A Report on the Unity Yatra &

Dialogue with Young Leaders in Kashmir

For the past six years GPIW has been organizing dialogues in Kashmir both with young people and with teachers of the Sufi and Yogi lineages. In partnership with Ripples Kashmir and with support from our friends at ITRI, Japan and a gift from Arsha Vijnana Gurukulam, GPIW returned to Kashmir this May for a Unity Yatra (pilgrimage), covering all three regions of the state. We began in Ladakh (where there is a Buddhist majority), traveled to Srinagar (with its Muslim majority) and ended the pilgrimage at the holy Vaishno Devi Shrine in Jammu (where there is a Hindu majority). Our purpose was to reconnect with the ancient wisdom of Kashmir, which appreciated the region's rich spiritual diversity and valued deep spiritual exchange. Historically Kashmir has been a place of confluence where Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic mystics shared their realizations.
Ven. Bhikkhu Sanghasena and delegates at Mahabodhi Meditation Center, Ladakh
A warm welcome by monks and nuns and students of Mahabodhi Meditation Center   
Kashmir's diversity was disrupted by the influx of external radicalizing elements, which led to the expulsion of the Hindus in 1989, when many of the Hindu families were forced to flee to Jammu, some still residing in refugee camps there. Since that time ongoing infiltration by extremist groups from Pakistan, often funded with money from the Gulf countries, has given rise to a radicalization that is truly antithetical to the values and culture of Kashmir. There are many efforts by the local population to resist and counter these influences.  
 Indus River
We began our journey in Leh, the capital of Ladakh, where we were hosted by The Venerable Bhikkhu Sanghasena at his beautiful Mahabodhi International retreat center. There we saw the extensive scope of Venerable Sanghasena's vision, a thriving Buddhist community with apricot orchards surrounding meditation halls, Buddhist stupas, schools for village children, healthcare facilities, even a home for the elderly. Venerable Sanghasena organized a local Buddhist-Muslim Dialogue, where we learned that while these two communities have lived peacefully side-by-side, the radicalization that is infecting Kashmir is beginning to impact the Buddhist-Muslim relationship in Ladakh. The day long dialogue was also attended by young students from around the Leh valley. Several local Buddhist and Muslim schools came to offer traditional songs and dance to animate the day.
The most moving aspect of this part of our journey was to witness the shrinking Indus River and to hear that 50% of Ladakh's glaciers are now gone. This region receives hardly any rain and is dependent on the glaciers for its water. Venerable Sanghasena is keen to draw global attention to the state of the Himalayan glaciers, and we agreed to join him in this effort.
Kargil, in Ladakh, was the location of the last war between India and Pakistan, and today that border area separating the two countries is highly militarized.   Due to China's interest in creating an economic corridor on the Pakistan side of the border that would give it access to the Arabian Sea, China has posted some 30,000 Chinese soldiers on the border. There are occasional incursions by the Chinese army across the border into India, and so for many reasons this is a highly sensitive area. Our intention in beginning the Unity Yatra there was to offer prayers that this sacred region would be spared any further conflict. For many centuries, yogis engaged in intense spiritual practice have retreated to caves in the high mountains of Ladakh, thus offering the region protection from external forces.   Today the caves are mostly empty but the spiritual energy can still be felt. Hopefully it will continue to preserve a place known for its stark beauty and mystical atmosphere.
The contrast between Ladakh and the valley of Kashmir could not be more striking. The valley was lush and colorful, replete with flowers of all varieties. The Buddhist energy of Ladakh is transformed into a mix of Sufi and Shaivite energy. For millennia, Kashmir had been a center for worshippers of Lord Shiva and His Shakti, Parvati, and this energy is still vibrant, despite the exodus of so many Hindu families. Historically Kashmir was known as a center of learning and the presiding deities are Sharada, the female aspect of the Divine which imparts wisdom, and various manifestations of Parvati, who imparts spiritual power. Thus there is an intensity of spiritual energy in its feminine manifestation. For Buddhists, the valley of Kashmir was also a place of great significance to those following the tradition and practice of Green Tara.
For centuries Sufis have gathered at various places in Kashmir and Sufi Shrines are abundant. These Shrines continue to attract the local population, where there is ongoing meditation and prayer, despite threats from radical elements. We began our stay in Kashmir with a visit to Zainuddin Rishi's Shrine in Ashmuquam, a cave where the great 13th century Sufi Saint lived for over 25 years and is buried.
Zainuddin Rishi's cave at Ashmuquam
Our main objective in Srinagar was the organization of a 2-day retreat/dialogue with 26 young leaders in Kashmir - teachers, journalists, and business people. The theme was "Leading from Within", how to bring forth inner resources such as courage, confidence, discernment, integrity and compassion.  How does one use the mind, not just for one's own wellbeing but for the wellbeing of the community? "The mind is a bad master but good servant,' explained Syed Salman Chishti, a Sufi who is now the head of the Ajmer Dargah in Rajasthan, and one of the dialogue facilitators. He added, "The heart is where God resides. All our actions should bring benefit to others." Another facilitator Swamini Svatmavidyananda expanded on this: "The mind is the cause of liberation and it is also the cause of bondage. You cannot afford to feel victimized by the world." Angela Fischer, a Sufi mystic from Germany, concurred, "You can fight injustice by purifying the heart because then you will not demonize others. We may have difficulty in finding the voice of the heart, and it takes courage to follow it. The heart never judges. It is a place of oneness. It comes from a Divine source inside of us." Swami Atmarupananda added, "You have to learn to distinguish the voice of the heart from the noise of the mind. In a conflict between the heart and the mind always listen to the heart."
The conversation then turned to the definition of Sufism. This age old center of Sufi practice is slowly being transformed as a more conservative form of Islam takes over. Sufis have gone under cover in Kashmir and it was a rather bold step to highlight in this new more radicalized environment the message of Sufism, which is a message of love, connectedness and inclusivity. Angela Fischer added, "for Sufis the relationship to God is one of love. It is a love story - the whole relationship between God and creation is a love story."
When speaking of leadership, Swami Atmarupananda said, "everyone can be a leader. The essence of leadership is influence, and each of us is creating an influence." Sraddhalu Ranade, a teacher form the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, added, "Every thought has a ripple effect on the whole world. The world condition that we see today is a result of everyone acting out of self-interest and not thinking about the whole." Vrinda Dar, a development expert with roots in Kashmir, said, "if we want to change this place, we have to change ourselves. Awareness building is equally or more important than the tangible work of development."
Meeting with young community leaders in Srinagar
L to R Angela Fischer, Wahid Ur Rehman, Shahnawaz, Syed Salman Chishty, Dena Merriam, Swami Svatmavidyananda
One of the young Kashmiri leaders, an agriculturist, expanded on the theme of how to bring about change. "We don't need more than 1,000 thoughtful people to make change," he said.   Then he added, "the real engine of our economy is driven by women. We must support the women." He served as a unique example to the other young people in the room with his courage to try out innovative ideas -- that now had him working with more than 4000 farmers moving to ecological farming, a youthful re-envisioning the apple industry of the state and leaving behind the harmful chemicals that deplete the soil. He was even exploring with young architects in Kashmir to design ecological housing that would fit the landscape of the orchards and move away from the 'concrete and infrastructure' that is killing the land. Daily he asks himself, " if this were my last day of life would I be doing what I am doing?" "If we see beauty and love in what we do then everything makes sense." It was clear that that the young men and women were eager for jobs, a healthy competition that brought with it an ecological and inclusive vison of development for Kashmir. They want to be part of the global community with a mind on the future and not the past.
The power of sacred music to unify and open people's hearts was apparent. Davod Azad of Iran sang the poetry of Rumi and spontaneously wrote a song about the beauty of Kashmir to share. Tulku Pema Tashi of Tibet had a voice that called forth the power of the Himalayas. As a gift to the people of Srinagar, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations organized a grand concert with Davod at the Government College for Women. The evening concluded with a  joyful song by Swami Nirvanananda in a show of unity.
By the second day of the dialogue, sitting in a closed circle, the participants were fully engaged in discussion. The dialogue concluded with a commitment on the part of the young participants to work to inspire others and to take the message of the dialogue forward into their communities.
The evening before leaving the Kashmir valley a few members of the group went to meet with the Chief Minister, a woman whose expression revealed the great responsibility and challenges she faces. The Minister had heard of the work of GPIW from our young organizer. The following day she issued a strong statement in the local papers decrying the rock throwing by radicals, citing that this is not Islam and that it was causing fear among those wishing to go and worship at the mosques.
The journey then took us to the last part of Yatra, Jammu, where we met with a group of young Kashmir Pandits (the Hindu community), whose families fled during the 1989 riots. Some had just returned to Kashmir for the first time after 25 years, having left as young children. It was moving to hear their stories. The government of India for the first time is now planning to help the Pandits return, but the question of their security remains a pressing concern.
As a conclusion to the Unity Yatri, we visited, along with 50,000 other pilgrims, one of India's main Shakti Shrines, Shakti being the Divine Feminine transformative power.  It was a powerful and rewarding journey despite the arduous effort to reach this 1 million year old cave.
Offerings at Vaisho Devi
  Our Unity Yatra ended with the sense that after so many visits, something is truly shifting in Kashmir. The energy of love, unite, and integration, may be finally awakening.  
Pahalgam, Kashmir


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