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Lectures of the J.P. And Beena Khaitan Visiting Fellow
Prof. Tony K. Stewart
16 Feb 2017

A number of Bangla tales dedicated to the fictional or mythic holy men (pīrs) and women (bibīs) in the Muslim community have circulated widely over the last five centuries alongside the tales of their historical counterparts. They are still printed and told today, and performed regularly in public, especially in the Sunderbans, the mangrove swamps in the southern reaches of Bangladesh and West Bengal. Among them are figures such as the itinerant veterinarian Mānik Pīr, the tamer of tigers Baḍakhān Gājī and his female counterpart Bonbibī, and the matron of cholera Olābibī. Because of the way they defy the strictly demarcated categories that have come to define Hindu and Muslim in the last two centuries, Orientalist scholars, conservative Muslim factions, linguists, and literary historians have until recently rejected or ignored altogether this group of stories as as purely entertaining with no religious, linguistic, or literary merit. I argue that not only are these fictions religious, they create an important space within the limiting strictures of Islamic theology, history, and law that allows people to exercise their imagination to investigate alternative worlds. These texts simultaneously offer a critique of religion and society through their parodies, rather than articulating doctrine or theology. Because they are fictions, any approach to their religiosity must use hermeneutic strategies suited to the literary world in which they operate. But the imagination exercised in these tales is not unlimited, rather the parameters of the discursive arena in which they operate—the imaginaire—can be defined by two types of presuppositions and two types of intertextuality that both enable and constrain what is possible to express. Using the example of the tales of the conflict between Dakṣiṇ Rāy and Baḍakhān Gāji, and the later appropriation by Bonbibī, we can identify not only the structures of the imaginaire, but the processes by which different authors several centuries apart construct and inhabit that discursive space for their own distinct religious purposes.

Prof. Tony K. Stewart specializes in the literatures and religions of the Bangla-speaking world, with a special emphasis on the early modern period. His most recent monograph, The Final Word: the Caitanya Caritāmṛta and the Grammar of Religious Tradition (Oxford, 2010), culminated a decades-long study of the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava hagiographical tradition that included translating with Edward C. Dimock, Jr., The Caitanya Caritāmṛta of Kṛṣṇadāsa Kavirāja, Harvard Oriental Series no. 56 (Harvard, 1999). From the literatures of the Muslim–Hindu mythic figure, Satya Pīr, he published Fabulous Females and Peerless Pīrs: Tales of Mad Adventure in Old Bengal (Oxford, 2004) and is currently working on a monograph on the popular Bangla romance literatures of the pīrs. With prominent American poet Chase Twichell, he has published the first ever translations of Rabindranath Tagore’s pseudonymous Bhānusiṃha poetry titled The Lover of God(Copper Canyon, 2003). Stewart currently holds the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Chair in Humanities and serves as a Professor and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Vanderbilt University. 

Dr. Martin Gansten
3 May 2017

Tājika is the designation of the Sanskritized Perso-Arabic astrology that arose as an independent school following the second wave of astrological transmission into India in the early centuries of the second millennium CE. It is thus the form of Indian astrology most closely resembling western medieval and Renaissance astrology, which similarly rests on Arabic foundations. Although ultimately derived from the same Greek origins as classical Indian astrology, Tājika comprises many technical elements not included in the first wave of transmission about a millennium earlier. While the earliest known Tājika works in Sanskrit appear to have been composed by authors who were either Jains or members of the non-Brahmin Prāgvāṭa (Porwad) community encompassing both Jains and Hindus, the most influential of these authors was reinvented as a Brahmin by later Tājika tradition. Not all Brahmins were accepting of the foreign science, however, and many Tājika authors felt the need to defend their study of it by arguments that range from the mythological to the pragmatic. In today’s nationalist climate, where apologetic strategies are once more called for, Tājika is often subsumed under the modern paradigm of ‘Vedic astrology’, its extra-Indian origins largely forgotten, ignored, or even denied.

Dr. Martin Gansten is a Sanskritist and a historian of religion specializing in astrological and divinatory traditions. He received his doctorate from Lund University, Sweden, where he has taught since 1998 and is now docent.


The Rādhā Tantra (RT), also known as Vāsudevarahasya (Vāsudeva’s secret), is a fairly extensive, anonymous Tantric work dealing with the story of Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa. Contrary to what the name might indicate, the RT is not a Vaiṣṇava text; rather, it is a Śākta text giving a Śākta reinterpretation of a Vaiṣṇava story. The RT is by all standards a late Tantra, written in poor Sanskrit, seldom quoted by Tantric authorities and little studied today. Plainly said, this is not an important text.

Nevertheless, in this talk, I will argue for the importance of studying such obscure texts. This I will do by taking a close look at the historical context of the RT, its fascinating manuscript history, its intertextualities and doctrines, all of which paint a vivid picture of the meeting of Śāktism and Vaiṣṇavism in 17th century Bengal. Who wrote this text, and why? Considering such questions, I argue, will not only help us understand this particular text, but also give us a larger picture of the history of religion in Bengal in general.  

Dr. Måns Broo is a university researcher in comparative religion at Åbo Akademi University, Finland. His main research interests include yoga – both its history and contemporary forms – and the intersections between Vaiṣṇavism and Tantrism in pre-modern Bengal. He is at present engaged in compiling a critical edition and translation of the mediaeval Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava ritual compilation Haribhaktivilāsa


Majewski Lecture 

Jan Westerhoff 

The Madhyamaka school of philosophy has been credited as being the central philosophy of Buddhism and also as a kind of anti-philosophy of pure critique that simply seeks to demonstrate the contradictory nature of all statements about the world. This lecture explores the nature of philosophical argument in Madhyamaka and the kind of philosophical theory that the Madhyamaka is. 

Originally trained as a philosopher and orientialist, Jan Westerhoff's research focuses on philosophical aspects of the religious traditions of ancient India. Much of his work concentrates on Buddhist thought (especially Madhyamaka) as preserved in Sanskrit and Tibetan sources, he also has a lively interest in Classical Indian philosophy (particularly Nyāya). His research on Buddhist philosophy covers both theoretical (metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of language) and normative aspects (ethics); he is also interested in the investigation of Buddhist meditative practice from the perspective of cognitive science and the philosophy of mind. Some publications (for more information see www.janwesterhoff.net) are ‘The connection between ontology and ethics in Madhyamaka’ in: The Cowherds: Moonpaths: Ethics and Madhyamaka Philosophy, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2014; The Dispeller of Disputes: Nāgārjuna's Vigrahavyāvartanī, Oxford University Press, 2010; Twelve Examples of Illusion, Oxford University Press, 2010; Nāgārjuna's Madhyamaka. A Philosophical Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2009; ‘The Madhyamaka Concept of svabhāva: Ontological and Cognitive Aspects’, Asian Philosophy, 2007, 17:1, 17-45; Ontological Categories. Their Nature and Significance, Oxford University Press, 2005. Download

Dr Sharada Sugirtharajah

Nineteenth-century colonial India offers examples of both Hindu iconoclasts and iconic worshippers, but there has been a tendency to privilege the former and regard them as agents of modernity, and the latter as backward. Most nineteenth-century studies of Hindu attitudes to image worship have mainly focussed on two prominent figures—Rammohan Roy (1772–1883) and Dayananda Saraswati (1824–1883) who denounced image worship. This paper seeks to widen the discourse and to include the often overlooked nineteenth-century Sri Lankan Shaivite ‘reformer’, Arumuga Navalar (1822–1879) who took a very different stance on the issue of image worship. While Roy and Dayananda rejected image worship, Navalar affirmed it. Situating these three ‘reformers’ in their respective historical and cultural contexts, the paper will draw attention to the significant differences between Navalar and the two Indian Hindu responses to the Protestant missionary critique of image worship. It seeks to problematize the conventional approach which situates the debate on image worship within the narrow confines of the tradition verses modernity paradigm. 
Dr Sharada Sugirtharajah is Senior Lecturer in Hindu Studies in the Department of Theology, at the University of Birmingham. Her research focuses on representation of Hinduism in colonial and postcolonial writings.

Religious Practice in Comparative Perspective Series

Dr Mohammad Talib

The idea of prayer in Islam is vague in the sense that it ranges from the mandatory to the most optional and spontaneous. This lecture will deal with the issue of prayer from an anthropological perspective.

Dr Mohammad Talib is lecturer at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Oxford. He has taught Sociology at Jamia Millia Islamia University (Delhi), from 1979 to 2001. In 2002, he came to Oxford as the Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz fellow in the Anthropology of Muslim Societies at the Oxford Centre for Islamic studies. His research in the anthropology of Islam focuses on Sufi groups, and madrassahs. His current research work: Madrassahs in the Recent History: An Alternative view between Anthropology and International Relations is a critical examination of the state of social science scholarship on Islam in the contemporary world after 9/11. Among his publications are Writing Labour: Stone Quarry Workers in Delhi (2010), Delhi, Oxford University Press, ‘Modes of Overcoming Social Exclusion through Education: Analysis of two Accounts from Pre-and Post Independent India’ in K N Panikkar and M Bhaskaran Nair (eds.) Emerging Trends in Higher Education in India: Concepts and Practices (New Delhi: Pearson Education India, 2011), ‘Predicaments of Serving Two Masters: Anthropologists between the Discipline and Sponsored Research’ in Raúl Acosta et. al (eds.) Making Sense of the Global: Anthropological Perspectives on Interconnections and Processes. (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010), and ‘Sufis and Politics’ in The Oxford Encyclopaedia of the Modern Islamic World, John Esposito (ed). Oxford University Press, New York (2008).


Religious Practice in Comparative Perspective Series

Dr Martin Ganeri 
The routine activity of the ‘hours of prayer’ forms a major part of the daily life of the different Christian religious orders. This talk will consider what function this prayer plays in the life and goals of religious communities. Dr Martin Ganeri O.P. is Vice Regent of Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford and Director of the Centre for Christianity and Interreligious Dialogue at Heythrop College, University of London. His recent and forthcoming publications include, ‘Theology and Non-Western Philosophy’ in O. Crisp, G. D'Costa, M. Davies and P. Hampson (eds) Theology And Philosophy: Faith and Reason, London: T&T Clarke, 2012 and ‘Selfhood, Agency and Freewill in Rāmānuja’ in E.F. Bryant (ed.) Free Will, Agency, and Selfhood in Indian Philosophy, New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Prof. Shrikant Bahulkar:

There is seen the tendency of Vedism and Brahmanism through out the Buddhist literature, right from the early Pāli canon through the Mahāyāna to the late Buddhist Tantric texts. In the Pāli canon, the terms such as veda, vijjā, tevijja, yañña and so on. These terms have basically Vedic connotations; however they have been used in a different, typically Buddhist sense. In the Mahāyāna scriptures, there are a number of Vedic concepts used to praise the Buddhas and the Bodhisattvas. In the Vajrayāna rituals, we find a growing tendency of Vedism and Brahmanism. While borrowing the Vedic and Brahmanical vocabulary, concepts and ritual practices, the Buddhist did not necessarily adhere directly to particular traditions or texts. The proportion of the usage of such vocabulary and ritualistic practices has increased in the Mahāyāna and, more prominently, in late Buddhist Tantric tradition that involved the muttering of various mantras, offerings into fire and other practices, resembling the Vedic and Brahmanical sacrificial ritual.

Dr Jessica Frazier:

Gadamer saw culture, religion, and art as 'living texts' that integrate our life experience into a meaningful worldview that allows us to think, act, and create. But no worldview is ever static or finished; in 'understanding' we use bias (that of ourselves and others) as the raw material from which a new worldview is created. In this respect Gadamer shares much with Aristotelian and later Vitalist thinkers. But Gadamer also affirms that texts can act poetically as 'angels', as he puts it in his studies of Rilke and Paul Celan, gesturing toward the transcendence of that which cannot be encompassed in human thought.

Prof. Dilip Loundo

Far from antinomic terms and more than just compatible terms, śruti and tarka seem to converge, in Advaita Vedanta, to the same soteriological discipline that constitutes the only means to attain liberation (mokṣa). Accordingly, śruti is revelation in the sense that it, basically, reveals a method of dialogical reasoning (anugṛhita tarka) that succeeds in eliminating one’s ignorance about Reality. Special emphasis will be given to the teachings of Śaṅkarācārya, Sureśvarācārya and Satccidanandendra Saraswati.

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