Banarasidas was a poet, merchant, and Jain spiritual thinker from Jaunpur. His works on Jain philosophy and thought are well-known. Less well-known, though no less important, is his autobiography, the Ardhakathanak.
Banarasi completed his autobiography in 1641, when he was fifty-five years old. He believed himself to be at the midpoint of his life, since according to Jain tradition,
A hundred and ten years
Is the span of a man’s life[i]
He therefore called his story his ‘aradh kathan’, his ‘half a story’. Banarasidas died two years after the completion of his Ardhakathanak, so that ihis half a story becomes in reality his full story.
The Ardhakathanak is also regarded as 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.[ii]
The result is an account that is more modern than medieval in tone, and which transcends the formulaic conventions and stylized ornamentation that characterize other biographical works of the time. Banarasi related his story in 675 stanzas, mainly in the doha and chaupai metres. His language is simple, the spoken language of northern India in his time, a mixture of Braj Bhasha and Khari Boli, with a liberal smattering of Urdu and Persian words. He tells his story in the third person, in a candid and easy narrative that recounts the main events in his life, and which he interrupts only to muse on the nature of human existence.
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. His father, Kharagsen had a thriving business trading in gold and precious stones in Jaunpur. Banarasi, expected to follow in his father’s footsteps, preferred learning to commerce and did not take kindly to a merchant’s life. Success in business came to him only after several years of hardship and struggle. He writes at length about his losses and describes in unhesitating detail the causes and circumstances of his business failures. 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. 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 Jain reformist movement that rejected ritual and advocated spiritual exploration as the path to self-realisation. He later became one of the leaders of this movement. Despite its importance in his life, nowhere in the Ardhakathanak does Banarasi explicitly discuss the Adhyatma movement, or mention his contribution to it.
Banarasi’s story is set against a backdrop of Mughal history, spanning 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.
Apart from its considerable literary merit and importance as a historical document, the 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 love of life. Most importantly, he charms by his frankness in 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.
Banarasi gives us a vivid account of events following Akbar’s death.When he died, in 1605, Akbar had been emperor for fifty years. Banarasi was nineteen at the time. He, probably like many others, could not contemplate a world without Akbar at the helm. Here is his account of the event (from my translation – stanzas 246-262):
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.
His 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 place. (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 round 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)
Ardhakathanak (A Half Story)
Translated by Rohini Chowdhury, with an Introduction by Rupert Snell
Penguin Books, India, 2009.
The excerpts above are published here with the permission of the publisher.
[i] Ardhakathanak 665.
[ii] Ardhakathanak 672.