Monday, 20 January 2014

Understanding Our Local Narratives

Kashmiris are famously charged with pir parasti. And this pir parasti is associated with a host of beliefs and practices that we need to take into account. The question is how to understand or engage with the local narrative. Our dismissive rejection or wholesale embracing of this narrative is what we are often supposed to choose in Kashmir. Given the ideological polarization, and the often huge costs hidden in these choices, we need to be better informed about what exactly constitutes local narratives and how far one can wish it away if one chooses to.

Equally, the Salafis and others who find some problems with the local narrative need to come up with informed critique of a culture deeply affected by this narrative. Such an informed analysis of this local narrative has not been made by our historians or culture experts. And this means a lot for people in search of self-identity in times that seek to fracture such attempts. The space here won’t allow much, but here are a few points.

Local mystics are consulted by rulers and many life’s decisions are not taken without such consultation. (There are family mystics as there are family doctors in Kashmir.) Mystics can enter any home and are received warmly and reverentially although in this guise many charlatans, and even insane, carve a space or livelihood for themselves. Popular proverbs like “In Adam’s skin are hidden great secrets” are often invoked while the question of dismissing a claimant of mystical powers arises. Mystics’ residences or shrines are thronged by all and sundry including the educated elite and ruling class.

Almost every other day there is some celebration commemorating some local mystic’s urs. Many people claim to be in touch with their dead masters. And every Thursday, there is mahfil e sama in many places. The most visited spots happen to be the shrines. And many people before going for their court hearings come to shrines to seek ‘blessings’. Almost every person has a story to narrate of an encounter with a ‘realized’ soul or a powerful mystic.

Here, mystics are seen roaming naked in freezing winters while some hold a fire pot in the midst of hot summers. Some have been noted to take so little food that people are led to believe that they are fed by God. And some are believed to share food with some otherworldly beings. Childless couples seek the help of mystics and success stories galore! And some children are well known in localities to be begotten by the mystics’ prayer and almost consecrated to his memory and they receive special treatment.

Mystics have been seen publicly predicting downfall of governments resulting in new elections and key figures of all ruling parties seek appointment with them at key moments. And I have seen some mystics drawing maps of roads that are yet to be built, claiming they are drawing the master plans.

People invoke traditional Sufi belief in the hierarchy of power that is occupied by saints of different categories. The belief in the authority of a mystic is so popular that all kinds of charlatans disguising themselves as mystics loot people. Mysticism is sold as a commodity for faith healing and a shortcut to worldly success and its traders are not easily picked. Pseudo-mystics are everywhere contributing to a decreasing reputation of mystics among newer generations.

Despite strong theological criticisms of certain popular beliefs and practices lately from the Salafis and Jamaat-i-Islami ideologues, the popularity of the mystic cult and shrines and paraphernalia – prayer food culture, loud recitations of mystical or devotional hymns, khatam and niyaz parties – has not lost its sheen. Many families ‘invite’ the 11th-century Sufi Abdul Qadir Jeelani on the 11th of every month.

It is not that mystics have failed to stamp their indelible prints in the cultural consciousness of people. There are countless trees and stones and springs whose special features are attributed to certain mystics. Almost every locality has such miraculous relic. It seems that Hopkins’ statement that everything is charged with the grandeur of God is felt with all its terrible reality here and captures an aspect of Kashmiri perception of the world. It is considered a life’s treasure to find a true Master in many Muslim communities and this is particularly true about Kashmir. And in almost every locality there may be someone, famous or hidden, who claims to be, or is thought to be, a Master.

Faith healing is a big business and is an evidence of people’s faith in mystics. Faith healing attributed to mystics is differentiated from the one attributed to occultists. More accomplished mystics don’t resort to amulets and other objects of the trade but just bless water, or cast a glance, or even use ‘coded’ slangs to achieve their objectives.

And people vie for the sputum, slaps or slangs of the mystics. Special threads are tied in shrines for achieving particular objectives. Children’s baby hair is mostly cut under the feet of some mystic buried in some shrine. People throng to see relics of saints displayed on special occasions at shrines. And people wish goodbye to near and dear ones with the clause, “I leave you in the Pir’s custody.” These constitute some aspects of the local narrative of mysticism in Kashmiri culture.

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