Lalla, Simone and Plato

By: Vidha Saumya

Lal Ded, or Lalla as she is known lovingly by the people of Kashmir, was a poet who lived, wrote and taught through life experiences in the 13th Century. Lalla’s poems are known as Lal Vakh. Although there have been many poets in Kashmir, Lal Ded can found in the heart of every Kashmiri. If you went to a Kashmiri house and while eating said, “I wonder why my food is always extra salty?” it may not be abnormal for the host to say quoting Lal Ded, that “No matter whether a big sheep gets slaughtered or small, you will probably get only stones in your plate”, which means that your nature is unwilling to change which is why you will always have this problem.

It is fascinating to consider why Lal Ded remains alive in the hearts and minds of the people of Kashmir – whether it was her mystic personality, her uninhibited allure or that her 13th century writings are relevant even today. One may pick any verse of her writing and find contemporary resonances with her words.

For me, it is incredible to imagine that her words find meaning today, not just in the political chaos of Kashmir but the various turmoils of people and their worlds. She transmits the teachings that are the essence of her lived experience: her poems aim to renew the immediacy of everyday life by placing it in the context of eternity, to redeem the self from the cocoon of narcissism and release it towards others, the world and the Divine. She speaks where life touches. I find her alluring because she speaks not with the intention of saying something important but as she has experienced it.

I find this practice followed many centuries later by Simone Weil who felt that writing should be based on real life experiences, and so in addition to teaching, she began working in factories and farming. We may understand Simone Weil by attempting to understand Plato whose writings affected Simone deeply. She regarded Plato almost as her teacher and guide. In Phaedo, Plato says that the perceptions of the eye, the ear, and the senses are full of deceit and they tie us to a world that is not ultimately real and that this perception of the unreal world takes us further from the real world (meta truth). The senses are only enough in providing us with the information and we take that as reality thus endorsing something with low and false value as something that is the truth or of a higher value. The enquiry therefore seems that the human knowledge of the physical world should not be taken to be ultimately real, but the reality and importance of the physical world itself. Simone Weil takes this enquiry further and says that there is a reality outside the world, that is to say, outside space and time, outside man’s mental universe, outside any sphere whatsoever that is accessible to human faculties. To be completely convinced by Plato is difficult for me, especially because I know that my current art practice would clearly be disqualified by Plato. I do empathise with Plato’s search for the truth and his belittling of the attempts of painters and playrights in doing so. However, Plato does not help us further the conversation – in a situation like this, I seek respite through the life of Simone and the Vakhs of Lalla.

What the books taught me, I’ve practised.
What they didn’t teach me, I’ve taught myself.
I’ve gone into the forest and wrestled with the lion.
I didn’t get this far by teaching one thing and doing another.(1)

1. Excerpted from ‘I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded’, translated by Ranjit Hoskote, Penguin Books India
Lalleshwari (1320 –1392), was a mystic of the Kashmiri Shaivite sect. She was a creator of the mystic poetry called vatsun or Vakhs, literally ‘speech’ (Voice). Known as Lal Vakhs, her verses are the earliest compositions in the Kashmiri language and are an important part in history of modern Kashmiri literature. She inspired and interacted with many Sufis of Kashmir. She is also known by various other names, including Lal Ded, Lalla Aarifa, Lal Diddi, Laleshwari, Lalla Yogishwari and Lalishri.