Body and Embodiment in the Middle Bengali Imaginary

Project Summary

The “body” has acquired a central place as an analytical category in the humanities and social sciences. Rather than a mere presocial biological given, the human body has come to be recognized across disciplines in these domains as just as much a product of human societies as a determinant of them. The way that we live in our bodies is understood as fundamentally shaped by our understanding of the (often tacit) ideas of “embodiment” we inherit from our environments. Thus, more than a mere locus of biological processes, the body is also a site of habits, values, and worldviews. It is in this sense, then, that the body has come to function as a productive entry point for exploring the manifold dimensions of human culture.

The body has been deployed as a theoretical lens with particular effect in the sphere of religion—a domain deeply rooted in bodily schemes. Scholarship on South Asian religions has made important contributions in this respect, disclosing the body’s centrality to ritual, society, and cosmology, among other realms in this region. There is, however, still much to be done to bring to light models of the body that are grounded in the theoretical resources and distinctive idioms of Indic traditions themselves, models that are not mere derivatives of prevalent Eurocentric constructions but that stand as dialogical counterparts to these. Indeed, such work is imperative if we are to move towards a truly global understanding of the embodied human being.

This project aims to contribute to this vital task by examining how ideas of the body and embodiment take shape in Bengal’s rich corpus of premodern vernacular literature dating from c. 1400 CE to c. 1800 CE. Though the Middle Bengali (or madhyajuger bangla) corpus is one of the most expansive premodern Indic vernacular spheres, it remains curiously neglected in Western scholarship. The corpus reflects a multiplex religious milieu that encompasses Shakta, Vaishnava, Yogic, Tantric, and Sufi currents, among others. Texts within the corpus ubiquitously deploy body symbolism that, while evincing a diverse spectrum of attitudes toward embodied existence, invariably portrays the body as an indispensable site for human transformation.

This collaborative project aims to collect, translate, and critically analyze a representative sample of this body discourse. The project will result in an international research network; a series of workshops; an international conference panel; and an Open Access volume of high-quality translations and critical essays.

Project Directors

Robert Czyżykowski
Lucian Wong

Project Members

Joel Bordeaux
Keith Cantu
Ishan Chakrabarti
Ayesha Irani
Naba Gopal Roy
Rebecca Manring
Mriganka Mukhopadhyay