on mind, culture or textual analysis are built on their specific cultural ethos and intellectual traditions. Sadly, in the Indian context, all categories of interpretation are mechanically borrowed. For an ancient civilization with inexhaustible collection of scriptures, stories and philosophical texts this import of ideas is indeed most tragic. It is beyond my expertise and scope of this brief essay to speculate on the reasons. Some are self-evident: Islamic and Colonial dominance for centuries. The mind has been invaded and texts have been berated or destroyed. If our minds are to be de-colonized, the first step is to reclaim, reopen and relearn these classical texts from Kashmir.
If Sri Krishna gave Gitopadesam to Arjun in the midst of a battlefield in Kurukshetra, Lord Mahadev revealed Siva Sutras to Vasugupta in the Kashmir valley. Unlike the Shlokas of Bhagavad Gita that run into 18 chapters, Siva Sutras are simple aphorisms and packed in them are profound truths, deep philosophies and goals of life. Each and every aphorism is multi-layered, multi-dimensional and expansive. The very first Sutra says Caitanyam Ātma – Consciousness is the Self. Knowledge about the empirical world is limiting and binding, while the Inner Consciousness – the Self – leads to true knowledge that is open-ended and liberating. Furthermore, sensory knowledge emerges from body, which is a finite entity, but the inner landscape where the Supreme Self resides is Infinite. Thus, the Sutra generates incredible metaphysical play. There are many such seemingly simple but deeply profound aphorisms. Here are few of my favorites – Nartaka Ātma – The Self is the dancer (3.9). Dance is a complete art form as it engages every part of the body and every other art form; hence there is much to be learnt about Divinity via Dance and vice versa. Where does the dance take place? The next Sutra states – Rango Antaratma – The inner Self is the Stage (3.10). When the inner Self is the stage there is no room for masking interior truth. One must witness the game they are playing to gain awareness. Who is watching this play? The following Sutra tells us – Preksakanindriyani – the senses are the spectators. The drama of the universe and the self/Self is played out in the inner landscape and hence by turning the vision inward the shrine within can be discovered. The core principles of Sanatana Dharma and the methodology for realizing them are packed in these precious gems inscribed (although invisible in the present day) on the mountains overlooking the Kashmir Valley.
The next great thinker whose works have stood the test of time is Grammarian/Philologist/Philosopher – Bhartrhari. The exact time period and region that he lived in is unknown: experts believe that he lived sometime around 450-500 AD in the Kashmir region. More importantly, his works on Language did influence the school of Kashmir Saivism. Also, what is fascinating is that his works are still so relevant to our current day concerns and conflicts. While the western world is largely trapped in its binary thinking – la langue – the formal structure and stable meaning of language and la parole – language in action that produces myriad meanings, Bhartrhari presented a non-dualistic account of language where structure and function are inseparable. He saw Vac – the word to be identical with the Brahman and hence like the formless and timeless Brahman – that assumes specific form to suit a specific context in order to respond to specific time. The word also takes on different shades of meanings depending on the social context (when, where and by whom the word is uttered and who is listening) and the linguistic context (how words are strung together). Therefore, unlike the western world that assumes that diversification of language occurs due to human intervention, Bhartrhari asserts that it is the very nature of language to diversify. Today, words like diversity, dialogue and differences have become fashionable, whereas ancient India dealt with these concepts in a deep philosophical manner long ago. It is in the very DNA of Indian intellectual traditions, particularly those that came from the Kashmir region.
How does Bhartrhari help us understand the enormous diversity in language, culture and time periods? Bhartrhari declared long ago that hidden codes in cultural practices become visible only when one culture comes in contact with another different culture. Therefore to understand our own culture, or even language we need encounters with other cultures and languages. However all is lost when one culture uses its own interpretive framework to understand the other. That would be dominance and not dialogue. Understanding time periods also require dialogic interplay. In order to understand the past we need the present and vice versa. Bhartrhari addressed the dynamic interplay of Mahakal – The Great Time and Kalas – multiple historical times and their interconnections with other types of temporalities like psychological time and sociological time and so on and asserted their necessary co-existence. Time in Indian tradition is incredibly multiple, that is, heterochronous, multiple temporalities converging in a dialogic interplay. All meanings are subject to spatio-temporal upheavals. Secondly, what we call as the ancient in the Indian system is not a ‘dead’ thing – a relic of the past. Therefore, the ancient is a living entity and living entities seek a dialogue. They resist being displayed as an artifact for viewership in a museum.
This insight led to my work – Dialogics of Self, The Mahabharata and Culture: The History of Understanding and Understanding of History. This grand epic that stands as an emblem of Mahakal – Great Time responds and answers to historical time with great clarity and specificity and actively participates in the intellectual galaxy of the present moment. As the popular saying goes epics in India are as modern as ancient. Therefore, we cannot bring western notions of linear time to understand epic texts of India.
Bhartrhari likened the Mahakal as a perennial flow of a river. It bears witness to historical events and picks up fragments of events, texts and so on from its banks and sometimes hides them in its deep waters and, at a different time and place, periodically displaces objects from its deep waters at its bank. Since Kala is Brahman for Bhartrhari, it is the prerogative of the Brahman to decide when and where the precious gems hidden in its deep waters are brought to surface. In order for that to happen culture must be ready to receive and honor them. It is my sincere hope and prayer that precious gems from Kashmir that have been lying dormant are reactivated and brought to surface.
The only nagging question is – are we ready to receive them?
In order to demonstrate the powerful explanatory capability of Bhartrharian analysis, let me take some recent events, which were grossly misjudged and misunderstood, to show the two way flow that occurs when the past and present meet. In other words, a natural exchange takes place. A politician remarked rather casually that ancient India knew the art and science of head transplant. He was referring to Ganesh receiving elephant head after losing his human head in a battle with Lord Shiva. The leader was accused of being unscientific and propagating myths over science. There is another explanation to this. That is the science of epistemology that Bhartrhari explains. When the present in all its brightness sheds light on the past (considered to be dark by Bhartrhari) – and this is a necessary condition to understand the past – the categories of the present aid in understanding the past. It cannot be any other way for this is an epistemological necessity. It is neither literal nor verifiable; it simply means that we understand the past within the framework of the present. Such exchanges happen routinely when epic tales are narrated. I have presented my work on The Mahabharata in many parts of the world and whenever I present a snippet of the Maya Mahal scene, where Duryodhan struggles to find his way in the Palace of Illusions, my audience invariably remark in zest, “How about that…ancient India knew the science of Holography…” I neither validate nor refute their remarks. I simple laugh with them. One more example, when youngsters watch Arjun in a battle with Jayadrath, Arjun must shoot the arrow in such a manner that his head falls in the lap of Jayadrath’s father so that he does not come back to life, they invariably remark, “GPS guided missile…” and laugh. As I become familiar with advances in reproductive technology, the transfer of zygote from Devaki’s womb to Rohini’s is no longer magical and inexplicable. Science allows us to make sense of it. Therefore when critics, with all their false seriousness mock at a leader for being anti-science, they must know that they are going against the very science of epistemology.
Even in a land that has given birth to innumerable Sadhus and Sants, mystics and seekers, thinkers and Karma Yogis that form a shining galaxy of stars, Acharya Abhinavagupta stands out as the brightest star. Even to list his works in a nutshell would be an impossible task. His works ranging from Tantraloka (Bhairava Consciousness) to Abhinavabharati (Commentary on Natya Sastra) to commentary on Bhagavad Gita among others stand as one of the main pillars of the school of Kashmir Saivism. A deep study of his commentary on Natya Sastra is necessary to understand the significance of drama – both external play that occurs in a specially constructed outdoor theater and the internal drama that occurs in the inner landscape. It is a means to understand the empirical world and stretch our imagination to a universe beyond and see the self as a microcosm of that universe. On an earthly level it is to cultivate finer sensibilities and sensitivities and develop Aesthetic Vision.
Aesthetic Vision is a Consciousness of a Consciousness – a meta-awareness of the workings of intellect and emotions. Aestheticized emotions – Rasa alone can reach the consciousness to bring about transformation – and hence a true artist must know how to aestheticize raw emotions in order to show not only the depth and dimension of a particular Rasa, but also let the Rasa to rise and envelop the theater hall and reach and transform the audience. Abhinavabharati gives detailed explanation on how to charge emotions with that capacity. These days artistic production and interpretation, to a large extent, be it in literature, theater, cinema or any other art form is so politically charged that aesthetics is subordinated to the political. Therefore as much as self-styled artists scream about injustices in the society, they are not able to bring about change. Their methods are inadequate and ineffective. Social evaluations are an integral part of artistic production and reception, but they must be part of larger Aesthetic vision. Art can heal only when it captures truth in all its complexities; whereas when art is built on falsehood it only becomes noisy and useless. The voices get shrill and slogans get rhetorical and unsuspecting people jump on to the bandwagon so that they can self-certify themselves for doing good.
Let me give a concrete example of the power of Rasa to communicate a vexing environmental problem. The eminent Bharata Natyam dancer did a grand production, Ganga: Nityavahini i.e. Ganga: The Eternal River. The dancer presents Ganga as Mahakal or The Great Time. There is a segment, Ganga’s Vilaap where the Mahakal is questioning Kala, the historical time. The reckless and alarming pollution of Ganga is a socio-historical fact and Malavika brilliantly and skillfully poses this important question through Ganga’s lament. The eternal river is being polluted by the very beings whose souls are to be cleansed and purified by her. She does this maintaining two seemingly contradictory truths: one is Ganga which has been and continues to be an emblem of purity; the other, Ganga’s Deham i.e. body, is being polluted by her irresponsible devotees. The dancer affirms both a mythical truth and a social reality. The Great Time questions historical time. In Malavika’s artistic creation, Ganga does not engage in loud diatribe against her subjects, scolding them for their irresponsible conduct. Instead she pricks their conscience with her lament.
At the heart of experience of Rasa, the aestheticized emotion is Svatantrya i.e. Freedom. Abhinavagupta explains that any Rasa directed towards specific person or object would be Bandhan i.e. bondage, whereas when the Rasa gets elevated and becomes transcendental it leads to internal freedom. One is released from psychological trappings and social chains. Therefore, talented artists when presenting Rasa Leela, elevate the emotions and gestures are not directed towards a specific Krishna they are dancing with but an all-pervasive Krishna so that the audience can also partake in the Rasa Leela. No one is deprived of the Rasa Anubhuti i.e. experience of Rasa, even if they never had direct experience of Sringara Rasa.
The great mystic poet Narayana Theertha writes in one of his compositions in Krishna Leela Tarangini, “Yuvati Geetham Yogisu Lalitham, Kavi Jana Manasa Kamalavi Lasitam…” The song of youth hood fills the heart of even a Yogi with tender emotions that a poet so effectively creates. The poet says that even a celibate Yogi who does severe penance and is caught up in cerebral activity also becomes capable of experiencing Sringara Rasa when he hears the Rasa Leela composed by a poet. Thus, one is released from the trappings of mind and freely enjoys tender emotions.
This kind of search for internal freedom and experiencing Nava Rasas is uniquely Indian. Abhinavagupta allows us to make sense of our emotional world. There is a creative potential in cultivating finer sensitivities. To drive home the point, let me give examples of cultural manifestations of these seemingly esoteric ideas. I learnt Carnatic music for many years and I am deeply involved in the musical world. My music teacher Gnanam Mami was incredibly resourceful in emphasizing Bhava in any composition. Without that there is no music. When she would teach me Jayadev’s Ashtapadis or Javalis in Telugu, which by the way are very naughty and sensuous, she would playfully tell me, “Kanna, find yourself a Kadalan (the Tamil word means lover) and not a Kanavan (the Tamil word means husband). I would laugh and say she is being outrageous. And then she would give a long lecture on how our great saint poets wanted to see God as their secret lover. Only for a lover your heart beats lab dub…lab dub, she would say. The point she was making was to be faithful to that emotion, its intensity, its longing and its desire and search. She was not directing me into some clandestine relationship. It is meant to capture that kind of youthful infatuation. One more example: I have an aunt whose husband abandoned her along with her three children when she was quite young and ran away with his lover. I met her recently when she was in her late eighties and she reminisced about her early loveless life and later happily declared that for a decade when she turned fifty and after becoming a grandmother she experienced intense crush on someone in her neighborhood. She recited the love poems she wrote and they were not directed towards him, but towards the feelings of love. I curiously asked her about this unrequited love for she never secretly met him in a park or even held his hands. She laughed and said, “you see I had sex with your uncle and had three children, but I did not feel even a bit of prema bhavam, whereas I never even touched this man, but my heart was filled with prema.” That man simply unleashed in her heart the Love in Rasa Leela. She no longer felt deprived of tender emotions. She felt freedom. I must confess Ivy League education in America taught me many brands of feminisms – liberal, radical, Marxist, French – but they did not have the strength and real freedom present in Indian womanhood.
No part of the world has produced the most compelling philosophy on laughter and satire than thinkers from Kashmir. They covered all aspects of philosophy. Abhinavagupta saw the role of Vidusak i.e. the wise fool, as a necessary character in any play, as he alone is capable of linking earthly paradox with heavenly dictums. The Vidusak does not spare anyone: the high and mighty are brought to earthly plane. His laughter liberates us in the world, not from the world. The best satirists – Kshmendra, Bhatta Jayanta, Bhallata – came from the rich tradition of Kashmir. Their satire was bold and their philosophical insurgency was sharp and targeted. For Abhinavagupta, laughter was a close companion of Truth. Therefore, the mockery of Vidusak was never meant to dismantle or destroy social structures. Rather, when individuals and cultures strayed far away from truth, laughter was the corrective measure.
Open minds and open societies cannot fear the force of good satire. When sanctimoniousness is mistaken for sanctity, laughter corrects it. We seem to be living in a period filled with multiple dogmas and unless we begin to read these great works of satire from Kashmir, we may sink into despair and falsehood. Besides, for a culture that has grown up with tales of Akbar and Birbal and Krishnadevaraya and Tenali Ramanna, how difficult can it be to revive the laughing traditions of India?
I have tried to give a sample of thinkers from Kashmir. As we say, Kasmiretu Saraswati. Hence it is the head/mind of Bharat Mata and special care must be given to this region. When there is head injury, the neurosurgeon is watchful and careful, so that the neurons remain fired up. Likewise, the nation must be mindful and tactful in healing the injury to the head so that precious gems are recovered and revived for the well-being of entire Bharat Varsh.