Poetically refined bhakti from Mughal India: Review of ‘Sundar ke svapn’ by Dalpat Singh Rajpurohit

Published : Aug 29, 2023 15:36 IST - 7 MINS READ

A stamp released in 1997 to commemorate the 400th birth anniversary of Sundardas (1596-1689).

A stamp released in 1997 to commemorate the 400th birth anniversary of Sundardas (1596-1689). | Photo Credit: WikiCommons

This book sets forth the novel economy in which Brajbhasha saint-poet Sundardas (1596-1689) brought bhakti poetry and scholastic philosophy together.

If you grew up in India, the chances are that you grew up making two assumptions about emotionally intense devotional (bhakti) poetry in Indian vernaculars: that it was popular and that it was aesthetically simple in order to be popular. These are not wholly incorrect assumptions.

Sundar ke svapn: ārambhik ādhuniktā, Dādupanth aur Sundardās kī kavitā (Sundar’s Dreams: Early Modernity, Dādu’s Path and the Poetry of Sundardas)
By Dalpat Singh Rajpurohit
Rajkamal Prakashan, 2022; second edition 2023
Pages: 240
Price: Rs.795

Read sympathetically, the 15th century bhakti poet-saint Kabir would have us reduce the vast complexes of Islam and Hinduism to empty ritual and then mock such ritual. Neither are his caricatures of what he mocks hard to grasp and nor is his poetics. But modern scholar-translators of bhakti have also projected such theological and poetic simplicity onto what they have translated. The literary theorist André Lefevere argued that translators translated a text according to an ideological image they assumed about its author, thus assimilating the text to that ideology.

A.K. Ramanujan’s Speaking of Siva (1973) presented Kannada’s most famous bhakti poetry, the medieval vacanas, in free verse modelled on American Imagist poetry, opposing the relatively simple poetics of their utterances to that of Sanskrit. The Marathi-English poet Dilip Chitre’s Says Tuka (1991) made over the 17th century Marathi saint-poet Tukaram into a modernist English idiom of chiselled lexical clarity. Similarly, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s Songs of Kabir (2011) presents Kabir in a ruggedly simple English lyric idiom modelled on the American Beat poets.

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The assumption that bhakti poetry was always popular and simple has also been an article of faith in modern Hindi literary criticism which, for around a century now, has distinguished between (Braj-Avadhi) poetry, clustering thickly with Sanskritic figures of speech or “mannerism” (rīti), and bhakti poetry that it characterised as emotionally intense and authentic because it was shorn of such figures. Dalpat Singh Rajpurohit’s path-breaking Hindi book Sundar ke svapn: ārambhik ādhuniktā, Dādupanth aur Sundardās kī kavitā/Sundar’s Dreams: Early Modernity, Dādu’s Path and the Poetry of Sundardas undoes this assumption among others.

The Dādu Panth

Broadly, the book is an exposition of “the intellectual community” formed by the poet-saints of one of Rajasthan’s most famous bhakti traditions, the Dādu Panth, so called because its founding saint was a 16th century Rajasthani Muslim saint called Dādu. More specifically, it sets forth the novel economy in which the Dādupanthi Brajbhasha saint-poet Sundardas (1596-1689) brought poetry and scholastic philosophy together. Rajpurohit shows how this intellectual community was partly a product of the Mughal emperor Akbar’s policy of “absolute civility” (sulḥ-i kull) and the prominence it gave to non-dual Vedanta. Readers swayed by current bigoted denigrations Mughal rule should note that Rajasthan’s most poetically versatile and theologically open-minded bhakti movement would have been philosophically, poetically and financially impossible without a founding Mughal vision of religious pluralism.

The first of the book’s six chapters lays bare the problems that 16th-19th century Braj poetry poses for modern Hindi literary historiography that has claimed it as an inheritance even as it has reduced it to a sweet and mumbling dialect of Hindi, shoehorning its legacies into the simplistic dichotomy of “mannerism” (rīti) versus “devotion” (bhakti). The chapter confronts this image with an embarrassment of riches the historiography cannot explain: Braj poetry across genres, that defies this impoverished modern Hindi historiographical distinction. It sets these Braj fusions of refined conventionalism and devotionalism in their contexts from the Mughal court at Dhaka in 1704 to the Rajput one at Bundi in 1857. Among the important conclusions this chapter allows is a new periodisation: “1600 C.E. can be taken as a point where we begin to find texts that display consciousness of tradition in increasing numbers” (page 57).

The second chapter is an exposition of “the intellectual community” jointly formed by the Mughal emperor Akbar’s policy of “absolute civility” and its patronage of Advaita or non-dual Vedanta, Sundardas’ mobility along patronage, mercantile, and pedagogical networks connecting Banaras and Rajasthan, and the Marwadi king Jaswant Singh’s Braj works on Vedantic themes. Sundardas appears here as “the peak” of the tradition, ending in the 19th century, of “the training of Dadupanthi saints and their union with the intellectual class” (page 94).

Paying imaginative attention to how Dadupanthi saints in Amber and Sanganer settled into prior Jain mercantile networks there and availed of Rajput Muslim patronage in Fatehpur-Shekhawati, the third chapter explains how and why Sundardas formulated “a new definition of being a saint”, adapting Braj poetic genres like the ghazal that were popular among Jains to his own yoga-informed saintly purposes. Dādupanthi dependence on Jain networks and spiritual competition with Jains explains why Dādupanthis, despite their derision for the hollowness of ritual and caste norms, never openly negated caste hierarchies like Kabir’s poetry did. Indeed, whereas Kabir formulated his open mockery of such social identities with a narrow poetic skillset, Sundardas’s new definition insisted on mastery of the full range of Braj prosodic and tropological conventions as a necessary ingredient of being a mystic (gyāni).

Chapter four discloses continuities and discontinuities between ideas of the body (of poetry as well as its human author) across Sundardas and Dādupanthi poetry on the one hand and, on the other, its counterparts in Sanskrit worldly and devotional poetry and Braj courtly poetry. It also showcases his mastery of the Sanskrit genre of visual poetry as well as the uses of folk sayings and prosodic variety in poetry. Sundardas insisted that poetry was worthless—even damaging—if not aimed at discovering “the world-pervading reality of Brahman” (page 127) within oneself even as he demanded that it be many-splendoured in its forms.

Chapter five sets forth the networks of teachers in Banaras whose authority in Vedanta, Sanskrit grammar, and literary theory modelled the poetry of Sundardas who spent a period in that city. It tracks his appropriations of Upanishadic lessons in various Braj verse forms like the samasyāpūrtī (the metrical resolution of problems) and bāvnī (an acrostic poem tracing the 52 letters of the Devanāgari alphabet). This chapter’s second part offers a conspectus of the multi-generic syllabus of the Braj school that flourished in Bhuj, Kutch, from the mid-18th century until 1948, disclosing the centrality in it of Sundardas and other Dādupanthi compositions.

“This book should be considered an event in the scholarship on South Asia’s vernacular literatures. ”

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, anticipating current attempts to impose Hindi as a national language. One of this chapter’s remarkable lessons is that Braj simulated linguistic diversity by absorbing regional and topic-specific vocabularies within a single Braj grammar. Here, scholars of Urdu literature must remark on the lexical conservatism of 18th-19th century Urdu poetry in contrast to Braj and the Braj-informed poetic vocabulary and imagery of 14th to early 18th century Urdu/Dakhni literature.

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This chapter traces the fall of Braj—Northern, Western and Central India’s preeminent “cosmopolitan vernacular”— and its irrelevance by the second half of the 19th century when Braj first came to be restricted to poetry while Hindi of the Khadi Boli dialect was used for prose; followed by a total displacement of Braj in favor of Khadi Boli Hindi as the only language for national reform and its bourgeois morality. The chapter thus also explains the increasingly impoverished reception of Sundardas in 19th century print culture as nothing but a bhakti poet whose accomplishments were only poetic and devotional (exemplified exclusively by his Sundarvilās), casting into oblivion his multi-generic poetic works that entered into disputes with ambient philosophical traditions (Gyān-samudra being the most accomplished of these).

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’ Hindustan) at two accomplishments: Sundardas’ multi-generic and multi-lingual interventions in Braj that crafted a novel ascetic persona in bhakti poetry; and Rajpurohit’s own magisterial command of ambient Braj and Rajasthani literatures as well as of a century of modern scholarship on these in Hindi, English and German. May nobody interested in bhakti literary legacies continue to think of devotion as opposed to poetic sophistication. And may this book soon be translated into English and other South Asian languages.

Prashant Keshavmurthy is Associate Professor of Persian-Iranian Studies at the Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University, Montreal, Canada.

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