Pandit of Kashmir - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. As Hindus, Pandits exhibit a repertoire of beliefs that include the notions of dharma (moral conduct, duty), karma (action, fruits of action), samsara ("flow," reincarnation) , ashrama (stages of life), purushartha (instrumental and ultimate goals), prarabdha (fate), anugraha (divine grace), punya (meritorious action), and papa (moral evil). On a more abstract plane, they are legatees of the nondualistic school of philosophy known as Kashmir Shaivism. Rituals help people to relate to a hierarchy of supernaturals, ranging from local possession spirits, ghosts, and goblins, who cause illness and misfortune, to high Sanskritic deities (e.g., Vishnu, Shiva, Shakti) and regional gods and goddesses who are seen as being essentially benevolent.

Religious Practitioners. Householders are the practitioners par excellence of domestic rituals, whether these pertain to Sanskritic deities, locally recognized supernatural beings, or ancestors. While the performance of rituals is primarily the responsibility of men and women cannot be the principal officiants, the participation of the latter is nevertheless required in the roles of wife or mother. The presence of priests at Sanskritic rituals is essential.

Ceremonies. Religious ceremonies consist primarily of rites of passage (notably initiation and marriage rituals), rites for ancestors, devotional prayers, and pilgrimages. The annual pilgrimage to the cave of Amarnath (source of the Ganges) in the valley attracts pilgrims from all over India and from Nepal. In their worship of Sanskritic deities, Pandits follow the eclectic smartha mode. In domestic rituals they follow the school of Laugaksha.

Arts. The Pandit house is a well-designed building with carefully crafted wooden doors, windows, and ceilings. These are often embellished by carving, but this work is done by Muslim carpenters. Pandit women paint floral and geometrical designs on the facade of the house to symbolize domestic auspiciousness. They also chant auspicious songs at initiation ceremonies and weddings. Pandits have an old tradition of composing poetry, mostly devotional poems, and of group singing.

Medicine. Illness is believed to arise from a number of causes, physical as well as supernatural. Home remedies (mostly herbal brews and preserves) are combined with consultation with practitioners of traditional Unani (Greco-Arabic) and modern allopathic medicine. Priests and astrologers are consulted to determine supernatural and astral causes and to perform appropriate curative rituals.

Death and Afterlife. Deaths are classified as good, bad, or untimely. If one dies after successfully fulfilling legitimate worldly goals as a householder, without suffering a protracted illness or losing any essential faculties before passing away, then one is said to have "attained" the good death. The dead are usually cremated, though infants who die before they have cut teeth are buried. Cremation is followed by rituals spread over twelve days. These are performed to help the disembodied spirit to reach the "land" of the manes. There are daily "watering" and biannual "feeding" rituals for the manes. At the same time all except the most spiritually advanced people are believed to be reborn. To be freed from the bondage of rebirth and redeath is the goal of spiritual endeavor. Divine selection or grace is the ultimate source of such salvation ( moksha ).

Postscript. The above description is more applicable to the Pandits of rural Kashmir than to those living in urban areas. The latter are basically similar to the former in terms of, for example, the structure of kinship and the nature of Religious beliefs and ceremonies. The character of economic life is very different, however, with the urban Pandits being Prominent in civil services, the professions (engineering, law, medicine, teaching), business, and even manufacturing. Their higher educational attainments contribute to higher Socioeconomic status. They hardly ever practice marriage by Exchange of brides. In fact, they look down upon that and some other practices and the manners of the Pandits of rural areas. Nevertheless, at the level of the community (gaum) or "brotherhood" (baradari), all Pandits, rural and urban, consider themselves as one people, related to Kashmiri Pandits outside Kashmir but distinct from not only the Kashmiri Muslims but also non-Pandit Hindus living in Kashmir.

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