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'Ardhakathanak': Banarasidas's 'half story'
The first autobiography in an Indian language
It was more than three hundred and eighty years ago, in the winter of 1641, in Agra, that Banarasidas, merchant, poet, philosopher, and Jain spiritual thinker, completed the writing of a unique and remarkable text. The Ardhakathanak, as this text is known, is the story of Banarasidas’s own life.
When he wrote his story, Banarasidas was fifty-five years old. He believed that another fifty-five years of life remained to him since, according to Jain tradition, the length of a human life is a hundred and ten years. He therefore called his story his ‘aradh kathan’, his ‘half a story’. Banarasidas died two years after the completion of his Ardhakathanak, so that ironically, his half a story becomes in reality his full story.
The Ardhakathanak is also, possibly, the first autobiography in an Indian language. Banarasi had no precedent in literature or tradition that might have inspired him to write his life’s story, or guided him in his task. His motivation to write his story seemed simple. As he explains towards the end:
He thought to himself,
‘Let me tell my story to all.’
Of the five and fifty years of his life
He then related his tale.
The result is an account that is more modern than medieval in tone, and which transcends the formulaic conventions and stylised ornamentation that characterise other biographical works of the time. Banarasi’s account of his life, which he relates in the third person, is very personal, straightforward and open; he examines not only his virtues but his faults as well. His candour makes the Ardhakathanak unusual and unique, and sets it far ahead of its time.
Banarasidas composed the Ardhakathanak in 675 stanzas, mainly in the dohaand chaupai metres. His language is simple, the spoken language of northern India in his time, a mixture of Braj Bhasha and Khari Boli.
HIS LIFE AND TIMES
Banarasidas was born in 1586, into a well-to-do merchant family of Jaunpur. His family were of the Shrimal clan, Rajputs who had in years past converted to Jainism, and, giving up their warrior-like ways, taken to business and commerce. Banarasi’s father, Kharagsen, had a thriving business in Jaunpur. Together with his partner, he traded in gold, silver, pearls, rubies, and the dust of precious stones.
But trade and commerce, decided Banarasi, was not for him. He much preferred the cerebral life of the poet and intellectual. His love of learning earned him a reprimand from his elders on the error of his ways. Learning, they admonished him, was meant for brahmins and bards. It brought no profit to a merchant’s son, and ‘those who spend all their time in learning go hungry’. Banarasi paid no heed to such admonishments.
Banarasi had a close, intense, but stormy relationship with his father. Kharagsen was a strong, emotional, and passionate man, and rarely agreed with his son on anything. Banarasi, though holding his father in great respect and affection, held decidedly different views on some aspects of life; his refusal to conform to the life of a merchant’s son and his repeated failures in business, were a source of great disappointment to his father. Nevertheless, Kharagsen occupied a central position in his son’s life, and dominates the pages of the Ardhakathanak till his death in 1616.
Banarasi was well versed in Sanskrit and Prakrit, and conversant with several other languages. His education seems to have been completely within the Jain tradition, and despite his later interaction with members of the Mughal administration, quite untouched by the parallel Persian tradition of the Mughal court.
At the age of fourteen, Banarasi discovered another passion—he fell in love. He does not tell us who his lover was, nor does he give us any details about her. All he says is that he loved with the single-minded devotion of a Sufi fakir yearning for the Divine.
Banarasi’s two passions, learning and love, came together in the composition of his first work, a thousand verses on love, which he later destroyed by flinging the manuscript into the Gomti river in a moment of self-reproach and disillusionment. We can only imagine the loss to posterity!!
Success in business came to Banarasi only after several years of hardship and struggle. He spent many years in Agra, wrestling with the complexities of trade and commerce. He writes at length about his losses, and describes in unhesitating detail the causes and circumstances of his business failures: he blames bad luck and past karma for his failures, but acknowledges too his own ignorance and inability in the ways of doing business. But on the causes and circumstances of his success, he remains uncharacteristically silent.
Banarasi’s quest for spiritual truth is a recurring theme in the Ardhakathanak. He had been born a Jain, and despite early experiments with the worship of Shiva, the influence of family, community and education caused him to lean towards Jain practice and thought more than any other. At the age of thirty-seven, he was introduced to Adhyatma, a contemporary movement in Jain thought, which advocated the spiritual exploration of the inner self, rather than image-worship and rituals, as the path to self-realisation. Though initially unable to come to grips with it, he later joined the Adhyatmis and became one of the leaders of the movement. Before Banarasi, Adhyatma existed more as an intellectual movement. With Banarasi it acquired the form and force of a religious, reformist movement. Despite its importance in his life, nowhere in the Ardhakathanak does Banarasi explicitly discuss the Adhyatma movement, or mention his contribution to it. This, feels Mukund Lath, is probably because he was addressing his autobiography to his Adhyatmi friends, who would not need any details on this aspect of his life (Lath, 1981, p.p. xxxi).
We learn from the Ardhakathanak that Banarasidas married three times, and had nine children, none of whom survived infancy. His children’s early deaths remained a source of grief for Banarasi till the end of his own life. Of the women he married, Banarasi tells us very little, though he does write with affection and regard about his first wife, who shared with him the worst reverses of his youth.
Banarasi’s story spans the reign of three great kings—the Mughal emperors Akbar, Jahangir and Shahjahan. Banarasidas does not provide us with any political or social commentary of the times, but he does give us some glimpses of a merchant’s life under the great Mughals. This makes the Ardhakathanak important not only from the literary point of view, but also as a historical record of the period. Vignettes of the cloth and jewellery trade in medieval Jaunpur and Agra, the eventful and often dangerous journeys from town to town in the course of business, the pilgrimages to Jain sacred sites, instances of Mughal justice and injustices—these are just some of the pictures that stay in our mind.
A SPECIAL FRIENDSHIP
Banarasi had many friends, men with intellectual interests similar to his own, and most of whom belonged to his own Jain community of traders and merchants. His closest, most intimate friend was Narottamdas Khobra, a merchant like himself. Narottam and Banarasi called each other ‘brother’ and were rarely parted, unless for reasons of business, until Narottam’s sudden and unexpected death in 1616.
Banarasi describes his admiration for Narottamdas in stanza 486. Here is my translation of the verse:
Navpad meditation, and praise of God, occupies this wise and learned man;
Acknowledge him as a man of steadfast knowledge.
Religion occupies all eight watches of his day.
Of immense beauty, comeliness and wealth reside in him; praise him as the very image of the god of love. No
Trace of conceit is there in him. Seven fields did he give away in charity.
To the whole world, spread his fame.
A man glorious and great, beloved as life to Banarasi.
Make up his name using the first letter of each line.
This stanza, as you may have noticed, is an acrostic, the first letter of each line spelling out the name ‘Narottam’. As Rupert Snell explains in his preface to my translation (Ardhakathanak, A Half Story, 2009. p.xiii): “By happy coincidence, the four syllables na-ro-tta-m(a) in the Devanagari script of the original yield eight individual letters in roman transliteration, allowing the translator a full octet of lines in which to capture the acrostic pattern in English.” This is precisely the kind of “happy coincidence” for which a translator lives!
At first glance, the Ardhakathanak seems a simple text, as simple as the reason Banarasi gives for writing it. But another look makes us pause and consider—perhaps part of Banarasi’s purpose in writing his story, in setting down the main events of his life and pondering cause and effect and the workings of karma, was an attempt to understand better the nature and meaning of human existence.
Apart from its considerable literary merit and importance as a historical document, Banarasi’s Ardhakathanak deserves recognition for its unique position in Hindi literature as the first, full-fledged autobiography in the Indian tradition. It is a personal document, the story of a man who charms us by his intensity, his love of life and his very human frailties. Most importantly, he charms by his openness, his frankness in telling us the ups and downs of his life, and revealing to us as much of himself as possible. At the end of his ‘half a story’, Banarasi becomes as intimate to us as an old friend; the ups and downs of whose life we know almost as well as we know our own, and whose intellectual and spiritual struggles we identify with, and perhaps even share.
I discovered Banarasi’s Ardhakathanak in April 2004, through Dr. Mukund Lath’s brilliant prose translation into English. As I began reading it, first out of curiosity, and then with growing interest and excitement, I realised that here was a unique and wonderful work, but which was known only to a handful of scholars and enthusiasts. I then undertook its translation from Braj Bhasha into modern Hindi, and into English.
My Hindi prose translation was published by Penguin India/Yatra Books in 2007; the English translation, in free verse, was published in 2009 as Ardhakathanak (A Half Story) by Penguin India with a preface by Rupert Snell. The excerpts above are from my introduction and translated text of the latter, and have been published here with Penguin India’s permission. Both translations also contain Banarasi’s original text.
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SOURCES AND FURTHER READING
Banarasidas. Ardhakathanak. Translated by Rohini Chowdhury. New Delhi, India: Yatra Books, 2007.
Banarasidas. Ardhakathanak (A Half Story). Translated by Rohini Chowdhury. New Delhi, India: Penguin Books, 2009.
Lath, Mukund. Half a Tale: A Study in the Interrelationship between Autobiography and History. Jaipur: Rajasthan Prakrit Sansthan, 1981.
Tiwari, Shabdita. “Ardhakathanak: A Commoner’s Discovery Of The Mughal Milieu.” Rozenberg Quarterly. Accessed March 27, 2023.
A couplet, the two lines of which rhyme. Each line consists of 24 matras which are distributed into two ‘feet’ of 6 + 4 + 3 and 6 + 4 + 1 matras respectively, with a caesura.
A verse of four ‘feet’, where each quarter verse has 15 matras or beats. This is different from the more common ćau-pāī, in which each quarter verse has 16 matras.