Friday, 6 February 2015

Pir Parasti or Spirituality? Understanding Our Mystical Culture

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 do we understand or engage with local narrative.  Our dismissive rejection or wholesale embracing of this narrative is what we are often supposed to choose while living in Kashmir. Given ideological polarization and 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. Salafis and others who find some problems with local narrative need to come up with informed critique of a culture deeply informed 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 searching for self-identity in the times that find identities politically problematic and seek to fracture such attempts at self-definition. Here are few points about our local narrative we need to note for critical engagement with it.
Local mystics are consulted by rulers and many life’s decisions are not taken without consulting family mystic. (There are family mystics as there are family doctors elsewhere in Kashmir, especially rural Kashmir.) Mystics can enter any home and are received warmly and reverentially although in this guise many charlatans and insane people are also carving a space or livelihood for themselves. Some of the popular phrases or 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 anniversary called Urs. Many people claim to be in touch with their dead Masters. And every Thursday there is Mahfil-i- Sama in many places. The most visited spots happen to be shrines. And many people before coming to courts to attend hearing of their cases visit shrines as they believe cases are decided here. Almost every person has a story to narrate of an encounter with a realized soul or powerful mystic. Here mystics are seen roaming naked in the freezing temperature of winter and some are seen with a fire pot in the midst of hot summer. Some have been noted to take food so frugally that people are led to believe that God feeds them. And some are believed to share food with some otherworldly beings.  Childless couples seek the help of mystics and everywhere there are some success stories narrated! And some children are well known in localities to be begotten by mystics’ prayer and almost consecrated to his memory and they receive special treatment. Mystics have been seen publicly predicting downfall of a government and result of 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 they are yet to be built and claiming that we are making master plans and these will be the future road links. 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 shortcut to worldly success and its traders are not easily picked. Pseudo-mystics are everywhere contributing to decreasing reputation of mystics in the newer generations.
       Despite strong theological criticisms of certain popular beliefs and practices lately from Salafis and Jamaat-i-Islami ideologues the popularity of cult of mystics and shrine culture along with all its paraphernalia like prayer food culture, loud recitations of mystical or devotional hymns, Khatam/Niyaz parties (in which local community and some religious figures are invited to read certain chants and are served sumptuous food) has not lost its sheen. Many houses invite 11th century Sufi Abdul Qadir Jeelani on every 11th of every month by arranging a tea party.
           It is not that mystics have failed to stamp their indelible prints in cultural consciousness of people. There are countless trees and stones and springs whose special features are attributed to certain mystics. Almost every locality has some miraculous relic in the form of these things.  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 or is thought to be a Master. Faith healing is a big business and is an evidence of the power of or faith in mystics.  Faith healing attributed to mystics is differentiated from the one attributed to occultists. And people wish goodbye to near and dear ones with the clause “I leave you in Pir’s (Master’s) custody.” These constitute some aspects of local narrative of mysticism in Kashmiri culture.
     The question is do we take it or leave it in toto, in parts? Stakes of fundamentalism, superstitious occultist ideologies are linked to this question. Even our political destiny isn’t unconnected to it.

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