The Nilamatapurāna is one of the Purānas written with the endeavour to Brahmanise the Kashmiri society and to connect the land of Kashmir with a broader north Indian Brahmanical discourse
A few years ago I began my study of ancient Kashmir from secondary sources before moving to the primary ones, as per the training we received for doctoral research. In many secondary sources I found contradictory views of scholars over the nature of the Nilamatapurāna. This appeared intriguing to me and therefore the next logical step was to move to the direct reading of the text. The aim of this essay, therefore, is to bring before the readers the various debates as well as some common hermeneutical misadventures and misunderstandings vis-a-vis the text by some scholars with regard to the social-cultural history of ancient Kashmir.
The Nilamatapurāna is a seventh-century AD text concerning the social-cultural landscape of ancient Kashmir with a dominant focus on the religious narrative of the region. This text is written by an anonymous author in the Sanskrit language likely during the reign of Karkota king Durlabhavardana. With regard to its nature, some scholars have referred it as a Vitastā Māhātmya, which I argue is not the correct understanding of the text. Māhātmya is a word of the Sanskrit lexicon which generally has two connotations, one its literal connotation which means “greatness’’ and another connotation of a “literary genre” which narrates the merits of visiting a tirthā or religious pilgrimage.
The Sanskrit language was a prerequisite for me to learn and to do justice with my doctoral thesis which hinges around Kashmir Śaivism. After learning the basics of the language and the subsequent reading of Nilamatapurāna, I realised this hermeneutical violence has mostly to do with the misinterpretation of the last verse of Nilamatapurāna. The last śloka of the text reads: “Iti vitastāmāhātmayamǃ Samapatmiedham Nilmatam śubhamsatuǃ” (tTranslation: This is Vitastā’s Greatness. Thus with this Nilamata is complete). Actually, the whole text of Nilamatapurāna is based on 1453 ślokas or verses, the last 175 ślokas highlighting the greatness of different rivers, Vitastā (Jhelum) being a major one. Thus after narrating the greatness or what in Sanskrit is called Māhātmya of river Vitastā, the whole conversation ends between a narrator (Vaisampayana) and listener (Janamjaya) and hence ends Nilamatapurāna, too. The term Vitastāmāhātmayam here is used in the context of the greatness of river vitastā which was narrated by the text in many Ślokas preceding the last one and not in the context of literary genre for the text, which is also in that sense referred to by the term Māhātmya.
Now the question arises, if Nilamatapurāna is not a Mahātmaya then what it is? The answer to this question as highlighted by scholars like MA Stein, Ved Kumari Ghai, Vijay Nath and Romila Thapar is Puranā. Nilamatapurāna is actually a part of the Purānic category of literature and not that of the Māhātmaya. But what is this Purānic literature all about and how the Nilamatapurāna is part of this genre? To get an answer to this question, it is necessary for us to first understand the north Indian Purānic discourse and then to evaluate the Nilamatapurāna. According to the tradition, Puranās were composed by sage Ved Vyāsa and there are hundreds of Puranās, but eighteen among them are the most important, called Mahā-puranās. The standard list of Mahā-puranās is Viśnu, Narada, Bhagvata, Garuda, Varaha, Matsya, Kurma, Linga, Śiva, Skanda, Agni, Brahmanda, Brahmavaivarta, Markandeya, Bhaviśya, Vamana, and Brahma.
Puranās mainly discuss five topics called Pancha-lakśanas in Sanskrit, which are Sarga (creation of world), Pratisarga (re-creation of world), Manvantaras (period of various Manus), Vamśha (genealogies of gods and Rishis) and Vamśanucarita (accounts of royal dynasties). Although there are diverse opinions among scholars with regard to dates of the inception of the writings of these Puranās, a broader consensus on this sets it as literature that was written with an endeavour to manage the crisis in Brahmanical religion, which had arisen owing to the constructive dissent expressed by Gautama Buddha, Vardhamana Mahaveer, Makhala Gośala, etc. Another endeavour of the Puranās was to accommodate the regional cults into the mainstream of Brahmanical religion. The best example of the second endeavour is Jagannath of Puri and Murukan of Tamilakam. Both were local deities initially and were subsequently absorbed into Vaiśnavism and Śaivism, respectively.
We read from the history books that Vedic Brahmanism dominated the scene of north Indian society from the later Vedic period up to the early historic period (1500-500 BC). The reason behind this dominance was their religious profession and subsequent interpretation of the Puruśa hymn of the tenth Mandal of the Rig Veda, which divided society into four castes (Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaiśya and Śudra). But the dominance of Vedic Brahmanism was severely challenged by the dissenters like Buddha, Gośala and Mahaveer around the sixth century BC. The theology and philosophy of these dissenters appeared more appealing to the vast majority of the population (Vaiśyas and Śudras) and they felt it was the only way to get rid of the caste system, which had suppressed them socially and economically since long. Thus the shift of population from Vedic Brahmanism to the faiths of its dissenters created chaos in the Brahmanical religion.
In order to come out from this stress and to win the population back, Brahmans took the shield of Puranās. In the Puranās like Matsya Puranā, they generated the theory of the Buddha as an Avatār or incarnation of Viśnu. The reason behind referring to the Buddha as Avatār of Viśnu was to win the population back, of which the majority had mainly joined Buddhism owing to its flexible approach as compared to others, argues Upinder Singh: “The Puranās had very important functions in the Brahmanical tradition as a vehicle of Brahmanical social and religious values”.
The Nilamatapurāna is also one of the Purānas written with the same endeavour to Brahmanise the Kashmiri society and to connect the land of Kashmir with a broader north Indian Brahmanical discourse. The analysis of the contents and the narration leaves one in no doubt that it was an extension of the Purānic process of north India. In tune with the methodological framework of the Purānas, the Nilamatapurāna talks about three out of the five main topics: Pratisarga, Manvantara and Vamśanucharita of Purānas. Nilamatapurāna also mentions various Avatars of Viśnu like Narsimha, Vamana, Varaha, Buddha, etc. As Purānas reflect the interaction between Brahmanical and non-Brahmanical traditions, the Nilamatapurāna, too, reflects the interaction of Brahmanical and non-Brahmanical traditions like Nāga and Pisaca. As Purānas played a significant role in Brahmanising diverse religious traditions, the same way different religious traditions were Brahmanised by Nilamatapurāna. It talks about various religious traditions prevalent at that time in Kashmir, like Nāga, Pisaca, Buddhism, Śaivism, and Vaiśnavism. But these religious traditions are not referred to as separate traditions but rather as the branches of a Brahmanical religion whose supreme God was Viśnu.
Thus this similarity between north Indian Purānas and the Nilamatapurāna of Kashmir reflects the cultural connections between the Indic mainland and Kashmir since ancient times. During ancient times Kashmir had strong cultural links with the Indic mainland as it had in those days with Central Asia, China, and Persia. Kashmir’s cultural links with these regions are well substantiated by the literary and archaeological sources of Kashmir. In order to know this, I would suggest looking at literary texts like Nilamatapurāna, Rajatarangini, Vikramānkdevcaritam, Tantrāloka, Si-Yu-Ki and archaeological sources like excavation reports on the findings of different archaeological sites, numismatics and architectural style.
The writer is a Senior Research Fellow, Department of History, University of Kashmir. [email protected]