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Book Essay: Literary and Religious Practices in Medieval and Early Modern India

By Raziuddin Aquil and David L. Curley

The essays in our co-edited volume, Literary and Religious Practices in Medieval and Early Modern India, deal with the composition and reception of symbolic representations, and with social practices in literature and religion. In them, we have many opportunities to think about writing practices and literary genres in relation to religious boundaries and identities – whether multiple, dual or exclusive. Some of the genres explored are letters, hagiographies, translations or transcreations of sacred texts, and ballads. All of them depended on an archive of other texts and memories, and all tried to maintain and reshape public memories. All of them used various configurative devices to construct ideas and sentiments that defined religious identities and supported action in their defense.

These essays also provide us the opportunity to think particularly about genres of vernacular and academic history in relation to religion. Domains of religion and literature frequently overlapped in the practice of writing vernacular histories of South Asia. Vernacular genres of history perhaps can be placed on a scale that ranges from the factual to the artfully configured, as VN Rao, David Shulman, and Sanjay Subrahmanyam have suggested. But prosaic genres of history also employ the literary devices of scene, character, and plot, together with more or less ‘factuality’, to imitate human actions and their consequences in time, while they also depend upon and reinforce an archive of public memories attached to local sites and prominent people of a shared past. Public memories were shared in oral performances as well as in written literature. Religious as well as secular purposes shaped the formation of archives of memory and the choice of vernacular genres; and secular histories as well as religious ones used literary devices to configure narratives and to shape affective responses in their audiences.

Scott Kugle’s chapter attempts to explore Sufi attitudes toward homosexuality,  by means of Sufi literature about the propriety and spiritual value of the homoerotic devotional practice of ‘playing the witness’, gazing at a good-looking young boy as a way of seeking union with God, the ultimate beloved.  The texts examined were records of discussions between a Chishti shaykh and his disciples, discussions that in turn drew upon a variety of stories and parables, and one public letter of instruction to Sufis at large, a letter that used personal experience, logic, and the authoritative warnings of other Sufis. Kugle finds that these Chishti texts did not employ the many technical legal terms aimed to control social behavior and define sex acts as licit or illicit in Islamic jurisprudence. Instead they appear to be more concerned with questions of inner disposition: intention, the presence or absence of lust, and the spiritual condition of the practitioner. These texts exist alongside and in obvious contrast to others that do use the legal terms that define specific sex acts as lawful or not.

Engagement with love poetry and music in some Sufi hospices relied on an underlying current of eroticism that in the social context of Sufi hospices was homoerotic. Both texts and practices are related to homoerotic sociability and to sexuality in general in pre-modern Sufi hospices, and in South Asian society more broadly. Conflicting texts reveal attitudes and beliefs about both homoerotic sociability and sexuality, especially in relation to Sufi spiritual disciplines. Kugle concludes that homoerotic feelings apparently were accepted as normal by many Chishti saints. Discourse about sexuality was flexible with regard to homosexuality – homoeroticism was accepted, and homosexual acts were not seen as a matter to refer for forensic investigation and legal adjudication. Most Chishti discourse about homoerotic devotional practices was not legalistic and condemnatory, but discourse that supports ‘playing the witness’ was reticent (or discrete) about homosexual acts. Although homoerotic feelings and relations were not condemned in this relatively sympathetic discourse, they are placed in a moral and spiritual hierarchy that valued sublimation and discipline of sexuality as part of the path to God.  Chishti Sufis valued love, but condemned the attitudes of selfishness, possession and domination that were part of a socially constructed experience of sexuality in their society.

Exploring Dashanami ascetics, and especially their military ascetic naga associates, Matthew Clark’s chapter interrogates processes of religious change that involved borrowing from a ‘common pool’ of practices, a pool to which Sufis and especially their militant and antinomian qalandar lineages had contributed. At the same time, change was disguised by projecting borrowed practices back in time to Shankara as the founder of Dashanami order, and by projecting his authority forward in time to include all new groups who traced a guru-disciple relationship back to him. Clark raises questions about the elasticity of religious identities and the permeability of religious boundaries, by examining who defines and what constitutes borrowing from the outside (‘syncretism’ in the author’s terminology), versus what constitutes ‘internal’ change. Perhaps more important historically is the process of boundary maintenance that allowed for dramatic expansions of Dashanamis to include roving bands of warrior ascetics. With regard to the contemporary historiography, Clark’s essay raises difficult questions about what constitutes adequate evidence for demonstrating influence in historical change,  Even though we may not have specific acknowledgements of borrowing by those who made the change, how smaller group identities were subsumed into a larger religious order remains an important issue.

Mridula Jha focuses on a single author, Dara Shukoh, who attempted to preserve the authority of Muslim saints who taught the concept and meditative practices of wahdat-ul-wujud (unity of being), and to defend them against their critics. By tracing his rhetoric, Jha explores religious identity in the context of intense controversy concerning the concept of wahdat-ul-wujud, and concerning Sufi practices of meditation related to it. She refers to an ‘outpouring’ in Dara’s writing of a ‘deluge of sentiments’ for his teachers and their lineage. Their characters had all the virtues in balance: they were ‘compassionate, magnanimous, independent, learned, perfect and erudite, and yet at the same time practical, humble, polite and heroic’. Sentiments of love, honour and loyalty attached to the lineage, its great men, and their virtues, and sentiments of self-respect and courage in one’s own role in maintaining the lineage in the face of opposition probably were some of the supports for the religious identity of those who belonged to the lineage.

Near the end of his life Dara also attempted to include among authoritative scriptures – Hindu sacred texts – that he thought taught the same concept and practices of wahdat-ul-wujud.  He translated the principle Upanishads, believing that they also were expressions of ‘unity of being’ and that they would illuminate esoteric messages in the Quran. And finally he attempted to produce a comparative lexicon of Muslim and Hindu terms based on the idea that all religions teach the same fundamental truths. In Dara’s case, as in general, religious identities and boundaries were contested by gaining access to political power, against others who also had access to political power, and Dara eventually lost his life as a result.

Sandhya Sharma’s study of the ‘Hinduization’ of ketab (sacred ‘books’ revealed to prophets) in the Prannath Sampraday is made possible by a two-step statement of equivalence: that avatar equals true guru, and that avatar/guru equals true Prophet. Prannath also taught two related soteriological ideas, that true gurus are reborn; and that the Mahdi, Jesus and the Prophet reborn, will come again before the Day of Judgment to provide salvation to the faithful. Prannath himself claimed to be the Mahdi. We see a context of writing, as Prannath reportedly travelled from Gujarat to Sindh, to the Persian Gulf, and on to Iraq, and frequent written communications passed between him and his foremost disciples. Prannath finally returned to Delhi and Rajasthan.  There we also see a social gulf that separated him and his followers from the Mughal court – in language, dress, and diet, and in the very idea that Prannath was the Mahdi. Without correctly understanding their relations, Prannath attempted to play Rajput rulers against Aurangzeb. His claims to divinity, and to reveal (again) a renewed, true and universal religion, as the gurus and prophets had done, were the fundamental issues dividing him from orthodox Sunni Muslims.  He and his disciples sought to establish these claims through new, revealed scriptures that have ‘descended’ and are preserved in writing (modelled on the scriptures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam), and by oral preaching and recitations to ordinary people based on scriptures.

The basic source for this chapter is the Bijak, a hagiography of Prannath written by a disciple, Laldas. The chronicle-like entries from his Bijak are very different from miracle stories and teaching parables that we meet, for example, in hagiographies of Sufi saints in the chapters by Kugle and Jha. Therefore, we might think of, at least, three levels of texts: letters, ‘translations’, and hagiography. If this idea is correct, we might say that in the case of the Bijak, writing history based on documents was a religious practice for Laldas, and his hagiography would occupy a position on the ‘factual’ pole of a genre of texts that usually lie toward a much more configurative pole.

Moving into the ‘permeable’ littoral zones of eastern Bengal, David Curley notices that religious frontiers were vague or non-existent; rather, the whole sub-region was a ‘space of interaction’ characterized by ethnic, religious and cultural diversity. Curley discusses the relatively oral genres of romantic and historical ballads in relation to two purposes, maintaining public memories, and representing and negotiating social boundaries. Socially transgressive marriages were chosen as subjects for romantic ballads because they helped audiences negotiate contested social boundaries. They encouraged audiences to balance sentiments in favour of personal independence and romantic love, on the one hand, and in favour of family and social bonds, and patriarchal and religious authority, on the other.

Ballads drew on archives of public memories attached to local sites and prominent people of the past, but they also relied on public amnesia to allow for stereotypical characters and satisfying plots that met the expectations of their audiences. Two versions of the ballad of Rangamala Sundari illustrate the general purpose of negotiating social boundaries, while they support opposite sides of the divide between rich and powerful zamindars and their lowly subjects. The two versions also show how public memories changed over time, thereby allowing renewed ballads to be performed in changed contexts. In order to explore the social boundary of caste, nineteenth century versions of the Rangamala Sundar ballad almost forgot a local zamindar’s participation in a widespread rebellion against the East India Company in the 1760s.

The literary practice considered in Sudeshna Purakaystha’s chapter is history, and especially relations between academic history and prosaic and poetic genres of vernacular history. Her essay is not concerned with religious practices, except to the extent that religious myths and sentiments entered into moral discourse in modern, nationalist and popular works of Assam’s history. For her study, Purakayastha has selected three different narratives on the legendary figure of Jaymati. Their common, basic plot is that Jaymati was tortured and killed because she would not reveal the location of her noble husband to his enemies. The three narratives are Harakanta Sharma Barua’s story of Jaymati included in his Assam Buranji, Kripanath Phukan’s literary ballad about Jaymati, and a verse narrative on Jaymati composed by the rationalist and professional historian, Surya Kumar Bhuyan. Figurative devices were essential to the writings of all three historians, whether they used prose or traditional emotive verse forms. For instance, Surya Kumar Bhuyan’s metaphors that describe Jaymati by referring to the myths of Sati, Savitri and Damayanti were designed to assert the cultural affinity of Assam with India’s classical past, and to assimilate Assamese nationalism to Indian nationalism. These iconic figures were chosen to legitimize the popular notion of the good woman who can sustain the community, and be the symbol of the Assamese nation (jati).

In the concluding chapter, Mikko Viitamäki offers a fine reading of Nizami Bansuri, a creative retelling of medieval history for 20th-century readers. The work was authored in 1941 by a Sufi shaykh and prolific author, Khwaja Hasan Nizami, and it narrates the life story of the celebrated Sultanate Sufi, Khwaja Nizam-ud-Din Awliya (died 1325). The peculiar title of Hasan Nizami’s book, Nizami Bansuri (The Nizami Bamboo Flute), alludes to the Sufi master Nizam-ud-Din Awliya and to the flute-playing god Krishna. Both figures have a role in a mystical experience of the book’s protagonist, Prince Hardev. Nizami Bansuri is a reworked Urdu translation of a Persian text called Chihal Roza (Forty Days) that is supposed to be a 14th-century diary of Hindu prince Hardev, describing his experiences with Nizam-ud-Din in Delhi. It has been impossible, however, to trace the origins of Hardev’s diary; moreover, Hardev’s diary is fully amalgamated with Hasan Nizami’s footnotes, insertions and appendices, so that Nizami Bansuri is essentially a new literary work, and not a mere translation. For this reason, Viitamäki argues that it should be read both as a 20th-century handbook of a Sufi disciple, and as an effort to shape the present through a dialogue with the past.

The narrative revolves around Hardev’s meetings with Nizam-ud-Din and his disciples.  Nizam-ud-Din was a paragon of human virtue: truthful, and free from scheming and false pretensions. He was a person who saw everyone as equal regardless of his background. But he was also a spiritual stalwart capable of performing miracles (karamat). The miracles are essential to the narrative, since they feed Hardev’s fascination and pull him closer to Nizam-ud-Din. Formal conversion was not necessary for Hardev to associate with the shaykh; he believed that God is One, and that Muhammad is his last prophet; he would, therefore, refrain from worshipping idols.

Keeping his own contemporary context in mind, Nizami enters into a dialogue with the past, and succeeds in making the medieval events highly relevant to 20th-century Sufi disciples. Nizam-ud-Din’s Sufi practices that had been contested by religious scholars in the 14th century also became a subject of criticism by modern reformists who called for purification of Islam. Nizami’s description of a warm welcome of Hardev into the circle of Nizam-ud-Din challenged the idea of clearly defined religious boundaries that had gained currency in 20th-century India. By means of Hardev’s narrative, the text prescribes the proper etiquette towards Hindu disciples, some of whom may convert like Hardev, while others remain Hindus like Hardev’s parents. Hardev’s story in Nizami Bansuri is not a bid to ease the integration of Muslims into the Hindu nation’s space, but a legitimation of continued incorporation of Hindu disciples into a Muslim Sufi brotherhood in an era of rising communal tensions.

Hasan Nizami’s careful assembly of multiple sources, and his work’s abundant notes and appendices seem designed to present a work of history, if we consider the various genres of vernacular South Asian history, traditional and contemporary.  One might think of it both as a work of history considerably weighted towards factuality, and as a work of devotion.  The central miracle in the narrative, by which Hardev saw Krishna in a mystical experience, and its configuring power for the narrative as a whole, might not have to be seen as fictional as opposed to historical.

Thus, several chapters in this volume discuss writing practices in the context of religious identities and boundaries: in the Prannathi Sampraday the writing of hagiography and identity defense through a period of attempts to obtain political support, while at the same time Prannath and his followers tried to identify themselves as Muslim; the use of religious history in boundary maintenance and identity defense while encouraging Hindu disciples by a 20th-century Indian Sufi teacher; boundary maintenance and redefinition across a wide variety of genres from hagiographies to translation and construction of a unitarian lexicon by Dara Shukoh, while he increasingly validated ideas and practices that were shared across religious boundaries; defense and criticism of Sufis and the Sufi practice of ‘playing the witness’, again in a variety of rhetorical modes: story and parable, appeals to personal experience, logical argument, and citation of religious authorities.  Criticism was directed at homoerotic meditative and devotional practices.

Several chapters discuss vernacular genres with a religious dimension, and their use as sources for contemporary history: how Assamese historians used affective and configurative resources of vernacular religious genres to rewrite the bare account in chronicles of a heroic woman’s suffering, placing the story in a wider context of Indian myths, as well as in the context of the familiar sentiments of Assamese Vaishnavism; how Eastern Bengal ballads changed when they portrayed religious identities in stories about marriages across the Hindu-Muslim divide in a period of intense political competition and religious nationalism; and how an account of a Hindu disciple of a medieval Sufi saint was rewritten in a factual but religiously configured history to provide instruction for 20th-century followers of Sufi-oriented Islam.

[Based on the Introduction to the co-edited volume by Raziuddin Aquil and David L. Curley, Literary and Religious Practices in Medieval and Early Modern India, Manohar and Routledge, New Delhi/London, 2016.]

Raziuddin Aquil 
is Associate Professor at the Department of History, University of Delhi, Delhi, India. Email:

David L. Curley is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Liberal Studies, Western Washington University, where he taught courses about South Asian social and cultural history, religion, and literature from 1991 to his retirement in 2012.  He served as Chair of the department from 2006 to 2011. After retirement he has continued to work on international education programs by serving on the board of the Institute for Village Studies.


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