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Choupasani Shodh Sansthan, Jodhpur (18th century). King Man Singh, Dadu and Sundardas (left to right). Photograph taken by author.
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A Novel Braj Poetics of Sainthood: An Interview with Dalpat Singh Rajpurohit

The following includes an introduction and an excerpt from an interview by Prashant Keshavmurthy (Associate professor of Persian-Iranian Studies at McGill University) with Dalpat Singh Rajpurohit (Assistant professor of South Asian Studies at the University of Texas at Austin). The discussion features Rajpurohit’s new book, Sundar ke svapn: ārambhik ādhuniktā, Dādūpanth aur Sundardās kī kavitā (2022).

Dalpat Singh Rajpurohit’s Sundar ke svapn sets forth the novel economy in which the Brajbhasha saint-poet Sundardas (1596-1689) brought poetry and metaphysics together. The first chapter lays bare an embarrassment of riches in Braj which refuses modern Hindi historiography’s simplistic opposites of mannerism (rīti) or devotion (bhakti). The second chapter is an exposition of “the intellectual community” jointly formed by the Mughal emperor Akbar’s policy of “absolute civility” (sulḥ-i kull) and the prominence it gave to non-dual Vedanta, Sundardas’s mobility along patronage, mercantile and pedagogical networks connecting Banaras and Rajasthan, and the Marwadi king Jaswant Singh’s Braj works on Vedantic themes. Studying how Dadupanthi saints in Rajasthan settled into prior Jain mercantile networks, the third chapter explains how and why Sundardas formulated “a new definition of being a saint.” Chapter four discloses continuities and discontinuities between ideas of the body (of poetry as well as its human author) across Sundardas and Dadupanthi poetry on the one hand and, on the other, its counterparts in Sanskrit worldly and devotional poetry and Braj courtly poetry. Chapter five sets forth the networks of teachers in Banaras whose authority in Vedanta, Sanskrit grammar and literary theory modeled the poetry of Sundardas, his appropriations of Upanishadic lessons in various Braj verse forms, and his centrality to the multi-generic syllabus of the Braj school that flourished in Bhuj, Kutch, from the mid-eighteenth century till 1948. The final chapter tracks the rupture between the pre-colonial Sanskrit-based validation of literary multilingualism through the trope of six-languages and the imposition under British colonialism of the ideal of one language for one nation, an ideal that anti-colonial nationalists uncritically embraced.

This book should be considered an event in the scholarship on South Asia’s vernacular literatures. Shifting scales between close and distant reading, it leaves us biting the finger of astonishment (to use a Persian idiom popular in Sundardas’s Hindustan) at two accomplishments: Sundardas’s multi-generic and multi-lingual interventions in Braj that crafted a novel ascetic persona in poetry; and Rajpurohit’s own magisterial scholarship.

Prashant Keshavmurthy: You choose to focus on Sundardas because it lets you show how his accomplishments across the genres of Braj modeled further accomplishments in that language in 18th to 20th century Kutch and 19th century Rajasthan among other places. In this sense, he works for you as a hinge between distinct domains: between the Vedantic learning of Banaras and the Braj poetic practices of western India; between Braj poetry in the rīti or courtly mannerist style and Braj poetry in devotional (bhakti) modes; as well as between courtly and monastic literary milieus. In this sense, your method in this book resembles that of Pankaj Jha’s 2019 A Political History of Literature: Vidyapati and the Fifteenth Century which reads three of Vidyapati’s works across Sanskrit and Apabhramsha to disclose links with ambient literary cultures. Could you have undertaken this exercise with another Braj poet and, if so, how different would your book have been? How generalizable are your overall conclusions to literary creativity in what you call “early modern” India?

Dalpat Rajpurohit: Sundardas’s status as a scholar among the north Indian bhakti saints and his popularity among the singers of Rajasthan inspired me to undertake this project. Though he appears as an influential sant composing across genres, styles and modes, Sundardas is seldomly researched and rarely taught in India. This is because scholarship has largely focused on a few major poet-saints of north Indian bhakti or “devotion.” As for the generalizable aspects of my overall conclusions about literary creativity in early modern north India, there were other figures and literate communities working in the distinct domains of vedānta, bhakti, and rīti or courtly styles of poetry. Sundardas’s fellow sants (Dadupanthis and sants of the Niranjani community), Agra-based Jain intellectuals such as Banārasīdās and Bhagwatīdās, court poets like Keśavdās and Jaswant Singh and others who had overlapping purviews. Bhakti, rīti and, to a certain extent, non-dual vedānta were intertwined in the works of some of these seventeenth-century figures but as the tradition continued, especially with vernacular works on non-dual vedānta, it leaned towards translation and Sanskritization.

Prashant Keshavmurthy: For you, as for Purushottam Agrawal in his preface to your book, “early modernity” is characterized by a “respect for individuality,” “tolerance” and cosmopolitanism. But early modern Europeans who celebrated individuality and cosmopolitanism also committed genocides in the Americas, enslaved Africans and expelled Muslims and Jews from Spain. You credit Akbar for his patronage of Vedanta and Ibn ‘Arabī. But Akbar only undertook this irenic project after subduing Rajput and other resistance to his sovereignty. Furthermore, the mansabdārī system, based as it was on caste and community levies of military personnel, necessarily deepened traditional patriarchy and caste hierarchies. How, then, do we reconcile these two phenomena you so richly evoke, namely early Dādūpanthī religious syncretism and caste-defying individuality and Mughal-Rajput cosmopolitanism, on the one hand, and royal absolutism and state-making patriarchy and casteism on the other? Shouldn’t we think of “early modernity” as dialectical rather than celebrating it as only emancipatory or enlightened?

Dalpat Rajpurohit: I draw from several scholars and discuss “early modernity” as a time period in South Asia when the region encountered the world more than ever before. Much of the north Indian literary production began and flourished in this era spanning from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Rather than solely focusing on the representations of “modernity,” I give more space to the discussion of this era in the historiography of Hindi. By questioning the binaries and modes of bhakti and rīti, I explore productive ways to read some of the main genres and textual traditions of north Indian literature like the rāso, rītigranth, charit, and satsaī. The dialectical process of “Early modernity” surely should be explored, but while doing that the ideological pitfalls advanced in the colonial period need to be discarded. Projecting back the dichotomy between religious identities of Hindu and Muslim (which only hardened later) and rendering the Mughal-Rajput era as the one of feudalistic decadence and social stagnation are some notions that I challenge in my exploration of the period. 

Prashant Keshavmurthy: You speak of the politicization of Ibn ‘Arabī and Vedanta, especially citing the Mughal would-be king Dara Shikoh’s preface to the Persian translation he commissioned of the Upanishads and Akbar’s chief ideologue Abul Fażl’s vision of the Mughal empire as “the empire of ontological verification [taḥqīq]” where all faiths were enjoined to enter into conversation with each other. For you, this imperial vision explains Sundardas’s metaphysical eclecticism and multi-generic literary oeuvre. But is it not also the case that the politicization of Vedanta and Ibn ‘Arabī led to simplistic reductions of what were sprawling conceptual grids? We can hardly take Dara Shikoh seriously as a Vedantin when he claims that the Vedas anticipate the Quran’s monotheism, not least because he barely had access to the accumulation of Sanskrit commentaries on the Brahmasūtras that make nuanced ontological distinctions. This is equally true of simplistic reductions of Ibn ‘Arabī’s ramifying concepts to monist formulae. The popularization, especially for politics, of any complex intellectual tradition necessarily leads to distorting simplifications. Is Sundardas guilty of this? Are other Dadupanthis guilty of it?

Dalpat Rajpurohit: Yes, such political engagements with a complex philosophical system are prone to simplification and misunderstanding, such as the example of Dara Shikoh you refer to. Sundardas was not guilty of this as his expertise on vedānta and the Marwar king Jaswant Singh’s patronage of his fellow vedānta expert and Dadupanthis are proudly recorded in the community’s hagiographies. Sundardas gives high place to non-dual vedānta in theoretical texts, the inclination is similar to the discourse happening among the Banarasi pundits of the time in which conflicting philosophies and devotional practices (like nirgun and sagun) were accommodated under this “big tent” philosophy. In Sundardas’s classification of “devotions,” non-dual vedānta-infused bhakti gets the top position, and so are those saints (gyānīs) who achieve liberating knowledge with self-realisation (ātmānubhav), which is at core to this philosophical system.

Prashant Keshavmurthy: Your book studies the novel 16th-19th century synthesis in North and North-Western India of an aesthetically accomplished vernacular poetry of personal devotion (bhakti) to a god (without attributes in the case of the poet Sundardas and a god with attributes for some of his ambient poets) with the philosophical tradition of non-dual Vedanta. How novel was this synthesis and was it really an “early modern” one? While it may have been novel in North India, as you claim, we know from Friedhelm Hardy’s 1983 Viraha-bhakti: The Early History of Kṛṣṇa Devotion in South India, that it had a precedent in 9th-10th century South India where the Sanskrit Bhāgavata Purāṇa epochally synthesized in Sanskrit abstract Upanishadic conceptions of the absolute deity with non-philosophical Tamil lyric poetry of intense devotion to Krishna.

Dalpat Rajpurohit: To be fair, instead of claiming the synthesis of bhakti and non-dual vedānta as novel in north India, I discuss the rise of interest in, and the efflorescence of vernacular works centered on non-dual vedānta in the seventeenth century. There were earlier examples in India, like the philosophical works of the great Vaishnava ācāryas, but what I show is how individuals and communities of different backgrounds engaged with non-dual vedānta in the north. In addition to the major devotional communities in Rajasthan such as the Dadupanthis and the Niranjanjis, rīti court poets, kings, and Jains were engaging with the philosophy and translating prominent texts of the vedānta tradition. What I demonstrate by exploring patronage networks of the devotional communities in the seventeenth-century is that it might be their mutual engagement with non-dual vedānta that brought kings and sant intellectuals together such as the Dadupanthis in Marwar.

Prashant Keshavmurthy: Your final chapter is a synoptic account of the rise of Braj in a proudly multilingual milieu in the 15th-16th centuries to its collapse and irrelevance by the second half of the 19th century. By this period (1920s-30s), as you show, the neo-Romanticism of the Hindi Chhāyāvādi poets belittled Braj, indifferent to or ignorant of the four centuries of mighty accomplishments in the language across genres ranging from poetry and philosophy to medicine, ethics, military strategy, and astrology. This and the diminution of Sundardas to nothing but a bhakti poet implies that modern Hindi literature (and perhaps colonial modernity in Hindi in general) begins in a forgetting, not just of Braj, but also of the possibility of theoretical thinking in the vernacular. What resources do you think studying “early modern” Braj literature can afford us today (especially as you have commendably chosen to write this book in Hindi rather than English), especially in North India where fascist nationalism has taken deep root?

Dalpat Rajpurohit: The question of theoretical thinking in the vernacular is an important one and that’s why I study the scholasticism of rīti literature in my exploration of Sundardas. It was on the grounds of “spontaneity” and “natural poetry”—which evolved as models for poetry as such in European Romanticism—that Sundardas’s work (and the Braj rīti poetry) was devalued and misunderstood by the colonial era historians such as George Grierson and Hazariprasad Dwivedi. “Early modern” Braj literature outrightly teaches us the capacity and breadth of vernacular poetry in composing on diverse topics that modern Hindi aspires to achieve. Braj literary culture was deeply multilingual and multi-ethnic as opposed to the simplification of religious selves and the consolidation of communal identities around languages and religions that happened in modern times. Such communalization is rampant nowadays where Mughal history has been eliminated from textbooks and a celebration of ignorance is happening in current Indian society. As for the question of the resources that studying early modern literature can afford us, in such a time I would like to evoke the literature and culture inculcated by the bhakti sants. They teach us the spirit of inquiry as the way of knowing the self and other, with key concepts such as vivek central to their thought. It isthrough this practice of proper inquiry that the sants inculcate an attitude of questioning and reasoning by which any given knowledge is examined, and that sets an individual on the path to knowing and extending the self’s horizons.

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