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Organizer and Discussant: Richard H. Davis, Bard College
This panel sets out to investigate religious specialists of various sorts in South and Southeast Asia, and the relations they have established historically with social institutions and political authorities. The historiography of medieval India has often regarded categories like "brahman" as denoting relatively fixed and homogeneous socio-religious identities. Likewise, this historiography has considered the ideological affiliations of political states as constituted primarily in terms of their alignments with one or another macro-religious formation ("Hindu" or "Muslim" most often), defined largely through high traditions of canonical texts. Such historical depictions fail to represent the internal variety of religious specialists and their practices, and the context-sensitive ways medieval Indian polities related themselves to the multi-religious societies they sought to rule. Using inscriptions, texts, and ethnographic observations, the papers in this panel provide more nuanced accounts of Southern Asian religious specialists in their modes of organization, their everyday practices, and their complex interactions with ruling authorities and institutions.
We take the notion of "tracking" in part literally. Panel papers track the geographical movements of religious specialists: Brahmans from North India to the south and from the subcontinent to Thailand, Sufis from throughout the medieval Islamic world into the subcontinent. They trace the role of peripatetic specialists in the spread of religious ideologies, and also the revising of these ideologies in new social settings. They also consider how polities sought to stabilize themselves through patronage of both local and itinerant religious specialists.
Religious Authority and Political Power in Medieval Western India
Sumit Guha, Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta
This paper originates in a dissatisfaction with the many studies of religion in South Asia that confine themselves to what may be called the high scriptural or high doctrinal level. Such approaches see communities as defined by scriptural principles which are fundamentally self-contained and mutually exclusive. At its most fundamental, it results in scholars like Dumont declaring that Hinduism and Islam were "two societies which were strangers to one another in virtue of the opposition of their values. . ." This simply cannot capture the real dynamic of socio-political processes in what has been, for millennia, a multi-religious society. The paper suggests that an actual understanding of religion in multi-religious societies has to look firstly at the day-to-day internal working of religious institutions; secondly at their routine interaction with government agency; and thirdly at the political, economic and military functions of religious worthiesthe bearers and definers of religious traditionin their real-lived context. It tries to draw on Webers valuable insight that "a social relationship . . . a state, a church, a guild, a marriageconsists purely and exclusively in the possibility that someone has acted, is acting, or will act in such a way that one agents meaning varies in relation to anothers in a specifiable way." Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Marathi sources are then used to illustrate the possibilities of the approach suggested.
Mapping the Brahmanical Mandate: The Shifting Worlds of Brahman Activity and Authority in Medieval South India
Leslie C. Orr, Concordia University
Scholarly consideration of the roles of Brahmans in Tamilnadu in the period of the 9th to 14th centuries has centered around the idea of Brahmans as key figures in the establishment of "canonical" Hindu temples and in the sanctioning of the political legitimacy or ritual standing of local landowners, chiefs, and kings. Burton Stein, for instance, focuses on a "Brahman-peasant alliance" in which the Brahmanical presence is regarded as lending authority to the position and religious practices of rural-based agriculturalists, over against urban, mercantile Jains and Buddhists. Some have argued that Brahmans were periodically "imported" from the north by South Indian rulers and sectarian leaders to reinforce Hindu orthodoxy.
Such reconstructions reflect the arrangements and concerns of later historical periods, rather than providing an accurate picture of the position and influence of Brahmans in medieval Tamilnadu. I propose to utilize the rich evidence of temple inscriptions from the medieval period to explore several aspects of the roles of Brahmans: (1) their relationships with the temple; (2) the geographical and family origins and organization of Brahman communities; (3) the history of the establishment of Brahman settlements and of the appointment of Brahmans to positions of honour and responsibility; and (4) a comparison of Brahmans religious responsibilities and community organization with those of non-Brahmans and non-Hindus.
I believe that this examination will force us to revise our understanding of the movement and the mandate of Brahmans in the context of the religious, social, and political history of medieval South India.
Straddling Two Worlds: The Buddhist Brahmans of Thailand
Priyawat Kuan Poonpol, Harvard University
Studies of religious specialists have generally been done by tracing the vertical transmission of ritual traditions from teachers to pupils. Thus, such traditions are known as entities circumscribed by textual and geographical boundaries. In my study of the brahmans of Thailand I intended to discern the depth of the Sanskritic brahmanic traditions that was engrafted on and embedded into the Thai Buddhist mold. In this paper I shall present glimpses of the life and rites of the court brahmans of Thailand. At present, while living secularly as professionals, they carry on a vital function in the construction of everyday and extraordinary reality for their clients, from kings to commoners.
The ethnographic data taken in field research in Bangkok, Thailand, will be viewed analytically in perspective of the enmeshed Buddhist and brahmanic traditions: How closely do the brahmins follow their tradition while accommodating to their Buddhist milieu? How do they conceive of their origins? What claims do they lay to the Sanskritic origin of their role as mediator between the human and divine? How do they preserve their priestly role and defend it against the demands of economic life? How do they maintain their identity as brahmins through the use of manuscripts?
Mobile Sufis and the Immobile Indo-Muslim State
Richard M. Eaton, University of Arizona
The paper explores mechanisms by which the Indo-Muslim states spread within the Indian world between the late-12th and mid-17th centuries, and in particular the ways new Indo-Muslim dynasts depended upon itinerant, highly mobile Sufis to legitimate their claims to sovereign authority.
The paper is in three parts. The first explores the implications of statements by chroniclers like Abd al-Malik Isami (d. 1350 A.D.) respecting the proper role of mobile holymen in the founding of Islamic states. Special attention will be paid to the Chishti order here, focusing on Bengal and the Deccan, with references to Malwa and Gujarat. The second part explores the relations between Chishti Sufis and the Mughal state from Babur (1526) to Bahadur Shah II (1858). The third part contrasts Bahmani relations with itinerant Sufis with Vijayanagars relations to fixed river shrines.