Kashmir’s Early Indigenous History

by SAHF Team

The history of Kashmir is founded upon its determination for scholarly aptitude in the Dharmic realm. Since its origin, renowned scholars, sages and philosophers visited this pious land to obtain knowledge and to progress spiritually.

Historical Origins of Kashmir and its People

A land with a civilisation found as far back as 3000 BCE, known poetically as ‘Heaven on Earth’, Kashmir gets its name from ancient scripture. The political origins of Kashmir can be found in the text Rājatarangini, in which the history of Kashmir is written by the Hindu Kashmiri historian Kalhana (12th Century). A detailed account on the historical, geographical and religious origins can be found from an earlier text, the Nilamata Purāna, which the Rājatarangini refers to as its primary source. This text mentions that Rishi Kashyapa, the father of the Devas (spiritualists) and the Asuras (materialists), drained the valley of Kashmir which was previously a lake. The purpose of this was for learned men and sages to continue their spiritual and academic explorations in the area. Hence, upon Rishi Kashyapa’s request, the Vedic sages and their people from the banks of the Saraswati River – the ‘Sāraswata Brahmins’ – migrated to the Kashmir valley. The Pishāchas, Nāgas and the Sāraswata Brahmins lived in harmony, thus forming the integrative foundations of ‘Kashmiriyat’ that followed later on. This was seen in the medieval period of Kashmir in which the Buddhist and Hindu scholars participated in debates and conferences. These Sāraswata Brahmins were later referred to as ‘Kashmiri Pandits’. Thus, the rishis (sages) found serenity and awe in the natural beauty of Kashmir in the pursuit of their penances. This wonderful land was known as ‘Kashyapā-Mir’ (Kashyapa’s Lake) or ‘Kashyapā-Meru’ (Kashyapa’s Mountain), from which the current name of ‘Kashmir’ is derived.

The Political History of Kashmir

In a Hindu epic, the Mahābharatam, the first ruler of Kashmir, Gonanda, accepts the sovereign rule of King Yudhishthira by paying taxes and attending the Rajasuya Yajña ceremony. This is further supported by the Rājatarangini, which dates the height of organised political activity in Kashmir to the Mahabhāratam era, which was approximately 5,000 years ago. The text further states that in the 2nd century BCE, King Ashoka, the ruler of the Maurya empire, founded the city of ‘Srinagar’. He is said to have introduced Buddhism to the valley and built several Buddhist ‘stupas’ and temples dedicated to Lord Shiva. His son Jaulaka protected the Kashmiri people from many barbaric invaders. Later, the stronghold of the Karkota Empire (625-885 AD) was founded by King Durlabhvardhana, establishing the strength of Kashmir in South Asia. It was later succeeded by the notable Utpala dynasty of Avanti Varman, which was significant for its construction of temples dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu, along with the establishment of Buddhist monasteries. Kashmir was a major centre for Hindu culture by 900 AD with a greater focus on the non-dualistic philosophy of Kashmiri Shaivism.

Scholarly Heritage of Kashmir

After the seventh century, many notable figures contributed to Kashmir’s tradition of being a scholarly and divine place.

Kātyāyana or Vararuchi

Sanskrit scholars, such as Kātyāyana (also known as Vararuchi) of the third century BCE, authored the Vārttika, which was an elaboration of South Asia’s greatest grammarian: Pānini. Kātyāyana’s works corrected, supplemented and justified the rules of Pānini’s grammar.

Adi Shankarācharya and Shāradā Peetha

The reviver of the Vedic tradition, one of India’s greatest philosopher and proponent of Advaita Vedanta (philosophy of non-dualism), Ādi Shankarācharya visited Kashmir in the late eighth century.  During his trip, he entered the famous shrine of Goddess Saraswati (the Hindu Goddess of Knowledge) and university: Shārada Peetha. Far earlier than the creation of Western or Arabic academia or literature, Kashmir was home to one of the oldest universities on the globe. The ‘Shārada Peetha’ library was the ancient centre of education, which influenced the Eastern world. It was held as one of the highest seats of knowledge in South Asia. In fact, Hindus across South Asia would recite the following in their daily prayers:

Namaste shāradā devi Kashmira puravāsini| Tvāmaham prārthate nityam vidyā dānancha dehime||

I bow down to you, O Goddess Shāradā (Saraswati), as you have the land of Kashmir as your abode. I pray you provide me with knowledge.

As per records, this university was founded as early as 237 BC. Many renowned intellectuals, such as Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin and the Chinese scholar Xuanzang, visited this university and shared both the Sanskrit language and the Shāradā script.


Ruins of the ‘Shāradā Peeth’ in Kashmir

Returning to Ādi Shankarācharya, who also visited Sharada Peetha, he defeated all the scholars of different schools of thought of Hindu philosophy and ascended the throne of wisdom in that temple. He noticed the austere devotion of the Kashmiris towards Lord Shiva and Goddess Shakti, due to which he wrote his devotional hymn on creation, the ‘Saundarya Lahari’, while sitting on the ‘Gopadari Hill’ in Srinagar. The hill is known as ‘Shankarācharya Hill’ today with a temple dedicated to him (The Shankarācharya Temple). This temple is flocked by many Kashmiri Hindus to celebrate the birthday of Shankarācharya.


The front view of the ‘Shankarāchārya Temple’ atop the ‘Shankarāchārya Hill’


Shrine dedicated to Ādi Shankarāchārya inside the temple


In the same century as the one Adi Shankaracharya lived in, one of India’s greatest philosophers, mystics and artists Abhinavaguptaproduced multiple works on poetry, devotion, philosophy and religious practices. He wrote extensively on Kashmiri Shaivism with his most renowned contribution being a treatise on Kashmiri Shaivism: Tantrāloka.


Āchārya Abhinavagupta giving discourses

Somadeva Bhatta

A collection of legends and tales that are popular across India today, such as the exploits of the legendary King Vikramaditya, were penned by the eleventh-century author ‘Somadeva Bhatta’ in his book (the Kathāsaritsāgara). This work was based on a lost text, the ‘Brihatkathā‘, written in the Kashmiri language ‘Paishāchi’ (the language of the Paishācha tribe of Kashmir) by the scholar ‘Gunadhya’.


A still from the famous narrative of ‘Vikrama-Betāla’ within Somadeva Bhatta’s ‘Kathāsaritasāgara’

Shāradā Script

Even the native writing system of Kashmir, the Shāradā script, was popularised in the period of the eighth and twelfth centuries in the Northwestern regions of South Asia, such as Afghanistan. It was used for Sanskrit and Kashmiri. Apart from its religious use by the Kashmiri Hindus, it is no longer in common usage. The Sharada script led to the development of the Gurmukhi script in Punjab and the Tibetan script in Tibet.


A manuscript containing the Shāradā script

Kashmiri Shaivism

Historical Roots

The Kashmiri Pandits, and the other communities of Kashmir, were religiously rooted in Kashmiri Shaivism. The roots of Kashmiri Shaivism can be found in the Pratyabhijña (meaning ‘recognition’) school of Shaivism, which originated in the Himalayan range around 400 AD. Around 800 AD, Sangamāditya, a descendant of this Shaivite lineage, settled in the Kashmir Valley. A later descendant of his, Somananda, wrote the first philosophical treatise of Kashmiri Shaivism: Shivadrishti. This treatise synthesised the principles of non-dualistic Shaivism from the Vedic texts.


Icons of Shiva-Shakti from Kashmir (tenth century)

Vāsugupta and Other Scholars

After the seventh century, significant developments took place in Kashmiri Hinduism. This was a period in which Buddhism was largely influencing Kashmir. A renowned scholar of the eighth century was Vāsugupta, who changed the direction of Kashmiri philosophy. He wrote the ‘Shiva Sutras’ (the aphorisms of Shiva) to textually present the core philosophy of Kashmiri Shaivism. It is believed that these Sutras were revealed to him by Lord Shiva in a dream or were found by him on a rock named ‘Sankaropala’. These Sutras discuss the nature and cause of worldly bondage and the method of liberation. He also wrote the ‘Spanda Kārikās‘ as a commentary on his Shiva Sutras. The Shiva Sutras were popularised by his disciple Bhatta Kallata, leading to the adoption of Kashmiri Shaivism by the common masses. Further sages, such as Utpaladeva and Abhinavagupta elaborated on these works.

Philosophy of Kashmiri Shaivism

Kashmiri Shaivism is a non-dualistic tantric system that draws teachings from texts of the Vedic tradition, such as the Shaiva Āgamas, Shaiva and Shākta Tantras, and the Bhagavad Gītā.

It is referred to as ‘Trika Shaivism‘ as it views expound upon the trinity of Shiva (Consciousness), Shakti (Nature) and Nara (the individual Self). The texts of Kashmiri Shaivism can be divided into:

  1. Āgama Shāstrastexts which are considered to be a direct revelation from Lord Shiva, such as the ‘Shiva Sutras’.
  2. Spanda Shāstrastexts on the theory of the ‘Spanda’ (vibration) of which the Spanda Kārikā is a primary text.
  3. Pratyabhijñā Shastrastexts on the core philosophy of Pratyabhijñā (‘recognition’) and spirituality of Kashmiri Shaivism, such as the ‘Shivadrishti’.

According to the Pratyabhijñā philosophy, Lord Shiva is the single, supreme and transcendental reality of the universe. He is the absolute consciousness (Brahman). All souls are essentially one with Lord Shiva, and the material world is his manifestation. Although it bears striking similarities to the Advaita (non-dualism) philosophy, it differs in some aspects.

According to the Pratyabhijñā philosophy, due to the influence of Māyā (illusion or ignorance), the individual Self is unknown to its nature of divinity and is subject to bondage with the material world and limitation. The individual Self thinks of itself as distinct from Lord Shiva, the Supreme Lord. According to this philosophical school, through knowledge, a clear recognition (Pratyabhijñā) of one’s identity with divinity can be attained, thus attaining liberation (Moksha).


Lord Shiva as the Universe itself

Rather than the world being an illusion as promoted by Advaita, Kashmiri Shaivism emphasises on the reality of the material world as signified by Goddess Shakti, which exists within Consciousness. Consciousness is active and dynamic, which is explained by the spontaneity of vibration (‘spanda’) of the absolute consciousness. The world is a real manifestation and transformation of the absolute consciousness.

Within Kashmiri Shaivism, a unique synthesis of dualism (Dvaita) between Lord Shiva and the devotee with the doctrine of Shūnyatā (emptiness) of Buddhism is seen. It can be remarked that this philosophy is indistinct from the theism advocated by the Bhagavad Gītā instead of the nihilism of some Buddhist thought.

Religious Practices

Kashmiri Shaivism was adopted by the majority of the Kashmiri population due to its accessibility to all regardless of gender, caste, religious practice, or creed. The path of asceticism and renunciation is not advised by the tradition. Instead of the suppression of desires, emotions and qualities, their sublimation through devotion (Bhakti) is advocated. Bhakti is to be combined with Yogic and meditative practices while performed with the duties of a being a householder. Hence, Kashmiri Hinduism features many religious and devotional practices, which are still prevalent amongst Kashmiri Hindus today.

The religious practices of the Kashmiri Hindus are centred around the devotion of Lord Shiva as the Supreme Lord of the universe and Goddess Shakti as the Universal Mother Goddess. Countless shrines to Shiva, such as the Amarnāth cave and the Shankarācharya Temple, and shrines of Shakti, such as the Vaishno Devi and Kheer-Bhavāni temples, are found in Kashmir.


Amarnāth Temple, Pahalgam


Kheer-Bhavāni Temple, Srinagar

A lot of the religious festivals of Kashmir have Vedic roots and share similarities with pan-Indian festivals, such as Herāth (Shivarātri), Zarmae-Sātam (Janmāsthami), Diwali etc. However, some are unique to the region, which includes ‘Navreh’ [New Year according to the Kashmiri Hindu calendar commenced by the ‘Saptarishis’ (seven sages) 5,079 years ago], ‘Zyeth Ātham’ (the celebration of the Goddess ‘Kheer-Bhavāni‘), and ‘Pann’ (festival of Lakshmi and Ganesha Chaturthi).

Picture Credits: All pictures used belong to the original owners and creators. SAHF does not own the rights to any pictures used in this article. 


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