(Excerpted, with permission from Penguin Books India, from I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded, translated by Ranjit Hoskote.)
Lalla’s poems shimmer with their author’s experience of being a yogini, trained in the demanding spiritual disciplines and devotional practices of Kashmir Saivite mysticism. Since this school is itself the confluential outcome of an engagement with several philosophical traditions, she was receptive to the images and ideas of those other traditions. It would be most productive to view her as a figure whose ideas straddled the domains of Kashmir Saivism, Tantra, Yoga and Yogacara Buddhism, and who appears to have been socially acquainted with the ideas and practices of the Sufis.
Revelation comes to Lalla like a moon flowering in dark water. Her symbols and allegories can be cryptic, and yet the candour of her poems moves us deeply, viscerally. She celebrates perseverance in the quest, contrasting physical agony with spiritual flight and dwelling on the obdurate landscapes that the questor must negotiate. Lalla’s poetry is fortified by a palpable, first-hand experience of illumination; it conveys a freedom from the mortal freight of fear and vacillation. She cherishes these, while attacking the parasitic forms of organised religion that have attached themselves to the spiritual quest and choked it: arid scholarship, soulless ritualism, fetishised austerity and animal sacrifice. Her ways of transcending these obstacles can seem subversive, even deeply transgressive—as in poem 59, where she confronts the priest with the brutal exaction demanded by his idolatry:
It covers your shame, keeps you from shivering.
Grass and water are all the food it asks.
Who taught you, priest-man,
to feed this breathing thing to your thing of stone?
Kashmir Saivism recommends the transmutation of all outward observances into visualisations and experiments in consciousness, so that the idol is replaced by the mental image and the sacrifice of an animal by the deliberate extinction of the lower appetites. In this spirit, in poem 61, Lalla rejects the conventional physical elements of worship in favour of meditative depth:
Kusha grass, flowers, sesame seed, lamp, water:
it’s just another list for someone who’s listened,
really listened, to his teacher. Every day he sinks deeper
into Shambhu, frees himself from the trap
of action and reaction. He will not suffer birth again.
At the same time, Lalla asserts the primacy of the guru—regarded as an embodiment of the Divine—as a guide navigating the aspirant through the maze of worldly life towards the central and transfiguring experience of enlightenment. In poem 108, she sings:
Who trusts his Master’s word
and controls the mind-horse
with the reins of wisdom,
he shall not die, he shall not be killed.
In yet other poems, she transmits the teachings that are the fruit of her experience: these poems aim to renew the immediacy of everyday life by placing it in the context of eternity, to redeem the self from the cocoon of narcissism and release it towards others, the world and the Divine. In poem 105, she imagines the Divine as a net that traps the individual from within, grace moving by stealth, to be valued in this life rather than deferred as a reward on offer in the afterlife:
The Lord has spread the subtle net of Himself across
See how He gets under your skin, inside your bones.
If you can’t see Him while you’re alive,
don’t expect a special vision once you’re dead.
In consonance with Kashmir Saiva doctrine, Lalla regards the world as an array of traps for the unwary, so long as the self remains amnesiac towards its true nature. On realising that the world is the playful expression of the Divine, and that the Divine and the self are one, anguish and alienation fall away from the consciousness, to be replaced by the joyful recognition that all dualisms are illusory. This leads her to rejoice in the collapse of such restrictive identities as ‘I’ and ‘You’ when confronted with the presence of the Divine, as in poem 15:
Wrapped up in Yourself, You hid from me.
All day I looked for You
and when I found You hiding inside me,
I ran wild, playing now me, now You.
Lalla enacts the theatre of her devotion in different registers. She yearns, she demands, she laments; she can be prickly and irritable with the Divine, yet throw herself at Its mercy and sing of unabashed passion, as in poem 47:
As the moonlight faded, I called out to the madwoman,
eased her pain with the love of God.
‘It’s Lalla, it’s Lalla,’ I cried, waking up the Loved One.
I mixed with Him and drowned in a crystal lake.
Lalla treats the body as the site of all her experiments in self-refinement: she asserts the unity of the corporeal and the cosmic, as achieved through immersive meditation and the Yogic cultivation of the breath. The subtle channels and nodal points of the Yogic body form a basic reality for her, its terrain as real as the topography of lake, river and mountains that recurs in her compositions. In poem 52, she declares:
I trapped my breath in the bellows of my throat:
a lamp blazed up inside, showed me who I really was.
I crossed the darkness holding fast to that lamp,
scattering its light-seeds around me as I went.
For Lalla, the symbolic and the sensuously palpable are not in opposition, but rather, suffuse one another. The cultural theorist and historian Richard Lannoy interprets this feature of Indic philosophy and spiritual practice elegantly:
Each successive school of philosophy, each mystic, sage, or saint, sought by one means or another to appropriate the external world to the mind-brain. He enhanced, expanded, intensified, and deepened his sensory awareness of colours, sounds, and textures until they were transformed into vibrations continuous with his own consciousness. In this state of enhanced consciousness induced by special techniques of concentration, the inside and the outside, the subject and the object, the self and the world, did not remain separate entities but fused in a single process. (1971, 273–74)
I wore myself out, looking for myself.
No one could have worked harder to break the code.
I lost myself in myself and found a wine cellar. Nectar, I tell you.
There were jars and jars of the good stuff, and no one to drink it.
I saw a sage starving to death, a leaf floating to earth
on a winter breeze. I saw a fool beating his cook.
And now I’m waiting for someone to cut
the love-cord that keeps me tied to this crazy world.
(66 & 67 are companion vākhs)
Who’s the garland-maker, who’s his wife?
What flowers will they pluck to offer Him?
With what water will they sprinkle Him?
With what chant will they wake the deepest Self?
The mind’s the garland-maker, his wife the desire for bliss.
They will pluck flowers of adoration to offer Him.
They will sprinkle Him with the moon’s dripping nectar.
They will wake the deepest Self with the chant of silence.
What the books taught me, I’ve practised.
What they didn’t teach me, I’ve taught myself.
I’ve gone into the forest and wrestled with the lion.
I didn’t get this far by teaching one thing and doing another.
Some, who have closed their eyes, are wide awake.
Some, who look out at the world, are fast asleep.
Some who bathe in sacred pools remain dirty.
Some are at home in the world but keep their hands clean.
Don’t think I did all this to get famous.
I never cared for the good things of life.
I always ate sensibly. I knew hunger well,
and sorrow, and God.
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