Aditya Behl (1966-2009)

I am posting this tribute to Aditya Behl here for a reason. His work epitomizes the kind of passion and painstaking effort that are needed to understand the nature of past relations amongst the various communities inhabiting South Asia today.

I heard him read a paper only once (in 2008) and had a brief exchange after, noting in my mind that this was someone I wanted to meet again. He was a person who left a mark very quickly – with his scholarship, his sense of joy in his work, and the excitement he communicated to the audience.

I am reproducing here a tribute by someone who knew Aditya Behl well with the hope that the introduction to his work will help us in our own understanding of the past and thus fulfill a goal that was dear to him.


… Then one morning Naim saab became the bearer of unsettling news, we have lost Aditya Behl. One of the most talented young scholars in his early 40s, Aditya became known for his work in Persian and Urdu but he was at home in many languages including Sanskrit, French, Greek and Hindi. Aditya was the bearer of intimations of being Hindu and Muslim, which are perhaps lost except to a few persons/communities in our times.

Dazzling in his scholarship, repertoire and bearing, Aditya had carved out for himself an area of expertise in the genre of Sufi romances. He was one of the successors to the scholarship of an entire generation including Annemarie Schimmel, Christopher Shackle, Carl Ernst, Bruce Lawrence and Simon Digby (who accompanied him on some of his travels).

I met Aditya for the first time at the University of Chicago in the winter of 1980-81. He was deeply into Sufi studies (much before the subject had become fashionable!). I was then distant from South Asian studies, and instead immersed in European theories of state formation. He spoke to me of the patronage of Mughal and Maratha rulers of Gwalior and Indore and the creativity of sufis.

Over the last twenty years my own area of interest has developed in Muslim identities in Persian/Urdu/Rajasthani texts and the Hindu-Muslim city and I have come to deeply appreciate Aditya’s understanding of facets of Hindu-Muslim relations. I was enthralled by his translation of Mir Sayyid Manjhan Rajgiri, Madhumalati: An Indian Sufi romance, done in collaboration with Simon Weightman and published in the Oxford classics series.

In the last decade our interests grew closer. He was also mining the medieval Rajput-Charan texts that I was using. When I convened a double panel on the Universes of Indian Islam for the Conference on Indic religions, which my colleague, Madhu Kishwar, was organizing, Aditya’s was one of the first names that came to my mind. Illness -presaging perhaps the present moment – came in the way of his participation.

In September 2006 he gave a Seminar at CSDS on the Dabistān-i mazāhib, an Encyclopedia of Religion. By then he was holding the chair of South Asian Studies, at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. It had been a long day at work, but the seminar was invigorating. I have in my notes of that evening the words, “As always I like his work and the way it opens up a vista.” The Dabistān-i Mazāhib is a 17th century text, “authored” by a Zorastrian who has a surface duplex identity with two names, Zu’lfaqar Ardistani and Husaini Shah. The author identifies various groups such as Zorastrians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims. The “Hindus” refer to a geographic category and include a variety of sects, Aditya pointed out. The Zorastrian group from Azerkhaiban had suffered persecution under the Safavids and had come to practice taqiyā-using the tools of the conqueror against them. Aditya read the text in terms not of identity but as difference. My question for him had been that instead of the incommensurable difference he read, the text suggested to me numerous encounters and conversations: the reference to yogic breathing and other techniques; the Prophet being described as a disciple of Gorakhnath who taught him yoga; the description of Sarmad’s identity who is a Jew-Sufi. There is a reference to divisions, of course, that China and India will send forces that will reverse the Muslim expansion! The larger picture is of the Mughal Empire with its imperial bureaucracy in place, its agricultural productivity and considerable prosperity, and hence, the movement of holy men. I debated with him later that material prosperity alone does not explain this movement, particularly when it comes to holy men in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. What one needs to know more about is the popular support for holy men, the interaction between the village/town and these figures. I recall on the occasion Shuddhabrata’s comments that the last group of Mutazzilites was in Patna and that this was a period conducive to the writing of such “encyclopedias.”

In the last few years Aditya had become interested in the figure of Nazir Akbarabadi (1735-1830), immortalized in Habib Tanvir’s play Āgrā Bāzār. Nazir, the proponent of the language of the street and the bazaar, the poet of the carnivalesque kite flying and Holi festivals, the portrayer of vendors such as the watermelon seller, and of the sensual. He presented his work at the Delhi School of Economics and later wrote it up in, “Poet of the bazaars: Nazir Akbarabadi 1735-1830.” This was published in A wilderness of possibilities-Urdu studies in transnational perspective, edited by Kathryn Hansen and David Lelyveld. Aditya in this paper is interested in the formation of the Urdu literary canon, how Nazir’s verse was seen as vulgar by Mustafa Khan Shefta, characterized as “psychological impotence” by Shamsur-rahman Faruqi and seen as distant from the “high-minded Islamic revivalism” of Altaf Husain Hali. His interest was in Nazir’s poems on pleasure and how it requires a sensual sensibility, quite anamolous for the Urdu canon.

Aditya, I miss you already, the many conversations real and imagined that we had and could have had. You opened for the English reader a magical, miraculous world of medieval Sufi poetry, the premākhyāns notably Manjhan’s Madhumālati, Jayasi’s Padmāvat and Qutban’s Mrigavatī. A glorious Sufic contribution to Hindavi, but also to Brajbhasha and Avadhi and of thinking beyond “religion.”

You were an exceptionally talented person and explored a beautiful universe. Now you know more than any of us, what its deepest secrets are, of fanā and baqā, and the truths of wahdat ul wujūud and Alakh Niranjan!!

Shail Mayaram
Visiting Professor
Indian Institute of Advanced Study

This tribute is reproduced with thanks from Chapati Mystery.


  • kabir
    Posted at 02:38h, 07 September Reply

    Aditya Behl was a great South Asianist and scholar, and his loss is truely tragic for those of us who are interested in these issues.

  • Hasan Abdullah
    Posted at 04:05h, 07 September Reply

    Having read the above tribute, I pay my homage to someone whom I never met or studied – but would like to meet now through his work.

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