Challenging Expectations: Interpreting the Bengali Satya Nārāyaṇer Puthi of Kavivallabh (TT23)

Location: OCHS Library
Speaker: Professor Tony Stewart
Date: May 4, 2023
Time: 2.00pm – 3.00pm

The early modern Bengali literatures dedicated to the figure of Satya Pīr and Satya Nārāyaṇ are voluminous, second only to the vast Vaiṣṇav corpus generated by the followers of Kṛṣṇa Caitanya. But apart from editing the manuscripts and on occasion retelling his marvel-filled stories, the texts have evaded the critical eye of scholars. I invite you to join me in a collective attempt (seminar style) to interpret a text variously titled Satya Nārāyaṇer Puthi or Satya Pīrer Puthi of Kavivallabh (copies of its translation will be made available in advance*). This will be an exegetical exercise that should reveal some of the hermeneutical complexities in taking seriously the miraculous and fabulous events recorded in these religious narratives that are routinely dismissed as simplistic folk tales or fairy tales.

* My unabridged translation appears in Needle at the Bottom of the Sea: Bengali Tales from the Land of the Eighteen Tides (University of California Press, 2023), pp. 341-72.

Professor Tony K. Stewart retired from teaching in 2021 and is now the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Chair in Humanities, Emeritus, at Vanderbilt University. Within the Hindu traditions his research has focused on the creation of the Gaudiya Vaisnava movement of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the results of which can be found in his monograph titled The Final Word: the Caitanya Caritamrta and the Grammar of Religious Tradition (Oxford 2010). This work was preceded by a translation of the  encyclopaedic Caitanya Caritamrta of Krsnadasa Kaviraja, which he produced with the late Edward C. Dimock, Jr. (Harvard Oriental Series, 1999). Followers of the Vaisnava traditions also recognize a figure named Satya Pir, which provided a segue into the Islamic, especially Sufi, literatures of the Bangla-speaking world (West Bengal and Bangladesh). Satya Pir, who is considered to be both an avatara of Krsna as well as a Sufi saint, represents a rapprochment of Muslims and Hindus in the plural Bengali society of the premodern period. In Fabulous Females and Peerless Pirs: Tales of Mad Adventure in Old Bengal (Oxford 2004) Prof. Stewart translated eight tales out of several hundred, each focused on the ways women, aided by Satya Pir, keep the world ordered in the wake of male-generated chaos. That literature prompted him to write Witness to Marvels: Sufism and Literary Imagination (California, 2019), which examines the ways the Islamic imaginaire has insinuated itself seamlessly into a Bengali consciousness through fictional heroes who extend their help and protection to anyone regardless of sectarian affiliation. This work was awarded the Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy Book Prize of the Association for Asian Studies in 2021.Unabridged translations of many of those tales appear in Needle at the Bottom of the Sea: Bengali Tales from the Land of the Eighteen Tides (California, 2023). His current work focuses on alternative communal narratives in the first centuries of Gaudiya Vaisnava history.