by P.N.K. Bamzai
The Valley of Kashmir is known among the Kashmiri Pandits or Saraswat Brahmins of Kashmir as Saradapeeth or the Abode of the Goddess of Learning and Fine Arts. During their five thousand years of history, they have made colossal contribution to world civilization in the field of Religion, Philosophy, Sanskrit literature, medicine, history, aesthetics, etc. As models of non-violence, they have never handled lethal weapons or spoken harsh words. Devoted to the study of Vedas and other Sastras in all their aspects, the essence of these studies has been coursing in their blood-stream from generation to generation. In peaceful or turbulent times they were protected under their spiritual umbrella by a large number of highly advanced saints and sages who flourished in the Valley from time to time.
No wonder they preferred death to change in their religion and withstood stoically the ruthless masters for five hundred years of Muslim rule. And when pushed back to the wall, they migrated to places of safety in the hot plains of India.
This process has been repeated in 1990 but on a vaster scale. Threatened with annihilation by Islamic Fundamentalists and gun-toting terrorists, the hapless Brahmins migrated en masse to Jammu and other places in the hot plains of the rest of India, leaving behind their hearths and homes, movable and immovable properties, their jobs and business, even the education of their children. The treatment they received from the State and Central Governments is perhaps the most bitter instance of this nature in the world. As refugees in their own country, their governments treated them with disdain. Instead of giving them comfort and solace, their attitude towards them was callous and inhuman.
How and wherefrom did the Kashmiri Pandits or Vedic Aryans enter and settle in the Valley is an interesting episode in the early movement of people from place to place.
The main theory about the Aryan settlement in Kashmir as advanced by Dr. Grierson was that they formed a part of the stream of Indo-Aryans from Central Asia, but did not share the migration to India via the Kabul River Valley to settle in the Punjab. They broke away from the mainstream while crossing the Hindukush and entering the Valley via Dardistan settled there.
But after deep research for the last 15 years the writer has come to the conclusion that Dr. Grierson’s Theory was erroneous. Actually they came to the Valley from the Punjab centuries after the first settlement of Aryans there.
Briefly speaking, the earliest stream of Aryans who entered India, found the banks of the River Saraswati in the Punjab fertile and conducive to easy cultivation, and settled there.
Described in the Rig Veda as “the mother of rivers”, scholars have debated for centuries whether Saraswati is a myth or has been a reality at some distant point of time.
Fortunately a team of archaeologists, geologists, geographers and historians led by the famous archeologist Dr. V.S. Wakankar, began their quest of the river in 1985. Armed with high-tech facilities like landsat and multi-spectoral scanner (MSS), the team began the quest from the believed source of the river at Adi Badri in the Shivalik Hills in Ambala They sieved through the whole area notably 150 prominent sites along the route in the Thar Desert ending at Somnath in Gujarat.
At the end of it all they had solid evidence to prove the existence of a highly developed culture on the banks of a mighty river which they say was Saraswati.
Apart from this evidence, the existence of a mighty river, matching the Vedic description of Saraswati, has been scientifically proved. The multi-spectoral scanner (MSS), a widely used and relied upon equipment in archaeology, indicates various channels of the river in the region.
According to MSS observations of various channels, Sutluj was the main tributary of Ghaggar (the present name for Saraswati, now in Pakistan). But tectonic movements forced Sutluj to flow in different direction (at right angle to its original channel), thus leaving Ghaggar dry.
A study of the landsat imagery of Ghaggar (Saraswati) reveals that the river had a constant width of six to eight kilometres from Shatrana in the Punjab to Marot in Pakistan.
The waters of the river spread prosperity all around and the settlers passed centuries there in peace, building well-planned towns and cities to live in. The Aryan society was by and by stratified into classes according to the kind of their work and profession or varna. But as ill-luck would have it, the life-giving river changed its course several times and ultimately dried up. Known as Saraswat Brahmins, Kshatryas and Vaisas, they left the Punjab in search of equally good if not better land in the rest of the sub-continent. An enterprising batch went back to the mountains in the north to reside in the Kashmir Valley of whose beauty and salubrious climate they had heard from their forefathers who used to go there during summer. They sought the protection of Nila, the Lord of the Nagas and begged his permission to settle in the Valley permanently as his subjects.
Nila listened to their tale of woe sympathetically, but promised the requested permission on condition that they conformed to the social usages and customs of the Nagas. The Saraswats agreed to these conditions when the Naga chief permitted them to reside permanently in the Valley.
Aryan Entry Into The Valley
At what point of time this important immigration into the Valley of Saraswat Aryans (comprising Brahmans, Kshatryas, Vaisas and Sudras) took place is not possible to say. However, the beginning of the Saptarishi or Laukika Era seems to be the time when the Sarswat Aryans entered into and settled in the Valley, after getting permission from Nila, the lord of the Naga tribe who were already settled there. The beginning of this era nearly coincides with Mahabharata war. The date of the coronation of King Yudhishtra is given as Kaliyug Samvat 653. Kalhana too begins the Rajatarangini from this time as is evident from the description of the installation by Lord Krishna of Queen Yasomati on the throne of Kashmir as the guardian of her son King Gonanda II.
The Saptarishi or Laukika era is still in current use among the Brahmin population of Kashmir. Buhler was the first to prove from the extant tradition of Kashmiri Brahmins and other evidence that the commencement of the Laukika Era is placed on Caitra Sudi 1, of Kali Samvat 25 (expired) or the year 3076-75 B.C. Since his discovery correct accounts of the Laukika reckoning are to be found in all handbooks of Indian chronology.
That the Kashmiri Brahmins have held on to and followed this calendar tenaciously for the last 5066 years is a strong point in favour of assuming their entry in the Kashmir Valley round about the beginning of this era.
The various exigencies of time and division of labour gradually differentiated the priestly Brahmins from other castes. And when the Saraswat Aryans entered the Valley, the Brahmins were in a dominating position and laid down rules and regulations for the other castes to follow in accordance with the agreement with Nagas. From that time begins the emergence of the Kashmiri Pandits or the Saraswat Brahmins of Kashmir as a distinct community in the all-embracing comity of people called Hindus.
Profoundly learned, it was only the Kashmiri Pandits who were capable of expounding the Vedas, the Vedanganas, the Itihasas, the Puranas and the Mimamsa. They were well-versed in various orthodox and heterodox philosophic systems. Jurists, astrologers, mathematicians, poets and philosophers were from this community. Even the less educated among them did fairly well, for they could act as Kathavacaks or reciters of sacred stories and performers of various domestic rites. Sanskrit was their mother tongue and both men and women spoke it fluently.
Society took good care of the Brahmins, for they received land gifts and money. There is mention of many grants or agraharas in literature and epigraphs. Villages were transferred to the Brahmins with pastures for cows, with lands, water and trees, fruit bearing or otherwise.
A class that helped in the preservation of Dharma and contributed much to cultural progress, naturally enjoyed some privileges in a society dominated by it. Smritis and the Puranas speak of the Brahmins as being exempt from taxation and capital punishment. The ancient Dharmasastras lay down that a Brahmin should not be given any corporal punishment. Many other Smritis speak of exile as the maximum punishment for a Brahmin.
The Saraswat Brahmins of Kashmir were models of simplicity, purity, truthfulness, ascetic tendency and compassion. All these traits of the highest human culture were built-up by Rishis and Maharishis who, in their secluded Ashrams performed austere penances and at the same time taught a large number of students who stayed in the Ashrams and led a life befitting Brahmin Brahmacharin. Thus the Guru-Shishya Parampara was established. The children of a house-holder lived with Acharyas (teachers) in the latter’s home. There they used to serve their teacher by gathering fuel for homa and offered morning and evening prayers. The recitation of the Vedic hymns with their proper accents, preceded by the syllable OM took place at day-break. Early morning was the time set apart for studies.
Consequently, Upanayan Sanskara, which literally means taking the child to the Guru, was the most important in one’s life. The Brahman, the Khatriya and Vaisa boys were initiated when they were 8, 11 and 12 years respectively. This initiation of a boy into the three R’s took place on an auspicious day in a festive atmosphere. Gods were propitiated, feasts arranged and presents offered to the teacher before entrusting the student to his care. A very disciplined life was laid down by the medieval digests for students receiving Brahmanical education. By the time the boy attained the age of sixteen years, he was expected to be the master of all sciences and arts.
The educational course naturally differed according to the needs of the student. A Brahmin learnt the four Vedas, the six Angas, the various scripts, Mimamsa, Smritis, Puranas, Karmakanda, Jyotish, Ganita, Music, Sciences, etc.
The education of a student did not end here. They took inspiration from the Rishis and Paramrishis who in their ashrams and seats of learning propagated gems of philosophy, art, literature and history. Apart from imparting education to hundreds of Kashmiri students, they instructed numerous scholars from distant lands, who braving long and arduous journey came to Kashmir to drink deep from the well of knowledge at the feet of the masters. No wonder that from remote ages Kashmir became the seat of learning, and earned for itself the appropriate name of Saradapeeth or the seat of Sarada, the Goddess of Learning and Fine Arts.
Apart from performing rites and rituals as prescribed by the Sastras, the Brahmin householder worshipped the Hindu Triad, namely Siva, Vishnu and Brahma and their Consorts – Parvati or Uma who has a variety of other names such as Kali, Durga, Mahadevi (the Consort of Siva); Sri or Lakshmi (the Consort of Vishnu) and Vagheswari or Saraswati (the Consort of Brahma)
In later times a special sect who were devotees and worshippers of Sakti – the manifestation of power and energy of Siva – came into prominence and were known as Saktas. Their rites and rituals and the mode of their performance differed basically from the mainstream of the Kashmiri Pandits.
The snow-capped mountain peaks around the Valley evoked the image of Siva with Ganga coming out of His locks and gushing down in streams to the plains below, spreading life all around. Hence, Kashmir has, from time immemorial, been known as the Land of Siva (Sivapuri). The worship of Siva and the study of Saivism is, therefore, a predominant theme in the religious and philosophic practices of the Kashmiri Brahmins. Though the Trikka philosophy popularly known as Kashmir Saivism took shape in the 8th Century A.D., Sivasana or Sivagama, that is Saivism as such, is far older than this date. Indeed we can trace its beginning in the Vedic Revelations.
The origin of the earliest works on Saivism in Kashmir is lost in antiquity. It is said that originally there were sixty-four systems of philosophy covering every aspect of thought and life, but they all gradually disappeared and the world was plunged into spiritual darkness. Then Siva, goes the legend, moved by pity for the ignorance and sufferings of mankind, appeared on the Kailasa mountain in the form of Srikantha. He commanded the sage Durvasa to spread true knowledge among men. Durvasa created three sons by the power of his mind and to one of these, Tryambaka, he imparted the knowledge of monistic philosophy.
So Brahmanism diluted with the animistic faith of the indigenous Nagas and influenced by the Saivite faith, formed the religion of Kashmiri Pandits in the Valley from their settlement there till the appearance of Emperor Asoka in the middle of 300 B .C. along with a contingent of 5000 Bikshus whom he settled in the Valley to study and propagate Buddhism.