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The "Ardhakathanaka" is a remarkable work. Written during the heyday of the Mughal rule in 1641 A. D., it is perhaps the only autobiography in the Indian tradition. Banarasi, its author, was evidently working without precedence. Yet he was surprisingly congnizant of the complexity of his task and the depth of introspection it needed.
"A man's life has much that is subtly secret and profoundly beyond grasp. Even within the tiny span of a day he passes through myriad states of consciousness. The Omniscient Tirthankara, perhaps, sees it all, but even he cannot report it in its fullness."
This was his comment at the end of his narrative. Born in a merchant family that had migrated from Rajasthan to Jaunpur in eastern U.P., Banarasi spent an eventful life in many Mughal towns, finally settling in 'Agra where he wrote "Half a Tale" at the age of 55,. He died about two years later.
He was initiated early, at the age of fourteen, into the more earnest pursuits of life when he developed two consuming passions. One was love, for which he went to a prostitute. The other was knowledge, which remained a more lasting pursuit and led him to study books on many subjects, especially religion.
He was drawn to a new, rising protestant movement among the Jains, called Adhyatma, which propagated a contemplative, inward-looking religion. He soon became its leader. With him, the Adhyatma movement grew into an important heterodoxy. The best testimony to his crucial contribution to the movement is that its orthodox opponents named it the "Benarasi Heresy"
The man himself was fascinating. All through life he retained a rare sense of joy and abandon. During his lean period in Agra, when he had no money for his next meal, he yet used to play host every evening to a group of lively friends, singing love ballads and making light-hearted conversation. At the age and ascetic of religious groups, he still had this irrepressible effervescence of character. "I often break into a dance when I am alone," he confesses at the end of his tale, as he gives his readers a short resume of his "present temper", adding that he loved to act the jester and could not resist telling tall tales when in the right company.
The Ardhakathanaka is a remarkable work. Written during the heyday of the Mughal rule in 1641 A. D., it is perhaps the only autobiography in the Indian tradition. Banarasi, its author, was evidently working without precedents. Yet he was surprisingly cognizant of the complexity of his task and the depth of introspection it needed. We find him commenting at the end of his narrative :
"In a man's life there is much that is too subtle to be palpable. Even in the tiny span of a day, a man passes through myriad states of consciousness. The all-knowing Kevalin can perceive them, but even he cannot describe them in their fullness."
Banarasi was 55 years old when he wrote this autobiography. He called it the Ardhakathanaka, or Half a Tale, for he thought he had lived only half the total span of life allotted to man, which according to an ancient Jain tradition he quotes, is 110 years. However, he did not live much beyond the completion of his Half a Tale and so what we have is, in effect, a full story.
Banarasi was a Jain merchant born in the enterprising clan of Srimals, who were keen businessmen, spread in Mughal times almost all over North India, with flourishing communities in every major town. Some Srimals held fairly important official posts in Muslim courts. Born in A.D. 1586, with Akbar ruling at the prime of his power, Banarasi's life spanned some of the most thriving years of Mughal rule.
His childhood and adolescence were spent in Jaunpur town on the river Gomti, about 70 miles from Banaras where his father was a jeweler. A merchant by training and profession, Banarasi was also a precocious poet and writer from early youth. His first work, a juvenile production, was a collection of love poems which he later threw away into the river in a fit of moral reprobation. His maturer works, most of which survive due to the colleting zeal of his friends and admirers, are mainly concerned with Jain doctrine and religion, with the accent being on the inner spirit of the faith unencumbered by rigid, formal ritualism. He was initiated early, at the age of fourteen, into the more earnest pursuits of life, when he developed two consuming passions. One was love, for which he went to a prostitute. The other was knowledge, which remained a more lasting passion and led him to study books on many subjects, especially religion.
Much of his later youth was spent in Agra, where he met with repeated and dismal failures in his business ventures. Once, losing his entire capital, he lived for months as a penniless recluse till rescued from penury by a close relative.
Already, at nineteen, he realized the futility of love after experiencing a sudden conversion to religion. He became a pious observer of al the precepts of his faith, remaining for years a fastidious, ritual-practising Jain. Later, at the age of 35, he lost all faith in ritual practices and other extraneous duties and beliefs enjoined by religion, after another spiritual upheaval. He now began to denounce external rituals in religion, making fun of them with unholy joy. He was drawn to a new, rising protestant movement among the Jains, called Adhyatma, which propagated a contemplative, inward-looking religion. He soon became its leader. With him, the Adhyatma movement grew into an important heterodoxy. The best testimony to his crucial contribution to the movement in that its orthodox opponents named it the 'Banarasi heresy'. The Adhyatma movement gave rise to a distinct Jain sect, the Terapanth sect of the Digambaras, which today is a powerful group with a large following. The Terapanth proudly declares itself an offshoot of Banarasi's Adhyatma, and reveres him as its Adiguru: the founder teacher.
The man himself was fascinating. All through life he retained a rare sense of joy and abandon. During his lean period in Agra, when he had no money even for his next meal, he used to play host every evening to a group of lively friends, singing love ballads and making light-hearted conversation. At the age of 55, as a committed religious leader among the Jains, one of the most solemn and ascetic of religious groups, he still had this irrepressible effervescence of character. "I often break into a dance when I am alone," he confesses at the end of his tale, as he gives his readers a short resume of his 'present temper', adding that he loved to act the jester and could not resist telling tall tales when in the right company.
The Ardhakathanaka has been called the life story of a common man, a man belonging to the middle class. And certainly, Banarasi lived a life closer to the common lot than the other Mughal memoir writers with whom we are familiar. We get from him a rare flavour of how it must have been to live and work as a modest merchant in Mughal cities, travel on the adventurous Mughal roads, buy and sell in the precarious Mughal markets and suffer sudden, unwarranted persecution at the hands of corrupt Mughal official or whimsical Mughal emperors.
But to classify him according to economic class is not enough to place him properly in his milieu. His story impresses on us the importance of his community in his life a social unit, which was both larger and smaller than an economic class. For though it cut across economic brackets, it remained confined by ties of blood and common ancestry. A community also meant fellowship in a common religion, and consequently, a shared way of life embodied in social mores, moral norms, rules of behaviour, customs, institutions, beliefs and the like.
The form and texture of Banarasi's life and thought was shaped by his community to a degree unimaginable today, even though in India the community is still a potent social force. The Srimal clan and the larger Jain community a homogenous confluence of several trading clans committed to Jainism in which it was embedded, formed the matrix within which Banarasi remained rooted throughout his life, evolving later into a substantial religious leader. An individual in Banarasi's days encountered the larger social reality from within a close-knit community, which surrounded him like a protective enclosure, acting as a buffer between him and the state. In the everyday world of a common man, his clan and community were the most immediate, intimate and consequential social facts of life.
The Jain community to which Banarasi belonged was even more in a position to function as a fairly autonomous body because of its affluence and the influence it wielded in the Mughal bureaucracy. It not only acted as the guardian of religious and social mores, but also catered to more utilitarian needs, arranging for education, providing opportunities for trade and dispensing justice. Its tenacious confines provided a secure citadel for its members where they could nurture cherished values.
A community's strong sense of a distinct identity was reflected in the manner in which it lived. In every town, people of a single community lived grouped together in one compact space, the 'community quarter' as it was known. Arriving alone in a new town, the first thing Banarasi's mother did was to enquire about the quarter where the Srimals lived. In Fatehpur, Banarasi spent a few months with a Jain of the Oswal clan called Bhagvati Das, who lived in a district of the town where other Oswals also had their homes.
Ever seeking to maximize opportunities for trade, groups of Srimals and other Jain clans had to spread out and settle in different, often quite far-flung towns. Yet these groups formed a close nexus, maintaining intimate links in various ways, through marriage, common pilgrimages, mutual business deals, frequent visits to each other in search of new trading opportunities, constant exchange of news and, above all, a general mobility necessitated by the very nature of their profession. Banarasi himself was on the move most of his life.
Changing political circumstances constantly created new centres of power and commerce. Older towns fell into disuse and decay, forcing the Srimals and other Jains to look for new homes and new opportunities in new places. But all through this flux and commotion, the community never lost its cohesion and solidarity. Its members created a little world of their own wherever they went, retaining their perennial ties with groups living elsewhere. Geographically separated groups thus continued to live in the same cultural space.
Politically, India has rarely known the unity and continuity that we find in its culture. And its cultural continuity depended vitally on stab le institutions like the community, which always enjoyed a great degree of autarchy. Muslim rulers, too, did not interfere with its workings, indifferent to it inasmuch as it did not impinge upon their own power and authority. Thus the community continued tenaciously as the preserver of cherished old ideals and ways of life.
Banarasi's story is an invaluable witness to the pervasiveness of the community in the life of an individual. This community defined his manner of life as well as interests, demarcating also the social arena within which he had meaningful human relations. The people he loved and befriended those from whom he learnt or those he taught, his partners in business, those whom he worked with, were all, with few exceptions, people of his community. Even his enemies and opponents, belonged to his community.
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