Predicaments of print: manuscript variations of Dabistān-i Maẕāhib and writing histories of religion in Mughal India
(University of Pennsylvania)
Paper short abstract:
The 17th-century Persian book Dabistān-i Maẕāhib is a valuable source for writing about religious groups in Mughal India. This paper explores what scholars have variously understood as the original text. How should we account for significant manuscript variations in our research and writing?
Paper long abstract:
A text that has found renewed interest among scholars of early modern India is the Persian compendium of religion called Dabistān-i Maẕāhib. Written between 1645 and 1658, the Dabistān presents a lively ethnohistorical account of customs and habits of various religious communities in Mughal north India. Written like a travelogue, it moves between various modes of description including mythical revelations, story telling, and authorial commentary. The Dabistān is also valuable because it is the earliest work outside of the Sikh tradition that contains first hand accounts of the Sikh community, including the author's conversations with Gurus Har Govind (d. 1644) and Har Rai (d. 1661). Focusing on the section titled 'Nanak Panthi', my paper explores what translators, commentators, and historians have variously understood as comprising the original text. Scholars rely on particular manuscript editions in their translations and analysis without necessarily reflecting on how these choices precondition interpretive possibilities. A closer look at early manuscripts of the Dabistān-i Maẕāhib kept at the Aligarh Muslim University and the British Library also suggests that later print editions omit crucial information, sometimes even entire passages. This has serious implications for how we have understood the groups and historical moments depicted in this unique work.
New approaches to manuscript variations in South Asia