Know Your Kashmir, Land Of Goddess Saraswati, Ancient Seat Of Indic Scholars

by Veejay Sai - Aug 3, 2017 06:52 PM +05:30 IST
Know Your Kashmir, Land Of Goddess Saraswati, Ancient Seat Of Indic ScholarsSun Temple In Martand, Kashmir
  • Do those seeking azaadi in Kashmir even know of these great writers and scholars who came from the region?

    Do they realise the value of the ancient land they are now laying claim to?

    Whose Kashmir is it anyway?

On a cold winter morning in Kashmir, a thousand years ago, a renowned writer put his pen down after writing the final verse in his last book titled Ishwarapratyabinya Vimarsini. If you think today’s winters are intolerable, think of what they might have been a thousand years ago! It was the winter solstice of 1015. He was 66 years old. It is believed that he made his exit from this world five years later. He thanked all his teachers, 19 of them. He had by then written over 44 works that could be largely categorised into four areas of his interest. Tantra or occult sciences, hymns to various gods, philosophy and aesthetics. Out of these, only 21 have survived. The other works find mention and are cited by later scholars. This grand polymath Abhinavagupta and his contributions to Indian thought, philosophy and aesthetics are not an exaggeration by any means. His literary achievements make him look like a mythological character. All these couldn’t have been possibly written by one person! Could he have lived in such interesting times? We will return to his story later in this piece.

Around the same time, in the Chola kingdom in Tamil Nadu, Raja Raja Chola built the grand temple of lord Brihadeeshwara , the edifice of which continues to inspire awe till date in Thanjavur. Shaivism and Shakta worship had spread across the land. Kashmir was one of the major centres of learning. This year commemorates one thousand years of Abhinavagupta. A whole generation would ask, who was he in the first place? It is important to know the rich cultural and literary history of the most “controversial” piece of Indian geography.

A thousand years ago, Kashmir was not as we know it today. Kashmir was also referred to as “Sharada Desham”. The ancient temple of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning, is today a much-neglected and abused ruin that has gone to PoK (Pakistan Occupied Kashmir). A well-known prayer to the goddess, chanted to this day goes:

“Namaste Sharade Devi, Kashmira Pura Vaasini.”

In its heydays, Kashmir was an inspiration to many learned men of letters. With the Himalayas on the side, the clear water of the Vitasta river (now called Jhelum) and exquisite natural beauty, many great poets and scholars flocked to the region to learn and gain knowledge from scholars of the place. Several dynasties of kings had ruled it. The details of most of these are widely available now through several publications and research papers for those interested in further information on the subject.

If we have to trace some of the seminal literary works from Kashmir, we go back all the way to the 5th century CE to the rule of king Matrigupta. He was also a great poet who wrote in Sanskrit. His successor Pravarasena II was known to be another great patron of arts. He commissioned the work Sethubandha Kavya.

One of the earliest and most authentic accounts we have of Kashmir’s history comes from a book called Rajatarangini (River of Kings) by Kalhana in the 12th century. Written in Sanskrit, Rajatarangini traces the history of the various rulers of Kashmir. From the book, we come to know not only about the various kings of the region but also intricate details of their military conquests, the courtly life and the various scholars these courts patronised.

But before Kalhana, one of the seminal works of Sanskrit Kaavya literature comes from a poet named Bilhana who lived in the 11th century. He is said to be born in Khonmusha which is present-day Khomuch. Legend goes that Bilhana was a court poet who travelled across the country and fell in love with a princess Yaminipurnathilakam. Did you know the legendary Bharatanatyam dancer Yamini Krishnamurthi gets her name from this princess? Well, that is another story for another time.

So, Bilhana is caught red-handed and is sent to the gallows. As he makes his way there, he begins reciting 50 poems, each one recollecting the love he shared with the princess. By the end of these 50 verses, he is pardoned by the king who believes he truly loves his daughter. Whatever the fancy legend behind this composition might be, what we have today is a phenomenal work of Sanskrit poetry called Chaurapanchashika (50 Poems of a Love Thief). There have been several scholarly commentaries in Sanskrit on this work. Bilhana also wrote several other works like Vikramankadeva Charita and Karnasundari—a play in four acts. Bilhana remarks:

“Sahodarah Kundakumakesaranaam Bhavanti Noonam Kavitaa Vilaasa

Na Sharadadeshampaasya Drushtasthoshaam Yadanyatra Mayaa Praroha.”

Meaning “The poetry and the saffron are two beautiful creations of the Sharada Desha.”

Kalhana also mentions a famous Sanskrit poet Bhartrimentha who lived and wrote in the first half of the 5th century during the rule of king Matrigupta. According to later researchers, Bhartrimentha’s magnum opus Hayagriva Vadha has been lost. It was around the same time that Kalidasa was writing in Ujjain and Bhartrihari was writing his famous Shatakatrayi. In the 7th century, we have scholars like Bhamaha who wrote Kaavyalamkara.

In the 8th century, we have the great Sanskrit poet Ratnakara who was patronised by the Chippata Jayapida. Ratnakara’s famous works include Haravijaya in 50 cantos, Dhwanigathapanjika and Vakrokthi Panchashika. The poet was also patronised by the next king Avanti Varma.

It is in the 8th century that scholars find Shankara Bhagavatpada, popularly known as Adi Shankara. Hailing from Kalady in Kerala, he took upon himself a mission to propagate Sanatana Dharma. As a philosopher, he established the Advaita Vedanta school of thought. Journeying across India, he united thousands of people of faith into the philosophy of Sanatana Dharma. He set up centres of learning under monastic orders. He is said to have travelled to Kashmir. Inspired by his visits to several ancient temples, he composed some of the finest verses in Sanskrit.

It is said that it was in Kashmir that Shankara debated with scholars from various streams of thought like nyaya, mimamsa, tarka and visheshika, and emerged victorious. As an ode to his greatness and scholarship, he was given the title of “Jagadguru”. It was in Kashmir that he was hailed thus for the scholarly tradition of the land showered upon him the blessings of goddess Sharada. Shankara is said to have composed several works like the Sharada Bhujangam here. Till today, the temple of Jeshteyeshwara stands atop a mountain called Pas Pahar. In its heydays, it was a centre for learning and worship by the Buddhists of the region as well. It is said Adi Shankaracharya visited this temple and since then it has come to be called the Shankaracharya Temple. According to some scholars, Shankara’s famous hymn to the divine goddess, named Soundarya Lahari, was composed in Kashmir.

In the era after Shankara came several noted poets and writers in Sanskrit. In the 9th century came Anandhavardhana (820-890). His most famous work Dhvanyaloka is one of the finest and most comprehensive studies of aesthetics. According to Rajatarangini, he adorned the court of king Avantivarman (855-84). We should feel fortunate that his magnum opus Dhvanyaloka is available to us in its entirety.

Notable among the later scholars was Kshemendra. If one puts together all the works he wrote, it makes for a detailed biography. Kshemendra was one of the most celebrated students of Abhinavagupta. He lived during the reigns of Ananta (1028–1063) and his successor Kalasha (1063–1089). In addition to writing abridged versions of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, Kshemendra wrote a number of works which include satirical plays and poems—works in Sanskrit such as Dashavataracharita, Avadhana Kalpalata, Samayamatrika, Suvritta Tilaka and Kavi Kanthabharana. His satirical poem Darpa Dalana has recently been translated and published. Scholars like AND Haksar have translated more of his works. In the 11th century, we also find eminent poets like Kuntaka who wrote Vakroktijivitam, Mammata who wrote Kavyaprakasha, and Raajaanka Mahimabhatta who wrote Vyaktiviveka among other works.

And then we come to the great genius of Abhinavagupta whom I began this article with. We have very scant details of his life but we know he lived in the last part of the 10th century and the earlier part of the 11th century. His commentary on Bharata’s Natya Shaastra was published as Abhinava Bharati. He was not only a great scholar and a poet but a devout practitioner of tantra and Shaivism. He wrote a number of works on the subjects. Among the works available are Tantraloka, Tantrasaara, Paramarthasaara, Gitaarthasaara Samgraha, a commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, and Ishwarapratyabinya Vimarsini. The current year 2017 is being commemorated as the thousandth year of his birth. However, it is unfortunate that a large part of mainstream academia and school syllabi are totally oblivious to this scholar or his literary works, despite most of them being available.

Kashmir was an ancient seat of learning for Buddhists, Shaivite and Vaishnavite scholars. Many noted poets, grammarians, logicians, philosophers and men of letters thronged the valley to seek blessings at the ancient temples there. They were generously patronised by kings and queens of the land. One must not forget queen Subhata who was married to king Ananta. She is not only supposed to have built a temple to lord Shiva on the banks of the Vitasta river but also built agraharams for housing pundits and scholars, a mutt or monastery for students to study and a performance space for artistes. Built according to the ancient aagamas (manuals for the consecration of temple, sacrificial places, agraharams and so on), the performance space hosted numerous plays and dance performances. How do we know all this? From the writings of poet Bilhana who seemed to have attended them!

Though we have scant details about the lives of most of these poets, writers and scholars, we have a lot of their works. In the recent past, writer and politician Shashi Tharoor lamented how Indian schools continue to teach Shakespeare, strongly influenced by a colonial hangover, but not Indian poets like Kalidasa. Kalidasa is just one example. If you scan the rest of the country, you will come across names like Patanjali, Ramanujacharya, Bhaskaracharya, Vedanta Deshika, Banabhatta, Hemachandra, Bhavabhuti, Pingalacharya, Bharavi, Kedara Bhatta, Magha, Jayadeva, Shatavahana ruler Hala, King Bhoja, Jayappa Senapati, Ilango Adigal and Panditaraja Jagannatha. The list is endless! What I have mentioned is not even the tip of the iceberg.

Poets, scholars, astronomers, mathematicians, grammarians, logicians, philosophers and many more have been conveniently neglected over time by the modern Indian education system. One could design a whole syllabus beginning from school all the way up to university level if one sits with the works of these writers. While that is a cause for worry, the other cause is the silence on the great literary history and tradition of Kashmir. Do those seeking azaadi in Kashmir even know of these great writers and scholars who came from the region? Do they realise the value of the ancient land they are now laying claim to? Do they realise the destruction they have caused with their false sense of political propriety? Whose Kashmir is it anyway?

So why all this now? Our school syllabi are mostly designed for students to get an idea about the West. Our own ancient Indian systems of knowledge have been consistently ignored. It is not that none of the works mentioned in this article are unavailable. Most of them are very much available. Several Oriental presses from Varanasi, Odisha, Kerala, Gujarat and Bengal have published many of these works. It is unfortunate that they are not considered important enough for today’s schooling.

The recent attacks on pilgrims of the Amarnath Yatra saw a buzz of information across social media. There were several tweets that announced false claims that a local Muslim shepherd discovered the holy cave of Amarnath. To our good fortune, we have documented evidence of the holy shrine from several centuries before any shepherds or cowherds could appropriate history. Several noted scholars pointed out how the oldest references to Amarnath Yatra and pilgrimage comes from the Nilamata Purana (6th-8th century CE). This is just one example of public ignorance of Kashmir’s history.

With most of the local Kashmiri Pandits driven into exile from their own homeland, Kashmir is at another unfortunate crossroads of selective cultural and literary amnesia. Today we have very few scholars who can read the ancient Sharada script. Urgent action needs to be taken to conserve this system of knowledge for posterity. If the government, through its education policy, can redesign school and college syllabi to include the rich literary history of Kashmir, it would have taken a positive step in dispelling much ignorance in public. We hope the literary heritage and the lost glory of the ancient land of goddess Saraswati is restored soon.

Veejay Sai is an award-winning writer, editor, columnist and culture critic. He has written and published extensively on Indian classical performing arts, cultural history and heritage, and Sanskrit. He is the author of Drama Queens: Women Who Created History On Stage, published by Roli Books in 2017. He lives in New Delhi.
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