Tony K. Stewart
The question of how religious communities form themselves continues to dominate my research. Hindus and Muslims in the premodern period share a Bengali perspective on cosmology, on ritual processes, and on social integration. The stark divisions assumed by contemporary reformers and politicians, who have turned South Asian religious identities into divisive political identities, simply do not adhere prior to the mid-19th c. Because of the special heteroglossia that changes Bangla language from the 14th to 21st c., it is imperative that we develop more sophisticated techniques for deciphering the discourses that articulate the literary and cultural history of the period. The Bangla-speaking world of the premodern period was a unique fast-changing frontier under intense agricultural and commercial development, and its religious literatures inevitably reflect those concerns. Emerging from my earlier critique of naïve articulations of syncretism to explain Hindu-Muslim interaction in the period, I am continuing to explore fundamental discursive practices through the literatures of the period: the generation of ritual and social space, the complexities of ideological and doctrinal translation among communities, the manner in which discursive arenas are defined and manipulated, and the subsequent competitions of power over rank, revenue, and control of natural resources and land.
There are two separate trajectories of articles: the first examines the mechanisms of religious practice and the correlative theological justifications; the second a self-conscious analysis of textual traditions utilizing literary critical techniques. Topically, the overwhelming bulk of scholarship on the religious and literary traditions of premodern Bengal have tended to strict sectarian division, not just between Muslims and Hindus, but among the subgroups, such as Saivas, Saktas, Nathas, and Vaisnavas on the Hindu side, and Sufis, Shias, and Sunnis on the other. The resulting univocality has masked the complex interactions of these various communities. The critique of syncretism is one of the endpoints of this project to unpack the last century’s presuppositions that condition our responses, but the entire project rests on an acute awareness of the historical changes in the role of diglossia and heteroglossia in the Bangla-speaking world. Taken together, these analyses isolate and define the constitutive factors of the discursive arena in which all Bangla actors find themselves: shared presuppositions regarding the nature of reality, the assumption of a common cosmology that takes different sectarian expressions, the full integration of religious communities in a shared society, and the effects of sharing a language to express different religious truths. These in turn lead to the micro studies of ritual, theology, and the organization of space in an integrated context.
The narrative literatures of middle period or medieval (madhya yuga) Bangla favor discrete episodes linked serially to form a larger narrative. Of a piece with romance and epic materials all over the world, these episodes are frequently self-contained. The result is a dynamic text that can be adjusted by including or excluding vignettes from among the repertoire—a feature that also makes them ideal for improvisational public performance as well as literary extract. Many of these tales are delivered in ritual performances (jagaran) that stretch from one to three days; and nearly all are adapted to the more free-form stage of palagan and pancali. Hagiographical materials likewise function episodically. In these romances, heroes and heroines from among the Vaisnavas, Saktas, Saivas, Naths, Sufis, Sunnis, and Shi’i all find a place, with the adventures of Vaisnava devotees and Sufi Pirs producing a remarkable similarity. I choose to translate episodes that highlight a particular ritual moment, a unique religious perspective, or theological point that proves culturally significant and complicates our stereotypes of the Bangla-speaking world. Notably, in the sixteenth century, Vaisnavas started to articulate formal theology in the vernacular Bangla in addition to, and eventually in lieu of, Sanskrit, a discursive strategy that led to the development of similarly sized instructional manuals for key points of theology and ritual. This technique was soon adopted by other religious groups, first among them the tantrika Sahajiyas, which eventually led to the formation of a Bangla prose. Each translation seeks to capture a special moment in this process.