I have seen an educated man starve,
a leaf blown off by bitter wind.
Once I saw a thoughtless fool
beat his cook.
Lalla has been waiting for the allure of the world to fall away.
I might scatter the southern clouds,
drain the sea, or cure someone
But to change the mind
of a fool
is beyond me.
I came by the public road
but won’t return on it.
On the embankment I stand, halfway
through the journey.
Day is gone. Night has fallen.
I dig in my pockets but can’t find
a cowry shell.
What can I pay for the ferry?
I, Lalla, entered
the gate of the mind’s garden and saw
Siva united with Sakti.
I was immersed in the lake of undying bliss. Here, in this lifetime,
I’ve been unchained from the wheel
of birth and death.
What can the world do to me?
Lal Ded was born in Kashmir early in the 1300s, probably to parents of some Hindu persuasion. Her vakh (verses, sayings) suggest an early education in her father’s house and eventual marriage into a Brahman family of Pampor, where her mother-in-law treated her with dispiriting cruelty. Lalla, as she calls herself in the signature line of her poems, took to visiting the nearby river each morning – traditional for an Indian woman who went to fetch the household’s water. But Lalla would cross the river secretly, maybe by ferry, to worship Nata Kesava Bhairava, a form of Siva, in his temple situated on the far bank. Her mother-in-law, noticing her long absences, suspected her of infidelity.
Rivers in Indian lore, particularly their shaded riparian groves and stands of tall, concealing rushes, are in convention the site of clandestine trysts. Lal Ded’s husband became soured by his mother’s suspicion and one day when Lalla entered the house with a pot of water on her head, struck it with his staff in a fit of violent jealousy. The earthenware jug shattered but the water remained “frozen” in place, atop her head, until Lalla had poured it into the household containers. A little leftover water she tossed out the door where it formed a miraculous lake, said to exist in the early twentieth century, but dry today.
Lalla’s reputation spread, based on a series of miracles she performed. People began to seek her out for assistance or simply to take darshan, that specifically Indian practice in which blessings come to a person who ceremonially takes sight of a deity, a saint, or a spiritual teacher. Lal Ded’s love of solitude was compromised by all the attention and the rancour in her house. She left her graceless marriage and took up the homeless life. Legend, based on the following verse, has it that she went forth naked, dancing on the roads, singing her vakh.
My guru gave a single precept:
turn your gaze from outside to inside
fix it on the hidden self.
I, Lalla, took this to heart
and naked set forth to dance
One Muslim chronicler says she danced in ecstasy “like the Hebrew nabis of old and the more recent Dervishes.” Islamic writers chronicle her encounters with their holy men, while Hindu texts tell of gurus. The Kashmir of her day held Buddhists, Nath yogins, Brahman teachers, Sufis, and Tantric adepts. She may have learnt something from each of them. Still, she seems to have considered herself a dedicated Saivite yogini (practitioner dedicated to Siva); tales of insight and supernatural power surpassing that of her instructors began to circulate. Yet records of her don’t appear until centuries after her death, nor has anyone found manuscripts containing her vakh that date from anywhere near her lifetime.
Circulating oral stories make a good deal of her decision to live without clothing ; this made her a spectacle at times. She was taunted. Jane Hirshfield tells the story of children pestering her, and a silk merchant who came to her defence with bundles of cloth. Taking two bolts of silk of equal weight, Lal Ded placed one on each shoulder and went on her way. “As she went through the day, each time someone ridiculed her, she tied a knot in the cloth on her left shoulder; each time someone praised her, she tied a knot in the cloth on the right. At day’s end, she returned to the merchant, and asked him to weigh the bundles again. She thanked him for his earlier concern, but also pointed out that, as he could see for himself, nothing had changed.” Whether blame or praise came her way, the bundles remained equal in weight.
Around the age of fifty Lal Ded sang some verses and a crowd gathered. On finishing she climbed into a large earthen pot and pulled another huge pot over her head. When she did not reemerge the spectators separated the two containers. She had vanished – as had Antal before her, and as Mirabai and Muktabai would in years to come.
Excerpted with permission from Love And The Turning Seasons: India’s Poetry of Spiritual and Erotic Longing, edited by Andrew Schelling, Aleph Book Company.