Cornell University

SAP Seminar Series: "Signs of the Self in Stories in Pre-colonial Bengal: Love, Sex, Marriage, War, and Self-Sacrifice, c. 1650-1750" by David Curley

Monday, March 27, 2017 at 12:15pm to 1:15pm

Uris Hall, G08 109 Tower Road, Ithaca, NY 14850

This lecture explores two related themes. The first discusses ‘fluid signs’ of power and freedom, and the second discusses the disciplines necessary for social relationships, identities and hierarchies. We have explored not a ‘Bengali’ identity, but a complex and dialogic topography of intersecting literary traditions. Sometimes this topography reached beyond the provincial boundaries of Bengal, and sometimes it divided east Bengal from the north and west.

In Dharmamangal texts human agency is transformed by contact with the divine, ultimately in the experience of violent death on the battlefield, or in the act of self-sacrifice by impalement or decapitation. A warrior’s discipline, however, requires chastity, at least in the period of campaigns. In Dharma-mangal, erotic and maternal sentiments of women threaten the vows of celibacy of elite male warriors, and the necessary wildness of very low caste warriors threatens the order of the state. Elite women cannot be both mothers and warriors, and very low caste men cannot become rulers. One context for these texts probably was a changing market for military labor of low caste men on the margins of the Rarh, and another a sense of difference that made Muslim soldiers a special threat to wives of Hindu warriors.

In a seventeenth century Vidya-Sundar from eastern Bengal we found instead the premise that bhog, satisfaction of sexual desire, is not in conflict with yoga, (at least, not for noble Hindu princes). We found a plot of satisfaction of desire, followed rather than preceded by formal marriage, but similarly leading to royal responsibilities. In Bharatchandra’s Vidya-Sundar the experience of bhog, enjoyment of erotic love, temporarily dissolves gender identities and modesty codes, and leads naturally to a full human life of desire, wealth, and ultimate liberation. One context for Bharatchandra’s Vidya-Sundar is suggested by his poem’s scene, a commercial, ‘foreign’, militarized, and multilingual cityscape. Corresponding to this scene, Sundar’s success depends on intellectual mastery honed in an elite Sanskrit education, and on the relatively feminine and ministerial agency of artful speech in many registers, not on any mastery of the arts of war.

 In the Sufi poet Alaol’s Padmavat the self is liberated by a meditation practice on the ‘path of love’.  Transformation of the self begins with an involuntary experience of unconsciousness when the soul takes leave of the body to be with the beloved, and it is developed during a period of discipline during the painful period separation (viraha) from the beloved. Marriage, however, returns elite Muslims to their responsibility as heads of families and rulers. Exploring Amir Hamza’s late eighteenth century translation of Manjhan’s Madhumalati, we discussed social bonds for elite Muslims that were based on the contracts and vows of Muslim marriages, and on the emotional repression necessary to keep truth (satya). In both texts noble Muslim men and women proved their ability to be righteous husbands and wives, and to rule over inferiors. One context for both texts seems to be a sense of Muslim identity based upon differences between Muslim and Hindu marriages, and both explicitly criticize the informal ‘weddings’ and premarital sex of Vidya-Sundar stories.

David Curley (MA, PhD, University of Chicago) retired from Western Washington University in 2012, but continues to do research in interdisciplinary studies in precolonial Indian history and literature.

Event Type



Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, Asian Studies, South Asia Program, History


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Daniel Bass

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David Curley

Speaker Affiliation

Western Washington University (Liberal Studies)

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Wheelchair accessible, assisted listening device available

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