The end of the project

by Naomi

We have both really enjoyed working on this project, and particularly welcomed the responses from our lovely blog audience. The project is now drawing to a close and we have two announcements to make:

Firstly, we will be holding a special event in Cardiff on 27th June, in which we are teaming up with storyteller Steve Killick to share some of our research with a wider audience. The event is called How to Live a Good Life: Tales of Kings and Sages in Ancient India. If you happen to be in South Wales at the end of June do please join us – the event is free to attend and you can book your place through eventbrite here.

Secondly, my research monograph is now with the press, and should be published late this year or early next. It is called Shared Characters in Jain, Buddhist and Hindu Narrative: Gods, Kings and Other Heroes and will be published by Routledge in the series Dialogues in South Asian Traditions: Religion, Philosophy, Literature and History edited by Brian Black and Laurie Patton.

We won’t be using this blog very often anymore, but will leave it here as a reference resource.

I will continue blogging on so if you are interested in hearing more about my research then please sign up to follow that site.

Symposium on Indian Religious Narrative

by Naomi

Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending the Spalding Symposium on Indian Religions, which was held at St Michael’s College, Llandaff, and warmly and efficiently hosted by Drs Simon Brodbeck and James Hegarty. The theme was “narrative” and so I enjoyed a packed weekend of papers on everything from Buddha-biographies to vetāla stories, punctuated by wonderful conversations with colleagues from around the world with a common interest in South Asian narrative.

James and I have been lucky enough to have had some hand in shaping the themes of the last two Symposia in line with our own interests. The 2015 theme was “dialogue”, which, along with “narrative”, forms one of the key terms of this research project. (I would say in our defence that in fact neither theme was initially suggested by us!) Both Symposia have offered rich opportunities to hear about research in allied areas, and to share our own perspectives and findings.

The Symposium this year had a lot of common themes, and discussion of these spilled out into coffee and meal breaks. One important area of discussion was the way in which we talk about genre, or how we use genre terms, whether indigenous or not. Several papers attempted to either define or characterise particular genres, such as purāṇa (in Elizabeth Rohlman’s paper), avadāna (in David Fiordalis’ contribution), or jātaka and udāna (in Eviatar Shulman’s paper). Definitions are often problematic, because they require something that is a “defining feature”, that is to say something that sets the genre apart from other genres. However, genres by nature appear to be quite fluid and difficult to pin down. (Indeed, I had a little Buddhist moment when I commented that a genre is a process and not a thing. More on that another time, perhaps.) An approach that seeks to characterise or exemplify a genre, rather than define it from the outside in, was helpfully advocated by Rohlman.

Another key theme was the way in which narrative and doctrine inter-relate. Important uses of stories include exemplifying teachings and glorifying teachers or other heroes. However, papers also drew attention to the ways in which stories can inform or shape doctrine, or the ways in which popular stories or characters may have to be accounted for within particular paradigms. Narrative “gaps” or “slippages” often highlight the areas that require further investigation (although, as we heard, such investigations can get one into trouble).

Related to the questions surrounding the relationship between narrative and doctrine is an even broader set of questions about the role of narrative in religious history. As the papers demonstrated, stories can be used in varied ways: as narrative frames for teachings; as forms of teaching; as conversion aids; as ways of expressing identities or boundaries; and as means of providing competing accounts of significant times, events or people. The special features of narrative, including an ability to draw audiences into new worlds, allow for these varied uses. And in addition to all this, stories are also entertaining, as Adheesh Sathaye reminded us in his discussion of Śivadāsa’s Vetālapañcaviṃśati.

My head has been buzzing since the weekend with all the interesting papers and conversations. As the semester winds down and I turn my attention back to my book, I will enjoy seeing my work within this larger picture. Many thanks to everyone who attended and made the Symposium such a wonderfully stimulating event!

Is a picture worth a thousand words?

by Naomi

I am busy putting the final touches to my book, and one of the remaining tasks is selecting images to include. The publisher says I can have up to 21 images, black and white, inside the book, plus I would like something quite striking for the cover.

It is the first time I have included images in a monograph. I have so far learnt three important lessons that no doubt you all knew already:

  1. It is easily possible to lose a whole day searching for suitable images. There are endless options, and also many long and winding paths to dead-ends.
  2. Although open access and creative commons licensing is gaining traction online, using images in publications is still very expensive because they are considered commercial activities, even in the case of research monographs.
  3. Lots of images look really rubbish in black and white!

So, the questions arise: How important is this image? Is this picture really worth a thousand words? Or is it mere decoration, and thus an unnecessary waste of time and money?

Of course the answers are different in each case. Few aspects of my monograph speak directly to the artistic record, but in those few instances an image really would be good. In other cases it can be a helpful illustration of a narrative or related argument. Here are some examples:


Bimaran Reliquary. Image © Trustees of the British Museum. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

One of the themes of my research has been the role of gods as characters in early Indian narrative, in particular how key named gods are included in the stories preserved in early Buddhist and Jain texts. Indra and Brahmā have been particularly central to my research, and so one of the images I feel helps to illustrate my work is that of the Buddha flanked by these two gods. The Bimaran reliquary, from the Gandharan region and dating to around the first century, is a particularly impressive example. It is held in the British Museum and the image is © Trustees of the British Museum but available for non-commercial use under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.

Nami and Indra

Indra tests King Nami. British Library MS Or. 13362. Image copyright: CCO 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

The fantastic Jainpedia website ( has a wealth of Jain manuscript images, including several illustrating narratives key to my research. Keeping on the theme of Indra, I particularly enjoy this image of an important motif associated with this god: his tendency to test human resolve. This motif is present across all three traditions, as I have discussed in previous blog posts. Here he is testing King Nami, who is the Jain equivalent of King Janaka in the Buddhist tradition, and who has also featured prominently in my research for this project. The image comes from British Library MS Or. 13362 (folio 27v), which is a fifteenth-century copy of the Uttarādhyayana Sūtra.Unfortunately this does not look great in black and white, and in any case the library does not have a high resolution copy of the image.

These are just two examples of the many images I have been exploring. Others include: pictures of multiple buddhas and jinas and the avataras of Vishnu, to go alongside my research into repeated patterns of heroic figures in the mythological past; illustrations of the magical dreams experienced by the mothers of jinas and buddhas; images of the many stories of King Janaka, the famous renouncing royal of Videha.

Of course the easiest and most affordable way to include images is to get them not from libraries and museums, but from colleagues. James has already very kindly supplied me with his collection of photographs. If any of you reading this think to youself, “Oh, I have a great picture of King Janaka/Indra/other,” then I’d be delighted to hear from you! Meanwhile I’d better get on with the more important task of editing the Introduction…


Dialogue and “othering” – reflections on Claire Maes’ dissertation

by Naomi

This blog has gone a little quiet as we reach the end of the project and put together our monographs! A couple of weeks ago I finally found time to take a look at a dissertation that is of great interest to the broader frame of my research into inter-religious narrative interactions: “Dialogues With(in) the Pāli Vinaya” by Claire Maes (University of Ghent, 2015).

The dissertation uses the Pāli Vinaya to explore how one branch of the early Buddhist community formed a sense of identity in relation to other ascetic groups, particularly the Jains. The boundaries of the Buddhist ascetic community, Maes argues, were constructed in a dynamic process of encounter with ascetic “others”. Evidence in the Vinaya – as well as in related Jain texts – suggests that Buddhist and Jain ascetics interacted a great deal in daily life, sharing similar almsrounds, resthouses and other spaces. In such contexts the relative identities of the two groups became very important, so for example visible signs such as robes and bowls served to differentiate one type of ascetic from another.

A particularly neat feature of Maes’ dissertation is the way in which she uses Jonathan Z. Smith’s notion of the “proximate other” to explore how Buddhists found Jains – their close cousins – the most challenging in terms of identity-formation. In other words the nearness and relative sameness of these closely-related neighbours required a particularly strong process of “othering” in order to establish a clear identity separate from them.

Maes’ work is helpful for my own research in that it provides another practical example of the encounter between two different religious groups in early India, and explores that encounter as a productive dialogue that impacted upon both groups in important ways. In addition, it helps to highlight that even though Jains and Buddhists shared a lot (including spaces and practices and lay support) and indeed precisely because they shared so much, they also made efforts to differentiate themselves from one another. As such, while it can be helpful to talk about Jains and Buddhists together, it is also crucial to acknowledge their separate priorities and histories.

Although not the focus of Maes’ work, narrative is another way in which these two traditions – and indeed their other other, Brahmanical Hinduism – explored and expressed their sense of identity, in dialogue with the broader religious and narrative context of the time.



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