The Kashmiri Pandits

The Kashmiri Pandits

My biases and limitations as an editor are many. Among other things, I am a recovering Orientalist. Many of you may be unfamiliar with the term Orientalist. In this post I paraphrase from Edward Said's influential definition of the term and his critique of Western representations of the East realities. Western attempts to represent the Orient involve what he deems Orientalism. 

The Orientalist, the Western poet or scholar of the Orient, is the one who deems him- or herself uniquely capable of making the mysteries of the East plain: for and to the West. 
In fact the Orientalist claims [rather phallogocentrically] to be better equipped to unveil these mysteries for and to the West than is anyone--East or West. Orientalists believe that their representations of the East, for instance, their translations of Eastern scriptures, are the only valid ones. 

         Yet the Orientalist is never really concerned with the East itself as it is today, but always with                 some original great scripture of some past "Golden Age." 

The Orientalist does not concern him- or herself with the problems that may arise when this great original of a scripture is foundational to, for instance, the caste system. This is because Orientalists are not concerned with the East except as the first cause of the representations of the East they present to the West and East alike. Each representation is always governed by the truism that if the Orient could represent itself, it would. But because it cannot, the Orientalist representation must do the job, and that's just too bad for the East. 
-- paraphrased from Orientalism

When I was trained as an Orientalist, as a Religious Studies scholar at UCSB, I was groomed to become an epicenter of some au courant curation of some Ur-scripture. 

This mission was premised on the assumption that the most worthy objects of study were hoary scriptures from some Golden Age of Indian bliss. I was to be an expert on some dusty fragments of scripture retrieved from some cave or temple or library shelf. 

As one sailing this unchartered sea of ancient Indological thought, I was not informed that the very ship that transported me to the Indian subcontinent of thought was irreparably unseaworthy. 

The ship was the Monier-Williams Sanskrit dictionary. Only from its deck could I navigate the sea of Sanskrit. But language, like a deck of cards, is always shifting, changing. The Monier-Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary was written in a subset of colonial-Era British English close to 150 years old. Furthermore, Monier-Williams based his dictionary on Otto von Böhtlingk's even earlier (1853-1875) Sanskrit-German dictionary. So you can plainly see the line of "transmission." 

Why is that line of transmission a problem/ That is a problem because, for instance, when scholars began writing the Oxford English Dictionary, they became dismayed when in five years they had proceeded only as far the word ant before realizing that British English was developing far faster than their progress. British had changed so much during those five years that some of their definitions were now obsolete. 

Another problem is that Monier-Williams' motivations for compiling his Sanskrit dictionary were, first of all, to provide a tool for converting all of "heathen" India to Christianity, and second to assist the British Empire in more efficiently pillaging the riches of the Indian subcontinent and converting what was traditionally taught in all Indian educational institutions into forms of knowledge in service of colonial interests. So the knowledge cotton and tea production came to the fore as the knowledge of Ayurveda, for instance, was pushed into the background.  

You can gain some insight into the India you see through Monier-Williams' dictionary from a conversation he had with Scottish lexicographer James Murray, the main editor of the Oxford English Dictionary

Murray asked Monier-Williams about a word from Indian English: the narcotic bhang

[Bhang (भांग) is Hindi for cannabis in the form of food and drink, popular during the spring festival of Holi.]

Monier-Williams replied that bhang is "the name of the Indian Hemp plant (Cannabis Sativa) and of the intoxicating substance and beverage prepared from it. The word bhanga in Sanskrit means 'breaking, splitting' and I suppose the plant is called bhanga because its leaves are easily split and pounded into a substance much like opium." He suggested that Murray should describe Hashish as an "intoxicating substance" rather than as a "drug."

Monier-Williams then admitted that he did not know that bhang was smoked, adding, "Your sources of information in this respect are no doubt better than mine. I have often seen the low-caste natives of India stupefied with Bhang, but I was not aware that they smoked it." He next advised that Murray consult with Sir George Birdwood in the India Office, London, to find out for certain if Indians smoked bhang or not.

So you can appreciate the risk of relying on Monier-Williams' colonial project to provide you with the very language you use to discuss the fine nuances of states of consciousness.

Similarly, Hermann Grassman's 2,000-page Sanskrit dictionary and translation of the Rigveda, which earned him a membership of the American Orientalists' Society, was co-opted by the same coterie of German scholars who enabled Hitler and the concept of the Great Aryan Race to reach such infamous geopolitical currency. This produced, beyond an embarrassing chapter in the history of Vedic studies, a tragic chapter in the history of Europe, especially for its Jewish population. 

One must ask why some of the most prominent Orientalists were German. I quote from The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate, by Edwin Bryant:
Just as the arrival of Greek manuscripts in Europe after the fall of Constantinople had triggered the first Renaissance in the fifteenth century, the arrival of Sanskrit texts from India in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries produced a "second Renaissance," with German scholars determined to capitalize on the unique opportunity. After all, if the Germans could somehow appropriate the mantle of the original Indo-Europeans (which they soon began to call Indo-Germans), they could then lay claim to being the progenitors of all the subsequent derivative cultures, be they Greek, Latin, or colonial.
This is to say that the Germans could then claim to be the only real, "original" Indo-Europeans. And this was, in essence, a racial project. In contrast to the ethnic hybridty of the French and British, German intelligentsia claimed that Germans were an unmixed people. They saw their superiority in their supposed racial "purity." It became convenient, then, to posit a German homeland as the original paradise of the Indo-Europeans. A German philologist suggested that the Indo-Europeans, the original Aryans were fair, blond, and blue-eyed, and had spread out into places as far afield as Ireland, Persia, and India. This racial theory was bolstered with linguistic evidence. Erin (the ancient name for Ireland) and Aryan are cognates (as is the word Iran). The way that fair-skinned, blue-eyed, blond-haired Lithuanians say "God gave us teeth, God will give us bread," is uncannily close to its Sanskrit equivalent:

Lithuanian: Dievas dave dantis; dievas duos duonos.
Sanskrit: Devas adat datas, devas dasyati dhanas.
English: God gave us teeth, God will give us bread.

This grew, in Germany, into a dangerous racial fantasy, although many scholars in Germany and elsewhere warned against it. Soon it became possible for scholars who discovered common cognate words in branches of a language family to proclaim that philology, with the help of archaeology, could reconstruct the location and culture of the original, real Proto-Indo-Europeans. According to Bryant (p. 37),

The original Aryans have been reconstructed as being nomadic pastoralists, sedentary agriculturists, dolichocephalic, brachycephalic, blond and fair, and brown-haired and dark. The Indo-European homeland has been located and relocated everywhere from the North Pole to the South Pole, to China. It has been placed in South India, central India, North India, Tibet, Bactria, Iran, the Aral Sea, the Caspian Sea, the Black sea, Lithuania, the Caucasus, the Urals, the Volga Mountains, south Russia, the steppes of central Asia, Asia Minor, Anatolia, Scandinavia, Finland, Sweden, the Baltic, western Europe, northern Europe, central Europe, and eastern Europe. (p. 37)

There are many Indians who simply refuse to use the Monier-Williams dictionary. These sometimes may be the very Indians who tend to think that Sanskrit is the Mother of All Languages. After all, most orthodox Hindus, in the manner of evangelist Billy Graham, are trained neither in Religious Studies nor in Western Linguistics. They are not trained to think and talk and write about the psychology, anthropology, sociology, philology, history, etc. of the many hundreds of forms of what is called Hinduism. They tend to see reducing Shiva to sociology or psychology as a pointless and misleading endeavor. 

When Western Orientalists, assuming Indians are incapable of representing themselves, scribble their Indological representations, these Hindus justifiably recoil and tend to think the Westerners are clueless. The litmus test that the Indians apply to this situation is simple: They merely ask themselves, "Do we Hindus recognize ourselves in these Western sophistries 'about us' and our scriptures?" 

Within the context of colonial British gunboat diplomacy, the phrase "about us" would be more accurate it if were "aimed at us." 

I know this because I used to relax in the Jacuzzi of the Montecito YMCA with a descendant of Rani Rashmoni, founder of the Dakshineswar Temple in Kolkata. Rani was the widow of an enormously wealthy merchant, Rajchandra Das. She defeated the British in their attempt to tax fish caught on the River Hooghly. The local fishermen, facing financial ruin, had come to Rani. So she bought up the rights for fishing. The colonial British were happy to sell them to her, for then they could then tax all the fish she caught. However, Rani strung chains across the river so that the British boats could not navigate. She claimed that the boats were scaring the fish, and thus affecting her fishing rights. The Brits said they would repeal the fishing tax if she removed the chains. 

Although Rani was a hero of the people and piously built a temple, because she was born into a low caste she could not find a Brahmin priest to officiate in the temple until it was consecrated in the name of her guru, who was a Brahmin.     

So, Orientalism, Westerners dreaming up representations "about" the East, is about that "about." How much of it is fact, and how much projection?

It is important to find out, because that is what we Western Orientalists do: we produce sophistries "about," say, some form of Hinduism. We make statements "about" what we perceive as one off the many thousands of Hinduisms. 

Indians, however, would rather come to Western universities and explain Hinduism on their own terms, using the language of Hinduism in the same way that Billy Graham would have liked to come into public university classrooms and preach Christianity. It is not lawful, however, to preach any particular religion in public universities in the United States. That would be doing religion rather than Religious Studies. Public universities pride themselves in their compliance with the separation of Church and State by doing Religious Studies.

Orthodox Hindus can quite justifiably become angry with Western scholarship "about" themselves, and have even been successful in temporarily banning at least one book by a contemporary Indologist: The Hindus: An Alternative History, by Wendy Doniger.  

(A compelling piece about Wendy's book can be found in The New York Review of Books: "A Passion for Hindu Myths," by David Shulman.) I hope by now, however, that you are beginning to become aware that my pointing you to Shulman's piece boils down to using one (recovering) Orientalist (myself), to point you toward the work of another Orientalist (Schulman) in an effort to shed light on another yet another Orientalist (Doniger). As you can see, it is as much about transmission as is the exchange between Murray, Monier-Williams, and Birdwood.

In addition to orthodox Hindus, another set of Indians, for instance many progressive Brahmins, realize that the notion of India's caste system is embedded in many of India's scriptures. These Indians tend to be more interested in addressing India's current social ills than engaging in discourse about enlightened states. They spend their spare time, for instance, transcending themselves through working for organizations such as the Association for India's Development. They tend to be skeptical about the Western fascination with hatha yoga and Indian spirituality because every day they are confronted with the abject and inescapable social stratification that the scriptures of Indian spirituality has helped the social elite to imprison millions of their countrymen in lives of slavery and zero social mobility.

My Indian friends are polite. In viewing the naivety of my views, they will only humor me, saying, "You are more Indian then we are." They will smile inwardly if I take that as a compliment.

They find it unbelievable that I have a passion for reading texts that they were forced to read growing up, texts that they blame for the hellish social stratification they, if they are to live moral lives, must fight to dismantle.

I, on the other hand, find it unbelievable that they will reject meditation simply because it is a product of Brahmanism. For me that is like not using light bulbs because you have some sort of issue with Thomas Edison.

On my awakening to their reality: "The Quiet Indian." 

On Kashmir, dip into The Ministry of Utmost Happiness for a take on the situation there through one equally celebrated and reviled Indian author's eyes. 

I also recommend Roy's God of Small Things, her unforgettable deconstruction of Brahmanism. 

Or if you are a lifestyle migrant who finds yourself wandering through India while congratulating yourself on your own evolved spirituality, dip into The Ochre Robe, by Agehananda Bharati

Or Young Man Luther, Erik Erikson's look at Luther through the lens of psychosocial development. Or Erikson's similar book on Gandhi.

In the words of one of my former professors, "To save humanity, we must become human."

Satire, also, is purifying. It helps us to remember that we are human. We may tend to see Kashmir through dreamy fantasies. Satire produced by Kashmir authors who lived in the society we so admire have the ability to sober us up.

The Courtesan's Keeper: A Satire from Ancient Kashmir

Corruption in government, hypocrisy in religion, avaricious greed in business: these are some of the targets of Kshemendra's one-thousand-year-old satires. So are superstition and sexual obsession, anomalies in education and a host of other ills of the time. Written by a celebrated name in classical Sanskrit literature, these little known exposés of fourteenth-century society find resonance in the Indian subcontinent (and beyond) even today.

The Darpa Dalana is an unusual poetic work in classical Sanskrit from 11th century Kashmir. It is a satiric look at human attitudes and also a social comment on the times. Its 587 verses are spread over seven sets of vicaras or thoughts. These dwell on the main causes of man’s arrogance: family, wealth, learning, beauty, power, charity, and sanctimony. 

All need to be understood and discarded for a better life. Each discussion is enlivened with a story. These feature humans and animals as well as divinities. The hero of one is the Buddha in person, and of another the great god Siva, pointing to the poet’s own broad-based outlook on belief. He is Ksemendra, a well known figure in Sanskrit literature, whose epigrammatic verses are also quoted in anthologies. His work includes critiques on poetics and prosody, devotional poetry, epic abstracts and social satires. 

Most of these seemed lost over time until the location and publication of eighteen works over the last century and a half. The Darpa Dalana was first published in 1890, and translated into German in 1915. Though quoted in works such as A. K. Warder’s Indian Kavya Litrature of 1992, the full text is translated into English perhaps for the first time in this Rasala edition.

Kashmir, the Land of Blue Forests, as Lord Buddha called it, has long been a cradle of Indian cultural values. The land’s temperate climate has always been conducive to yoga and meditation. The Brahmins of Kashmir, known as the Kashmiri Pandits, have for millennia upheld their reputation for learning and spirituality. Dina Nath Muju the co-translator of this work is one of them.

Kashmir, for its contributions to the fields of spirituality, philosophy, literature, logic, dance, drama, music, art, mathematics, architecture and aesthetics, has always attracted scholars from afar.

Mahayana Buddhism emerged in the Land of Blue Forests' pine groves when Kanshika convened the world’s fourth world Buddhist council in Harwan. This was a natural development, because King Ashoka, who founded Shrinagar, had earlier bequeathed the entirety of Kashmir Valley to the Buddhist Sangha.

Because Kashmir straddles a tributary of the Silk Road, Buddhism easily spread to Central Asia, China, Tibet, Japan, and Indonesia.

Of course many of those caravans returned through Kashmir to the Indian subcontinent, so that Kashmir absorbed many and various cultural influences from the Near East to the Far East. The Kashmiri pandits also brought the world monistic Kashmir Shaivism, also known as Trika philosophy. This tradition sees the world as the blossoming forth of unlimited awareness in action.

This poetic philosophy enraptured the entire Kashmir Valley from the 8th to the 14th centuries. The great Kashmiri philosopher and yogi Abhinavagupta provided a yogic basis to the arts with his concept of Shanta Rasa: the Rasa of Peace.

Even when Islam entered the Valley, the Kashmiri Pandits so inspired their Muslim overlords with their spirituality that the Muslim rulers called themselves the Rishi Kings (rishi being a Sanskrit word for ‘religious seer’).

Over the centuries many Kashmiri Hindus converted to Islam, however. And more recently, many Kashmiri Pandits were given the choice of conversion to Islam, or death. Many of those who did not flee their ancient homeland were killed or have since suffered earthquakes and floods.

It is the Kashmiri Pandits who have brought us the scripture known as the Vijnana Bhairava.

Tonight the hunt is over,

and I hear the Call to Prayer 


into the moan of the wounded gazelle,

Kashmir . . . 

They say, they yearn

I think, I die

“Kashmir was a paradise you know.”

I think of your beauty.

“People lived in harmony.”

And I think of those wondrous times.

“There was peace.”

And I think of those tranquil moments.

“People used to loiter late nights.”

And I think about mutual dreams.

“Lake Dal was as clean as faith.”

And I think of your gazelle watery eyes.


It all changed in the nineties.”

And I think about those turbulent times.

“People were forced to flee.”

And I think of our encounters.

“Bullets, bullets, and bullets.”

And I think of your fusillade of words.

“Things have somehow changed now.”

I stop thinking.

"Change the topic please!"

I die.

"So does Kashmir."

KASHMIR — A Lost Paradise from Stanislas Giroux on Vimeo.

For those who feel inclined to donate, a significant portion of the donations will go to support displaced Kashmiri Pandits and their families.