Literary and Religious Practices in Medieval and Early Modern India
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Literary and Religious Practices in Medieval and Early Modern India

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Item Code: NAZ263
Author: Raziuddin Aquil and David L. Curley
Language: English
Edition: 2021
ISBN: 9789350981368
Pages: 222
Other Details: 9.00 X 6.00 inch
Weight 360 gm

Covering the history of medieval and early modern India, from the eighth to the eighteenth centuries, this volume is part of a new series of collections of essays publishing current research on all aspects of polity, society, economy, religion and culture. The thematically organized volumes will particularly serve as a plat- form for younger scholars to showcase their new research and, thus, reflect current thrusts in the study of the period. Established experts in their specialized fields are also being invited to share their work and provide perspectives. The geographical limits will be historic India, roughly corresponding to modern South Asia and the adjoining regions.

This series of essay collections will, thus, provide a forum where some of the best researches on medieval and early modern India can be published at regular intervals. Mr Ramesh Jain and his able staff at Manohar Publishers & Distributors, are bringing out these volumes. Two collections currently being planned include a volume on Sufism, bringing together contributions on Sufi sources, historiographical analysis of existing research, and fresh study of themes relating to Sufism in the Indian Subcontinent. Another volume on religion and political culture, focuses on critical connections between religion and politics, significance of the intermeshing of religious and political ideas in statecraft, religious justifications not only of political conquests, but also of governance, roles of men of religion (ulama, Sufis, yogis, gurus, Brahmins) as power-brokers or legitimizers of political authority as well as violent claims to authority between political and spiritual power-holders, significance of religious shrines as political symbols, medieval rulers’ inability to disentangle the interconnections between the affairs of the ‘church’ and the state, etc.

As part of this project, chapters in the current volume cover a wide variety of connected themes of crucial importance to the understanding of literary and historical traditions, religious practices and encounters as well as intermingling of religion and politics over a long period in Indian history. The contributors to the volume comprise some fine historians of the present generation working in institutions across South Asia, Europe and the United States. It is also a matter of great pleasure to have a veteran scholar of literary and religious texts, Professor David Curley, as co-editor of the volume, who besides providing valuable guidance, has also contributed a chapter on local and popular historical memories as significant material for the history of the eastern Bengal region in the eighteenth century.


The essays in this volume comprise histories that use religious or literary texts. The authors explore a variety of practices that made it possible for the texts to be created, to circulate, and to shape beliefs, sentiments, and institutions. Religious and literary texts often were received as ‘documents’ and ‘histories’ in their own contexts. They preserved authoritative stories about the past, and retold them to comment on the present.

Of course, religious beliefs and texts that justify them have been central to all societies across the centuries of medieval and early modern history. In the field of medieval and early modern history of South Asia, however, to take religious and literary texts seriously represents a departure from some usual practices of history as a social science. We have in mind the preference for causal explanations over explanations that relate parts to a larger whole, the preference therefore for documents that can be thought to record objective facts, the distrust of ‘subjective’ and ‘fictive’ aspects of narrative history, and the preference especially for causal explanations based on demographic, economic, or ecological systems and relations (White 1987, compare Braudel 1980).

When academic historians discuss contentious religious issues in medieval and early modern times, the sentiments and perspectives of current issues and debates tend to frame their discussions and are imposed upon the past, so that remarkable differences of the past from the present are elided. In particular, strongly held beliefs about the ‘naturalness’ of religious conflict in medieval South Asia shape what is popularly accepted now as ‘true’ and ‘factual’ history. Based on strict standards of evidence accepted by their profession, academic historians can label much in popular discourse about South Asian religion in the past as ‘myth, ‘legend; or ‘fiction: Should academic historians attempt to intervene politically? When they have intervened to correct popular history, however, they often have been accused of being partisan against religion. Is it possible for historians to be unbiased in their approach to history-writing about religion, even when dealing with contentious issues about which religious communities feel sensitive?

While popularly accepted ‘myths’ and ‘legends’ about medieval South Asia often have been ignored or dismissed by academic historians, the space so vacated has been enthusiastically occupied by ‘popular’ historians, religious leaders, and politicians. One task of academic history should be to analyse the history of changing beliefs, including both religious and those about the past, and to consider them in relation to changing contexts.

Outside of history departments, in the fields of literary studies and history of religion, many fine studies have been produced on both religious and secular literature in medieval and early modern South Asia. These studies have treated texts from classical and vernacular languages of South Asia, and they have treated texts belonging to each of the major religious traditions, as well as texts claimed by several religions at once, texts that maintained a strict independence from all accepted orthodoxies, and secular texts claimed by no religion (for an introduction to languages and texts, see Pollock 2003). Perhaps what historians can best contribute to the discussion of literary texts is rigorous criticism of the situations in which they were produced, careful comparison of texts whose contextual relations have escaped notice, and careful attention to changing rules for the production, reception, and institutionalization of genres over time.

For example, in a study that ranges from the sixteenth century to the present, Ramya Sreenivasan (2007) has written about changing traditions of the legend of Padmini. Her legend was first composed both as a Sufi allegory about love for God, and as a heroic romance related to pre-Mughal politics in north India. Emphasizing Rajput heroism, quite different versions of the Padmini legend subsequently were produced at Jain and Rajput courts, and even in faraway Arakan. In the nineteenth-century, Rajput ‘histories’ in turn were synthesized by James Todd, who gave new emotional colour to the final ‘tragic’ act of self-immolation by Padmini and other Rajput women. For modern Hindu nationalists Padmini thus came to be both a ‘real’ historical woman, and ‘a perfect model of ideal Indian womanhood’ because she fought against an evil Muslim king.

Another very interesting approach has been to compare public spaces and ‘historical memories’ created by literary and oral histories, and their changing interactions. Using this approach Prachi Deshpande (2007) and Chitralekha Zutshi (2014) have written about the profound changes in history writing in Maharashtra and Kashmir respectively. Deshpande is concerned with historical traditions that have come to be used to project Hindus and Muslims as natural enemies. On the other hand, Zutshi argues that in Kashmir, local Persian histories and traditions of oral story-telling continued to tell legends of the origin of Kashmir first told in Sanskrit. Through most of the nineteenth-century alternative versions of familiar ‘legends’ explained the creation of Kashmir as a sacred place, and circulated it in the public which included both Muslims and Hindus, But in the twentieth-century historians redefined the Sanskrit Rajatarangini as a classical Hindu Indian history text, and not a Kashmiri history, while the Dogra dynasty withdrew its patronage of Persian language and literature, thus severing a centuries long bridge between Sanskrit and Persian histories, and between them and oral story-telling in Kashmiri.

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