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!