Religious Autobiography in Pre-Colonial South Asia

A review of The Searching Self: Religious Autobiography in Pre-Colonial South Asia, by Chloe Anne Martinez.

It was common, in previous generations, for scholars to assert that India had no sense of history before the British arrived, and consequently no indigenous genres of historical writing. That accusation, once widely accepted as obvious, is now more typically filed away in that large filing cabinet labeled “Orientalism”, along with a wide variety of other assorted half-truths, misunderstandings, and flat out lies about India. This filing cabinet is reserved for particular kinds of ideas, which were originally intended either to justify European control over large parts of the world, or else to provide Europe with a sense of its own identity and superiority by giving it a group of straw men from which to differentiate itself. The fact that these ideas were made to serve a pernicious project means that they also happen to be deeply misleading, and the problem with them today is that in many cases their influence has outlived their original purpose. Long after the colonial project has formally ended, these ideas still effectively prevent anyone who believes in them, no matter how well-intentioned, from developing any sophisticated or empathetic understanding of the forms of life they are intended to explain. A large part of the scholarly study of South Asia for the past thirty years has consisted in tracking down these ideas, which are sometimes found even among South Asians themselves, and changing the theoretical assumptions that support them so that they collapse, leaving space for newer and better kinds of understanding. There are many of these sorts of ideas still lying around. Sometimes they can be difficult to recognize.

One of them, the idea that pre-modern South Asia had no indigenous forms of autobiography, has recently been identified and slated for demolition. Scholars such as Janet Gyatso, who wrote a pioneering work on Tibetan autobiography, Apparitions of the Self[Janet Gyatso, Apparitions of the Self: The Secret Autobiographies of a Tibetan Visionary. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999], and Phyllis Granoff, who has studied various Jain examples of autobiography [e.g. Phyllis Granoff. “This Was My Life: Autobiographical Narrative and Renunciation in Medieval Jainism”. Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriential Research Institute. 75 (1994): 25-50], have started to show that pre-modern South Asia actually has many rich examples of what might be considered autobiography, and that understanding them has important implications both for South Asian literary history and for what we think it means to write about oneself in general. Chloe Martinez’s dissertation, which focusses specifically on the autobiographies of religious figures in South Asia, is the next step in this project. It is a continuation of the work that Gyatso, Granoff, and others have made possible–a fact which Martinez herself proudly acknowledges–and it answers their call for more work on the subject. The goal, Martinez claims, is three-fold: to better understand forms of South Asian writing, to productively modify the Western literary theories we rely on when thinking about things like autobiography, and to dispel the notion that autobiography was only introduced to the region by the British.

The central theoretical move that makes this dissertation possible is Martinez’s choice to think of autobiography as a “mode” of writing, rather than a “genre”. By this Martinez means that while autobiography never existed in South Asia as the guiding structure for an entire text (with one important exception, discussed below), it did exist in fragmentary form, scattered around in other forms of writing, which makes it difficult to see if we are only looking for autobiography-as-genre. The task, then, is to find a definition of autobiography that unifies these fragments, allowing us to see and talk about them all as examples of the same thing. Martinez begins her search for this definition by rejecting the attempts of Karl J. Weintraub and Paul de Man, two important literary theorists who Martinez thinks fail at giving the kind of definition she needs. Weintraub, mired in the sorts of ideas mentioned above, ties the definition of autobiography directly to modern European understandings of history and individuality, thus making it impossible by definition that any such thing as autobiography could have existed in pre-modern South Asia. Presumably, Weintraub would have us believe that examples of pre-modern South Asians describing their own life-stories in writing bear only a superficial or incomplete resemblance to “real” autobiography, which only came to full fruition in the modern West. This definition, clearly question-begging when applied to non-European literature, is dismissed for obvious reasons. But Paul de Man’s definition, which Martinez presents as an alternative, is also dismissed. De Man, according to Martinez, rejected the entire endeavor of trying to define autobiography, holding that autobiography is in some way a feature of all written texts, and cannot be sensibly abstracted. Martinez is concise and convincing here: de Man’s definition “takes us beyond Weintraub’s narrowly Eurocentric perspective, but otherwise is of little critical use” (p. 4). We can’t see the fragments of autobiography in South Asian texts if we don’t believe in autobiography to begin with. The definition she finally settles on comes from Philippe Lejeune in On Autobiography. There, Lejeune writes that the best way to make sense of autobiography is by taking the reader’s experience into account, meaning that autobiography is best defined as a kind of “compact” between the reader and writer, in which the reader is made to know, by means of various conventions, that author, narrator, and protagonist are all the same person. This definition allows Martinez to call certain South Asian writings autobiography, without making that term so broad that it ceases to mean anything.

Once we have a definition that makes them visible, Martinez then shows that religious autobiographies in South Asia have a significant set of commonalities. In fact, across religious and doctrinal boundaries, these autobiographies display remarkably similar understandings of two fundamental religious issues: community and authority. Moreover, they frequently use these shared understandings in service of a shared goal: to make arguments about questions of religious experience. Autobiographies, Martinez shows us, seem to have been thought of by South Asians as particularly well-suited to polemics about religious experience; about what it means, how to interpret it, and what is or isn’t valuable about it. Though Martinez does not explicitly say it, this is probably rooted in a simple and powerful fact about experience: that if I have an experience, I have access to it in a way that no one else does, which gives me authority over it that no one else has, at least rhetorically. In other words, it’s difficult to argue with me about the content of my experience, but it is easy to be inspired or influenced by my descriptions of it. This doesn’t require that I have some sort of immediate access to experiences that exist prior to my sociality; it’s just to say that if I want to argue about the meaning of religious experience, especially to a wide audience, then my arguments are most convincing when I talk about my own life. South Asians, Martinez argues, were aware of this fact, and took advantage of it often in their religious autobiographical writings.

Chapter 1 of the dissertation takes these ideas and applies them to a number of examples of South Asian autobiography, scattered across an astounding range of time, pulling them together and showing that despite their differences, they are all similar enough to be called by the same term. Bāṇa’s Harṣacarita (Sanskrit, 7th c.), Abhinavagupta’s Parātrīśikavivaraṇa and his Tantrāloka (Sanskrit, 10th-11th c.), Abu’l-Fazl’s Akbarnāma (Persian, 16th c.), Banarasidas’s Ardhakathānak (Bhraj Bhāṣā/Kharī Bolī, 17th c.), two devotional poems composed in Bengali by Rupram Chakrabarti (17th c.) and Manik Ram Ganguli (18th c.), various Jain autobiographies studied by Phyllis Granoff from various centuries, and Jigme Lingpa’s multiple autobiographies (Tibetan, 18th c.)–all are shown to contain sections that can plausibly be described as autobiography, and to have significant similarities. To be more specific, their similarities have to do with the way the stories are framed (with opening invocations, stated intentions, mockery and criticism of opponents, descriptions of the genealogy and educational history of the protagonist), the structure of the stories (a period of religious questioning or confusion, episodes of religious breakthrough or revelation, episodes of grief and sorrow), and the the way they mix prose and poetry and the grammatical third and first person. But all of these similarities boil down to two issues that Martinez emphasizes at the end of the chapter. First, the authors have similar polemical intentions in their autobiographical writings, telling their own stories in order to show the superiority of the religious practices they have settled upon, and their authority with respect to those practices. Secondly, they share a similar understanding of the individual’s identity within a community, beginning all of their life-stories many generations before the birth of the actual protagonist, sometimes even extending back into mythical time.

All this should be a sufficient reply to any lingering Orientalist assertions that autobiography did not exist in South Asia. But the latter point, about the understanding of the individual within community, should also nuance outdated notions that South Asians had no sense of individuality, or an attenuated one. The individual, in Martinez’s readings of these autobiographies, emerges clearly, but his individuality gets its meaning only within and from a community, one that exists around him and extends far back in time. And, as Martinez points out, the individual in these texts does not disappear into a collective that is superior to his individuality; rather, “it is the tension between individual and community that so often marks these texts” (p. 61).

The first chapter also most clearly displays her methodology, which involves close readings of a wide array of texts in different languages. Usually, Martinez relies on translation rather than her own knowledge of the languages, and she often relies on secondary scholarship about those texts for key points. This method is thoughtfully justified. What Martinez is looking for is a set of common themes and concerns shared across works in many languages. If seeing and understanding these similarities had to wait until a scholar came along who was fluent in Sanskrit, Prakrit, Persian, Braj Bhāṣā, Tibetan, modern Hindi/Urdu, and Bengali, it might have had to wait quite a long time. So rather than insist that any meaningful conclusions can only be based on one’s personal translations, Martinez carefully compares and analyzes the translations of others, along with secondary scholarship, and gets on with her work. As she says on page 16: “the aim of this dissertation is not to address all these literatures in their original languages, but to gather the dispersed knowledge of them together in order to show some of their commonalities.” Translations seem quite adequate to this task.

In Chapter 2 she takes these ideas and applies them to a particular text: Banarasidas’s Ardhakathānak, already mentioned. This is a full-fledged autobiography–not just a “moment” in a larger text, as the others are–of a 16th-century Jain merchant who was also a leader in a pioneering Jain reform movement, the so-called Adhyātmi movement. The arguments are carefully contextualized, with references both to the political and religious circumstances of the day, as well as the poetic and literary world in which Banarasidas lived. The text has already been studied by many. Rupert Snell’s work is what Martinez relies on most here. Ramesh Chandra Sharma and Ellison Banks Findley, who mostly mine the text for historical data, also provide useful information, but they don’t set an example that Martinez wants to follow. Martinez reviews their work and then pushes the study of Banarasidas forward by showing in detail that this text displays many of the hallmarks of autobiographical writing in South Asia, and that it clearly makes use of these for religious polemical purposes. For example, Martinez discusses certain confessional sections of the Ardhakathānak, comparing them to traditional Jain confessional practices and showing that Banarasidas both fulfills and undermines these practices in various ways, thus communicating a complex identity and torn relationship with Jain authority structures–just the sort of thing the Adhyatmi movement was known for. She also discusses, in detail, the metrical practices of the text, contextualizing them very well with reference to other poetry of the time, and showing that the polemical intentions can even be found on this level.

Chapter 3 applies these ideas to a fascinating area of South Asian literature: literature that uses autobiography as a literary technique without actually being autobiography, or more simply, feigned autobiography. Martinez calls this “the autobiographical pose.” It is a choice made by an author, and it is distinguished from something like a first-person novel by the fact that the autobiographical compact holds: the reader is supposed to really believe that author, narrator, and protagonist are one person, when in fact they are not. The first example she chooses is the north Indian devotional poet Mirabai, whose collected works consist of hundreds of poems with autobiographical themes, very few of which seem to have been written by the actual poet herself. The other example is the Āpnī Kathā, an autobiography of the tenth Sikh guru, Guru Gobind Singh. This text was written in the guru’s own court during his life, but apparently by an anonymous poet, rather than the guru himself.

This chapter is a welcome addition to scholarship on Mirabai, much of which tends to focus on the question of whether Mirabai herself ever really existed historically. The scholarly consensus on this question generally seems to be: maybe, but we’ll never really know. Meanwhile, it is certain that generations of poets, mostly women, have made a practice of composing pseudo-autobiographical poems in Mirabai’s name. What exactly they might be up to when they do this seems at least as interesting and important a question as whether the character they are using was based on an historical figure. Martinez shows first of all that autobiography is not just an important part of the Mirabai corpus, but that it has become increasingly so as that corpus has grown over the centuries, augmented by generations of anonymous poets. She then helps us better understand these anonymous poets’ practice by showing us that the autobiographical mode provides them with something rhetorically that other modes of writing cannot, especially when combined with Mirabai’s personal stature and credibility. This is because Mirabai’s autobiography famously involves stories of conflict with her family over her role and duties as a woman, and tells of her heartfelt and pious rejection of that role in favor of a spiritual “marriage” to Krishna, imagined as an idealized husband. Writing a poem as Mirabai, then, or reciting one, allows women in North India to criticize the conditions of their lives in a first-person voice, but to cast that criticism into the mouth of a woman widely recognized as a saint, one already famous for (and excused for) these sorts of criticisms. Martinez relies here on the work of Parita Mukta, who has done field work with some groups of these women, and also Jack Hawley, who has done a great deal of research both on Mirabai specifically, as well as on North Indian devotional poetry in general. Christian Lee Novetzke’s work on another devotional poet, Namdev, is also useful in this chapter.

As for the Āpnī Kathā, Martinez reviews some of the views for and against the claim that it was written by Guru Gobind Singh and concludes, based mostly on the work of Rattan Singh Jaggi and personal communications with Gurinder Singh Mann, that it is not. She describes it as an “example of the autobiographical pose, albeit one in which the autobiographical subject may have had some input or oversight” (p. 139). Again, she shows, in line with her main thesis, that there is a connection between the autobiographical style of the text and the religious and communal polemics it carries out. “The autobiographical pose is used in this text to bolster the guru’s spiritual authority, to proclaim both his military strength and his devotional faith, and to make clear to followers that Guru Gobind Singh is part of an inseparable line of Gurus, divinely chosen but not himself divine” (p. 154). Particularly interesting is Martinez’s take on the limits that Guru Gobind Singh is made to put on his own authority in this feigned autobiography. Given the rest of Martinez’s argument, it becomes entirely sensible and clear why feigned autobiography would be the best literary choice for a writer to argue that the guru is not a god and shouldn’t be treated as such. What other literary mode could accomplish this better, or more authoritatively? So it was chosen by the author, even though he wasn’t actually the protagonist, as he led the audience to believe. That such an author, working in Guru Gobind Singh’s own court, was not executed for doing this and his work destroyed simply shows that Guru Gobind Singh himself probably agreed with his theology. He may even have commissioned it.

The conclusion to the dissertation repeats that once we have a better, more culturally flexible understanding of what autobiographical writing is, we are suddenly able to recognize a wide variety of autobiographical writing in South Asia, and to see that it is used in remarkably similar ways across huge spans of time and territory. Martinez reviews just what these similarities are, and then, in a fascinating final section, she shows that they can be found even in the 19th-century Urdu autobiography of Imad-ud-din, a sufi religious leader who converted to Christianity. Such persistences are used to underscore the basic points that Martinez is arguing in her dissertation: that many texts were produced in South Asia that can correctly be called autobiographical under a reasonably flexible definition of the term, and that the people who wrote these autobiographies had, even as late as the 19th century, a remarkably consistent set of assumptions about how that mode of writing was uniquely useful for religious polemics and for bolstering an individual’s authority over matters of religious experience and communal identity. This dissertation should show, beyond any doubt, that the assumption that South Asia had no indigenous forms of autobiography is not merely false, but is an obstacle to understanding what actually happened in this part of the world, and perhaps even what is still happening.

James D. Reich
PhD Candidate, Assistant Director of Undergraduate Studies
Committee on the Study of Religion
Harvard University

Primary Sources
Banarasidas, Ardhakathānak
Mirabai (selections),
Guru Gobind Singh, Āpnī Kathā
Imad-ud-din, A Mohammedan Brought to Christ

Dissertation Information
University of California, Santa Barbara. 2013. 180pp. Primary Advisor: Vesna A. Wallace.

Image: Samayasara Nataka of Banarasidas (undated but probably 18th century), from the private collection of Dr. V.S. Bansal. Photo by author, courtesy of Dr. Bansal, Panchkula, Chandigarh, Punjab.

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