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De-limiting ‘Right Religion’: Transgression, Innovation and Tradition in South Asia

Panel Chair: Peter Valdina | Friday, August 28, 9-11 a.m. | Venue

Our panel rallies around the topics of transgression, innovation and limits as interrelated processes in religious (and thereby social) contexts in South Asia. Religious boundaries in South Asia always remained porous, fluid or even blurred. While the insistence on sharp, discernable limits of religious traditions frequently appeared, religious practices and communities regularly transgressed these very limits. In the context of lived South Asian plurality, ‘theological’ borrowings and accretions both on the level of teachings and practices were ubiquitous. Likewise ‘other’ religious communities and philosophic principles presented a negative foil, against which one could fathom the boundaries of ones ‘own’ tradition. It must be stressed that transgressing these limits could challenge, reinforce, or introduce structures of hierarchy and social dominance. We mean to trace the process by which contours are de-limited through challenges to existing orders in four different religious traditions. Defining “right religion” entails the establishment, justification and defense of new limits against the next onslaught of transgressions. We ask if limits are more than limiting. Can they also be productive frameworks accommodating currents of thought? Does this give us a new way to read their transgression?

Corin Golding

Confounding Orthodoxy: Accommodation and Resistance in the Indo-Tibetan Borderlands

The Marchas of Mana Valley, one of several semi-nomadic ‘tribes’ (jan-jāti) inhabiting the border tracts between central northern India and western Tibet, for centuries carried out trans-Himalayan trade between those two regions. After the India-China conflict in 1962 closed the border passes, the Marchas lost access to their traditional livelihood in Tibet and have since begun to integrate more fully into the regional Hindu mainstream. However, this narrative of integration is complicated by their being classified as a Scheduled Tribe in 1969; as a result, the Marchas, who have long maintained their Rajput caste status, negotiate both caste Hindu and tribal identities. Seen in this context, rituals of possession, around which all cultural performances in Mana are organised, appeal both to regional idioms of orthodox religiosity at the same time as they retain a distinct transgressive register. My paper argues that possession in Mana is at once the means by which the Marchas harness the ‘Sanskritising’ impulse of the mainstream Hindu community while simultaneously providing a strategy of resistance to that same orthodoxy.

Rahul Parson

Relatively ‘Right’: Manifold Perspectives of Truth in the works of Banārsīdās

The 17th century Jain merchant Banārsīdās authored South Asia’s first autobiography, the Ardhakathanaka. In his work he discloses a catalogue of his social and religious deviations that lead him to particular spiritual epiphanies and eventually to de facto leadership of a Jain reform movement called Adhyātma. He demonstrates, albeit poetically, that like the soul passing through different stations towards liberation, the social being also occupies different developmental stages that allow for a variety of ways of being in the world. Banārsīdās’ work suggests that within the Jain scriptural corpus there are justifications for his former deviance. His exegesis reveals the possibility of social transgression in Jain philosophical literature concerned with spiritual transcendence. Therefore, those who condemned him, missed the point of Jain values of neutrality (madhyastha). Banārsīdās maintains that a way of being, behaving, or a statement can be simultaneously true and false, transgressive and appropriate, if seen from multiple perspectives, e.g. Jain anekāntavāda. The narrative presents his misadventures as necessary and productive as they compel him to develop as sense of ‘right’ religion that is personal and relative, thereby militating against religious absolutism.

Amit Dey

Myriad Ways to God: The Improvising Muslim Mystics of South Asia

The paper focuses on Bulleh Shah of Punjab, Shah Abdul Latif of Sind, and the baul and jari singers of Bengal during the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Consulting Persian and Urdu tazkiras (Akhbar ul Akhiyar, Safinat ul Auliya etc.) Punjabi kafis and dohas and Bengali folk songs, the paper aims at exploring the endeavours of some eclectic poet-singers towards the construction of an alternative path of mutual understanding often culminating in mutual appreciation. Understanding such ‘imaginaire’ Muslims is becoming relevant in the context of the emerging hyperactive, exclusionist and homogenizing socio-political institutions of South-Asia. At times these poet-singers reflect a ‘competitive spirituality’ or they may function within the framework of established religion. In this context we aim at analyzing the transgressions (bida or innovation to many) of poet-singers with a motive to accommodate the ‘other’ (non-Muslims) and the constraints imposed on such propensities by the prevalent socio-economic circumstances. Partially rejecting the ‘five pillars of Islam’ and challenging the notion of miraj or ‘heavenly ascension of the prophet’, some of these poet-mystics introduced counter hierarchies to legitimize what they understood to be the ‘right religion’.

Vera Höke

Brahma, Krishna, Jesus and Socrates: Transgression and Limits in the Brahmo Samaj of India

The 19th century Brahmo Samaj of India, under its experimentally minded leader Keshub Chandra Sen (1838-1884), may at first sight appear as a kind of religious “anything goes”. However, possibilities within the limits of ‘right religion’ were in fact restricted. The insistence on the necessity of first-hand experiences of the divine on one hand, and the rejection of “idolatry” on the other, informed Keshub’s choice and interpretation of religious traditions. Shifting between abstract (nirguna) and personal (saguna) notions of the highest being (addressed variously as Brahma, Ishwar, Hari, Father, Ma, Mother and God to name but a few), both the popular practices of the lower classes and authority grounded on the knowledge of specific holy texts (the traditional domain of Brahmins) were rejected. Yet, this limit was a creative framework. At the expanse of traditional Brahmin and common culture, room was made for European personalities and currents of thought to intertwine with Vaishnava practice in a specific way under the auspices of ‘right religion’.


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