Kashmir’s Hindu Shaivism influenced Sufi Islam

Ashok Bhan-

Ashok Bhan

(Ashok Bhan is a senior advocate, Supreme Court of India. Views expressed here are his own)




Kashmir is the only place in South Central Asia, where Muslim Sufis are honorifically referred to as “Rishis” or its Kashmiri derivation “Reshi”. “Rishi” is a Sanskrit word used for ancient Hindu sages, but in an overwhelmingly Muslim Kashmir Valley, Kashmir’s Sufis are lovingly called “Rishis” & “Pirs” and Kashmir was known as “Reshveer”/”Pirveer” (abode of Rishis & Peers).

Unlike Sufi Islam practiced in North India and Pakistan, which broadly falls under the Barelvi sect of South Asian Sunni Islam, Kashmiri Sufism is entirely different.

There are two types of Sufi silsilas (orders) prevalent in India’s Kashmir Valley. First one includes “foreign Sufi orders” or Sufi silsilas that arrived in Kashmir Valley from Iran and Central Asia, which include the Naqshbandi silsila, the Qadri silsila, the Suhrawardi silsila and the Kubrawi silsila etc. Most of these “foreign” silsilas were popular only amongst the urban Kashmiri Muslim elite and were headed mostly by Upper Caste Kashmiri Syeds.

And then there was Rishi silsila. Rishi silsila or rishi order was India’s Kashmir Valley’s own indigenous Sufi Islam, which was shaped almost entirely by Kashmir’s Hindu Shaivite practices and was the most popular Sufi order of Kashmir – it was People’s Sufism.

Rishism was an inclusive Sufi silsila that didn’t discriminate between Kashmiri Hindus and Kashmiri Muslims; rich and poor; upper caste Muslim and lower caste Muslim; man and woman. Rishis of this Muslim Sufi order would renounce the material world and then meditate in yogic positions in secluded caves of Kashmir’s hills and would reject orthodoxy of Kashmir’s Mullahs.

Kashmir’s rishi order produced many iconic male and female Kashmiri Muslim and Kashmiri Hindu Pandit Sufis, including Sheikh Nuruddin Noorani aka Sheikh-ul-Alam, or Nund Rishi (also known as Rishi Sehjanand amongst Kashmiri Hindu Pandits), Zainuddin Reshi (RA), whose Sufi cave shrine on top of a hillock in Anantnag’s Aishmuqam remains popular to this day, and not to forget Mata Lalleshwari, a legendary Kashmiri Hindu Pandit ascetic and philosopher, who is lovingly called Lal Arifa or Lal Ded.

Baba Haneef-ud-Din Reshi (RA), whose Sufi shrine I visited this Eid, near my village in Central Kashmir Valley, also belonged to this rishi order, where the lines between Islam and Kashmiri Hindu Shaivism blurred. Sufi rishis of this order were owned jointly by both Kashmiri Hindus and Kashmiri Muslims.

Baba Haneef-ud-Din Reshi (RA) also meditated in a cave in the hills of Kashmir’s Budgam district. His shrine remains hugely popular in Budgam and on occasions of Eid, Kashmiris throng to his shrine in large numbers.

Pakistan’s hate for Kashmiri Sufi Islam

In addition to sending guns to Kashmir valley in the 1990s, Pakistan also encouraged propagation of rigid, orthodox and puritan Islam, that denounced Sufi practices. Kashmir’s rishi order Sufi shrines were special targets of attacks as they were seen propagating “sinful” Hindu practices. Many such rishi order Sufi shrines were burnt “mysteriously” in the 1990s by Pakistan backed terrorists, the blame for which would be placed on the army, but Kashmiri Muslims knew the reality. Baba Haneef-ud-din’s Sufi shrine was also burnt by these elements in 2012, which was then rebuilt by the administration.

Today, as Kashmir Valley tries to heal herself from Pakistan-given wounds of the last 30 years, there is a need for revival of Kashmir’s very own rishi silsila, both in letter and the spirit.

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