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Subjunctive Explorations of Fictive Vaisnava-Sufi Discourse in Bengal

September 26, 2018 @ 4:00 pm - 5:30 pm


The Center for the study of Hindu Traditions (CHiTra) is pleased to announce a lecture by Professor Tony Stewart, Professor of Religious Studies and Professor of Asian Studies and Chair, Department of Religious Studies, Vanderbilt University.

Title: “Subjunctive Explorations of Fictive Vaisnava-Sufi Discourse in Bengal.”

Date and Time: September 26th, 4;00 pm

Venue: Anderson 216, University of Florida


The early modern Bangla tales of the legendary or mythic pīrs are romantic narratives that speak to the often strange and puzzling encounters between Hindus and Muslims, especially Vaiṣṇavs and Sufis. Figures such as Baḍakhān Gāji and Satya Pīr navigate a world of foreigners and locals, courtiers and country bumpkins, in encounters ripe with a myriad of false assumptions regarding the place of religion and religious identity. Orientalists dismissed these tales as syncretistic rubbish; religious reformers claimed they were heretical; literary historians banished them to the genre of folk or women’s tales; and even linguists characterized their language as something other than Bengali. I wish to argue that these Muslim texts are undertaking a very serious cultural work that is not possible within the available restricted genres of Islamic history, theology, and law. These texts explore the subjunctive, not in the sense of the way the world should be, but how it might be imagined, how it might come to be. The work of these texts is to explore how an Islamic cosmology might accommodate itself to and then appropriate the predominately Hindu cosmology encountered in the Bangla-speaking world of the early-modern period. Each narrative operates according to a logic of ‘what if . . .’ and the narrative used for illustration will be the eighteenth century Mānik pīrer juhurā nāmā of Jaiddhi. Perhaps surprisingly, I argue that parody is the critical mechanism by which Islam in these tales provides a critique of local religion and culture that makes Islam in Bengal distinctive.


Tony K. Stewart is a religion and literature specialist of early modern Bengal. His work on Vaisnava traditions of Hindu Bengal was titled The Final Word: The Caitanya Caritamrta and the Grammar of Religious Tradition (Oxford 2010) a study of the hagiographies of the Bengali god-man Krsna Caitanya. He translated the Bengali and Sanskrit text of theCaitanya Caritamrta with Edward C. Dimock (Harvard Oriental Series 1999) and translated Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s Vaisnava poetry with Chase Twichell, titled The Lover of God (Copper Canyon 2004). Fabulous Females and Peerless Pirs: Tales of Mad Adventure in Old Bengal (Oxford 2004) laid the foundations for his current monograph, Witness to Marvels: Fictive Discourse in Early Modern Bengali Sufism (California, forthcoming), a study that addresses the cultural work of folk literatures. Stewart holds the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Chair in Humanities at Vanderbilt University, where he serves as Chair of the Religious Studies Department.

Professor Stewart’s talk is co-sponsored by the Center for Global Islamic Studies.


September 26, 2018
4:00 pm - 5:30 pm
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