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Kashmir: Where Religion Is Killing Culture

Updated on February 4, 2019
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I regularly write on social issues of India. My favorite topics are poverty, population, terrorism, and climate change.

Kashmir’s Culture is Unique!

The Kashmir Valley is easily counted among the most scenic places on the earth: snow covered mountain peaks, lush green pastures and meadows, orchards of almonds and apples, Chinar trees, magnificent lakes and springs, Mughal gardens, handicrafts and Pashmina shawls. What tourists experience is a surreal bliss.

Native Kashmiris proudly call their land, the ‘Pir Vaer’ – the alcove of Sufis and Saints. Over the centuries, a unique culture evolved in Kashmir; a hybrid mix of Hindu and Sufi spiritualities. In ancient India, Himalayan region used to be the cherished abode of saints and sages who lived in isolation and strived for liberation (moksha, in Sanskrit). As Islam arrived in Kashmir, its spiritual essence practiced by Sufis synched well with universal Hindu spirituality. Kashimiris proudly call this culture ‘Kashmiriyat’ – it gave them their unique identity. It is an open culture that transcends the narrow philosophies that get boxed as religion.

Kashmiriyat does not recognize divisive boundaries that divide humanity. This makes it closer to Hinduism that sees humanity as one global community. This confuses stereotype Muslims who are trained to see humanity divided between the believers and non-believers, and want to see everything as Islamic or un-Islamic. Without understanding Kashmiriyat or Kashmiri-ness one can’t understand Kashmiri people. Just as there is German-ness in Germans and French-ness in French, people of Kashmir have their Kashmiriyat.

Most people in France and Germany may be Christians, but that doesn’t give them the French or German traits. Seeing them as mere Christians would be both wrong and deceptive. This logic applies perfectly well on Kashmir and its natives – Hindus, Buddhists or Muslims.

Imagine what would happen to France if radical Christians from outside start meddling in France in the name of Christianity and start imposing unhealthy ideas under threat. But this clearly what is going on in the Kashmir valley – conspiratorial meddling in Kashmir by radical Islamists trained in ‘jehad factories’ and sent from across the border to spread violence and terror. Terrorists are seen as highly important ‘strategic national assets’ by the Islamic State of Pakistan which is more Wahhabi than Islamic now. Since 2002, while pretending to fight jehadi terrorists alongside the US in Afghanistan Pakistan continued to use aid money to nurture its terror industry.

Americans have woken up to this double game much too late – after 17 years of ‘war against terror’ Afghanistan, losing several thousand troops and handing over more than 60 billion dollars to Pak generals. President Trump now vows to disinfect Pak-Afghan region from the Jehadi virus. Let’s see how it unfolds.

Coming back to the topic, let’s first understand how Kashmir’s beautiful culture evolved since ancient times.

Religion becomes a problem when it becomes a tool of hate and violence?

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Historical Evolution of Kashmiri Culture

Since the ancient Vedic period, being situated in the Himalayan ranges, Kashmir has also been the abode of spiritual seekers who renounced the worldly life to experience self-realization and liberation from all human suffering (Moksha or Nirvana in Sanskrit). Attaining Moksha has been the spiritual goal of every Hindu’s life since ancient times.

These saintly people lived in isolated areas and led ascetic life fully devoted to spiritual practices. These sages were called Rishis (in Sanskrit) because they explored the Rit or Nature of existence – which is collectively called Dharma. They can be clearly seen as the dedicated spiritual scientists who studied all facets of human existence and its interconnections with everything else in the Nature.

Various yogic practices and meditation techniques evolved as a result of their efforts. Mastery over the mind was an integral part of their life, which they used both as an instrument and as an analyst. The knowledge was put in the Vedas and other texts. Vedas are called so because they came from personal experience, not imagined concepts or logical inferences.

In this timeless chain of spiritual scientists, the Buddha is a famous example who lived 500 years before the Christ. All such enlightened saints taught how to live a life according to “Dharma” – which is all about right conduct coming from doing the right thing in thoughts, words and deeds – to enjoy peace and harmony. This art of leading a ‘dharma’ based life is universal; for the whole humanity.

Different saints taught in different ways, but they were all seen as different paths leading to the same ultimate truth – this collectively evolved to be what is called “Hinduism” today. It is a collection of plurality and is entirely different from the monolithic ‘religions’ or ‘faiths’ that later evolved in the West.

Thus, Kashmir has been a land of Rishis – ascetics, recluses and sages of different spiritual traditions, since time immemorial. Sufi Muslims too got absorbed in that tradition.

For tourists, Kashmir is the Switzerland of India
For tourists, Kashmir is the Switzerland of India

Arrival of Sufi Islam in Kashmir

Perhaps the earliest known (and recorded) Sufi saint in Kashmir was an Islamic saint from Turkistan, Syed Sharif-ud-Din Abdur Rehman who arrived towards the end of 13thcentury. He later became popular as Bulbul Shah. He was followed by many Sufi saints from Turkistan who arrived in the 14th century looking for safe refuge to avoid persecution in their home Islamic societies. Kashmir offered them an ideal environment – long nurtured by countless sages and rishis. People of Kashmir accepted them as practitioners of just another tradition and held them also in very high esteem.

What distinguished the Sufis from their other co-religions was their absolute focus on the “essence” of Islam which is spiritual. Unlike others, they did not preach mere ‘words’ of Islam or used Islam as a political tool for dominance, but actually ‘lived’ the “spirit” of Islam. They communicated through their conduct. Keeping away from all worldly pleasures, they also devoted fully to prayers or meditation, like ancient saints of the soil. Their extremely simple, humble and compassionate demeanors resembled closely with the conduct of the ancient rishis.

Since the Sufis followed the ‘essence’ of the prophet’s teachings, it couldn’t be different from the Indian “Dharma” – the universal laws of ethics and morality, lived and taught by countless sages since ages. Their deep commitment to the philosophy of Divine Unity (wahdat-ul-wajud) mirrored the Hindu philosophy of non duality (Advaita). Thus, even if these Sufi saints used Arabic phrases their message of universal love, peace and ‘oneness of humanity’ easily transcended the divides of languages, faiths and beliefs. So the Sufi Islamic culture amalgamated with the profound ‘dharma’ knowledge to produce a unique society where religious labels got subordinated to human identity.

The Sufi – Rishi Culture of Kashmir

Sheikh Nur ud-Din Noorani (1377-1440), more popular as Nund Rishi, is often seen as the pioneer of the Sufi Rishi tradition in Kashmir. People saw him as an ‘enlightened’ saint for whom Islam was a universal message of love, tolerance and service, and at the same time a crusader against social injustice and useless rituals. Serving humanity was a cornerstone of this tradition and helping the poor and suffering people was seen superior to rituals of worshipping God. A lot of people who abhorred the Brahmin and their dry ritualism were automatically attracted towards the simple and welcoming Sufi Rishi culture.

Even in those days, their message of universal goodness was often taken as a threat both by the “Bookish” Islamic priests living on doles from the rulers of Kashmir as well as the arrogant Brahminical establishment. Their message of “one God for the whole humanity” was particularly threatening to the orthodox Islamic preachers for whom maintaining the distinction between believers and non-believers was essential to maintain their authority on people.

Once, sensing tension between Hindus and Muslims, Nund Rishi advised:

"We belong to the same parents. Then why this conflict?
Let Hindus and Muslims (together) Worship God alone.
We came to this world like partners. We should share our joys and sorrows together."

Nund Rishi also holds importance in the Valley’s history because he broke away from the tradition of writing in Sanskrit or Persian and started writing in the local Kashmiri language. He was highly venerated and he became a spiritual legend even beyond Kashmir border. Almost 400 years later during 1821-23, the Afghan governor, Ata Muhammad Khan, minted coins bearing his name.

His tomb is located in Chrar-e-Sharif, about 20 miles from Srinagar. People of all faiths visit his shrine to take solace in the serene and sublime environment. The annual Urs celebrations attract people not just from Kashmir but from other Indian states and abroad too.

It is this secular culture of Kashmir that Kashmiris proudly call their “Kashmiriyat”; it doesn’t recognize the narrow confinements of faiths and beliefs. It is a melodious synthesis of universal “Dharma” and “spiritual essence” of Prophet’s teachings. It is only in Kashmir where many Muslims have Hindu surnames such as 'pandit' and 'bhat'!

Islamic Terror in Kashmir

The Sufi-Rishi Culture comes under Attack

But sadly, this sublime spiritual culture is under severe attack, particularly since late 1980s – predictably by radical militant Islam. It worries all far sighted Kashmiris and people of India. But, why would anyone attack such a peaceful and humane culture? The answer lies in the regional politics of Indo-Pak rivalry and Islamization of what was a purely political issue.

A quick walk down the memory lane up to 1947 will provide the perspective to understand what is going on today.

Kashmir dispute in brief

When the colonial British left India in 1947, the country was partitioned based on a two nation theory to meet the Muslim demand for a separate Isalmic nation. The then India was a sum total of 561 tiny princely states ruled by Rajahs or Nawabs; they were given the option of joining either side or staying sovereign. Most chose sides but some harbored the ambition of sovereignty. Ruler of Kashmir was among them; he did not make any move.

But Pakistan was expecting that Kashmir would automatically join it on the religious ground (due to Muslim majority), so in impatience it invaded Kashmir. The ruler fought back but soon realized the vulnerability. So he frantically sought Indian military help. New Delhi agreed but demanded accession to India first. Thus, the ruler signed the treaty of accession and Indian troops arrived in Kashmir. When the conflict ended, India held two-third of Kashmir and the rest was under Pakistan control. This became the line of control (LOC) that still holds today despite three wars since then. So, basically Pakistan wants Kashmir in the name of Islam.

(Using the same Islamic logic, Pakistan also invaded Balochistan (which was not even a part of colonial India) on April 1, 1948 and is still sitting there, as occupier.)

Import of Fundamentalism and Militancy in Kashmir

In 1989, the Soviet occupiers in Afghanistan decided to end their 10 year occupation, after suffering heavy losses at the hands of Afghan Islamic jehadis, who were trained by the Pakistan and armed by the US. Suddenly, thousands of trained jehadis went out job. Basking in the glory of defeating the communist superpower, their trainers decided to aim the jehadis at their sworn enemy India in Kashmir. Thus, rather than closing down the training camps Pak continued to operate them – now to spread jehadi violence in Kashmir and in India.

People wonder, what is the source of Pak’s morbid hatred of India? Answer: It is the humiliating defeat in the 1971 when its East Pakistan territory became a sovereign nation, Bangladesh. And what led to that situation? It was because politically powerful West Pakistan refused to honor the verdict of recently held general election that went in favor of a party based in East Pakistan. It threw the country into civil war: civilians vs Pak military. Over 10 million refugees arrived in India for safety. India intervened to end the bloody conflict; Pak surrendered and Bangladesh was born.

Since 1989 Pakistan trained jehadis have been spreading terror and violence in Kashmir.

Thus, the decade of 1990s saw the magnitude of violence Kashmiris had never witnessed before. First, the entire minority Hindus community was driven out. Next, the Sufi shrines were targeted because they symbolized Hindu-Muslim unity and peace. In 1993, jehadis even seized the Hazratbal shrine which houses a hair strand of the Prophet. But somehow the Shrine remained unharmed. Two years later, they seized Nund rishi’s shrine in Chrar-e-Sharif. They burned it down after a 2 month seize and standoff with Indian army. It provoked deep anguish across Kashmir. The shrine was however rebuilt later.

But the jehadis continued their tirade against all Sufi symbols of peace and love. In 2012, several shrines, including the Dastageer Sahib in Srinagar, were destroyed in “mysterious fires”. The extremists proudly declared, on social media sites, all these acts as “the divine acts of God.” Ironically, the sufi shrines across the border in Pakistan have also been targeted and destroyed by the same lot of trained Islamic fanatics.

Arrival of radical Islamic preachers in the Kashmir valley started to vitiate the social fabric of Kashmiri society. Unemployed youths were initially attracted towards the ideas of radicalism but soon realized that they are being brainwashed into hating their very own sufi-rishi philosophy. They realized that they were being misled to convert their “Pir Vaer” (garden of saints) into “Devil Vaer” (garden of devil).

The goal of the perpetrators of violence is clear: If we can’t get Kashmir ‘in the name of Islam’, we will destroy it ‘in the name of Islam’. It’s pathetic, but true.


The remote controlled Islamic militancy in Kashmir is clearly aimed at New Delhi, but it is destroying the precious and unique home-grown Sufi-Rishi culture of Kashmir. What has been going on in Kashmir is clearly a case of religion killing culture and humanity.

Evolution of Kashmir can be clearly summarized as below.

What was Kashmir without Islam? It was a peaceful holy abode nurtured by spiritual Hindu saints and Rishis. It was a land of spiritual liberation and bliss – Heaven on earth!

What was Kashmir with Hindus and Muslims? It was a peaceful land of Sufi-Rishi culture, a superb mix of Hindu and Islamic spirituality – called Kashmiriyat. It was a land of eternal peace and harmony – Heavenly abode on earth!

What is Kashmir without Hindus? It is a den of dreaded Islamic terrorists who kill humanity every day. It is a land of death, violence and brutality – Hell on earth!

Yet, there is hope that Kashmir would soon be Kashmir again! The political landscape of India has drastically changed since 2014 and there is no political compulsion to go soft on cross border terrorism to appease anyone. Indian military is killing terrorists every day and the government is targeting terror funding network. The US is likely to redesign its strategy in Afghanistan and focus on eliminating terrorists and terror training camps, as President Trump indicated.

Quite likely, very soon the sponsored terror and violence will be things of the past in Kashmir.


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