Imagine sitting down to write the story of your life. Most likely, as you think about what to write, your mind would drift to other autobiographies and memoirs you’ve read. You’d ask yourself: What kinds of incidents did other writers discuss? What kind of literary conventions and styles did they use? Essentially, what was an autobiography supposed to look like?
Now, imagine: what would it be like to write the story of your life if you had no other previous model to follow?
In the winter of 1641, in the grand Mughal city of Agra, a Jain merchant, poet, and philosopher named Banarasi Das faced this exact question.
Banarasi Das lived from 1586-1643 CE in urban north India: mostly in the cities of Jaunpur and Agra. For Jains, a “full” human lifespan is 110 years, and Banarasi wrote his autobiography when he was 55. Thus, he titled his text Ardhakathanak, meaning Half Story (unfortunately, he died two years later).
The Ardhakathanak is the earliest known autobiography written in a South Asian language. It’s a truly fascinating look into what life was like during the peak of the Mughal Empire, from the perspective of a citizen, not a ruler. In this post, I’ll highlight a few sections from Rohini Chowdhury’s translation that stood out to me as particularly interesting or surprising.
Most people identify Saint Augustine’s Confessions as the first-ever autobiography, written around 400 CE in Roman North Africa. In South Asia, the autobiography has a comparatively more recent history. The Baburnama may have been the first autobiography written by someone living in South Asia; it is the journal of Babur (1483–1530 CE), the founder of the Mughal Empire. Babur wrote in Chagatai Turkish about his life in central Asia, and later his invasion of India and establishment of an empire. Babur described India in great detail, but he was essentially writing from the perspective of a foreigner.
While the Ardhakathanak may not be the first autobiography to describe South Asia, it is the first known autobiography written in a South Asian language. Banarasi Das wrote the Ardhakathanak in Braj Bhasha, an ancestor of modern Hindi and one of the major literary languages of northern India before the 19th century. So, who was he? I’ll let him introduce himself:
Introducing Banarasi Das
जैनधर्म श्रीमाल सुबंस | बानारसी नाम नरहंस
तिन मन मांहि बिचारी बात | कहौं आपनी कथा बिख्यात
jain-dharm śrīmāl subans
bānārasī nām nar-hans
tin man māhi bicārī bāt
kahauñ āpnī kathā bikhyāt
A Jain from the noble Shrimal family,
That prince among men, that man called Banarasi,
He thought to himself,
“Let me make my story known to all.” (4)
जैसी सुनी बिलोकी नैन | तैसी कछू कहौं मुख बैन
कहौं अतीत दोष गुणवाद | बरत मानतांई मरजाद
jaisī sunī bilokī nain
taisī kachhū kahauñ mukh bain
kahauñ atīt doṣ guṇavād
barat māntāī marjād
“All that I have heard, and seen with my own eyes,
Let me tell of those matters in my own words.
Let me tell of my past faults and virtues,
Keeping in mind the limits of custom and decorum.” (5)
Thus begins Banarasi’s account of his life. The Ardhakathanak is 675 stanzas long, and is written in verse, mostly in the doha and chaupai meters. Scholars believe that, as with all other premodern South Asian poetry, the text was meant to be recited, probably by Banarasi Das to an audience of his friends. Later on in the text, Banarasi Das specifies what isn’t proper to include in an autobiography:
आउ बित्त निज गृहचरित | दान मान अपमान
औषध मैथुन मंत्र निज | ए नव अकह कहान
āu bitta nij gṛhacarit
dān mān apmān
auṣadh maithun mantra nij
e nav akah kahān
One’s age and income, and household matters,
What one has given in charity, one’s acts of honour and dishonour,
Medicines that one is taking, one’s sexual escapades and plans for oneself.
These are the nine matters that cannot be spoken of. (460)
Despite this disclaimer, Banarasi Das breaks his own rules pretty often. He is a remarkably frank narrator, particularly when it comes to “household matters” and his business ventures. He’s honest about being a much better poet than a businessman; although at the time of writing the Ardhakathanak Banarasi says he is living “in peace and contentment”, he suffers a number of failed business ventures. For example, as a young man, Banarasi is sent by his father Kharagsen on a trade expedition from their hometown of Jaunpur to the bustling city of Agra. However, Banarasi knows very little how do business in a big city, and eventually loses all of his money and becomes so poor that he is only able to afford kachoris for food.
Banarasi’s life, just like ours, is a series of ups and downs. In addition to suffering a number of business losses, none of his nine children survive infancy, dying of various causes. Thus, for Banarasi, the point of writing his life story is to communicate the importance of equanimity:
ग्यानी संपति विपति मैं | रहै एकसी भांति
ज्यौं रबि ऊगत आथवत | तजै न राती कांति
gyānī sampati vipati maiñ
rahai eksī bhānti
jyauñ rabi ūgat āthavat
tajai na rātī kānti
The wise man, in times of plenty and in times of misfortune
Stays the sane,
As the sun, whether rising or setting,
Retains its ruddy lustre. (130)
A little earlier in the narrative, Banarasi describes a very eventful day, with the same point about the importance of equanimity and being unaffected by worldly events:
करि बिवाह आए निज धाम | दूजी और सुता अभिराम
खरगसेन के घर अवतरी | तिस दिन वृद्धा नानी मरी
kari bivāh āe nij dhām
dūjī aur sutā abhirām
kharagsen ke ghar avtarī
tis din vṛddhā nānī marī
After his wedding Banarasi returned home.
A second beautiful daughter was born
In Kharagsen’s home
And his old nani died on the same day. (106)
नानी मरन सुता जनम | पुत्रबधू आगौन
तीनौं कारज एक दिन | भए एक ही भौन
nānī maran sutā janam
tīnauñ kāraj ek din
bhae ek hī bhaun
A grandmother’s death, a daughter’s birth,
The coming home of a daughter-in-law–
All three events took place on the same day
In the same house. (107)
यह संसार बिडम्बना | देखि प्रगट दुख खेद
चतुर चित्त त्यागी भए | मूढ़ न जानहि भेद
yah sansār biḍambanā
dekhi pragaṭ dukh khed
catur citta tyāgī bhae
mūṛh na jānahi bhed
The irony of this world of illusions
Is clearly manifest in such grief and sorrow.
Wise minds renounce it;
Foolish ones cannot recognize it. (108)
Banarasi falls in love!
Despite Banarasi’s emphasis on equanimity, there are plenty of humorous and endearing moments when he does not remain indifferent to worldly pleasures and pains. One of my favorite parts of the Ardhakathanak is when Banarasi first falls in love at the age of 14. He doesn’t mention who his lover is, but it’s very cute nevertheless:
तजि कुल कान लोक की लाज | भयौ बनारसी आसिखबाज
taji kul kān lok kī lāj
bhayau banārasi āsikh-bāj
Disregarding family honour and throwing away all shame,
Banarasi fell in love. (170)
करै आसिखी धरि मन धीर | दरदबंद ज्यौं सेख फकीर
इकटक देखी ध्यान सो धरै | पिता आपने कौ धन हरै
karai āsikhī dhari man dhīr
dard-band jyauñ sekh phakīr
ikṭak dekhi dhyān so dharai
pitā āpne kau dhan harai
Banarasi loved with the steadfastness
And yearning of a Sufi lover,
Looking upon his beloved with single-minded devotion,
He began to steal from his own father. (171)
चोरै चूंनी मानिक मनी | आनै पान मिठाई घनी
भेजै पेसकसी हित पास | आपु गरीब कहावै दास
corai cūnī mānik manī
ānai pān miṭhāī ghanī
bhejai pes-kasī hit pās
āpu garīb kahāvai dās
He would steal the dust of precious stones, rubies, and other gems
And would use them to buy paan and sweetmeats
To send to his beloved as gifts,
Calling himself her humble slave. (172)
Crises of faith
One of the ways in which Banarasi sounds like a surprisingly modern narrator is his honesty about his spiritual journey. Again, at the time of writing his biography he is able to say that he is a devout “Adhyatmi Jain”. Throughout his life, however, he goes through many crises and revivals of faith. Born into a Jain family, he experiences serious doubts about his faith, and at various points turns to chanting a specific mantra for a year, worshiping Shiva, and going through periods of no faith at all. During one of his periods of doubt, Banarasi writes rather sarcastically:
करनी कौ रस मिटि गयौ | भयौ न आतमस्वाद
भई बनारसी की दसा | जथा ऊंट कौ पाद
karnī kau ras miṭi gayau
bhayau na ātamasvād
bhaī banārasi kī dasā
jathā ūnṭ kau pād
The performance of rituals no longer held any joy for him,
But he could not appreciate the spiritual aspects either.
Banarasi’s condition became similar to
That of a camel’s fart, which hangs between earth and sky. (595)
By the end of his spiritual journey, Banarasi Das was a leading proponent of the Adhyatma movement, a Jain reform movement that opposed certain ritual practices that were common to Jainism and Hinduism (such as abhisheka and offering food and flowers to a deity) and the worship of minor deities. The Adhyatma movement later evolved into the Digambara Terapanth, one of the sects of Digambara Jainism.
Life of the mind
When Banarasi sat down to write his text, he probably wasn’t totally clueless about where to begin. After all, he was an accomplished poet and philosopher who authored many works, both in Sanskrit and Braj Bhasha. In the Ardhakathanak, he also mentions that he was well-versed in the Madhumalati and Mrigavati, two influential Indian Sufi romances written a few hundred years before Banarasi’s time. From a young age, Banarasi expressed a deep love for learning. However, Banarasi was born into a family of jewellers and merchants, who didn’t exactly approve of his academic passions:
आए नगर जौनपुर फेरि | कुल कुटुंब सब बैठे घेरि
गुरुजन लोग दैंहि उपदेस | आसिखबाज सुनें दरबेस
āe nagar jaunpur pheri
kul kutumba sab baiṭhe gheri
gurujan log daiñhi upades
āsikh-bāj suneñ darbes
Banarasi returned to Jaunpur city.
The members of his family sat him down
And the elders lectured him on the error of his ways,
“Listen, you dervish in love!” (199)
बहुत पढ़ै बांभन अरु भाट | बनिकपुत्र तौ बैठे हाट
बहुत पढ़ै सो मांगै भीख | मानहु पूत बड़े की सीख
bahut paṛhai bābhan aru bhāṭ
banik-putra tau baiṭhe hāṭ
bahut paṛhai so māngai bhīkh
mānahu pūt baṛe kī sīkh
“Learning is meant for brahmins and bards;
The sons of merchants sit in the marketplace.
Those who spend all their time in learning go hungry.
Listen, son, to what your elders tell you.” (200)
I don’t really have much to say about this, besides the fact that “Those who spend all their time in learning go hungry” sounds remarkably similar to the warnings people have given me about pursuing a career in academia…
Praying to a sati for a son
Of course, to read an autobiographical text from 17th-century India means to be confronted with some of the pretty uncomfortable and disturbing aspects of Indian society. The Ardhakathanak explicitly references sati, the practice of burning a widow on her dead husband’s funeral pyre.
Scholars such as Lata Mani have written extensively about the role that debates over sati in Bengal played in the British colonial project. The British colonial government was involved in formalizing and in some cases increasing the number of incidents of sati, but it is agreed that sati itself is a pre-colonial practice that took place throughout the subcontinent.
In Spring, Heat, Rains: A South Indian Diary, David Shulman (who I interviewed previously) has written briefly about the worship of women who committed sati in coastal Andhra Pradesh, in south India. In northern coastal Andhra, these women are called perantallu: “women translated to goddess status, either by dying young, still virginal, or by something akin to sahagamanam, the widow’s immolation on her husband’s funeral pyre.” He notes that “They seem to be as abundant as trees in northern coastal Andhra.”
Shulman writes that their stories “invariably refer to the ‘English time'”, and that “In Tanavaram, Sringavarapukota, Jami, Mammidipalli, Alugubilli, there are prominent Perantallu, worshiped by the villagers as the source of continuous presence and care.” The story of Tanavaram’s perantallu is as follows: “There was such a woman, in the British time. When she learned that her husband had suddenly died, she rushed home, successfully revived him—apparently only for a moment—with her innate shakti power, then entered the fire together with him. Her continuous, benign presence is, they say, crucial for the village on every level.”
Sati stones, or shrines commemorating women who committed sati, can be found throughout South Asia. In the Ardhakathanak, Banarasi Das writes that his parents went on a pilgrimage to a Sati’s shrine in Rohtak in order to pray for a son. However, Banarasi’s parents get robbed on the way to the Sati’s shrine. Banarasi himself does not approve of the practice of praying to Satis, and he uses this incident to make that clear:
गए हुते मांगन कौं पूत | यहु फल दीनौं सती अऊत
gae hute māngan kauñ pūt
yahu phal dīnauñ satī aūt
They had gone to the Sati to ask for a son
But the childless Sati Aut rewarded them with this misfortune instead. (79)
तऊ न समुझे मिथ्या बात | फिरि मानी उन ही की जात
प्रगट रूप देखै फोक | तऊ न समुझै मूरख लोक
taū na samujhe mithyā bāt
phiri mānī un hī kī jāt
pragaṭ rūp dekhai sab phok
taū na samujhai mūrakh lok
Despite this, they did not realize the falseness of their beliefs
And went back to the shrine of the same Sati.
Though it is manifest that such beliefs are worthless,
Foolish people still do not understand. (80)
The death of an emperor
This post has become way too long (I have four final papers to write! Four!), but the last part of the Ardhakathanak I want to highlight is when Banarasi Das describes the chaos following the death of the Mughal emperor Akbar in 1605 CE. Banarasi lived through the reign of three Mughal emperors: Akbar, Jahangir, and Shah Jahan. In his autobiography, Banarasi describes the ten days of social turmoil and unrest that occur after people hear about the death of the emperor. It provides a very interesting perspective, from the view of common people, about the importance of the emperor as a force of social stability in Mughal society.
I’m not including the Braj Bhasha original text right now because this is a rather long excerpt, but I might add it later.
Came the month of Kartik and the end of the rainy season.
The great Emperor Akbar
Died in the city of Agra. (246)
The news of his death reached Jaunpur.
The people, bereft of their emperor, felt orphaned and helpless.
The townsfolk were afraid,
Their hearts troubled, their faces pale with fear. (247)
Heard of Akbar’s death.
He had been sitting on the stairs,
The news struck him like a blow upon the heart. (248)
He swooned and fell,
He could not help himself.
He cracked his head and began bleeding profusely.
The word ‘God’ slipped from his mouth. (249)
He had hurt his head on the stone floor
Of the courtyard, which turned red with his blood.
Everyone began making a great fuss;
His mother and father were frantic. (250)
His mother held him in her arms,
Applied a piece of burnt cloth to his wound.
Then, making up a bed, she laid her son upon it
His mother wept unceasingly. (251)
Meanwhile there was chaos in the city,
Riots broke out everywhere.
People sealed shut the doors of their houses,
Shopkeepers would not sit in their shops. (252)
Fine clothes and expensive jewellery–
These, people buried underground.
Books recording their business transactions they buried somewhere else,
And hid their cash and other goods in safe and secure places. (253)
In every house, weapons were gathered.
Men began to wear plain clothes
And casting off fine shawls, wrapped themselves in rough blankets.
The women too began to dress plainly. (254)
No one could tell the difference between the high and the low.
The rich and the poor were alike.
No thieves or robbers were to be seen anywhere,
People were needlessly afraid. (255)
The chaos and confusion continued for ten days.
Then peace returned:
A letter came from Agra saying that all was well.
This was what the letter said– (256)
“The great Akbar was emperor
For fifty-two years.
Now in Samvat 1662,
He died in the month of Kartik.” (257)
“Akbar’s oldest son
Sahib Shah Salim,
Has, in the city of Agra, assumed the throne
In Akbar’s palace.” (258)
“He has taken the name of Nuruddin
This news is being given all over the kingdom,
In every place where the emperor’s authority holds sway.” (259)
This was the news contained in the letter
Which was read from house to house
And spread around Jaunpur
Causing the people to give thanks in relief. (260)
There was joy in Kharagsen’s house
A state of well-being prevailed, gone were sorrow and strife;
Banarasi recovered, and bathed;
The family rejoiced and gave alms generously in their joy. (261)
- Banarasidas. Ardhakathanak (A Half Story). Translated by Rohini Chowdhury. New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2009.
- Mani, Lata. “Production of an Official Discourse on ‘Sati’ in Early Nineteenth Century Bengal.” Economic and Political Weekly 21, no. 17 (1986): 32-40.
- Shulman, David. Spring, Heat, Rains: A South Indian Diary. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.