“Research-led teaching” and the perils of chronology

by Naomi

We have been neglecting this blog of late, as it has been a very busy semester. Apologies to all our readers! I have still been reading and writing alongside my teaching and admin duties, however, and I want to share with you a few thoughts about how this project has been making me think differently about my teaching, and vice versa.

This semester I have been teaching a course for first and second year students entitled “Religions of South Asia” (named in honour of the illustrious journal!) that explores early Indian religion from the Vedas through to devotional and philosophical schools of Hinduism, via early Jainism and Buddhism. Meanwhile, one of my main research tasks has been putting together parts of the general introduction for our project monograph, including an overview of the historical context for our project. There are therefore obvious synergies between my teaching and research in recent months.

One problem that I have been wrestling with in my class has been the order of presentation. Currenlty I begin with Vedic religion, move into Brahmanical ideas, including the emerging tension between householder duties and the new renouncer movements and associated ideas about karma and liberation, then talk about Jainism, then Buddhism, then back to Hinduism for the epics and Purāṇas and some philosophical and devotional movements. It holds together well enough, with its broadly chronological frame.

The problem comes when I talk about the origins of Jainism and Buddhism, and the relationship between these traditions and Brahmanical Hinduism. I try to stress the geographical setting for these new traditions in the northeast, and the possibility (as highlighted by Bronkhorst) of an independent cultural background responsible for new ideas, including karma and rebirth. However, because I have already talked about the Upaniṣads and the Brahmanical tension between householder and renouncer ideals, the natural assumption of the class – following also the main body of existing scholarship – is that Buddhism and Jainism emerged within a powerfully Brahmanical culture, reacting to ideas such dominant ideas as caste and ritual, and taking on karma and rebirth from the “Hindu” fold. The chronology of my presentation creates an unintentional implication of a causal relationship.

If only I could move the class to another room to discuss Buddhism and Jainism, symbolic of the move from northwest to northeast! If only we had more time in the class to discuss the different theories and arguments about the relationship between Brahmanic and Shramanic. If only we could move to a purely thematic approach, drawing on all the traditions in a discussion of key ideas and concepts, without causing total confusion for the students who are new to the whole scene.

On the understanding that none of these is possible, I am looking at ways to change the order in which we move through the topics in order to anticipate – and prevent or at least raise questions about – these assumptions.

The same challenges are there in the writing of the project monograph introduction. Like introductory courses, introductory chapters are trying to do too much – to survey in a broad and authoritative manner, yet also to acknowledge diversity of scholarship and highlight areas where understanding is weak. Something as simple as the order of presentation can instill in the reader a sense of chronology or of hierarchy, which may not be intended by the author. And while students provide constant feedback to the lecturer, and communicate their level of understanding through class discussions and assessments, we cannot always anticipate what our readers will take away from our writing.

I am not finished with either challenge yet, but I am enjoying both!

Nathan McGovern’s dissertation on Buddhists and Brahmans

by Naomi

I have just been reading Nathan McGovern’s 2013 doctoral dissertation (submitted to the University of California Santa Barbara) ‘Buddhists, Brahmans, and Buddhist Brahmans: Negotiating Identities in Indian Antiquity’ and enjoying his novel approach to the whole question of the relationship between Buddhism and what I tend to call Brahmanical Hinduism (for want of a better term). This reading is part of my current work drafting up sections of the introduction to our project monograph, work that has taken me back to Bronkhorst and Gombrich as well as into new scholarship.

McGovern’s dissertation is seriously long, and contains several self-contained sections on such topics as the relationship between the Nikayas and Agamas, the oral transmission of early Buddhist texts (including the application of Parry-Lord Oral Theory), and the history of ‘encounter dialogues’ between the Buddha and brahmins. For me, however, the most interesting aspect was the way in which McGovern tries to reconcile Bronkhorst’s Greater Magadha theory with the pervasive presence of Brahmanical themes and terms in early Buddhist texts.

In brief, McGovern broadly accepts Bronkhorst’s theory that Buddhism arose in a non-Brahmanicised area and from a distinctive Greater Magadhan culture, and he broadly rejects the theory that Buddhism arose in reaction to a dominant Brahmanical culture. (His review of the scholarship on both sides of this debate makes interesting reading in itself.) However, he is not fully convinced that core ideas about karma, ātman and saṃsāra necessarily emerged out of Greater Magadhan culture, and in particular, he argues that the widespread presence of brahmins and Brahmanical terms and ideas in Buddhist texs cannot be readily explained if we assume that Buddhism emerged without Brahmanical influence. Thus he argues for a new model, in which we assume that there was a common set of terms and ideas in circulation, which were drawn upon by the different religious groups of the day. These later became more rigid as competition between groups increased.

A key example, for McGovern, is the term brāhmaṇa itself, which he argues did not always refer to what we now label brahmins (or Brahmans, in McGovern’s preferred usage) as a distinct social group defined by birth or Vedic learning. Rather, it was a general honorific used, like others such as muni, by a variety of religious groups, including Buddhists, who used it to describe the ideal person. Only later, as “new Brahmanism” (using Bronkhorst’s terminology, as McGovern does) rose in power and influence in the areas in which Buddhist groups were developing, did the Buddhist authors cede use of the term to their opponents, and reframe their perspective on brahmins in polemical terms.

Perhaps McGovern’s overall thesis is best summed up in his own words (from his conclusion on p.632):

I argue that these sectarian traditions [Buddhism and Brahmanism] cannot be understood as essentialized, metahistorical agents, such that one could arise purely in “reaction” to another. Rather, they must be understood as fluid, constantly interacting entities that emerged out of a common substratum and only coalesced as discernable sects through a long process of identity-formation, wherein terms such as “Brahman” were hotly contested between different groups – in this case, the early Buddhists and the proponents of the new Brahmanism.

I hope that McGovern will find a suitable avenue for the publication of his work, which makes a real contribution to an important debate about how we understand the interaction between Buddhist and Brahmanical groups during their formative periods.

Jacobsen on Hindu Hell

Knut A. Jacobsen’s ‘Three Functions of Hell in the Hindu Traditions’, NVMEN, 56, 2009, pp. 385-400. This paper forms part of an entire volume dedicated to ideas of ‘hell’ across religious traditions. Jacobsen provides a brief overview of hell, as it is developed in the Mahābhārata, the Manusmṛti and the Bhagavata and Garuḍa Purāṇas. In this clear and enjoyable paper, Jacobsen outlines three functions of hell in Hindu traditions: the narrative, the social and the economic. The narrative function of hell, according to Jacobsen, is to stimulate the audience. He cites the example of the close of the Mahābhārata, when its hero, king Yudhiṣṭhira, discovers his immediate family in hell and his enemy in heaven. Due to his exemplary behaviour, he is informed by Indra that, upon death, good people must go to hell – albeit briefly – (to atone for their limited wrongdoings) while bad people go briefly to heaven (to enjoy the strictly limited consequences of their virtue) and then to hell. This somewhat odd doctrine (at least in Hindu terms) is not explored by Jacobsen, but he righty emphasises how compelling the close of the Mahābhārata is. As Jacobsen remarks, ‘hell makes a good story.’
The social and economic dimensions of hell are connected in Jacobsen’s paper. He sees the Manusmṛti, Bhagavata and Garuḍa Purāṇa as engaged in complimentary activities. The three texts establish the spectre of hell and a series of ritual measures to avoid it, which are the monopoly of the Brahmin (which insures both high status and high income for Brahmins). The Manusmṛti provides a list of 28 hells, which the Bhagavata Purāṇa describes in detail. Jacobsen is not convinced that hell is fully integrated in the Manusmṛti, however. He suggests that it is separate from the realm of rebirth (which he sees as dominated by Saṃkhyan philosophical ideas). The key idea in the Manusmṛti, which the Garuḍa Purāṇa (in its Pretakhaṇḍa) takes up and extends, is that a crime (pātaka) may be absolved by a vow (kṛcchra). In the Garuḍa Purāṇa an elaborate system of gift giving is further established, in which a person near to death, or their relatives, may engage in acts of conspicuous Brahmin-patronage.
After pages of perceptive analysis and observation, Jacobsen’s conclusion is somewhat low key; he emphasises the fact that hell is not really very significant to Hindus and calls for sociological research on the topic. One might add to this the need for more historical research; I am not at all sure that hell was lacking in importance for Hindus in all times and places in the past, especially where Jain and Buddhist traditions were well-represented. This is something that I will have to substantiate in my ongoing research. Jacobsen’s paper is, however, an excellent overview of four very significant sources for Hindu tradition, which I recommend to anyone interested in the topic of hell(s) in Hindu tradition.

Heaven and Hell in Early South Asia

After my broad Spalding paper, which took up overarching approaches to the significant past across Hindu, Buddhist and Jain narrative sources, I thought I would turn to a related sub-topic: that of heaven and hell, and their several inhabitants, across the three religious traditions. My paper at the Spalding focussed on the contrast between the dominantly genealogical orientation to the past in Brahminical sources (and their emphasis on the capacity for divine intervention in the universe and their reliance on a ‘blueprint’, of sorts: the Vedas) to that of the – different – transmigratory histories of Buddhist and Jains (and in particular their agents of religious insight viz. Buddhas and Jinas). Now, heaven and hell might not seem an obvious development from this broad theme. They are however of critical importance; heaven and hell play a major role in both Buddhist and Jain traditions in discussions of the ramifications of one’s actions after death and the long process that may, or may not, lead to release from rebirth. In Hindu traditions, the posthumous fate of one’s ancestors, and their ritual support in their afterlives, are a pressing concern, as well as, of course, one’s own personal destination (and all this is integrated with a variety of ‘mokṣic soteriologies’ that avoid both heaven and hell). Thus kinship and genealogy, as well as transmigration and ethics – and the elephant in the room of rebirth – mokṣa – are all richly interrelated. My Spalding paper mentioned the relatively slow rate of adoption of explicitly transmigratory ‘story arcs’ in Brahminical tradition compared to the thorough integration of rebirth in largely contemporaneous legal texts (where the transmigratory consequences of wrongdoings are painstakingly mapped out; to steal curd, for example, is to be reborn as a flamingo in the Manusmṛti). Heaven and hell also recurrently appear in epic and Purāṇic narratives (as does Yama, with Citragupta, in his role as a psychopomp, or judge of the dead, and Yama is known in Buddhist and Jain sources – something I will also explore). Their evocation seems to vacillate between a focus on the ramifications of karma and a more social, kin-oriented, emphasis on the fate of one’s ancestors (and – on occasion – the relation of all this to renunciation and release from rebirth). What is more, the divine realms are used to mirror forms of earthly (bhumic?) social and political organisation (one only has to read the account of the divine sabhā – ‘courts’ or ‘assemblies’ – of the second book of the Mahābhārata to see this). On the other hand, Buddhist and Jain sources emphasise the role of heaven and hell in establishing the consequences of actions. It tends to be religiously significant figures (not all of them positive examples), who are described in detail in their ongoing karmic journeys (as I have mentioned before: a sort of spiritual, multi-life, bildungsroman). This is not to say, however, that there is no concern for the posthumous fate of one’s relatives; certainly in Buddhist tradition the idea of making offerings for the sake of others, many of whom are deceased, is well known both in the distant past and to this day (and, on occasion, groups of people co-transmigrate). There is also a recurrent concern to depict recurrent social networks in successive lives in the Jātakas and elsewhere. All three traditions also routinely integrate heavens and hells in vast descriptions of the cosmos and the theatres of human action within it. Heaven and hell, and their associated narratives, thus allow one to explore Hindu, Buddhist and Jain attempts to marry religious doctrine with understandings of the physical and meta-physical universe (and on occasion to engage in utopian and dystopian political thought) in narrative.They are also very intimately connected to sets of ritual practice (the Hindu śrāddha and a variety of Buddhist rituals associated with the ‘transfer of merit’). They are thus an excellent means of providing a ‘lens’ through which to approach the broader topic of the relationship between kinship, genealogy, karma and its cessation in early Indian religious traditions and the use of narrative in this regard. Well, that is the plan anyway.

Reaching the middle of the project

by Naomi

We are now halfway through the Story of Story project, and so James and I met this week in Cardiff to review our progress. Enjoying the uncharacteristicly Welsh sunshine, and benefiting from conversation with Indological colleagues, we looked back over what we have achieved so far, and forwards towards what we want to get out of the remaining 18 months.

We have enjoyed presenting papers relating to different aspects of our research over the past months, and this has been helping us to firm up plans for the contents of our project monograph, which we anticipate having six substantive chapters on various aspects of the connected narrative traditions of early South Asia, as well as a co-authored introduction. The book will work outwards from a focused character-study (most likely Indra) through various case studies of roles, lineages and sub-genres, to a broader concluding chapter addressing the fundamentals of the shared narrative universe of South Asia.

Another key area of discussion was the public engagement side of project, on which expect more postings in the coming months as we start to turn our ideas into reality…

Some broader reflections on early South Asian Mytho-history

I have explored, over my last few blogs, some of the distinctive features of our three traditions’ differing approaches to the construction of the significant past (and anticipated future). The differences hinged on a the degree of emphasis placed on transmigration (emphasised in Buddhist and Jain materials) or genealogy and divine intervention (which loomed large in Brahminical tradition). What emerges are three distinct ‘cosmic dramas’ that are distinguished by differing metaphysics, and models of, and for, human behaviour (I take the phrase ‘cosmic drama’ from Carl Becker’s 1932 essay on systems of thought in pre-modern and early modern Europe – The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers). These ‘dramas’ are based on the insights of two humans – the Buddha and the Jina – and one – decidedly non-material – textual agent of revelation, the Vedas. The human agents, the Buddha and the Jina, have no role as creator (as you may recall, the Buddhavaṃsa assumed that the Vedas were perennial, or at least very old indeed). Their status is based on their insight into the true nature of being, which in turn allows them to narrate – and, crucially, correctly interpret – the history of the cosmos, which in all three cases – at least by the period just before the beginning of the common era – is handily peppered with the recurrent emergence of parallel agents of insight – viz. buddhas or tīrthaṅkaras – or parallel agents of creation – viz. the Vedas and, more often than not, the divine catalyst Brahmā (whose role will, in due course be usurped by other deities). To this are added, in Brahminical tradition, developing ideas of the avatāra.
The Vedas are conceived to be constitutive of the cosmos and to offer insight into the true nature of being (although even as they are aggrandised in the Mahābhārata, they are also sometimes delimited in their significance: Kṛṣṇa, after all, in the Bhagavad Gītā, says that the proper subject of the Vedas are the three constitutive qualities of existence (the guṇas), and then immediately admonishes Arjuna to ‘be not the three guṇas’). They are, of course, combined with a variety of theisms in later tradition, in which the relationship between Veda, the Absolute and a Personal God are variously interpreted. In short, at a high level of abstraction, I have focussed on theoretical differences between the three traditions as they are expressed in narrative sources as they are played out in the construction of overarching chronologies of being, and of the presence or absence of religious knowledge. My attempt to ‘earth’ these analyses, by means of a very brief characterisation of certain ideological developments on the epigraphic record was little more than a reception historical ‘band aid’ (and one which disproportionately favours elite self-presentation). To balance my analyses more successfully, there must be a consideration of similarities, influences and the relationship between theory and practice (both in terms of clearly demarcated ritual activities and the more general social context of our three ‘cosmic dramas’). This research, upon which I am already embarked, will consider the differing rates of absorption and creative integration of religious ideas in both explicitly didactic and narrative literature. It appears, for example, that the Dharmaśāstra literature is more able to absorb transmigratory ethics than narrative sources are in immediately post-Vedic Brahminical sources (from the Bṛhaddevatā to the Epics). On the other hand, the Buddhist sources exhibit an uneasy relationship with the possibility of posthumous ritual intervention on behalf of one’s ancestors. I am still searching the Jain material for signs, should there be any, of parallel concerns. Here narratives of heaven, hell and of various ghostly forms will, I suspect, be very important, as they recur across all three traditions (something I will address in a blog entry soon).
In this regard, it is important not to assume that differences in religious philosophy necessitated radical forms of social separation amongst religious groups. The fact that ‘monastery’, ‘hermitage’ and ‘court’, not to mention ‘village’, ‘city’ and ‘empire’, are as much scholarly tropes as well-understood historical phenomena does not help matters (and we have not even got that far in imagining the audiences entailed by these imaginary contexts!). Harjot Oberoi’s classic study of pre-colonial Pañjāb (The Construction of Religious Boundaries) with its evocation of a world in which one might be a member of the Sikh panth, but employ Brahmins for important life-cycle rituals and visit Hindu and Muslim holy places for the purposes of enhancing fertility or removing disease, for example, while not, of course, directly applicable, should at least sensitize us to the potential complexity of the situation ‘on the ground’ in early South Asia. It is also the case that we face real difficulties, which have dogged Classical Indology, in establishing when we should read our narrative sources as reflective of concrete social situations and practices and when their generic form means that we should not (for a parallel in western literary history try reading late eighteenth century or early nineteenth century ‘pastoral’ as unproblematically reflective of social realia – arcadia was evoked precisely because of a diametrically opposed situation on the ground, of course: that of the industrial revolution. The paucity of the historical record in early South Asia means that the (textual) cart is not just placed before the horse, it is forced to lead it.