Aditya Behl 1966-2009

Posted by sepoy on September 04, 2009 · 10 mins read

updated below the fold...

You may have read about the sudden and tragic passing away of a fine scholar, Aditya Behl. It is a great loss not only to his family and friends but also to the field of South Asian Literature. His translation of Shattari's Madhumalati (2000) was pitch-perfect and a valuable addition to the Sufi literature in English. I was especially fond of his essay in Richard Eaton's India's Islamic Traditions, "The magic doe: desire and narrative in a Hindavi Sufi romance, circa 1503". Very recently, he reviewed the Clay Sanskrit series, Big Cat, Little Cat: Sanskrit's Hidden Gold which highlights all the many ways in which his nuanced and knowledgable thinking will be missed by all of us.

I wanted to draw your attention to a personal note written by Professor Shail Mayaram.

Shail Mayaram
Visiting Professor
Indian Institute of Advanced Study

This has been a bad month. A fortnight ago, going over old newspapers I chanced upon Harsh Mander's obituary of Ram Narayan Kumar. I had only met Ram a couple of times, but each time it was in the context of a workshop/seminar where acquaintance can sometimes become extraordinarily deep and where one learns of another persons interests, passions, questions articulated in speech and writing, in conference sessions and over lunch and dinner. Ram was exploring the underside of the state via law, a human rights perspective indispensable to organisations like the South Asia Forum for Human Rights (SAFHR).

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 1990-91. 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 Ä€grā 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 MrigavatÄ«. 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!!


TO: Friends, Colleagues, and Students of Dr. Aditya Behl
> RE: Memorial Service Announcement for Dr. Behl
> FROM: Penn South Asia Studies Department and South Asia Center
A memorial service and reception will be held on Sunday, September 20, 2009 at 1:00 PM in the Rosenwald Gallery of Van Pelt Library to honor Dr. Aditya Behl who passed away suddenly on August 22, 2009. We are extending an invitation to the campus community to join his family and friends at the memorial service. Dr. Behl was an alumnus of the Doon School in India, Bowdoin College and the University of Chicago, where he earned his PhD in History of Religions in 1995. He was an Associate Professor in the Department of South Asia Studies at Penn for the past seven years and devoted his efforts to building the study of South Asia at Penn through dedicated teaching and mentoring of graduate students and service as the Undergraduate Chair, Graduate Chair, and Department Chair.

For directions and other information related to the Memorial Service, please see the website of the South Asia Center at the University of Pennsylvania:


bruce b lawrence | September 04, 2009

Thanks, Shail, for including me in this wondrous tribute to Aditya, who must be reborn a bodhisattva, or else ascend to the ranks of aqtab in Sufi cosmology. He was a dazzling light that graced our galaxy, only to burn out before many had come to know, and to benefit, from his glowing intellect. He will be missed more than most. He embodied what he studied and taught: lyrical magic, abetted by dazzling creativity, suffused with warmth and given with generosity.

Qalandar | September 04, 2009

I only knew Behl's work from the Madhumalati translation, which was superb. No-one can read Mayaram's tribute and fail to be moved. It is clearly a huge loss, my condolences...

Aditya Behl (1966-2009) « TheSouthAsianIdea Weblog | September 05, 2009

[...] This tribute is reproduced with thanks from Chapati Mystery. [...]

links for 2009-09-05 « Rumblegumption | September 05, 2009

[...] Aditya Behl 1966-2009 [...]

William Wolf | September 05, 2009

Thank you so much for this trip to Adit. I met him when we both started at the University of Chicago in the fall of 1988 and even then everyone who met him knew that he was going to be a major scholar. His knowledge, energy, and intelligence shone clearly even in those first months. I also think there's a small typo in this blog entry. "I met Aditya for the first time at the University of Chicago in the winter of 1980-81." I think this should be "1990-91", which would have been Adit's 3rd year at the U of Chicago.

Katherine Butler Brown | September 07, 2009

Thank you for this lovely tribute to a wonderful colleague and much loved, dear friend. I have been lost for words since I heard the news in Delhi, where I first got to know him on a more than merely collegial basis. Even though I knew him for far less time than many of his other friends and colleagues, I have learnt more from Adit than I will ever realise, I think, and I miss him tremendously, both his enormous scholarship and his delightful friendship. He was so full of life; what a loss to those of us left behind, and the next world's true gain. I cannot but help think he is still with us in spirit, spurring us all on to new and better things, to take up where he left off, all too soon. Adit, 'ashiq and rasika, and such a wonderful dost, you have left a terrible hole in the universe, and we will always miss you. "Worlds, Lost, Tiny -- When great worlds fall, we marvel and reach for our pens; when tiny worlds fall we are silenced. We live our lives under the shadows of lost love, when reconciliations fail or lie unsought, and each one is a small society, sometimes just of two, with its own language and history, its stories and memories that cannot survive on their own, in the dark. And worst of all, the jokes. Where do they go, when everything else has gone?" -- Michael Bywater, Lost Worlds.

Jawad | September 08, 2009

Thank you for telling us about him. In 1980 AB would have been 14 years old.

Nikolai | September 10, 2009

I only known him through his work as well, but my condolances to all who did know him. As I live in the area, I'll be sure to make it to the memorial service.

kabir | September 18, 2009

I met Aditya only once briefly at URDUFEST at University of Virginia last year. He was an amazing scholar, and lived a really inspirational life. It's a reminder that one must live one's life to the fullest as you never know when it is going to end. Kabir Mohan

Steven Stoltenberg | October 21, 2009

How wonderful to read these testaments to Aditya's brilliance as a scholar and heartfelt generosity as a friend! I met Adit at UC Berkeley at the beginning of his tenure there as a visiting scholar. We immediately fell into friendship. There were innumerable dinners - feasts really - with Adit on the phone while cooking, getting his mother's secret recipe for dal makhani or brickle. There were innumerable trips together to Shreemati's on University Avenue, where we pored over the thousands of CDs and cassettes and then rushed home to listen to everything from classical vina rags to rajasthani folk tunes. Adit would wax passionate about his love of medieval sufi romances as he reclined on my couch, puffing on a hookah and looking positively like some raj sultan in his luxurious silk kurta. What delight he took in all things beautiful! Recently back from a trip to India or Europe, he would proudly display his latest acquisitions. I think I most loved those lovely silver objects hanging on his wall which he described as "moon fruit," giggling in delight at the poetic fantasy. In the last few years we drifted apart, and it saddens me to know that I only now learn of his passing and was unable to attend the memorial service and comfort his family and tell them how much Adit's friends adored and treasured him. Adit inspired, and will continue to inspire us to emulate his cosmopolitanism, his erudition, his connoiseurship. I cannot believe how hard it is to imagine he is gone.

Sunil Aggarwal | October 29, 2009

I am saddened to hear of the death of Professor Behl. He was my Professor at UC Berkeley in Spring of 1998 in the Religious Identities of South Asia course. It was such a rich and engaging course--I had never met anyone like Professor Behl. I was so delighted when he gave me an A- on my first paper on the relationship between Krsna Bhakti and Sufism. We had classes on the lawn outside occasionally--he was ever the romantic. But oh so precise...He taught be so much about the richness of religious history in India. I had a chance to see him one more time nearly 9 years later when he came to give a seminar at the UW. I will treasure these memories for as long as I have them. I am still trying to find out the cause of his death.

Ghufran Ahmed | December 20, 2009

Aditya and I started our undergraduate at the same year at Bowdoin. Aditya's passion for linguistics and his ability to learn about other cultures was truly amazing. Within a year Aditya was writing beautiful Urdu and understood urdu poetry at an advanced level. He was only 17. He truly will be missed.

Persis Berlekamp | December 08, 2010

I am so, so sad to stumble upon this site and therefore, much belatedly, upon this tragic news. I had no idea. I just a minute ago googled Aditya's name to make sure I was spelling it correctly in my acknowledgments. I met Aditya at the Institute of Advanced Study when we were both on leave there in 2007-8. It is a mark of his generosity that he was the first person who read the full draft of my book manuscript even though we are not in the same field. He read it carefully and gave me some wonderful criticism. I can't believe he is gone.