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Steadfast Imagining: Lyric Meditation, Islamic Philosophy, and Comparative Religion in the Works of Bidel of Delhi (d. 1720)

Steadfast Imagining: Lyric Meditation, Islamic Philosophy, and Comparative Religion in the Works of Bidel of Delhi (d. 1720)

Three Aspects of the Absolute (India, Rajasthan, Jodhpur, 1823 | Mehrangarh Museum Trust RJS 2399)

A Multidisciplinary Workshop

We would like to invite you to join us for the multidisciplinary workshop, Steadfast Imagining: Lyric Meditation, Islamic Philosophy, and Comparative Religion in the Works of Bidel of Delhi (d.1720) organized and led by Prof. Domenico Ingenito (UCLA, Near Eastern Languages and Cultures) and Dr. Jane Mikkelson (University of Virginia) in cooperation with scholars working in Persian Studies, Islamic Studies, South Asian, Near Eastern, and Central Asian Studies, English, Anthropology, and Comparative Literature. All sessions will be held in English, and all reading materials (both primary and secondary sources) will be circulated and presented in English translation.

The workshop is sponsored and organized by UCLA Program on Central Asia (in collaboration with Iranian Studies), and co-sponsored by the Center for India and South Asia, the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, and the Center for Near Eastern Studies. 
The workshop includes five sessions which will convene bi-weekly on Fridays from 1:00 to 2:30 PM (Pacific Time) via Zoom, with the first meeting on October 23 and the concluding session on December 18. To register and receive the Zoom information for the first session, please follow this link. Links for future sessions are provided below.
UCLA graduate students can receive 2 units of course credit by enrolling in Central Asian Studies (Anthro M247Q, Near East M287, or History M287). Contact Prof. Ingenito (ingenito@humnet.ucla.edu) to obtain a PTE number by Friday, October 16.

Workshop Description

In 1670, the young poet and aspiring philosopher Bidel of Delhi was travelling through northern India. He decided to break his journey in Agra. That night, he experienced a visionary dream that would reframe his entire life: he witnessed the unfolding of the cosmos, in all its spatial and temporal totality, as it emanated from God through the outer stars and planetary spheres down to the smallest atoms of the earth. Then the prophet Muhammad appeared before Bidel and interpreted this dream for him. Bidel instantly understood the meaning of everything—perfectly. For that brief moment, human experience converged seamlessly with a godlike total knowledge of true reality. However, as Bidel emerged from the dream into waking consciousness, Muhammad’s words faded away, eluding memory—and the dream’s interpretation, which had given him blissful contact with absolute certain truth, “remained hidden in the manuscript of the imagination.”  

Bidel would spend the rest of his life trying to recapture that moment of insight into the innermost workings of the universe. He undertakes to explore this “manuscript of the imagination” by composing thousands of Persian lyric poems, a remarkable philosophical autobiography, long narrative allegories, and other works. In all these genres, Bidel creatively engages with religious and philosophical ideas, theories, and practices—both Islamic and Indic—through which he develops a distinctive experimental style of lyric meditation: steadfast imagining. Bidel’s Persian corpus remains largely unknown in the American academy outside of specialist circles. The aim of this workshop is to introduce Bidel to a broader audience. Over the course of five sessions, we will reconstruct some of Bidel’s theories and practices of steadfast imagining, with particular attention to the ways in which philosophy, religion, and literature are intricately entwined in his works. Joining us in conversation are scholars working in Persian Studies, South Asian, Near Eastern, and Central Asian Studies, English, Anthropology, and Comparative Literature.

For more information please email us at caw@international.ucla.edu.
Each meeting is held on the listed date from 1:00 to 2:30 PM Pacific time.
Sessions 1–3 feature materials from Jane Mikkelson, Steadfast Imagining (book MS in preparation)

Session 1 | Steadfast Imagining: Introducing Bidel of Delhi (d. 1720)
October 23
RSVP Here (Zoom registration)

This session introduces the remarkable Persian corpus of the Indian poet and philosopher Bidel of Delhi (1644–1720 CE). We will trace a broad overview of Bidel’s life, thought, literary style, and distinctive practices of the self—his system of steadfast imagining.

In conversation with Paul Losensky (Indiana University)

Session 2 | Philosophy in the First Person: Bidel’s Reception of Avicenna and Ibn ʿArabi 
November 6
RSVP Here (Zoom registration)

The end goal of philosophy is certain knowledge. What do imagination and lyric poetry have to do with this quest for certainty? Justine Landau and Domenico Ingenito join us to talk about the vital intersections between lyric poetry and philosophy in the premodern Persianate world. Placing Bidel in conversation with Avicenna and Ibn ʿArabī, we will see how Bidel’s style of steadfast imagining traces a distinctive, phenomenologically inflected path to certainty that is just as methodical and robust as the logic-driven procedures of systematic thought —and how lyric poetry for Bidel functions like philosophy in the first person. 
In conversation with Domenico Ingenito (UCLA), Justine Landau (Harvard), and Ahmad Rashid Salim (UC Berkeley)

Session 3 | Crossings: Hinduism, Islam, and Bidel’s Practical Comparative Religion
November 20
RSVP Here (Zoom registration)

Throughout his works, Bidel encounters, absorbs, appropriates, and transforms non-Islamic Indic ideas in significant ways. This session addresses the role of comparative religion in Bidel’s thought.  
Featuring presentations by:

Jane Mikkelson (University of Virginia)
In the 1660s, Bidel engaged in a friendly debate with a Hindu friend about imagination, time, and experience in Islam and Hinduism. By transcribing this debate in his autobiography, The Four Elements (Chahār ʿonṣor), Bidel acquaints readers with his critical concept of “crossings”—a method of practical comparative religion that draws on the resources of the imagination and lyric poetry. 

Hajnalka Kovacs (Harvard)
Hajnalka Kovacs will discuss Bedil’s retelling in two of his masnavis (Muḥīt-i aʿẓam and ʿIrfān) of two tales from the Yogavāsiṣṭha: the story of King Lavaṇa and that of Gādhi brahmin. While both tales of “illusion and alternative realities” capture the ultimate unreality of phenomenal existence, within the conceptual frameworks of the two poems the two serve different purposes. In the context of the Neoplatonic cosmogonical narrative of emanatory descent and spiritual ascent that underlies the Muḥīt-i aʿẓam, Bedil deploys the story of King Lavaṇa to underscore the idea of the dual potential of the heart arising from its intermediary status between the multiplicity of phenomena and the one Reality. In his ʿIrfān, he sets out to illustrate the power of spiritual aspiration with the story of Gādhi brahmin’s quest for the knowledge of reality, but then with a twist, juxtaposes it with an Islamic tale of similar nature to showcase the relativity of time and to assert the possibility of the Miʿrāj.

Prashant Keshavmurthy (McGill) 
Prashant Keshavmurthy will present his translation of and commentary on one of Bidel's ghazals whose radīf or end-refrain āmadī ("you came") allows Bidel, complemented by his choice of a meter rare in Persian, to put into question distinct aspects of the advent of alterity: the strangeness of poetic inspiration, the difficulty of embodiment as written word, utterance and sense-perceptible body; and the outwardly indifferent and yet world-transforming powers of the imagination. The Brahman figures here, as he often does in Bidel's ghazals, as a metonym for the world of embodiment and thus as the normal state of affairs in which alterity finds itself. 

Session 4 | Worlds Together Shined: Bidel, Traherne, and Experiments in Comparison
A Comparative Project by Jane Mikkelson and Timothy Harrison
December 11
RSVP Here (Zoom registration)

There are tantalizing similarities between the poetry of Bidel and his contemporaries and early modern English meditative poetry. These literary traditions are not in direct contact with each other, yet they operate in strikingly similar ways (for instance, in their assimilation of scientific ideas and engagement with philosophy and theology). Moreover, these poets are co-inheritors, through very different vectors, of Aristotelian rationalism, Neoplatonism, and Avicennan ideas. How should we think about traditions that are not in direct contact with each other, but have partially shared lineages? Timothy Harrison joins us to talk about our collaboration-in-progress. We are co-authoring an essay in which we investigate how Thomas Traherne and Bidel—living worlds apart, not at all in contact—come to compose strikingly similar accounts of infant experience (being in the womb, birth, first sensations, breastfeeding) at the same moment in the seventeenth century. In this session, we make a pitch for the importance of collaboration and discuss possible methods for comparing premodern European and Islamic literary traditions.
In conversation with Timothy Harrison (English, University of Chicago)

Session 5 | Bidel in Modern Central Asia, South Asia, Afghanistan, Iran: The Geopolitics of Literary Legacy
December 18
RSVP Here (Zoom registration)

Bidel’s reception history in modern Afghanistan, Iran, Central Asia, and South Asia is a fascinating and complex case study in the geopolitics of literary legacy. In Iran, Bidel has been dismissed as an obscure poet whose difficult style relegates him to a peripheral corner of the Persian canon. Bidel’s legacy in South Asia is complicated by the emergence of vernacular traditions in northern India and the gradual disappearance of Persian from the Subcontinent shortly after Bidel’s death. In modern Central Asia, Bidel plays an important role in the rise of national literatures during the Soviet period, and he currently enjoys a flourishing afterlife in Afghanistan. Kevin Schwartz, Zuzanna Olszewska, Samuel Hodgkin, and Ahmad Rashid Salim join us to talk about Bidel’s legacy and the place of Bidel’s reception history in modern reevaluations of Persian literary history.
A discussion featuring Kevin Schwartz (Czech Academy of Sciences), Zuzanna Olszewska (Oxford), Samuel Hodgkin (Yale), and Ahmad Rashid Salim (UC Berkeley)
Kevin Schwartz will discuss Bidel's historiographical legacy in general and how debates over his poetry have shaped the contours of Persian literary history writing in Iran and elsewhere.
Samuel Hodgkin will talk about Bedil's role in the Khrushchev Thaw in Transoxania. While Muscovites started reading Dos Passos and Remarque and going to see Picasso and the Impressionists, in post-Stalin Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, it was the revival of Bedil as a philosophical and literary icon that signaled the shift in cultural politics.
Ahmad Rashid Salim will discuss the role of musicians and their connection to Bidel scholars in Kabul, focusing on how the selection of poetry, the venues of performance, and the proliferation of access to Bidel's poetry increased the reception and appreciation of his poetry among the wider public.
Zuzanna Olszewska will focus on the role of Bidel reception, memorialisation and scholarship among Afghan refugee poets in Iran. In a situation of legal and social marginalisation of Afghans in Iran, refugee poets and literary scholars have capitalised on their edge in Bidelshenasi to achieve three things. One, to recall a broader, pre-national Persianate literary heritage; two, to celebrate the unique association of Afghan poets with sabk-e hendi; and three, to subtly push back against Iranian exclusionary nationalism in one of the few arenas available to them.


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Published: Tuesday, October 6, 2020