RELIGION and culture are intertwined in Hinduism; this is evident from the time- honoured institution of sainthood in India that has always got wide acceptance and support from our society. Saintly orders of many hues and varieties have flourished in this country for ages, since the beginning of the Vedic civilization. Even in the present age of science and technology, sainthood survives in our land and the true saint continues to command respect in society. I have witnessed this fact with particular interest as a native of the valley of Kashmir since my boyhood days. Sadhus and mahatmas hailing from various corners of the country, wearing ochre robes or moving about semi- nude (their bodies smeared with ashes) have traditionally been served, fed and treated with great care and respect by the Kashmiri Hindus. We specially noticed this during the days of the yatra of the devotees, who included sadhus in bulk, to the Amarnath Cave.
Swami Aftab Joo Wangnoo
However, the Kashmiri Hindu saint himself, as a son of the soil, has maintained his identity in preferring to stay indoors, remain a member of the household though leading a godly/celibate life. Most Kashmiri Hindu saints - though some chose to live in seclusion, in ashrams or cottages - did not look different from householders in respect- of dress or food habits. Of course, the bearing of a saint or some outward mark (such as the length or shape of the tilak) would suggest that he should be a godly person. Since neither monasticism nor living apart in hermitages is stressed upon in the Saiva or Sakta doctrines that prevailed among the Hindus in the valley, it is understandable why our saints would not attach any special significance to external renunciation, requiring them to distance themselves from the household life. All the same, sadhus and mahatmas from outside the valley, recognized as such through distinct outward marks, were treated with reverence here.
To illustrate what true sainthood means, as I see it, I have chosen to talk about the Kashmiri Hindu saint, Swami Aftab Joo Wanganoo, affectionately called 'Akalal' by his devotees, who I came to know early in my life when I was 18 years old. Born in 1893, he was a resident of Babapora, Habakadal, Srinagar.
I recall, with feelings of reverence and gratitude, my fruitful association with him that did not, however, last long. This was because he gave up his mortal coil in 1943 (when he was 55 years old), only within a year of my meeting him.
It was way back in 1947, when my friend Trilokil and I studied at the A.S. Degree College, Srinagar, that we met Swami Akalalji for the first time at the famous Kshir Bhavani shrine, Tulamula, Kashmir. Though carefree as young men, we had almost an identical interest in spirituality then and were inwardly engaged in the quest for Truth. Destiny brought us into contact with this saint at a crucial phase in our lives. It was my mother who actually directed us to the precise spot at the Tulamula shrine where the Swami was seated, amidst a number of his followers, under a chinar tree close to the holy spring of the Bhavani. As we bowed to him, he immediately dropped a 'hint' to us that conveyed that he had been "waiting for us".
Spirituality and Worldly Duties
At the very outset, when Triloki and I met the Swami, he was forthright in telling us that "as the bird employs two wings to fly, you have to practise spirituality and undertake worldly duties simultaneously, i.e., "combine parmarth and vevhar". This was meant to convey to us that the sadhak should maintain a delicate balance between the practice of meditation and involvement in worldly obligations. The Swami pointedly told us that we had to get married; this implied that he did not see marriage as an obstacle to the attainment of spirituality in spite of the fact that he himself had remained a brahmacharin. What I can also infer now from his pronouncement is that probably he could foresee that we had to work out our past karmas as men of the world and, therefore, he advised us to discharge our household duties for our well-being in all respects.
I recall further that as Swami Akalalji spoke kindly words to us at the Kshir Bhavani shrine, we felt wholly drawn to him as if we had known him long. He stood up from the spot he had sat upon and just strolled about. Grabbing the opportunity, we followed him and unfolded to him whatever we had to say as spirituality seekers. His response was encouraging: "My heart is delighted". Then we three sat together at another spot and were joined by some more devotees. One of them, pointing towards Triloki and me, asked Akalalji whether we were his friends. In reply, he remarked: "Whom you call my friends are my very eyes". In Kashmiri, the reply sounded lyrical, a rhyming couplet: "tuhend geyi mether, sen geyi nether". What an intimacy grew within a short time between the saint we met and ourselves !
Then Swami Akalal performed a parikrama of the holy spring and we walked in step with him, listening to the instructions he gave us further. I vividly recollect the two crucial observations he made:
i) He was categorical in saying that we had to make the best possible use of our present lives - this should consist of consolidating what we had achieved in our past lives. It is the stability that has to be prized most in the spiritual path, he emphasized. This brings to my mind what Lord Krishna reveals in the sixth chapter of the Gita--that the aspirant has to build on what he has attained in his past life until he is firmly established in sadhana (a 'long' pursuit, indeed!).
ii) Cautioning us, the Swami said that during the course of his life, an aspirant has to remain mentally alert and vigilant throughout to avoid pitfalls. Inward purity and peace have to be cultivated at all costs. This calls for patience and perseverance - qualities highly necessary for advancement in spirituality. The Swami gave an illustration to drive home the point: just as the flowing stream "swallows up" whatever refuse is thrown into it, so should an aspirant develop in himself the capacity for bearing hardships; he should remain unruffled in the extremes of joy and sorrow, never losing his mental equilibrium. The Swami observed further that facing the severities of life heroically and retaining mental composure even in adverse circumstances are a kind of penance that pays the aspirant rich dividends in spiritual terms.
After receiving the updesh (teaching) so liberally given by the saint (through the Bhavani's grace), we took leave of him and left the shrine, accompanied by my mother. Then followed our many periodic visits to his residence at Babapora. During the first visit (following our meeting with him at Tulamula), we found to our joy that Akalalji was reciting some mystical verses of his guru, Swami Zanakak Tuphchi, to some of his devotees seated in front of him in his room; the verses were delivered by him in a tuneful voice that made a profound impact on the listeners. I specially noticed the small temple-like wooden structure, erected to the left of Swami Akalal's seat, in which was installed a life-size painting of Zanakakji (seated properly in the pose of a saint) with the picture of Akalalji drawn in miniature towards the bottom, just below the guru's feet. On all the walls of the room were seen hanging, or pasted, the photographs of a large number of well- known Kashmiri Hindu saints of the valley, most of whom had already left this world. It was Swami Akalalji himself who had taken pains to collect all these photographs.
Discourses for Teaching
As our visits to the Swami's house got frequent, we came very close to him. Whenever we found him alone, he would lend his ear to our queries and satisfy us with his pointed answers. Often he quoted lines from the mystical utterances of several celebrated Kashmiri saint-poets, including Lal Ded. He had also a good knowledge of the whole text of the Gita and would recite appropriate slokas during the course of a discourse to clarify points and reinforce his teaching. He was well aware of the writings of Swami Vivekananda on Yoga and Vedanta and was also conversant with Patanjili's Yoga Sutras. Usually in the evenings, whenever there was no likelihood of any visitor intruding, he would talk to us in close confidence and reveal his experiences to us. Very often we heard him chanting these lines in a state of ecstasy: "Sivoham Sivoham Siva Kevelohan/Sat Chitananda Rupah, Sivoham, Sivoham. "
I quite remember how in response to my question once, he talked to us about Maya, characterizing it as the mysterious power of the Lord of the Universe. Dwelling on the distinction between Sukshama Maya and Jada Maya (which I could not quite comprehend then), he made two important observations: (i) It is very difficult, but not impossible, to be free from the entanglement of Maya. The solution of the problem, he said, lies in the aspirant's ability to stand mentally aloof and not get involved in the maze of this phenomenal world of sensory experience. For this, an aspirant has to cultivate dispassion and the power of detachment. The Self, he said, is to be realized as the Lone witness of all that goes around us. (ii) The other way of piercing the veil of Maya, and thus getting at the Truth, is, he maintained, through our inward purification whereby one's intellect gets finer and finer until, through divine grace, it seizes the elusive Reality.
During the course of his conversation once, Swami Akalalji, who, as I ponder now, had unmistakable marks of the Master Yogi, explained to us the significance of yogic visions. According to him, having visions of various divinities and hearing 'voices' during meditation do have a significance for the aspirant, but they are not to be looked upon as the ultimate end. As one achieves purity of mind and progresses in meditation, visions do occur and may be seen as landmarks on the path, indicating that the spiritual goal is within the reach though, in terms of the steps or stages, its attainment may be still distant - the spiritual path having been aptly compared to "the razor's edge". The human form divine, encountered during the course of sadhana as the aspirant advances, may be taken as the lotus that emerges from the mansarovar of the yogi (when his mind is serene and still). All such experiences are valuable, indeed, but the aspirant's main goal has to be the realization of God, which is no different from Self-realization. All divine forms, the Swami said, are only a reflection of our Swarupa (Real Form): that is essentially Formless, comprehending Being and Becoming, paradoxically perceived as the still/ever-throbbing Light of Pure Consciousness.
In this context, I must mention, for elaboration, what Akalalji one day told me when I was his lone listener in his room. He said that the divine forms that the sadhak sees in meditation as distinct from himself fade wholly in the state of samadhi: all duality dissolves here and the self abides in perfect tranquillity; there is no one to converse with and all conversation drops. What remains is pure Consciousness-Bliss. This is the stage when the little self stands wholly conquered and the aspirant attains Sivahood. About 48 years have passed since I heard this illuninating account of Self-realization from the Master, beloved Akalalji. The nectarine words I heard then still linger in my memory as a constant source of inspiration.
Swami Zanakak Tuphchi
The present account of Swami Akalalji would be incomplete without something said about the spiritual eminence of his Guru, Swami Zanakak Tuphchi. Zanakakji lived a hundred years, man years of which he spent at the Wanganoos' at Babapora until he attained Nirvana. Here he was looked after with great care by Akalalji and others in the family (his unmarried elder brother, Sirikakji Wangnoo, and two married brothers, Gopinathji and Balji Wangnoo, besides two married sisters). It is said of Zanakakji that he was an accomplished yogi and had spiritual sidhis at command. There are two anecdotes that were narrated to Triloki and me, by Swami Akalalji which confirm the fact.
Once Zanakakji directed him (Akalalji) to spend a couple of weeks in solitude inside the Parimahal building on the hill adjacent to the shrine of Goddess Zishta in Srinagar. Akalalji obeyed and stayed away from home, absorbed in meditation. He witnessed a miracle happening every day: all that he needed for his puja and also what he needed to feed himself would materialize at the spot he had chosen for his sadhana. The Swami also talked of his special love for Brari-Angan, Uma Nagri, where his younger brother, Gopinathji, an employee of the State Forest Department, had been posted for three years. Here he practised meditation undisturbed. Once he stayed here for a continuous period of six months and experienced deep samadhi that was stable. Talking of the experience, he said: "The period of six months seemed to me just a brief interval of six seconds". This was, of course, a miracle of a different order, a sign of his consummation as a sadhak, his attainment of the "summit" of divine consciousness. Surely, he was a befitting disciple of his accomplished guru.
The other incident is a fearful story of Swami Akalalji's encounter with an Aguri, who stayed in the Bairow Mandir, Narsingarh, Srinagar. The Aguri had befriended Akalalji for some time and one day he almost succeeded in his evil design. This was to offer him as a human sacrifice through his occult power, but the design failed because Zanakakji's grace came to the disciple's rescue. As the Aguri started his kriya, Akalalji, who was seated opposite him, started feeling spell-bound (his limbs chained as it were). Some luminous thread-like object materialized before him that gradually took the form of a snake. There were seven earthen plates containing flaming wicks immersed in ghee between the Aguri and Akalalji. When the snake that was formed in the air had moved on to the fifth plate and was very close to Akalalji, he turned his thoughts to his guru Zanakakji, seeking his spiritual help. Immediately, he felt the guru whispering these words into his ear: "Spit into the dhooni (sacred fire)". He did accordingly and was instantly released from the spell. He rushed back home, where he was admonished by Zanakakji and advised to beware of persons such as the Aguri. On the following day, Akalalji, out of curiosity, again visited the Bairov Mandir and found to his surprise that the kriya had recoiled on the Aguri; in the process he had iost his own life.
Devotion to Guru
Among the many things that impressed me most about Swami Akalalji was his extreme devotion to the guru. On several occasions, when he mentioned Zanakakji's qualities, he went into bhava-samadhi. In memory of the guru, he performed a yagya twice annually; on these occasions he worked with devotion and fervour, paying personal attention to all the participants: a crowd of sadhus specially invited besides his own devotees and relatives, who all were served with prasad.
Swami Akalalji's father, Shri Keshav Joo Wangnoo, served as a revenue clerk at Leh during the reign of Maharaja Ranbir Singh. He was assassinated while in service. In view of this tragedy. his widow, Kudamal, and children had to face great hardships. Swami Akalalji had to abandon his studies at the eighth standard; he took up the job of a messenger in the State Telegraph Department, Srinagar, to earn for the big family as his elder hrother had also done earlier (taken up a job in the State Revenue Department).
Akalalji's mother was a noble and deeply religious woman. He himself was the most religious of all her six children. As a boy, he spent most of his time in the company of saints and frequented religious places.
He came into contact with Swami Zanakak Tuphchi through his brother-in-law, Shri Janki Nath Misri, a disciple of Zanakakji. Soon Akalalji got attracted to the Swami, who gladly accepted him as his disciple.
I have gathered some additional biographical information, reproduced below (a few facts having been mentioned already), concerning Swami Akalalji from his nephew. Shri Makhanlal Wangnoo; it touches further upon his family background and also tells us something more about his guru Zanakakji.
Swami Zanakakji was originally a resident of Krimshur, Badgam, whence he moved to Srinagar and stayed first at the Tuphchi's at Dalhasanyar. Thence he shifted to the house of Shri Janki Nath Misri. Akalalji served his guru devotedly, paying regular visits to the Misris tor the purpose. Usually. he brought him dinner from his home cookcd hy his mother, after he got free from his official duty. Once, on a snowy night at 9 p.m., he went with a bowl of food to Shri Misri's house to be served as dinner to Zanakakji. The main gate of the house was bolted from inside; despite Akalalji's repeated knocking at the gate, no inmate came forward to open it. The devoted disciple remained waiting outside and fell asleep (with the bowl of food in his hands). Next morning, at about 4 a.m., Zanakakji got up and opened the gate. Seeing thc devout Akalalji asleep (carrying the bowl), he woke him up, took him inside and ate the food that had by now got frozen.
From Shri Janki Nath Misri's house, Swami Zanakakji shifted permanently to his disciple Akalalji's residence at Babapora. The disciple soon realized that he could not devote himself wholly to the service of his guru and, at thc same time, continue serving the State Telegraph Department. He chose to give up his job and thus had all the time at his disposal to serve his Master. In turn, Zanakakji lavished all care on his promising pupil, who did not take long in learning the skills of a yogi and advancing on the spiritual path.
Akalalji's sadhana included daily visits in the afternoon to Hariparbat. Here he practised meditation for hours at the foothill just below the Kali temple. While performing Parikrama of Hariparbat, not even once did he go up to the shrine of Goddess Sharika (Chakreshwari temple) and preferred to bow to the Devi from the foothill itself.
Under the directions of his guru, Akalalji read the Guru Gita (in Sharda script) every morning. He also recited the slokas of Bhavani Namasahastrastuti and Indrakshi Strotam in the evenings. He was vely fond of devotional songs and music; Kirtans and Bhajan Mandalis were often held at his house.
People in difficulty, who came to seek his blessings, were received by him with love. He gave them basma (sacred ashes) from his guru's Kangri (the firepot a Kashmiri uses in winter), which he had preserved as a relic. To some he gave yantras, consisting of sacred words written in saffron-ink on bojpatra. He also used the knife of his guru for heaiing the sick; he applied its touch to the ailing part of a patient's body. Those who sought his help had, obviously, all faith in him. They included the local Muslims too.
Swami Akalalji was an unostentatious saint, who never dissociated himself from household duties. There was nothing about his dress that would mark him off as a sadhu; he smoked and was a non- vegetarian. He took pleasure in coaching his school-going nephews, Shri Makhanlal and his younger brother. Makhanlalji remembers still how once he requested his uncle to tell him what he should do to cultivate the habit of getting up early in the morning, without being roused up by anyone. The Swami prescribed a method: "Direct the pillow you rest your head on to wake you up at the desired time". Then a youngster, Makhanlal practised the instruction with success, which he describes today as a "sort of inculcation for determined action".
Swami Akalalji visited the holy cave of Amarnath many times. Every year he gifted clothes, money etc. to many sadhus and mahatmas that joined the yatra to the cave.
Swami Zanakakji was learned and versatile. His devotional/mystical poems in Kashmiri, written in his own hand, were carefully preserved by the Wangnoos until they left the troubled valley six years back. (It is hoped that no harm has been done to any of the relics kept in the room Zanakakji had occupied for years.) He was good at astrology and could read horoscopes very well. When he looked at the horoscope of his young disciple, Akalalji, he noticed that Venus occupied the twelfth house (Sagittarius), which he considered unfavourable. Using satfron- ink he made a cross-mark on the planet and instead placed it in a different house (to ensure that the planet had a benefic influence on the native). As if to fall in line with what Zanakakji had done, Akalalji too did something similar (but not identical) to help the daughter of one of his devotees, in whose horoscope Mars was in a house unfavourable to her matrimonial life, predicting widowhood. Through a religious ritual, she was 'married' to a sapling to ward off the evil influence of the planet. It was seen that in some time the sapling withered completely, showing that the tantra had worked well. Later, the girl got married and her husband lived long.
Company in Distress
Makhanlalji confirms the view that Swami Attab Joo was the senior gurubhai (spiritual brother) of Bhagawan Gopinathji. He not only visited the house of Akalalji when his guru Zanakakji was alive but also when yagyas were performed in memory of him by the senior disciple.
As reported by a devotee of Swami Akalalji, namely the late Shri Shivji Mattoo, resident of Nawakadal, who once accompanied the Swami to the Kshir Bhavani shrine, he witnessed a miracle. When the Swami, along with his devotees, was returning from the shrine by a Doonga (houseboat), he unveiled his back to the inmates at Shadipur; they found visible marks of lashes on this part of his body. That was the time when the Bread Movement launched by the Kashmiri Hindus was on. The Swami then revealed that the agitating young boys were being caned mercilessly at Srinagar, and, therefore, he desired that they should reach Srinagar speedily. This incident confirms that Akalalji was in spiritual tune with the youngsters in pain and distress.
References1. Shri Triloki Nath Dhar, author of several books, including Life and Teachings of Rupa Bhawani.
2. He furnished this information to me in response to my queries incorporated in a questionnaire. I thankfully acknowledge his help.
(Prof. Dhar retired as Head of the Department of English, Kashmir University, recently. With several books on literature and religion to his credit, he was also Professor Emeritus. He contributes to K.S. also.)