Articles on Culture and Religion in Kashmir

Kashmiri Brahmins and their Distinctive Culture

by S. L. Pandit

Koshur Samachar


In the varied and colorful patterns that through centuries have evolved to form the rich mosaic of Indian society, the Brahmins comprised the accepted highest category of the ancient Vedic caste hierarchy. Further, it is understood that through our several millennia of history and legend they have played vital roles as scholars, scientists, teachers and occasionally as military experts and political advisers of rulers and empire builders, while denying to themselves opportunities of amassing wealth and other material benefits that are now widely associated all over the world with the rat race for political power. Even so, with their wide patterns of regional characteristics, the Brahmin communities had acquired distinctive social and ritual traditions varying from region to region. But largely they had held together as a unifying force through their acceptance of Sanskrit as the principal medium of culture, religion and higher levels of research. As we know, while all the North Indian languages have been derived from the Aryan Sanskrit, even in the South, with its distinctive Dravidian languages as hoary as Sanskrit, the supremacy of Vedic Sanskrit had been accepted as the principal medium of inter-regional commerce of the highest level from Kashmir to Cape Camorin, till the time when following the consolidation of Muslim rule over the sub-continent, Persian was imposed as a dominant official language till English took its place following the establishment of British rule over the sub-continent.

In short, the point is that while it is this hierarchy of Sanskritic culture that held together the Brahmin community all over India, at the same time the Brahmin communities of various regions, in due course, evolved their special characteristics governing their social life and religious practices and affinities. Among these the Brahmin community of Kashmir, in spite of their limited numbers and partial geographical isolation from the rest of the subcontinent, built up through centuries some special features of social and religious behaviour which enabled them not only to hold together as an influential minority community in Kashmir, but that later a smaller migrant group of this community, mainly urban based in North India and Rajputana, came to leave their distinctive impress on the cultural and political developments taking shape in the country during the past two centuries. It is, however, a fact that even these talented migrants continued to draw their inspiration in various ways from their past heritage in Kashmir, which continued to be their principal regional base till the last decade of the present century. So it might be of interest to us as representatives of that past heritage to know and understand the principal distinctive features of that heritage, especially in the context of general religious practices and social behaviour.

First, a brief mention of the origins, historical and legendary, of the Kashmiri Brahmin community. According to accepted traditions in the rest of the country, Kashmiri Brahmins are believed to be a branch of the Saraswat Brahmins who were so called because they were believed to have settled along the course of a semi-mythical river of North India called Saraswati, and named after the Vedic goddess of learning, soon after the Vedic Aryans settled firmly over this region of India. Then there follows a legend that when this river dried up, these Brahmins got scattered. There is a tradition that quite a large section of this uprooted community settled in the Western Konkan coast of the present state of Maharashtra, where they still hold together socially and call themselves "Saraswat Brahmins". Others moved further North into the Valley of Kashmir and, as the story goes, settled there after securing the permission of the Naga tribes who then ruled over this region. So, in the course of centuries, while holding fast to their traditional Aryan Vedic moorings, they sought to work out certain patterns of religious and social behaviour which distinguish them marginally from the Brahmanic traditions of the rest of India.

This in short is how legendary tradition places the settlement and evolution of this Brahmin community in Kashmir. Some discerning Western scholars have tried, in view of the distinctive physical features of this community, to class them as probably the still continuing purest possible stock of Vedic Aryans who, in some still not positively located past age, came to settle in the Indian subcontinent. There is no doubt that the members of this small Brahmin cormnunity continue even upto now to hark back to their Vedic past. But it is obvious that, in their comparatively isolated mountain girt habitat, they tried to recreate for themselves in the Valley parallel important traditional places of pilgrimage so dear to Hindus in the rest of India. For example, they had marked a spot in the North of the Valley where a mountain stream flows into a lake as Harmukat Ganga and would till very recent times consign the ashes of their departed ones in its waters when they could not easily reach the traditional river Ganga venerated by all Hindus through countless ages. Similarly, about twelve miles below Srinagar at Shadipur, they treated the confluence of the Jhelum (Vitasta as named in our ancient Sanskrit texts) and a mountain stream still named Sind in Kashmir, as of equal status in sanctity to Prayag (now Allahabad) where, the waters of the holiest rivers of the Hindu faith, Ganga and Yarnuna along with the legendary Saraswati, mingle their streams before they move onwards to empty their waters in the Bay of Bengal. Similarly, many other leading places of pilgrimage in India are duplicated in the valley. In fact, as several foreign travellers to Kashmir have observed during the past three to four centuries, the whole valley of Kashmir is dotted with Hindu pilgrim centres located at lakes and springs and on mountain tops. In this pattern also fall the holy springs named usually as Nagas, obviously harking back to an unrecorded pre-Aryan phase of Kashmir chronicles.

To these distinctive features of Hindu tradition in the Valley, may be added the unique and still preserved texts of works that, like Nilamat Purana and Kathasaritasagara, are a product of ancient wisdom expressed in the latter work of imaginatively conceived tales like the famed Panchatantra tales about beasts and birds. As in the rest of India. the emergence of the Buddhist movement was meant to question the sanctity of the caste system and the Vedic ritualistic worship. With the later complications of Buddha's simple creed, as has happened to most other religious movements in the world, there followed in India a revival of what may be described as Brahmanic Hinduism, paving the way for the imposition of a sort of absurdly rigid caste system and untouchability. While the impact of this counter- revolution led to unprecedented and almost inhuman rigidity in certain regions, there was no revival of the caste system in Kashmir. For one, the Brahmin community of Kashmir appears to have cooperated with the spread of the Buddhist faith, for many Kashmiri Brahmins travelled to China and the Far East as missionaries of this movement without rejecting altogether their Brahminic past. Then came Islam to the valley, first through missionaries of this new aggressive foreign faith and later in the form of rulers in the fourteenth century A.D. The proselytizing zeal of Sultan Sikander, in fact, led to a crusade of total suppression of the Hindu religion and destruction of its places of worship. With this onslaught, while the lower Hindu castes altogether disappeared from the scene, only a small section of the Brahmin caste refused to submit to this holocaust, preferring death or voluntary exile from their homeland. But human history is dotted with numerous surprising developments. In the history of Kashmir, a new movement was marked by the benign era of Sikander's son and successor, Zain ul-Abidin, popularly still remembered as Badshah or the Great King, who ruled over Kashmir for half a century and most zealously pursued a policy of reclaiming and rehabilitating the Brahmin community as a value- based section of the population. So, in the absence of any lower Hindu castes for several centuries, the Brahmins of Kashmir have traditionally remained immune from the worst absurdities of the Hindu caste system.

Apart from the tolerant phase of Muslim rule first firmly inaugurated by Zain ul-Abidin and later zealously revived by Akbar, the history of Kashmir was marked during this era by the emergence of other harmonizing factors among both the Muslims and Brahmins of the Valley. While some scholarly and saintly Brahmins evolved a new universal aspect of Hindu ethos in the form of Shaivism, the Muslims were deeply involved in a tolerant aspect of Islamic Sufism marked by the rise of what is called the Rishi cult in Kashmir. These new developments came to be personified in the careers and utterances in native Kashmiri of Lal Ded (a Hindu wandering woman saint) and Saint Nur-ud-Din Noorani whose tomb is still venerated both by Muslims and Hindus as a seat of pilgrimage at Chrar, a hillside village, west of Srinagar, and recently vandalized by non-Kashmiri militants.

It is true that the Kashmiri Brahmins belong basically to the main stream of the centuries-old Indian Brahminhood. Nevertheless, because of their comparative geographical isolationism the Northern Indian plains and the disappearance of the lower castes under the impact of Buddhism and later of Islam, they evolved a distinct pattern of social behaviour. For one, they were not obsessed by a "touch-me-not" policy, so characteristic till recent times of the Brahmins in some other region of India; and, in fact, they were willing to accept uncooked eatables even from Muslims. Moreover, in their cuisine, they had no hesitation in taking to flesh foods like lamb and fish, while they rigidly avoided till recent times consuming poultry products, both flesh and eggs. Following the consolidation of Muslim rule, while they retained their attachment to Vedic Sanskrit as the medium of their religious scriptures, they easily took to learning Persian when it got confirmed as the principal official language for transacting official business and later even for their private correspondence.

In the context of what has been already observed, with the evolution of Shaivism as a distinct religious philosophy, the Shiva worship assumed special importance along with the continuing veneration of other gods of the Hindu pantheon and the various aspects of the worship of the Goddess as the Supreme Divine Mother. It is thus not surprising that, with the ascendancy of Shiva worship, the observance of Maha Shivratri Festival in the first dark fortnight of the month of Phalgun (corresponding to February in the international Christian calendar) came to be observed as the principal religious festival in the annual calendar of Kashmiri Brahmins. In the traditional Hindu pantheon, Shiva is represented in various forms, as the Destroyer in the Hindu trinity comprising in addition Brahma (the Creator) and Vishnu (the Preserver). But later Shiva is represented also as the Nataraja or the Supreme representative and inspirer of dance and music. Moreover, in Kashmir Shaivism, Shiva is projected as the abiding revelation of cosmos and of all life, both visible and invisible. This amounts to a projection of some modification of the ancient Upanishidic presentation of all the universe, as we see it or perceive it intellectually, as Maya, an illusion or play show as projected by the Eternal Divine Creator of time and space. Traditionally, among Kashmiri Brahmins the festival of Shivratri was spread over the major part of a fortnight, with special distinct religious and social rituals marking each day of the period and culminating obviously in thc night-long worship followcd by feasting on the night of the thirteenth of the dark fortnight of Phalgun. Incidentally, in the Valley of Kashmir this festival period was also expected to prepare the people for the oncoming of the spring season marking a renewal of all life in the mountain girt and snow-bound Valley. As an example, the Festival of Durga Puja in Bengal has provided a parallel in its religious and social dimensions to Shivratri as celebrated in Kashmir through centuries past. With the recent dispersal of the terrorised minority Brahmins of Kashmir over the Indian subcontinent and abroad in distant lands, obviously in their vastly changed social and working environments, our people have not now adequate leisure and urge to observe this subnational festival as elaborately as it used to be celebrated back in the Valley of the gods. Even so, we should observe it all over the world, may be in abridged versions, with as much faith and fervour as our forbears celebrated this festival over several centuries past.

Kashmiri Overseas Association
 Koshur Samachar