The literary corpus of the sixteenth-century North Indian bhakti poet-saint Mirabai has grown over time as devotees have used (and continue to use) her name, life story and first-person voice in poems. Drawing on hagiographies, written and oral poems, printed collections and performative engagements with Mira, I argue that these moments of autobiographical ‘posing’ reveal autobiography as powerful for speaking about religious transformation, in particular the issues of authority, experience and critique. Furthermore, the centrality of autobiographical speech in the tradition is linked to an increasing emphasis on Mira as a figure of religious transformation, and bhakti itself as a transformative path.
This article investigates autobiography as an improvisatory mode of religious speech in pre-colonial South Asia, arguing (i) that autobiographical writing in early South Asia is marked by great spontaneity and invention of form in the absence of a proper literary genre; (ii) that we can discern distinctly South Asian ways of speaking autobiographically, ways that predate and differ from modern European understandings of autobiography and (iii) that autobiographical speech is used as a powerful technique for religious polemic in South Asia and appears in particular at moments of heightened religio-political competition and contestation. Along with a number of examples, two texts will be explored in greater detail: autobiographies by a seventeenth-century Jain merchant and religious reformer Banarasidas and a nineteenth-century Christian priest and convert from Islam, ‘Imad ud-din.
"...The goal, Martinez claims, is three-fold: to better understand forms of South Asian writing, to productively modify the Western literary theories we rely on when thinking about things like autobiography, and to dispel the notion that autobiography was only introduced to the region by the British."