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Lectures by Prof. Tony K. Stewart

Myth-History Conundrums in the Hagiographies of Satya Pīr: Hindu God and Muslim Holy Man

J.P. And Beena Khaitan Visiting Fellows lecture
27 Oct 2016

Satya Pīr has been for scholars one of the most puzzling figures in Bengali religious history: for Muslims a Sufi saint and for Hindus none other than Satya Nārāyaṇ. The index to their truly puzzling nature is the fact that in spite of their ubiquity—his manuscript and print literature in Bangla is second in size only to the voluminous output prompted by Kṛṣṇa Caitanya—there have been virtually no serious attempts to understand the religious and cultural work of these stories. For the last two centuries these boundary-crossing tales have been uniformly dismissed as derivative rubbish from the perspective of those writing the heroic nationalist literary histories that were secular in ideal, but Hindu in orientation; as heretical by the conservative reforming factions of Faraizi and Salafi Islam; as syncretistic confusion by both foreign and local Orientalists; and demonstrative of a bastard language called dobhāṣī (Bangla combined with Persian and Urdu) by prominent Bengali linguists—all of which served to relegate the tales to the Victorian and Bengali bhadralok élitist (and more recently Marxist) curio cabinet of naïve folktales suitable only as entertainment for the masses. The effect is to hide these tales from the official record of Bengal’s literary production, even though centuries later they continue to enjoy wide popularity and the enjoined worship is still routinely performed. Apart from the obvious contemporary sectarian chauvinism, the underlying key to this almost panicked rejection by élites is the fact that Satya Pīr is of fictional character. He appears nowhere in the historical record of Persian chronicles or copperplate inscriptions and only officially as a mythic figure in the British gazetteers. As a first step in making these tales make sense, I propose that we approach them for what they are: fictional hagiographies. The methodological strategies used to interpret hagiography or religious biography can be applied equally to these narratives of Satya Pīr and Satya Nārāyaṇ, but because of their fictional or mythic nature, the tales unravel something of the intractable problems all hagiographies present to historians of religion. Prof. Tony K. Stewart specializes in the literatures and religions of the Bangla-speaking world, with a special emphasis on the early modern period. His most recent monograph, The Final Word: the Caitanya Caritāmṛta and the Grammar of Religious Tradition (Oxford, 2010), culminated a decades-long study of the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava hagiographical tradition that included translating with Edward C. Dimock, Jr., The Caitanya Caritāmṛta of Kṛṣṇadāsa Kavirāja, Harvard Oriental Series no. 56 (Harvard, 1999). From the literatures of the Muslim–Hindu mythic figure, Satya Pīr, he published Fabulous Females and Peerless Pīrs: Tales of Mad Adventure in Old Bengal (Oxford, 2004) and is currently working on a monograph on the popular Bangla romance literatures of the pīrs. With prominent American poet Chase Twichell, he has published the first ever translations of Rabindranath Tagore’s pseudonymous Bhānusiṃha poetry titled The Lover of God (Copper Canyon, 2003). Stewart currently holds the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Chair in Humanities and serves as a Professor and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Vanderbilt University. 

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Subjunctive Explorations of Fictive Vaiṣṇav-Sufi Discourse

J.P. And Beena Khaitan Visiting Fellows lecture
10 Nov 2016

The early modern Bangla tales of the legendary or mythic pīrs are romantic narratives that speak to the often strange and puzzling encounters between Hindus, especially Vaiṣṇavs, and Muslims, primarily Sufis. They bring together foreigners and locals, courtiers and country bumpkins, in encounters ripe with a myriad of misunderstandings and false assumptions regarding religion, rituals, and those that practice them. They seek to establish the functional equivalence of religious practitioners, their rituals, and the contours of belief through the vehicle of the generic romance. One of the most popular figures is Baḍa Khān Gājī, who from atop his Arabian stallion commands an army of twenty-five thousand tigers, and wages a successful war against Dakṣīn Rāy, an overlord who rides his own personal tiger and counters with his militia of twenty-five thousand crocodiles (both troops mustered through the interventions of the goddess Caṇḍī). Mānik Pīr, who is famous as a veterinarian, especially for cows, is as irascible as any meditating yogī and demonstrates much the same kind of destructive and beneficent power in his encounters with those who fail to show a proper respect, especially greedy merchants and arrogant brahmins. Olābibī, matron of cholera and other water-borne diseases, teams up with Śitalā, goddess of smallpox, cowpox, and skin diseases such as warts, wens, and eczema. And most widely known, Satya Pīr, carrying both the Qur’ān and Bhāgavat Purāṇ, rescues his followers from penury, while helping women to set right the world after the idiotic actions of their men have confounded the proper order. All of these tales are rife with phantasmagoria equal to anything found in the Arabian Nights, with flying horses, celestial nymphs playing pranks, theriomorphic births, talking birds, and men transmogrified into goats to serve as breeding stock. As Todorov suggests, these fantastic romances produce a special kind of incredulity, a disbelief or suspension of belief that has resulted in their classification as light entertainment for the masses and dismissed as neither Hindu nor Muslim. But I wish to argue that these Muslim texts are undertaking a very serious cultural work that is not possible within the available genres of Islamic history, theology, and law. These texts explore the subjunctive, not in the sense of the way the world should be, but how it might be imagined, how it might come to be. The work of these texts is to explore how an Islamic cosmology might accommodate itself to and then appropriate the predominately Hindu cosmology encountered in the Bangla-speaking world of the early-modern period. Each narrative operates according to a logic of ‘what if . . .’ Perhaps surprisingly, I argue that parody is the critical mechanism by which Islam in these tales is gradually transformed into a distinctly Bengali Islam, that can account for its Hindu, especially Vaiṣṇav, counterpart. Prof. Tony K. Stewart specializes in the literatures and religions of the Bangla-speaking world, with a special emphasis on the early modern period. His most recent monograph, The Final Word: the Caitanya Caritāmṛta and the Grammar of Religious Tradition (Oxford, 2010), culminated a decades-long study of the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava hagiographical tradition that included translating with Edward C. Dimock, Jr., The Caitanya Caritāmṛta of Kṛṣṇadāsa Kavirāja, Harvard Oriental Series no. 56 (Harvard, 1999). From the literatures of the Muslim–Hindu mythic figure, Satya Pīr, he published Fabulous Females and Peerless Pīrs: Tales of Mad Adventure in Old Bengal (Oxford, 2004) and is currently working on a monograph on the popular Bangla romance literatures of the pīrs. With prominent American poet Chase Twichell, he has published the first ever translations of Rabindranath Tagore’s pseudonymous Bhānusiṃha poetry titled The Lover of God (Copper Canyon, 2003). Stewart currently holds the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Chair in Humanities and serves as a Professor and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Vanderbilt University. 

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The Colloquy between Muhammad and Saytān: The 18th century Bangla Iblichnāmā of Garībullā

Lectures of the J.P. And Beena Khaitan Visiting Fellow
31 Jan 2017

In 1287 bs [=1879/80 ce] a short Bangla work was published in Calcutta under the title of Iblichnāmār punthi by the highly productive scholar Garībullā, who had composed the text about a century earlier. This somewhat unusual text is a colloquy between the Prophet Muhammad and the fallen Iblich (Ar. Iblīs), also called Saytān. The bulk of this fictional text is an interrogation of Iblich regarding the nature of his followers and their actions. The text is prefaced in its opening verses with a somewhat uneasy statement about the nature of the book and whether it was even appropriate to compose such a text it in the vernacular Bangla, a move that immediately draws attention to the language of the text itself and its intended audience. The opening section moves from one language conundrum to another until the attentive reader begins to realize that the fact one is reading the text in Bangla suggests that question and those that followed were actually moot, a set up for something else. Soon, the logic of the argument makes clear that such a conversation between the always untruthful Iblich and the always truthful Muhammad could only happen in a fiction—and it is perfectly fine to write fiction in Bangla. This move to fiction immediately alters the approach of the reader, who is rewarded with humorous, often naughty descriptions of the depraved and licentious acts of Saytān’s lackeys, parodies of the standard ’aḥādīth literatures regarding proper conduct—everything a good practicing Muslim is not! This fictional inversion of all that is good and proper titillates the reader in its mad escape from the Bakhtinian monologic of theology, history, and law that governs the discourse of the conservative Sunni (Hanbalite) mainstream. It is the exaggerated negative image of the law as seen from the imagined squalid underbelly of Bengali society.(This seminar is jointly sponsored by the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, the Asian Studies Centre at St. Anthony’s College, and the History Faculty.)Prof. Tony K. Stewart specializes in the literatures and religions of the Bangla-speaking world, with a special emphasis on the early modern period. His most recent monograph, The Final Word: the Caitanya Caritāmṛta and the Grammar of Religious Tradition (Oxford, 2010), culminated a decades-long study of the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava hagiographical tradition that included translating with Edward C. Dimock, Jr., The Caitanya Caritāmṛta of Kṛṣṇadāsa Kavirāja, Harvard Oriental Series no. 56 (Harvard, 1999). From the literatures of the Muslim–Hindu mythic figure, Satya Pīr, he published Fabulous Females and Peerless Pīrs: Tales of Mad Adventure in Old Bengal (Oxford, 2004) and is currently working on a monograph on the popular Bangla romance literatures of the pīrs. With prominent American poet Chase Twichell, he has published the first ever translations of Rabindranath Tagore’s pseudonymous Bhānusiṃha poetry titled The Lover of God (Copper Canyon, 2003). Stewart currently holds the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Chair in Humanities and serves as a Professor and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Vanderbilt University.

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When Muslim and Hindu Worlds Meet in Fiction: Mapping the Bengali Imaginaire

Lectures of the J.P. And Beena Khaitan Visiting Fellow
16 Feb 2017

A number of Bangla tales dedicated to the fictional or mythic holy men (pīrs) and women (bibīs) in the Muslim community have circulated widely over the last five centuries alongside the tales of their historical counterparts. They are still printed and told today, and performed regularly in public, especially in the Sunderbans, the mangrove swamps in the southern reaches of Bangladesh and West Bengal. Among them are figures such as the itinerant veterinarian Mānik Pīr, the tamer of tigers Baḍakhān Gājī and his female counterpart Bonbibī, and the matron of cholera Olābibī. Because of the way they defy the strictly demarcated categories that have come to define Hindu and Muslim in the last two centuries, Orientalist scholars, conservative Muslim factions, linguists, and literary historians have until recently rejected or ignored altogether this group of stories as as purely entertaining with no religious, linguistic, or literary merit. I argue that not only are these fictions religious, they create an important space within the limiting strictures of Islamic theology, history, and law that allows people to exercise their imagination to investigate alternative worlds. These texts simultaneously offer a critique of religion and society through their parodies, rather than articulating doctrine or theology. Because they are fictions, any approach to their religiosity must use hermeneutic strategies suited to the literary world in which they operate. But the imagination exercised in these tales is not unlimited, rather the parameters of the discursive arena in which they operate—the imaginaire—can be defined by two types of presuppositions and two types of intertextuality that both enable and constrain what is possible to express. Using the example of the tales of the conflict between Dakṣiṇ Rāy and Baḍakhān Gāji, and the later appropriation by Bonbibī, we can identify not only the structures of the imaginaire, but the processes by which different authors several centuries apart construct and inhabit that discursive space for their own distinct religious purposes.Prof. Tony K. Stewart specializes in the literatures and religions of the Bangla-speaking world, with a special emphasis on the early modern period. His most recent monograph, The Final Word: the Caitanya Caritāmṛta and the Grammar of Religious Tradition (Oxford, 2010), culminated a decades-long study of the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava hagiographical tradition that included translating with Edward C. Dimock, Jr., The Caitanya Caritāmṛta of Kṛṣṇadāsa Kavirāja, Harvard Oriental Series no. 56 (Harvard, 1999). From the literatures of the Muslim–Hindu mythic figure, Satya Pīr, he published Fabulous Females and Peerless Pīrs: Tales of Mad Adventure in Old Bengal (Oxford, 2004) and is currently working on a monograph on the popular Bangla romance literatures of the pīrs. With prominent American poet Chase Twichell, he has published the first ever translations of Rabindranath Tagore’s pseudonymous Bhānusiṃha poetry titled The Lover of God (Copper Canyon, 2003). Stewart currently holds the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Chair in Humanities and serves as a Professor and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Vanderbilt University. 

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