Notes of Exchange: Scribal Practices and Vernacular Religious Scholarship in Early Modern North India
South and Southeast Asian Languages and Societies
What happens when a vernacular language like Hindi begins to be committed to writing, entering the realm of a manuscript culture that was formerly monopolized by ‘cosmopolitan’ languages like Sanskrit, Arabic, and Persian? How did the pioneering vernacular intellectuals of Hindi adopt, adapt, combine, or challenge conventions and practices from existing Indic and Islamicate manuscript traditions? This paper examines manuscripts containing works of religious scholarship produced by two Hindu sects in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century North India in order to map intellectual networks, glean information about the training of religious scholars, reconstruct performative contexts, and refine our understanding of what distinguished “religious” scholarship in this time from other areas of enquiry, such as literary theory or philosophy. Using techniques of both ‘close’ and ‘distant’ reading on a corpus of approximately three hundred manuscripts, I outline the major features that distinguished manuscripts of vernacular scholarly works during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries from manuscripts containing other types of text, highlighting those elements that reveal the shape of intellectual networks, the dynamics of performance contexts, and the role of paper manuscripts as notes or ‘currency’ of intellectual, social, and political exchanges. In the process, I offer reasons to re-examine commonly held scholarly assumptions about the religious literature and culture of this period.