Myth-History Conundrums in the Hagiographies of Satya Pīr: Hindu God and Muslim Holy Man (MT 16)

Location: OCHS Library
Speaker: Prof. Tony K. Stewart
Date: October 27, 2016
Time: 2:00 PM – 3:00 PM

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.