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Power, Authority and Mobility in Seventeenth Century North India- anindita Mukhopadhyay


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Power, Authority and Mobility in Seventeenth Century North India- Anindita Mukhopadhyay
The question of the fascinating links with mobility and the seeking of stability with each change of location with organized power – the state or economic networks – has been an extremely interesting angle of urbanization. In a direct connection, such an exploration also opens up the domains of fields of authority, of domination and subordination. In an indirect way, it can tangentially peer at individuated(yet structured by a shared world view) understanding of self and authority. Such explorations have been very much the prerogative of colonial and post-colonial studies, but the cusp at the late- medieval-early-modern juncture has been brilliantly caught by a seventeenth century North Indian Jaina merchant, Banarasi das by name, and has so far not really caught the kind of attention his autobiography deserves. This paper seeks to address this gap. The analysis assumes a rather simplistic split between the pre-modern understanding of authority and domination and the modern understanding, when it posits a religious frame of reference together with a resigned acceptance of an arbitrary exercise of power for the individual located as well as the community in which he is located in the pre-modern period. I certainly admit the over-simplification, but I plead certain extenuating circumstances for this assumption. Firstly, there are continuities in practice between the pre-modern and the modern period as far as the religious frame of reference as well as arbitrary exercise of power is concerned in the modern period – certainly. Historical contextualization would immediately highlight this continuity. However, there is at the level of popular knowledge a certain resigned acceptance of the breach of universal norms which do restrict the play of arbitrary power. I point precisely to this hiatus between the modern and the pre-modern mental landscapes, as Banarasi das’s autobiography demonstrates again and again.

I argue that in spite of having a sharp sense of dissent regarding authority and control, banarasi das prioritised what was more all-encompassing a form of control and marginalized that which did not play a very important role in regulating every-day lives of the individuals as well as the communities in which the individuals were placed. For banarasi Das the most all-encompassing form of authority and control was the hegemony of every-day rites, rituals, the need to go on pilgrimages, to put faith in religious forces that were of doubtful certainty. It is certainly a very modern distinction that he made – the difference between spirituality, which ultimately loosened the grip of the material world upon the mind and freed it for philosophical contemplation of the useless nature of worldly entrapments, and a mechanical religiousity, which remained satisfied with the form without ever understanding the essence of spirituality. For banarasi Das this was the ultimate rejection of authority and control, not so much the husk of authority exercised by the State (or more accurately the representatives of state power) on the bodies of individuals– which remained for the most part, a light, non-intrusive and marginalized presence. To this form of authority, the furthest concentric circle with the least magnetic pull on the individual’s mind, or even on the collective norms of the community, obedience had to be rendered: however, the point that I will make through the reading of the text, even if this authority did become arbitrary, one could and did escape it, by changing one’s location. Thus the grip of the state – even when harsh – could be broken with relocation. One could even establish bonds of profit with it, for when it was benevolent, it could further individual or even community interests. Mukund Lath in his introduction is apologetic about banarasi das’s indifference to the state: even its arbitrary functioning “on two clear occasions” evokes no acid comment from Banarasi Das. Lath assumes, no doubt correctly, that there did not exist the modern notion of the political critique in the society which Banarsi occupied. But much more than that, the state did not become irresistible as a frame of force: at best it was a form of exrernal order that reduced violence and either restored or retained order: at worst it was vicious which had to be avoided: but Banarasi’s world did not perceive the state as central to its functioning. On the contrary, it was religion which was the rigid straitjacket, even preventing independent thought , and it was this hegemonic hold that could not be broken with the change of location. I feel Banarasi Das had identified his priorities clearly. In this paper I will explore Banarsi Das’s “Ardhakathanaka” from precisely this positioning of the individual , who is conscious of an ambient mental structure that intrudes into the banal everyday functioning of ordinary lives, and turns even sacred spiritual and metaphysical symbols into profane habits.

I first trace the identity of the community vis-à-vis the individual which is sustained by the genealogical location of Banarasi das’s family within the larger community, and also by conformable individuals regardless of dislocations and relocations: an identity which one inherits and which one does not repudiate. In Banarasi Das’s world, externalized material power had two highly visible dimensions: political and economic: with these two dimensions other elements were related: status within the community, status with political representatives of the state. However, it was through the economic conduit that the Jaina community established a great reputation as a successful and wealthy community. A trading community in indigenous society had deep roots across time and space: the thick ropes of the firm links of communication and trust – both financial and communal - spanned these temporal and spatial divides.

There was a subtle entwining of the financial power with the political power all through the text; the financial power accessed the political to strengthen its credit and its reach. Money power knew no religion, as banarasi das unconsciously reveals in the onset of his narrative. He locates his family’s history in the distant past – which would have hazy family myths preserved in the oral memories of individual family members – possibly even the family archives preserved them: Banarasi das inherited this genealogical continuity despite spatial dislocations across time: they had been rajputs originally, from Biholia, a village near Rohtak. From the marital defenders of Biholia, from which spatial location the nomenclature of their gotras was derived,, they converted to Jainism under the influence of a great teacher and became “srimal”: symbolic garlands carrying the true mantra. As banarasi das’s family became prosperous merchants, two of them, Ganga and gosala, shifted to the nearby town Rohtak, from whose line came Basta, five generations removed from Banarasi das. Basta established good trading links and the trading link continued down to Muldas, Das’s grandfather. Muldas was well educated, well-learned in both hindi and Persian, and developed good relationship with the Mughal Governor who had been deployed in Rohtak by Humayun. He became the modi or the moneylender who operated on behalf of the governor, and followed the governor to his posting in Narwal or Narwar in Malwa, situated in western India. Administrative mobility combined with financial solvency quite successfully, a trend that is evident across pre-modern Indian history ( scholars have worked on this – famously C. A. Bayly, Rulers, Tradesmen and Bazaars, OUP, Delhi). These lucrative links to both parties, however operated under dominant-subordinate power relations, and the political could and did assert itself effortlessly and unfairly. Muldas had two sons – Kharagsena who was the elder and Ghanadas who was younger but who died early. Muldas died soon after, and the governor immediately confiscated Muldas’s property and sealed it with his own seal. Kharagsen and his widowed mother travelled back to the East, and finally came to Jaunpur. Here community networks – including surname “srimal”, gave mother and son instant roots. The resident srimal was actually kharagsen’s maternal grandfather, and his mother’s uncle.

Kharagsena understood the link between trade and political authority, even though he had suffered from an unfair political power which exercised its superiority relentlessly. From the age of eight, he was set onto the family business where he learnt for four years how



to read and write and also acquired the art of testing precious metals such as gold and silver for impurities. He became skilful in distinguishing good coins from bad and was efficient in drafting bills for the family business of money-lending …He knew the right method of keeping accounts… He was soon initiated into the trade of dealing in precious metals (para 50, p.7, Ardhakathanaka)
Kharagsena understood he had acquired skills that would stand him in good stead, and began to look beyond Jaunpur for a career. Since he was young and also presumably under a debt of gratitude to his grandfather, he was secretive about his enquiries. He was a boy of twelve (approx), and a Jaina diwan in Bengal under the Lodhis would not have heard about him unless Kharagsena had made the contact first. The community network worked and rai Dhana met the young boy who had actually run away from home without informing his grandfather and gave him the collection of revenue of four parganas. Kharagsena became a potdar, and worked for a while with Rai Dhana. It is interesting to see the way banarasi das matter of factly states how far afield Kharagsena sought his fortunes:

To the east of Jaunpur is the state of Bengal, which was then ruled by an independent Pathan king named Suleman Sultan. Suleman’s brother-in-law was a man called Lodhi Khan, dear to the king like a son. Lodi Khan’s divan (diwan) was a Srimal bearing the name Rai Dhana and the gotra Singhada. Rai Dhana was a man commanding great respect. He had five hundred men serving under him as potdars (revenue collectrs)… Rai Dhana invited Kharagsena to join him (Ibid)
Chronologically the narrative falters a little at this point, and it is possible that Kharagsena worked as the potdar for Rai Dhana for more than just the 6-7 months as Banarasi Das says. However, seeking politically powerful patrons for economic gains was a typical move for ambitious young men of these times and kharagsen, despite his tender years, had opted for material advantages that came with a patron with powerful connections. Unfortunately Rai Dhana died when he was returning from Samet after a pilgrimage to Parasvanath. Kharagsen did not linger without community protection. He possibly feared the exercise of arbitrary authority, when his patron would not be at hand to protect him. He fled back to Jaunpur. It is interesting to note the urgency with which Kharagsena made good his escape from strange circles of power:

No sooner did the staggering news reach Kharagsena, that he decided to leave his post immediately and began making hurried preparations for escaping to Jaunpur. He disguised himself as a beggar and made his way on foot over wild , unfrequented paths, away from the eyes of men. Is journey took him over untamed rivers, hills, woods and hamlets, and when at last he reached home it was night. Meekly, he entered his house and threw himself submissively at the feet of his elders. He had some money hidden away on himself which he gave to his mother. (para 65, p.10, ardha)

In Vikram 1626 or 1569 AD, 4 years later, Kharagsena, a youth of 18, travelled to agra, where again a close family member, his own paternal uncle, welcomed and initiated him to the trading networks of Agra. Another 4 years later (1573) he travelled to Meerut and married, and had to live apart form his uncle and unt, though business relations continued as usual. After his uncle and aunt’s death, he was scrupulously honest about sharing the inheritance with his uncle’s unmarried daughter: he even took to pains to marry her well, and with a large dowry.

In 1633 Vikram (1576) Kharagsen moved back to Jaunpur, “with a large contingent of foot soldiers to follow him as guards” (para 75, p.11) as he was relocating again with all his possessions. He set up business with Ramadasa of the Aggarwala clan, and their business thrived. Before embarking on his own spiritual journey, we find Banarasi das animadverting quite sharply on his father’s deluded faith in pilgrimages to rohtak to the Sati shrine “much revered by his family” (ibid) following the death of his first son around 1635 Vikram (1578 AD). Even though his parents were robbed of all their possessions they still went twice more to the shrine of the Sati in Rohtak, much to Banarasi Das’s disapproval: They had visted the Sati hoping she would give them a son but this calamity was all that the barren sati had in store for them. Yet the couple did not learn a lesson and failed to ralize that they were worshipping a false god. Presently, they set out for the shrine of the same Sati again. Ignorant man cannot see thaieir beliefs are hollow (para 80, p.12) . in 1586, he was born to Kharagsen and his wife, and he was named Vikramjit. However, when still a baby, he was taken on another pilgrimage to Samet – at lord Parasvanatha’s shrine. There, “the priest…assuming the posture for meditation, pretended to enter into a deep trance…counterfeiting a profound, mystic silence and remained in this attitude for nearly half an hour” (Para 90, p.12) . He then communicated to the “credulous Kharagsen” who “believed every word the priest had uttered” (Ibid) that he had been told by the Lord that the child’s name should be after the place where Parsva was born –or Banaras. And hence his name – Banarasi Das. Here is the deep sceptical note which he does not use for the political events that certainly haunted Banarasi Das’s childhood as well, just as his own father’s growing up years were marked by political turbulence. As I will show, this was because these political developments, though very painful, finally could be side-stepped, but not so the thraldom of the mind.
When Banarasi Das was a young boy, at the stage when political affairs were not incomprehensible, the entire trading community dealing with gold and precious stones – Khaagsen being one of them was targeted by Qilij Khan, the governor of Jaunpur. A long quote from Banarasi Das will show the importance of the event, as well as his more mature mind using a philosophical acceptance of the transience of the various conditions of life:

Nawab Qilij khan, who was then the governor of the city, brought his terrible wrath to bear upon every jeweller and dealer in precious stones who lived in the town. He put them all into prison and demanded of them something so beyond their reach that the jewellers were quite unable to meet the demand…. In a frenzy of rage he stood each one of them in a row, bound and chained them like a pack of thieves, and began t whip them with a spiked lash till they nearly died of their agonizing wounds. But he spared their lives and allowed them to grow free. (para110, p18


The terrified jewellers began to plan of escape. They could see no other way of avoiding a cruel fate except to leave the city with their families and belongings… Kharagsena escaped with his family towards the west … and reached the town of Shahzadpur …In this wretched hour, Karamchand Mahur, a bania who lived in shahzadpur, befriendied the unhappy Kharagsen (para110-115, p.18).
My father had again found ease and comfort after many days of torment. Allow me to pause a little here and meditate on his vicissitudes (para 125, p.20) wise is the man who strives for equanimity, remaining equally unmoved by either joy or sorrow (para. 130, p.121).
The moment the traders were released from political might and “gifted” their lives, they could flee in various directions, as and where their contacts were and kharagsena’s contacts were in Shahzadpur. He could quickly set up his business with the new partner – Karamchand Muhur, and move beyond Shahzadpur to Prayag/Allahabad, which was “more fruitful for his business, because in those days Prayag had for its governor Akbar’s own son Daniyal”. (para 130, p. 21). Kharagsena moved to locales with strong political patronage. Perhaps his business in precious stones required these connections. Further, even the family was moved to Fatehpur, where there were Oswal jains positioned to lend support to a family whose head had mobile quarters in Allahabad, for the facilitation of business. However, “good news” reached Kharagsen from Jaunpur: Qilij Khan had been recalled to Agra, and Jaunpur was open as a trading depot once more. “Other jewellers, too, began to reappear, surfacing like people long lost in the bowels of the earth” (145, p.22). There was another moment of panic when Prince Salim in 1599 AD (1656 Vikram) approached Jaunpur’s forests for a hunt and Akbar, suspicious of his son’s moves, requisitioned the Governor of Jaunpur for halting the prince. (paras 150-55-60). Kharagsena and other merchants fled, but there was normalcy restored as Salim had no intention of raising his standard against the emperor, and therefore the governor had no need to act against royalty.

But Banarasi Das himself felt that relocation could not prevent disaster in 1662 Vikram or 1605 AD, when the death of Akbar shook the empire. This moment was beyond changing locale: this was a moment that brought the political exploding into spaces which did not deal with the political at the everyday level at all. Again, it is important to understand this moment of the possibility of cataclysmic upheaval where the external forces became intensely visible and the possibility also of the state disappearing altogether became equated with the force of divine malignance. In the words, then of Banarasi Das:



I was sitting up a flight of stairs in my house when heard the dreadful news, which came as a sharp and a sudden blow. It made me shake wih violent, uncontrollable agitation. I reeled, and losing my balance, fell down the stars in a faint. My head hit the stone floor and began to bleed profusely… I was then quickly put to bed with my sobbing mother at my side..” (para 250, p.38)
The whole town was in a tremor. Everyone closed the doors of his house in panic; shopkeepers shut down their shops. Feverishly the rich hid ther jewels and costly attire underground; many of them dumped their wealth and their ready capital on carriages and rushed to safe secluded places. Every householder began stocking his home with weapons and arms. Women shunned finery, dressing in shabby, lustreless clothes…it became impossible to distinguish the rich from the poor. There were manifest signs of panic everywhere although …there were really no thieves or robbers about” (para. 255, p.38)
In conclusion, I will quickly sum up the argument this paper has made; the core identity that Banarasi Das iidentified with was a thinking self, something which the religious frame did not allow him. This religious straitjacket did not change at relocation. This condition became precisely the opposite and relocation could change external political fortunes for entire communities in pre-modern India, as local disturbances did not carry over into a different locale. The moment of Akbar’s death threatened this comfortable conviction of continuing the everyday in a different location: the moment this belief in normalcy and the existence of a State lifted, we find that life was suddenly suspended: was this a political self in absentia?





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