Kashmir's radiant knowledge tradition

  • By B S Harishankar
  • September 7 2019
Martand Surya Mandir Anantnag 8th century A.D.
  • This article tells you about Kashmir’s rich Hindu and Buddhist tradition.

British archaeologist Mark Aurel Stein was famous for his explorations and archaeological discoveries in Central Asia. As Superintendent of the Archaeological Survey of India (1910-29), he contributed immensely to studies regarding the knowledge tradition of Kashmir. Stein foresaw the future of Kashmir and what would happen to its knowledge tradition, cultural remains and identity. As early as 1900, in the preface to his translation of Kalhana’s Rajatarangini, he cautioned, “Great are the changes which the last few decennia have brought over Kasmir, greater, perhaps, than any which the country has experienced since the close of the Hindu Period. It is easy to foresee that much of what is of value to the historical student will long before be destroyed or obliterated”. 


After August 5, 2019, protests have been raised by leftists and secessionists that Jawaharlal Nehru’s promise for Kashmir has been broken, threatening federalism and the future of India. There have been charges that Kashmir’s identity is being submerged by Hindu nationalism and the Sangh Parivar’s history against the “idea of India”, whatever that might mean (Agony of Kashmir, Frontline, Aug. 30, 2019). Previously, the critics protested against the millennium celebrations of Abhinavagupta, the versatile genius of Kashmir (Sangh Parivar set to celebrate Kashmir’s philosopher, The Hindu, Dec. 4, 2015). Truncating and concealing the long history of a brilliant knowledge tradition in Kashmir, they have carved out a new political identity for the region with their dubious agenda of disintegrating India.


The deeply embedded Hindu cultural outlook among the people of Kashmir has been narrated (1913) by the eastern and western disciples of Swami Vivekananda. When Swamiji and his disciples went to Ksheer Bhavani temple in Kashmir, the Muslim boatman would not allow them to land in the temple premises wearing shoes. The eastern and western disciples of Swamiji further record Sister Nivedita’s observation that the “Mohammedanism of Kashmir is so thoroughly Hinduistic, with its forty Rishis and pilgrimages made fasting to their Hindu shrines”.


The present left secessionist lobbies, who raise a new seven decade old identity for Muslim majoritarian Kashmir, should understand how Jawaharlal Nehru (1946) emphasized in The Discovery of India that, “in Kashmir, a long-continued process of conversion to Islam had resulted in 95 percent of the population becoming Moslems, though  they retained many of their old Hindu  customs”. Nehru also mentions that “very large numbers of these people (Muslims) were anxious or willing to return en bloc to Hinduism”.


At this juncture, a rewind is called for. The first European account of the valley comes in 1664, from Dr. Francois Bernier. He was briefly personal physician to Mughal prince Dara Shikoh.


The active efforts since 1875 to understand Kashmir’s submerged past have to be understood to contend and substantiate the identity of Kashmir in a historical context. The patrons of Indological studies in Kashmir include Maharaja Ranbir Singh, Maharaja Pratap Singh, Raja Amar Singh and Maharaja Hari Singh. Western scholars include George Buhler, Marc Aurel Stein, George Grierson, Dr. David B. Spooner, Prof. Sten Konow, Prof. Maurice Winternitz, Dr. Eugen Hultzsch and John Marshall. The plethora of Kashmiri Pundits who assisted Indologists in unearthing the Hindu legacy of Kashmir include Prof. Nityananda Sastri, Pt. Govind Kaul, Pt. Damodar, Pt. Sahib Ram, Pt. Mukund Ram Sastri, Pt. Ananda Kaul, Pt. Ishwar Kaul, Pt. Sahaz Bhat and Prof. Jagdhar Zadoo.

The regional geography of Kashmir also has to be understood in historical context.  H.G. Rawlinson (1916) invites our attention to the fact that Kasyapa Mira was the ancient name of Kashmir. Earlier, Alexander Cunningham (1871), first Director General, Archaeological Survey of India, highlights distorted Sanskrit names in the Kashmir region. To cite an example, Cunningham refers to ‘Baramulla’, a city on the banks of the Vitasta (Jhelum) in Kashmir. Vitasta is eulogized in Nadistuti sukta of Rg Veda, a fact highlighted by A.A. Macdonell (1900), N.L. Dey (1927) and Michel Danino (2010). Baramulla is the corrupted name of ‘Varahamula’ or ‘boar’s molar’, a reference to the boar incarnation of Vishnu. A large number of Sanskrit textual sources from Kashmir shed light on the topography of the region.


The discovery of a Harappan archaeological site at Manda, north-west of Jammu on the right bank of Chenab (Asikni of Nadistuti sukta) is interesting in this context.


A.A. Macdonell (1900) has argued that the Kathaka school of Krishna Yajurveda is found only in Kashmir. S.S. Toshkhani (2010) has pointed out that the Laugakshi Grhyasutra was composed by Laugakshi for the adherents of this school. The Krishna Yajurveda has three Samhitas and the Kathaka Samhita is related to Kathaka Sutras of Laugakshi.


S.N. Pandita (2002), grandson of acclaimed Kashmiri scholar Prof. Nityanand Sastri, observes that when George Buhler arrived in 1875 at Srinagar, he was assisted by Pt. Radhakrishnan, the first native Kashmiri to allow Europeans to see his collection of manuscripts. The most important manuscript obtained by Buhler was the birch bark manuscript Paipalada Shakha of Atharvaveda, which reached Tubingen University and is acknowledged as the best Indian manuscript in Germany. Prof. Maurice Winternitz (1981) mentions the Kashmiri recension of Atharvaveda. Frits Staal (2008) refers to Paipalada recension of Atharva from Orissa, available in manuscripts only from Kashmir. Thus the movement of knowledge tradition from Kashmir to east coast of India, three millennium back, expresses the integration of India as one cultural entity.


Prof. Kapil Kapoor, renowned scholar of our knowledge traditions, including Kashmir region, emphasizes that knowledge has been constituted, stored and maintained in the framework of the oral culture. Before inscriptions and manuscripts became popular, various methodologies were adopted to maintain intact, the knowledge texts in memory, including the guru-shishya paramparā. He has highlighted (2005) on the Rupavatara birch bark manuscript from Kashmir, a grammatical textbook based on the Sanskrit grammar of Panini.


Although famed as an explorer and archaeologist, Aurel Stein’s in-depth knowledge of Sanskrit is little known in the academic world. Before arriving at Kashmir, Stein obtained letters from three influential authorities, Secretary of State of Punjab, M. Trupper, Vice Chancellor of Punjab University, D. William Rattigan and Resident of Kashmir, W.F. Prideaux. In 1888, he met the governor Dr. Suraj Kaul, who introduced him to Raja Ram Singh, Sanskrit scholar and younger brother of Maharaja Pratap Singh. Many scholars in Kashmir met Stein at his Chinar Bagh camp. When Stein left Kashmir, he arranged for Pt. Govind Kaul to join him at Lahore to work on Sanskrit manuscripts. 


Between 1888 and 1905, Stein collected more than 350 Sanskrit manuscripts, which he deposited with the Indian Institute Library (now in Oxford) in 1911. He obtained the manuscripts with the help of Kashmiri scholars such as Deva Kak, Sahaja Bhatta, Daya Ram Jyotshi, Rajya Kaul, Vishnu Bhat, Mukund Ram, Govind Kaul, Vishnu Joo, Gopal Kokiloo, Narayan Bhat, Deva Bhat, Sarvanand Kaul, Madhav Hundoo, Kashiram and Mahanand Joo.

In the context of sacred geography, Stein listed more than 50 Mahatmya texts such as Sarada Mahatmya, Bhadra Kali Pradurbhava Mahatmya, Haridra Ganesa Mahatmya, Varahaksetra Mahatmya, Mahadevagiri Mahatmya and Martanda Mahatmya, related with various sacred sites. The Mahatmya texts of Kashmir are important sources for the early historical geography of the region. They are also valuable for the study of the old topography of the valley.


Among Stein’s collection of manuscripts from Kashmir, the best is that of Nilamatapurana, obtained with the help of Pt. Kantha Bhatta and kept at Leiden University in Holland. Nilamatapurana is an important work from the point of view of history, legendary lore and the topography of Kashmir.


Stein took the assistance of Nityananda Sastri in deciphering many linguist and epigraphical works of Kashmir. As a tribute to Sastri, in 1996, a team of scholars established the Pundit Nityananda Sastri Kashmiri Research Institute in Delhi. In December 1998, at the ‘Remembering Aurel Stein’ seminar at the institute, S.N. Pandita presented a paper recollecting Stein’s association with Kashmiri scholarship and presenting several unknown facts about the five decades of intimacy between Stein and his grandfather Prof. Nityanand Sastri, who, in Stein’s words, was "the crest jewel of Kashmiri scholars". The paper highlighted the high esteem that Stein had for scholars like Pt. Govind Kaul, Pt. Damodar and Mahamahopadhaya Pt. Mukund Ram Shastri for their valuable guidance and help in translating Rajatarangini.


During the early Gupta period, Kashmir emerged as the apex centre of Buddhist studies. The classical age of Buddhist philosophy flowered in Kashmir with the Sarvastivadin School pioneered by the brothers Asanga and Vasubandhu. The Sarvastivadin School of Buddhism, which adopted Sanskrit as media, flourished in Kashmir, Punjab and the northwest frontier. The great Kusana monarch, Kanishka, was its patron in the first century AD, and convened the fourth Buddhist Council in Kashmir. Asanga taught the Yogacara or Vijnanavada school of Buddhism. The great Buddhist scholar, Ratnaprabha, was send from Tibet to Kashmir by his guru, Jnanaprabha, and returned as an illustrious scholar in Sanskrit.


The Gilgit manuscripts on Buddhist canons (600AD) are among the oldest manuscripts in the world, and cover a wide range of subjects from philosophy, medicine and rituals. They are in Sanskrit language, written in Gupta Brahmi and post-Gupta Brahmi script.


S.N. Pandita observes that Kshemendra (1050 AD), a Shaivaite, produced a great work on the Avadans of Buddha, which is a classic in Buddhist literature. In Dasavataracharita, Kshemendra ranked Buddha as one of the ten incarnations of Vishnu. He summarised the whole of Ramayana in his Ramayana Manjari, the entire Mahabharata in Bharata Manjari.


Kashmiri rulers have been great patrons of knowledge traditions. Yasaskara built a Matha (monastery) for students from Aryavarta. Queen Didda constructed a Matha for students from Madhyadesa, Lata and Saudotra. Jayapida’s court was enriched with scholarly icons such as Kshira, Damodaragupta, Udbhata, Vamana, Manoratha, Askhadatta, Chataka and Sandhimat. The first Utpala monarch, Avantivarman, patronized scholars such as the great aesthetician Anandavardhana, Shaiva philosopher Kallatabhatta, and poets such as Muktakarna, Avisvamin and Ratnakara.


Kashmir’s contribution in developing the Pratyabhijna system of Shaiva philosophy, based on idealistic monism, is widely recognized. The Trika or Advaita Shaiva philosophy of Kashmir provided great intellectual icons from the eighth century AD, including Vasugupta, Somananda, Kallatabhatta, Utpalacharya, Abhinavagupta and Kshemaraja. Kashmir tantrism on Kaula marga adopts Advaita Shaivism with Shakti worship, and its influence is felt as far as Kerala. It is one of the profound contributions of Kashmir to Indian tradition.


Abhinavagupta (940-1015 AD), authority on aesthetics, theatre and literary criticism, belonged to the Pratyabhijna School of Kashmir Shaivism. Kanti Chandra Pandey (1983), who devoted himself to the study of Monistic Shaivism of Kashmir and its greatest exponent Abhinavagupta, mentions fifty works of this versatile genius, many of which are lost. Abhinavagupta’s works can be classified in four general categories: aesthetics, philosophy, Tantra and hymns. He had brilliant teachers such as Lakshmanagupta, Bhutiraja, Bhaskara, Bhatta Tauta and Sambhunatha in grammar, poetry, logic, philosophy, esoteric ritual practice, yoga, art, music and aesthetics. Abhinavagupta is one of the foremost aestheticians of the world, taking Indian aesthetics based on Saiva metaphysics and epistemology to rare heights.


Goddess Sharada is eulogized as ‘Kasmira Puravasini’, presiding deity of Kashmir. As a great centre of learning, Sharada Peeth played a key role in the development of the Sharada script. The eighth century Advaita philosopher, Adi Sankara, from Kerala, visited Sharada Peeth and provided an interface between two schools of monism, the Advaita Vedanta school of Sankara and Kashmir school of Saiva Advaita.  


This rich history of knowledge tradition has been effaced by left historians and liberals to proffer a face of framed over seven decades since independence. Historian Shonaleeka Kaul of Jawaharlal Nehru University states that the material culture, textual representations, foreign accounts, inscriptions, coins, language, art, religion and philosophy in early Kashmir attest to Kashmir’s Sanskritic identity and character. They show Kashmir’s extensive links and mutual involvement with Punjab, Himachal, and centers of Indic civilization such as Patna, Nalanda, Gaya, Banaras, Allahabad, Mathura, Malwa, Gauda (Bengal) in northern India and Karnataka and Tamil Nadu in the south (Cultural markers in early Kashmir attest to Indic and Sanskritic identity, The Times of India, Feb., 14, 2018).


To read all articles by author


Also read

1 The Dharmic Past of Kashmir

2 History of Jammu and Kashmir 350 A.D. onwards

3 D K Hari discusses 7000 year old history of Kashmir

Receive Site Updates