It’s 4:45 on Friday afternoon, the eighth day of the lunar month of Aśvin, second to last night of Navarātra, the nine nights celebrating the Goddess, Śakti. I have worked on a team to transliterate, translate and edit a text recently rediscovered in the Oriental Research Library in Śrinagar, Kashmir and reconstruct its ritual recitation of the thousand names of the Goddess Śāradā. Finally, the culmination of countless hours of textual editing, translating, supporting, organizing and fundraising has arrived — marking yet another paramount reason for exalting the victory of the Goddess, as the Hindu holiday proclaims — the deep psychological celebration that occurs in the wake of completion. As I take my seat next to the fire and tune my tamboura (a four stringed Indian ‘drone’ instrument), I feel the gradual settling of our thirty plus guests into one meticulously marked ritual space among the golden leaves scattered across the backyard, merging into a kaleidoscope of interrelated entanglement.
As we begin the recitation of the “Thousand Names of the Goddesss Śāradā,” together, after finalizing the edited translation merely hours before, our diverse spectrums of human experience come together as one unified collective consciousness fixated upon one shared object of meditation. After many moments, hours really, of observing my own fluctuating consciousness through the melodious chanting of the names, the rhythmic offering of black and white sesame seeds into the fire, the drone of my tamboura as I struggle to play continuously, despite the necessary shifts around the cracking popping fire, I locate myself settled, peaceful, open, alert. Following one exceptionally sublime moment of absorption into the totality of the ritual, an ineffably profound sense of oneness, a colossal question dawns: is this the direct and personal experience of the non-duality I am willing to ‘entertain’ (but not necessarily advocate) as the ultimate and absolute ‘reality’? Further, is this an experience I even can share in academic writing, and moreover do I even want to? That is to say, will sharing my personal experience of an extolled sense of infinite non-dual consciousness be my most effective offering of service for the benefit of all beings?
These are just some of the burning questions arising from the center of my independently co-originated position, as I read and examine the critical analysis of spiritual practices, and explore my own connection to both those processes of examination and the practices themselves. So far, many relevant yet antagonistic views have arisen, which I am constantly attempting to reconcile to the extent that I may craft my own most insightful and relevant approach to the academic study of religion. In this case, the more cognitive investigation naturally leads me to a concern for the authenticity of this practice, the recitation of the Thousand Names, and the implications of ‘reviving’ this lost text for the people most allied with its historical and soteriological importance; specifically the Pandit community exiled from Kaśmir and resettled throughout the globe. Is our ‘revival’ of the Goddess Śāradā through this ritual re-enactment (despite a meticulous attention to detail in recreating her ceremony in exactly the way the text itself prescribes), simply additional forms of orientalist appropriation? Or, conversely, are we actually helping the Pandits in exile redefine their sense of cultural identity, now reestablished within an online cultural arena (this entire ceremony was broadcast live over the internet), after hundreds of years of violent persecution and in light of the eventual exodus which transpired over the last forty years?
In the context of the Thousand Names of Śāradā ceremony, the precise recreation of ritual elements are certainly of upmost importance, in addition to my experience and interaction with the Kaśmiri Pandit community and its individuals– investigating how they feel about this project, and, beyond that, looking deeper into the implications of my ethnographic analysis and presentation of this material.
Naturally, I am curious to investigate in what ways am I advocating the Pandit’s political stance, as a people in exile, and their religious and philosophical heritages. I am also interested in the reasons why this particular Śāradā ceremony fails to be remembered in the contemporary Pandit tradition. Further, I wonder if there are more critical systems of power within the philosophical underpinnings and ritual itself that contribute to this omittance — beyond the usual jump to Muslim invasion and suppression. Of course, I’m in no position to explicitly answer any of this here and now. Alas, I can merely offer my ponderings and ask for yours too….