Transgressing Boundaries, Inhabiting Various Selves: Exploring Notions of South Asian Religious Identity Through the Poetry of Lalla, Bullah, and Kabir

Bawa, Jasleen, Religious Studies - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Nair, Shankar, AS-Religious Studies (RELI), University of Virginia

Modern understandings of the poetic corpuses of three late medieval and early modern figures: Lal Ded, Bulleh Shah, and Kabir, have been appropriated and reappropriated to serve a particular Hindu nationalist agenda, moving far from the self-understandings these poets displayed in their work of either religious ambiguity or of transgressing boundaries between categories of religious identity in favor of spiritual discourse and intellectual exchange.

These poets, through their ambiguity or active transgression of religious boundaries, display both a seriousness about categories of religious identity and their dedication to a spiritual practice and an understanding that ultimately these categorizations are to be transcended.

These poets are not interested in political motivations or community formation around a particular religious identity. This is evidenced in how these three figures themselves identified religiously in their poems, the ways in which they inhabit various identities and senses of self, and in their personal relationships with these religious categories. The lineages that spring from their work share a similar seriousness of spiritual practice but do begin to get caught up in the vicissitudes of forming an identity. This is evidenced in the subsequent premodern development of the reception of these poets and their poetry — how groups that received their poetic corpuses and incorporated them as part of their premodern community formation understood categories of religious identity. The discourse of appropriating these figures in the postcolonial period is about politicizing them, creating a public-facing identity and ideology as a means to a particular Hindu Nationalist end, while making the seriousness with which they consider a practical spiritual life secondary. Thus, the poets whose self-understanding and conceptions of religious identity involved transgressing categorization in favor of spiritual discourse and exchange, who spoke from various senses of self, imbibing and adopting the languages of other identities, are now being categorized as strictly existing within rigid boundaries of identity to serve both Hindu Nationalist framings of South Asian religious identity, as well as minority community responses to these framings.

MA (Master of Arts)
India, South Asia, Religious identity, Hindu, Muslim, Hindu-ness, Hindu Nationalism, Hindutva, liminality, syncretism, spiritual discourse, spiritual exchange, Lalla, Lal Ded, Kabir, Bulleh Shah, Sufi, Shaiva, religious categories
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