Revisiting the notion of orality

by Naomi

At the Work-In-Progress seminar of the Asian Religions Network last Friday I talked through some of my conclusions from the book, and Joachim Gentz very astutely put his finger on an important area that I was not giving due consideration, namely the oral culture in which many of my stories and characters were circulating.

The trouble with pondering orality is that we don’t really know when texts that were composed orally were written down, and it seems likely that many texts (including narrative ones) continued to be transmitted in written and oral forms simultaneously. Written compositions also sometimes deliberately emulate features of an oral composition. As a result, I have tended towards the position that the distinction between oral text and written text is not so relevant to my work. And when I talk about texts, I do not mean to imply that they are necessarily written.

However, as well as talking about texts, I have been talking about narratives, and about the characters that feature in those narratives. In particular, I have been exploring how (and when and why) characters have ended up in multiple narrative traditions. As such, an oral storytelling context, in which tales exist in a reasonably fluid form, composed of events and characters and motifs but varying with each retelling, is very relevant to my research.

The process by which oral story traditions became crystallised into what we might call “literature” or perhaps more simply “texts”, is elusive from this historical distance, but nonetheless rather crucial to my project. A. K. Ramanujan’s oft-quoted comment on the Rāma traditions springs to mind:

These various texts not only relate to prior texts directly, to borrow or refute, but they relate to each other through this common code or common pool. Every author … dips into it and brings out a new crystallization, a new text with a unique texture and a fresh context. (“Three Hundred Rāmāyaṇas,” in Paula Richman, ed. Many Rāmāyaṇas, 46. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991.)

This process of crystallisation, when stories about common characters were fixed in texts or works of literature (oral or written), marks an important watershed in the development of distinct bodies of religious narrative during the period I am researching. And a representation of a character that comes from the common story pot will be of a different kind to one that deliberately responds to a rival literary tradition.

An example may help to illustrate what I mean. My research suggests that at the time the earliest jātakas were composed, the Mahābhārata did not exist as a work of literature, though some of its characters and events – for example Draupadī and her five husbands, Kṛṣṇa and his brother(s), and Vyāsa the noted sage – were widely known. Although it includes these familiar characters, jātaka literature does not try to present a rival version of the epic, and neither does early Jain narrative, though this too contains stories about, for example, Draupadī. In contrast, the later Jain Universal History narratives do present fully formed rival narratives of the epics, whch clearly respond to an existing literary tradition.

So it seems to me that although the distinction between oral text and written text is not so important to my work, the distinction between fluid oral story traditions and works of literature or texts is vital. I will need to give this area a lot more thought.


by Naomi

I have finished a first draft of all the book chapters for my project monograph, and so it is time to revisit some of the bigger questions and context, review my material, and make a start on a conclusion. In an excellent piece of good timing, I have spent the week in Cardiff meeting with James and discussing our project themes and questions at length.

I must say, it is gratifying to see that exploring this narrative material really has helped us to better understand the early history of Indian religions, and the ways in which they interacted during their formative periods. Here are a few snippets of what I am able to conclude after my study of shared characters:

There is evidence of borrowing and responding in all directions, and also of all three traditions responding to earlier Vedic narrative. It is not simply a case of Buddhist and Jain traditions responding to prior “Hindu” traditions, as scholarship has tended to assume. As such, it has become important for me to review my terminology, as I have not always been very clear in my use of ‘Brahmanism’, often implying unintentionally that Brahmanism is chronologically prior to Buddhism and Jainism. In the redraft I am going to be careful to distinguish between Vedic traditions, which of course pre-date Jain and Buddhist traditions and emerge from a different region, and Brahmanical compositions such as the Epics and dharma texts, which were composed after the advent of Jain and Buddhist traditions, and in awareness of rival ideas, narratives and groups.

We can see evidence of specific historical moments of interaction that resulted in narrative sharing. For example the god Brahmā, as Greg Bailey pointed out long ago, is preserved in the earliest Buddhist texts in a manner that suggests he was a significant deity in and around the early heartland of Buddhism. This is supported by archaeological evidence, as well as by textual evidence of an early enthusiasm for Brahmā that was later eclipsed by devotion to Viṣṇu and Śiva. The absence of Brahmā(s) in later Buddhist narrative, as well as in Jain narrative, reinforces this argument. In contrast, Viṣṇu and Kṛṣṇa hardly found a home in early Buddhist narrative traditions, though they were thoroughly incorporated into Jain stories, hinting at another node of close interaction between two of the three traditions. There are several other examples in the book too.

Jain and Buddhist traditions cannot be grouped together in terms of their responses to rival traditions or to Vedic cultures. Although they share much in common, these two north-eastern traditions also have very distinct histories, with Jain tradition prior to Buddhist tradition, but early Buddhist scriptures appearing to be earlier than early Jain scriptures, as well as from a different region. As such they speak to different social conditions and different moments of inter-religious interaction. With different ideological positions on key areas such as karma, they also respond in varied ways to rival ideologies. There is ample evidence of this in their narrative materials.

Textual chronologies can be assisted by studying narrative interactions. Although contributing to textual history was not a major aim of my work, it is interesting to see that, for example, several specific examples of narrative sharing suggest that the Rāmāyaṇa is prior to certain early Buddhist texts, and prior to the Mahābhārata. My contribution to the large debate over textual chronologies will be modest, but hopefully helpful nonetheless.

There are lots of different types of narrative sharing! This is rather obvious really, but I am starting to try to tease out all the different types, such as the inclusion of characters that belong to a common narrative heritage, the absorption of a new character who offers no challenge to orthodoxy, or who offers some challenge that can be neutralised through adjustments, or the use of a character or motif from a rival tradition as a means of polemic or satire or parody.

There are significant key themes that cut across all three traditions. Again, this is no surprise, but nonetheless important to explore. In particular, shared characters speak to that central tension between worldly responsibility and the need to renounce, and narrative motifs such as familial attachment and the grief of separation are used to interesting (and varied) effect in all three traditions, reflecting different attitudes to the tension. In addition, the use of divine characters allows each tradition to explore what we might call rival theologies, or rival understandings of cosmology and cosmo-history.

This is just a little taster of some of the areas that are going to feature in my conclusion, and that are going to inform my redrafting process. The final book is a still a little way off, but the process of tying together the research I have done over the past few years is proving very enjoyable!

Book plans: Gods, Heroes and Kings as Shared Characters

by Naomi

Since I have just this morning signed a contract with Ashgate, for their Dialogues in South Asian Traditions series, I thought I would take a moment to tell you all about how my book is taking shape. Initially, we were planning to write a co-authored monograph for this project, but this became too unwieldy, and so we have settled on a monograph each. Between them, the two books will cover the major themes of this project, though of course there is still much to do in this area of research!

My book is provisionally entitled Gods, Heroes and Kings: Shared Characters across Hindu, Jain and Buddhist Narrative. As implied by the title, the focus will be on how a character (or character role or lineage of characters) that is shared between traditions reveals both a common narrative heritage and important differences in worldview and ideology that are developed in interaction with other worldviews and ideologies of the day.

The book is structured according to three types of character – gods, heroes, and kings – that are of particular importance to early South Asian narrative traditions, and uses these to explore key religious and social ideals, as well as points of contact, dialogue and contention between different worldviews. The role of deities, the qualities of a true hero, and the responsibilities of a king, are all points of difference between the various religious traditions, and yet – as wel have seen throughout this project – these traditions often used the same stories and characters as ways of exemplifying their own perspectives and challenging those of their religious competitors.

The book begins with a general Introduction (Chapter 1), which sets out the historical context for the study, outlines the sources used, and provides an overview of the book’s aims and structure. Two chapters on key Indian deities – Indra (Chapter 2) and Brahmā (Chapter 3) – then follow, starting to unpack the ways in which shared characters are played with in the different religious traditions, here with a focus on the changing role of deities and the different spiritual hierarchies that are developed. Chapter 4, on Viṣṇu, provides a transition from a discussion of gods to a discussion of heroes, since Viṣṇu comes to prominence through the Epics and their portrayals of Rāma and Kṛṣṇa, two characters who also find a home in Jain and Buddhist narratives. Keeping on the theme of heroes, Chapter 5 takes the role of the mother as an access point for a discussion of the tension between family duties and other duties and goals, by exploring the mother-son relationships of the Epic heroes, the Buddha and two jinas. Chapter 6 continues on the theme of relationships and detachment, with a discussion of the famous lineage of renouncing kings of Videha, who are praised in Buddhist and Jain tales and criticised in Brahminical Epic. The Conclusion (Chapter 7) ties together these explorations of shared characters, character roles and lineages, and asks what we have discovered about the concerns of early South Asian religious communities and the ways in which they interacted with one another during their formative periods.

I am making good progress on this book, with chapters 1, 2, 3 and 6 pretty much complete, and chapter 4 well on its way, so if all goes to plan I will have a full draft by Christmas. The book is due to be with the press in May next year. So, I’d better get back to it!

On the use of public and semi-public in relation to early South Asia

I have become intrigued by terms such as public and semi-public in relation to early Indian societies. I like the idea of ‘public imagination’ and ‘public reason’, but what do I mean by this? What audiences are suggested by these terms and what sort of cultural institutions and practices? For political theorists, such as John Rawls, the use of the adjective public is quite precise (and in many cases dependent on the existence of institutions related to democratic forms of government). For philosophers and social theorists, such as Jürgen Habermas, it belongs to a specific sequence of historical developments in Europe (as in the idea of a ‘public sphere’). The lack of evidence limits what we can say about early India, but sometimes I suspect that our categories also inhibit us. ‘Religious’ sources tend to be read in terms of their contributions to religious matters while epigraphy tends to be read for its capacity to shed light on social and political developments. Even the debates on Aśoka have often centred on ‘how Buddhist’ he really was or –in a more historical mode- how influenced he was by the Achaemenids or others… The example I considered in my last post, from the Majjhima Nikāya, points to a context in which certain pressing questions of social infrastructure and public morality were matters of public debate (be it by political announcement or the telling of a story). However, we interpret public in these contexts, this is not quite the same thing as, ‘Buddhist or not?’ or ‘Brahmin dominated or not?’ In short, the use of the terms public and semi-public (not to mention private) in early India raise some important theoretical and practical questions about how precisely we imagine the organization of society in that –admittedly rather vague- period. These questions cut across the domains of the philologist, archaeologist, religionist and historian. My thoughts are, however, at an early stage in this matter. Any guidance (or instruction to cease and desist) would be much appreciated!

Kings, Thieves and Sages: The Buddha, Pasenadi, Aṅgulimāla and Aśoka

I have recently been considering the Majjhima Nikāya, the middle-length discourses of the Buddha, in connection to my exploration of the interactions between kings and sages across early Indian religious literature. The dialogues of the Majjhima Nikāya are overwhelmingly addressed to members of the saṅgha, which has led some commentators to conclude that, unlike the Dīgha Nikāya, or longer discourses of the Buddha, the text was intended largely for a monastic – Buddhist -audience. In this regard it is interesting then that the Majjhima Nikāya, while containing a range of dialogues between the Buddha, his disciples and both princes and kings, emphasizes one royal interlocutor in particular, King Pasenadi, who is involved in five of the nine suttas that feature royal discussants. I will restrict myself to comments on the first of his appearances today.

King Pasenadi’s first appearance in the Majjhima is a walk-on part in the celebrated story of the rehabilitation of the violent robber Aṅgulimāla (lit. ‘Garland of Fingers’). This story, which sees the Buddha, by means of a teaching underscored by a miracle, change a murderous dacoit into a monk is most often approached as a parable of the reformed sinner. Pasenadi’s role is minor, but significant, as it shifts the focus of the story from the individual to the community and expresses a certain ambivalence about the institution of kingship. The foundations for both this shift -and the ambivalence with regard to kingship- are laid early on in the tale: in the context of Aṅgulimāla’s conversion, kingship is implicitly equated with dacoitry by the Buddha by means of their common association with violence:

I, Añgulimāla, am standing still, having for all beings everywhere laid aside the stick, but you are unrestrained regarding creatures; therefore I am standing still, you are not standing still. [MJ 2.99]

The image of the Buddha, always ahead of Aṅgulimāla, but not moving in any fundamental sense, is a powerful one, but it is the association of the robber and the daṇḍa, or stick, that is significant from the perspective of royal prerogative: the daṇḍa is also the scepter in early Indian thought, and harm the currency of rule. This idea is reinforced when King Pasenadi arrives at the monastery of Anāthapiṇḍika, at which the Buddha is present, when he brings with him five hundred men on horseback. The Buddha’s first question to the king is consequently connected to foreign policy; he asks:

What is it sire? Is King Seniya Bimbisāra of Magadha angry with you, or the Licchavis of Vesālī, or some hostile king? [MJ 2.101]

That the Buddha asks this question suggests that he might be consulted on such matters. King Pasenadi states, however, that it is the domestic problem of the depredations of Aṅgulimāla that presently occupy him. The reformed bandit is presented to him and, after expressions of fear, amazement, he states:

Him, revered sir, that I was unable to tame with stick and sword, the Lord has tamed without stick or sword. Well, I am going now, revered sir. I am very busy. There is much to be done. [MJ 2.102]

The story of Aṅgulimāla thus emphasizes that the agency of the Buddha in the non-violent resolution of social problems and suggests that he is a logical and fit advisor to the king. It also associates the business of rule with the wielding of the daṇḍa, which was wielded also by the brigand, Aṅgulimāla. The king, like the dacoit, is ‘forever moving’. The concluding verse of the sutta, in which ‘Garland of Fingers’ reverts to his original name, ‘Harmless’ (Ahiṃsaka) reinforces this emphasis on the presence, or absence, of harm. There is, albeit germinal, a sense of dhamma as social policy here, which sits well with Aśokan policy, as it is reflected in his edicts:

King Devānāṁpriya Priyadarśin speaks thus.  (When I had been) anointed twelve years, the following was ordered by me:  everywhere in my dominions the Yuktas, the Rājūka, and the Prādeśika shall set out on a complete tour (throughout their charges) every five years for this very purpose; for the following instruction in morality (dhaṃmānusastiya) as well as for other business.  ‘Meritorious is obedience to mother and father. Liberality to friends, acquaintances, and relatives, to Brāhmaṇas and Śramaṇas is meritorious. Abstention from killing animals is meritorious. Moderation in expenditure (and) moderation in possessions are meritorious.’ The council (of Mahāmātras) also shall order the Yuktas to register (these rules) both with (the addition of) reasons and according to the letter.

Aśoka’s dhamma addresses the implicit critique by the Buddha of Pasenadi, at least in part: non-harm is valorized, if not made compulsory. Thus, although only a vestigial king-sage dialogue, the first appearance of king Pasenadi in the Majjhima Nikāya is a significant one. It establishes the role of the Buddha as an advisor, but crucially also as an intervener in social affairs. The reformation of Aṅgulimāla suggests that the Buddha’s teachings are good not just for the individual, but for society. It also implies that kingship is akin to banditry, at least in the sense that both are inalienably harmful. The robber finds peace in the monastery. For the king, in contrast, there is always ‘much to be done’. We also begin to see the possibility of quite close dialogue between public inscriptions – those of Aśoka- and semi-public teachings, as we find them in the Majjhima Nikāya

A Buddhist tale of Draupadi

by Naomi

So, in actual fact Draupadī is not one of the shared characters that features in my research. (More on what is going in my project monograph shortly.) But while looking at some jātaka mentions of Kṛṣṇa, Rāma, et al, I came across the reference to Draupadī (there called Kaṇhā) in the Kuṇāla Jātaka. The verse, which is fairly well known, holds up Draupadī as an example of the wickedness of women, since despite having five husbands (listed with their names familiar from the epic) she still lusted after a sixth, a hunchback dwarf no less. What seems to be less known is that, hidden in the word commentary to the verses, and thus not included in the translation of Cowell et al, is a fuller prose narrative of Draupadī’s misdemeanours. Although not strictly speaking of relevance to my current research, I couldn’t resist bashing out a draft translation of this story, and share it with you here in case it is of interest, or entertainment value!

I translate the version as it appears in the CSCD edition on

Draupadi in the Kunāla Jātaka (536)

“I have seen, friend Puṇṇamukha, Kaṇhā of double-parentage and five husbands, set her mind on a sixth man, one who was barrel-like/headless (kabandha) and crippled.”

And here too there is a further saying:

Kings A(tha)jjuna, Nakula, Bhīmasena, Yudhiṭṭhila and Sahadeva:

These were her five husbands. Yet the wife wished for more and got up to no good with a hunchbacked dwarf.

… [ some intervening verses ] …

[Commentary to the verses:] “I have seen” means: It is said that in the past Brahmadatta the king of Kāsi, with his army, seized the kingdom of Kosala and had the king of Kosala killed. He seized his chief wife, who was pregnant, and went to Vārāṇasī. There he took the chief wife as his own, and in due course she gave birth to a daughter. Now the king had no natural daughter or son, so he was pleased and said, “My dear, take a boon.” She accepted it and set it aside.

Now that princess was given the name “Kaṇhā”, and when she was of age her mother said to her, “My dear, your father gave me a boon, and I took it and set it aside. You should do as you please with it.” She said to her mother, having no shame or remorse for her great lust, “Mama, there is nothing else lacking for me: hold a svayamvara (‘self-choice’) for the purpose of getting me a husband.” She addressed the king. The king, having said, “She should take a husband according to her liking,” had the svayamvara proclaimed. A great many men assembled in the royal courtyard, all adorned with ornaments. Kaṇhā took a basket of flowers and stood at the highest window, looking out, but she did not like anyone.

At that time Ajjuna of the family of King Paṇḍu, and Nakula, Bhīmasena, Yudhiṭḥila and Sahadeva, these five sons of King Paṇḍu, having learnt the crafts in the presence of a world-famous teacher in Takkasilā, were wandering around [thinking] “We will understand the conduct in the country.” They entered Vārāṇasī and heard the hullabaloo inside the city. Enquiring, they found out what was happening. “We too will go there!” Looking like golden statues they went there and stood in a line. Seeing them, Kaṇhā became enamoured with all five of them, and having thrown garlands over all five of their heads she said, “Mama, I desire these five men.” She again went to speak to the king. The king, though he was not pleased, because he had given the boon did not say “I will not have this!” He asked, “Of which family are you the sons?” and learning that they were the sons of King Paṇḍu he paid them honour and gave them their wife.

She, in a seven-storey palace, was filled by the power of lust. And she had one servant who was humpbacked and crippled. Having associated, because of her lust, with the five princes, after they had gone she seized the opportunity and, thoroughly inflamed, she sinned with the hunchback. Speaking with him she said, “There is nobody as dear to me as you. Having had the princes killed, I will have your feet annointed with the blood from their throats!” But to the others, when it was time for intercourse with the older brother she said, “You are dearer to me than these four. I would even abandon my life for you. I will have the kingdom given to you alone after my father’s death.” And when it was time for intercourse with the others it was the same plan. They were very pleased with her: “She is devoted to me, and the rulership is near.”

One day she became ill, and they attended upon her, one sitting stroking her head, the others each taking a hand or foot, and the hunchback sat at her feet. While Prince Ajjuna, the oldest brother, was stroking her head, [in order to say]: “There is nobody dearer to me than you. While I live, I will live for you/as yours. When my father passes away I will have the kingdom given to you!” she favoured him by giving a sign with her head, while to the others she gave a sign with her hands or feet. And to the hunchback she gave a sign with her tongue: “You are so dear to me, I live for you!” And so they all understood the matter from her signs and what she had said to them before. The rest of them each understood only the sign given to himself, but Prince Ajjuna saw the movement in her hands, feet and tongue and thought, “Just as for me, she has given a sign to these others as well, and there is even intimacy between her and the hunchback.” He took his brothers outside and asked, “Did you see the one with five husbands display a movement of the head for me?” “Yes, we saw.” “Do you know the reason for this?” “No, we do not know.” “This here is the reason. But do you understand the reason for the signs she gave to you with her hands and feet?” “Yes, we know that.” “It is the same reason for me too. And do you understand the sign given with a movement of her tongue, to the hunchback?” “No, we do not understand that.” Having explained this to them he said, “She has sinned with him.” And though they did not trust him they summoned the hunchback and questioned him, and he explained the whole matter.

Having heard his words they had no more desire for her: “Oh women are evil and devoid of virtue! Having forsaken men like us, handsome and of good birth, she has done bad deeds with a hunchback of this bodily form and of contemptible family! What wise person would take pleasure in a woman, shameless and evil?” They reproached womenfolk in many ways, then, saying “Enough for us of the household life!” the five men entered the Himalayas, renounced, and set to work on kaṣina [meditations]. When their lives were over they went according to their kamma. And Kuṇāla, king of the birds, was at that time Prince Ajjuna.

Dialogue in Early South Asian Religions

by Naomi

I have just finished reading Brian Black and Laurie Patton’s edited volume, Dialogue in Early South Asian Religions: Hindu, Buddhist and Jain Traditions (Ashgate, 2015). I had read parts of it before (including my own chapter of course!), but to sit and digest it cover to cover was a real delight. Here are eleven essays, ranging broadly in terms of sources, but all speaking directly to the theme of dialogue, and all fascinating in their approach to exploring that theme.

The essays are divided broadly into three sections. Part 1, ‘Dialogues Inside and Outside the Texts’, looks at how dialogue within texts can suggest audiences and means of transmission, and contains four chapters on different textual traditions: Vedas (Patton), Epics (Hiltebeitel), Jain scriptural and narrative traditions (Esposito) and Buddhist jātakas (Appleton). Part 2, ‘Texts in Dialogue’, explores how texts are in dialogue with other texts within a tradition, such as how Mahāyāna texts use dialogic settings familiar from earlier Buddhist texts (Osto), or Purāṇic texts use dialogue to establish their ‘theological heritage’ (Rohlman) or how dialogically framed texts such as Gītās, polemics and doxographies challenge scholarly definitions of philosophy (Nicholson).

It is Part 3, ‘Moving Between Traditions’, that has most resonance for our current project, however, since the four essays it contains use dialogues as a means of understanding the relationships between different religious traditions. Michael Nichols kicks off with an exploration of dialogues in the Nikāyas that feature the Buddha and either brahmins, Jains or gods. He shows that the subject of discussion differs for each category of dialogue partner, and reveals something important about the Buddhist attitude to the different social groups. Jonathan Geen follows this with a look at how Jain dialogues in which a son persuades his parents of his need to renounce immediately despite his young age compare with some Hindu counterparts. Lisa Wessman Crothers then reads the often non-verbal dialogical exchanges between king and minister in the Mahā-Ummagga Jātaka alongside the Ārthaśāstra, in a discussion of deception and trust in royal relationships. Brian Black ends the volume with an exploration of three dialogues in Buddhist and Hindu texts that demonstrate dialogue’s ability to negotiate, transcend, and accommodate difference.

These essays resonate with our current project for a few different reasons. For a start, dialogue is clearly a shared generic form, used by all three traditions in a variety of intersecting ways, often in narrative contexts. In addition, literary dialogues are often used to explore encounters with various “others”, including members of rival religious groups, and so they can reveal something of mutual perceptions and inter-religious relationships.

The shared use of the dialogic form is something that James has become very interested in, as some of his posts here have suggested. For myself, it is dialogue more broadly conceived, such as the dialogue that occurs between and within the religious traditions of early India, that interests me. Sometimes this inter-religious encounter is explored using literary dialogues, but other times other shared narrative features, such as common characters or character roles, are made use of for a similar purpose. It is characters (including character roles and lineages) that have become my focus during the course of this project.

The edited volume is published in Brian Black and Laurie Patton’s series Dialogues in South Asian Traditions: Religion, Philosophy, Literature and History, in which we hope to place our own project monographs. The series is testament to the rising interest both in the dialogic form, and in the dialogues that exist between the various worldviews of South Asia. It is one to watch!