Project Roundtable in Edinburgh

by Naomi

Last Friday, shortly before the start of the Spalding Symposium on Indian Religions, James and I hosted a roundtable discussion on the themes of our project. Jonathan Geen (Western University, Ontario) and Brian Black (Lancaster University) were our invited speakers, and we were also joined by Spalding Symposium keynote speakers Stephen Berkwitz (Missouri State University) and Uma Chakravarti (Delhi), as well as Anja Pogacnik (Edinburgh), Sarah Shaw (Oxford), Elizabeth Harris (Liverpool Hope), Anna King (Winchester), Jessie Pons (Bochum), Margo Guagni (Venice), Hephzibah Israel (Edinburgh) and Dermot Killingley (Newcastle). The discussion was very lively and thought-provoking, and helped us to reflect upon the aims and themes of our project as we move towards its final stages.

After a brief introduction to the project from James and myself, including an overview of the shape of our proposed project monograph, Brian got us started with some reflections on questions we had circulated in advance, which can be read here: Spalding Roundtable 2015

Brian began by commenting on the question of what we mean by a literary character, drawing attention to the article he and Jonathan wrote on this very subject (for a Journal of the American Academy of Religion special issue, 79/1, 2011). He reinforced the importance of studying characters not as means to access historical people, but as literary characters that may obey some sort of narrative logic, who perhaps carry certain consistent associations in different contexts, or demonstrate particular teachings through their lifestory. At the same time, he highlighted the limitations of a solely literary approach, and underscored the value of character-analysis as a tool for doing comparative work across religious traditions.

On the subject of role, Brian noted his own interest in the ways in which a character’s gender, caste, religion, etc, tends to result in the character having a generic role that shapes what they talk about or do. For example, some of his work on the Mahābhārata has suggested that when a woman and a man have a conversation in that text, they tend to talk about gender. In other words, role informs content.

Moving onto genre, Brian noted the pros and cons of both emic and etic genre labels, and highlighted the importance of taking smaller-scale genres – which might be better labelled ‘forms’ – into account, for example, the dialogic form. He helpfully noted that the key criteria for using a label should be whether or not it opens up our study, rather than shutting it off. In conclusion, Brian noted the problems of trying to access the history of a given narrative, and the need to move away from questions of textual chronology onto more fruitful study.

Jonathan Geen then spoke about his perspective on comparing narrative elements across traditions, which results from many years studying the Jain and Hindu versions of the Mahābhārata story, albeit largely with a focus on a later period than our own project (which, as he pointed out, misses out some of the best Jain narrative literature!). He spoke of the lightbulb moments that occurred when he began to unpick the mysteries of the Purāṇas by reading Jain literature, and of how this led him to see the value in comparing the two sets of mythology. He highlighted the basic principle of comparative work, namely that the many similarities mean that where there are differences these are very revealing. Thus the literature of one tradition can be better understood by comparing it with another.

Moving onto a specific example, Jonathan talked about his own work on medieval Jain Pāṇḍava stories, which exhibit a lot of connections with the better-known Hindu versions. As a result, they have to be read with the Hindu epic in mind, as they are both products of the same literary milieu. Although a literary comparison is itself useful, Jonathan highlighted the occasional possibilities of seeing historical context through the patterns of the literature. For example, he suggested that the sudden rise in Jain interest in Pāṇḍava stories in the 13th and 14th centuries should probably be linked to contemporary historical events, particularly the restoration projects at the important Jain pilgrimage site of Shatrunjaya.

Discussion was then opened up to all those present, with a number of recurrent themes coming up, including: the extent to which it is possible to infer history from story; the possibility of stories carrying more than one meaning, and the need therefore for sophisticated scholarly analysis; the similar sorts of tensions, for example between king and renouncer, that tend to be found across all three traditions; the different types of interactions, from polemical to inclusive, that can be found in the narratives and in the ways traditions engage with each other; the difficulties in accessing Jain resources, which are largely understudied; the need for collaborative work in order to study all three traditions in proper depth; the problematic tendency to see Buddhism and Jainism through Brahmanical lenses; and questions of hermeneutics.

I would like to thank all those present, but especially Jonathan and Brian, for giving us such a stimulating discussion. We will be continuing to reflect on the comments for some time to come.

Mothers of famous sons

by Naomi

Last week I presented a paper at Edinburgh’s Centre for South Asian Studies on my latest avenue of research for this project, into the mothers of heroic sons.

Why explore mothers? One practical reason is that all our other case studies are focused on men, who are, after all, much more commonly found in Indian religious narrative! We wanted to bring some female characters into the conversation, even if we do so largely with reference to their male relations. The mother-son relationship is also a really helpful access point into broader debates about duty and love, the tension between family ties and religious or dharmic quests, and concerns of lineage.

In the paper I used three pairs of mothers to start to sketch out the characterisation of heroic motherhood in early Indian religious narrative: (1) Kausalyā (mother of Rāma) and Kuntī (mother of the Pāṇḍavas), along with other mothers that provide a helpful comparison within the epics, namely Kaikeyī, Mādrī and Gāndhārī; (2) Māyā (biological mother of the Buddha) and Mahāprajāpatī (foster mother of the Buddha); (3) Marudevī (mother of Rṣabha Jina) and Triśalā (mother of Mahāvīra Jina).

Although my research is still very much in progress, some key themes have already emerged very clearly. The least surprising of these is the idea that the conception, pregnancy and birth are generally accompanied by auspicious signs or miracles; these, of course, indicate the quality of the son as much as they do the mother (if not more so). Motifs such as positive pregnancy cravings, miraculous and pain-free births, a rain of flowers from the sky, or the arrival of gods to pay honour, reinforce the significance of the arrival of the child into the world.

Another, more interesting, theme is the contrast drawn up between two different mothers, one pure and associated with simple divinity, and the other more complex and human yet also stronger and more successful. Reiko Ohnuma has outlined this contrast well in relation to the Buddha’s two mothers (in her Ties That Bind, OUP 2012), but it is present also in the Mahābhārata‘s characterisation of the mothers of the Pāṇḍavas. Mādrī, mother of the two younger brothers, insists on joining Pāṇḍu in heaven after the latter dies, leaving Kuntī with the messy job of raising five sons alone, helping them remain safe from the attacks of their cousins, advising them, arranging their marriages, and so on. Mādrī, meanwhile, is frozen in heaven, just as Māyā is in the Buddha’s lifestory, while the Buddha’s human mother Mahāprajāpatī becomes a nun and achieves nirvana.

There is another reason to compare Kuntī with Mahāprajāpatī, since both raise the children of their co-wives with a powerful affection that erases the distinction between biological child and adopted child. Indeed, the motif of multiple mothers and multiple sons is a strong one, with the child also expected to treat each of his mothers equally. This evening out of relationships is of course in tension with the competition of co-wives, especially when it comes to producing a son in the first place.

A different parallel links Mahāprajāpatī with the mother of the Jina Rṣabha, Marudevī, namely their role as pioneers in the religious realms of their sons. Marudevī, in Svetāmbara accounts, is understood to be the first entrant into the realm of liberated souls, after she sees her omniscient son, the first Jina of the current time-cycle, in all his glory. Likewise, some Buddhist accounts declare that Mahāprajāpatī entered complete nirvana (ie nirvana at death) before the Buddha. There is much more to be said about both of these stories, but the parallel is a provoking one.

Meanwhile the mother of the Jina Mahāvīra, Triśalā, can be helpfully compared with the mothers of the Buddha. Like Māyā, Triśalā’s primary function is as birth-giver, mother in the biological sense. However, like Mahāprajāpatī, she also raises her son, and forms a powerful bond with him. He feels an obligation towards her, which leads, in Svetāmbara accounts, to his decision not to renounce until after her death, since it would cause her too much pain. This account contrasts strongly with tales of the Buddha’s renunciation, which is said to cause immense grief to Mahāprajāpatī.

The motif of separation and of maternal grief is present in the epics too, though here the separation is due to exile (or the higher calling of dharma) rather than a voluntary renunciation. It is in this motif that we most clearly see the tension between family obligations or bonds and the other calls on a young man’s attention.

I still have a long way to go with my survey and analysis, but already these key themes are calling out to be explored, and reinforcing the value of this project’s consideration of sources across the three traditions. The mothers of heroes do warrant some more attention, and I will endeavour to give it to them.

Some musings on genre

by Naomi

One of the shared elements that we are exploring in this project is genre, both in terms of emic categories (eg jātaka, purāṇa) and etic ones (eg epic, biography). However, thus far, this element has tended to remain in the background of our studies of shared characters and roles. Recent presentations at Edinburgh’s Religious Studies research seminar have got me thinking again about how important the notion of genre is in our studies of religious narrative.

Brian Black’s paper last month, ‘Subverting Dharma? Dialogues with Women in the Mahābhārata‘, highlighted some important features of the dialogic form in the Mahābhārata; dialogue as a micro-genre is one area that James has been exploring in his study of the conversations of kings and sages. More recently, Hephzibah Israel’s paper ‘Translating the Sacred in Colonial South India’ explored the role of genre in the translation choices of missionaries in South India. Specifically, she discussed how the Tamil poetic form, associated in South India with religion, truth and beauty, was rejected by Protestants, who believed that plain prose was more conducive to the Truth. The Tamil prose Bible was the result, though there were also various other Christian attempts to translate the Gospel into Tamil verse epic remeniscent of, for example, Kampan’s Rāmāyaṇa.

The Protestant association of prose with rationality and truth, and poetry or literature with fiction, has affected my own area of scholarship too. As I argued in my 2010 book, early scholars were too affected by their own generic assumptions when assessing the value of jātaka stories. Identified as “folklore”, “fable” and “fairy tale”, jātakas were dismissed as fictitious stories of little religious value, quite the reverse of how Buddhist communities themselves perceived the genre.

Such considerations are relevant when looking at attitudes towards “other people’s stories” within early India too. One area that I am increasingly interested in is the relationship between the great Pāli jātaka book and the Mahābhārata. Scholars have already noted many parallel stories, characters and motifs. But what about genre? A jātaka has a particular generic form, distinctive to Buddhism (with even the closely related tradition of Jainism rejecting the genre). And yet I wonder, might it help to see the jātaka collection as in some way a parallel tradition to the Mahābhārata itself, an epic of impressive proportions and with a similar tendency towards including all stories? I have not yet looked into this enough to know if such an analysis is really possible or fruitful, but I do think that we open up new windows on the narrative traditions of early India by asking how genre is defined, understood, moulded, translated, transformed and rejected.

What makes a story a ‘version’ of another story?

by Naomi

In this project we are mostly looking at shared narrative elements, such as characters and genres, rather than shared narratives themselves. However, the latter do feature as well, and in recent weeks I have been pondering what exactly makes a story a ‘version’ of another story, rather than a completely separate story in its own right.

Two things have prompted this musing. Firstly, I read the new Penguin Classics translation of Barlaam and Josaphat, which its subtitle declares to be ‘A Christian Tale of the Buddha’. I got a bit cross about this, as you can see in my posting on my personal blog, as it seems to me that while the Buddha’s lifestory and the hagiography of Saint Josaphat share a few narrative motifs, they are not at all versions of the same story. The Christians did not accidentally sanctify the Buddha, they simply made use of some interesting story elements found in his biography.

Why is the story of Josaphat not a ‘version’ of the Buddha’s lifestory? In my view, the main reason is that the narrative divergence is too high – there is far more original material than shared material, and the original material sends the story in a totally different direction to the Buddha’s lifestory. However, counter arguments might be formed using evidence that the composers were trying to create a version of an existing story, evidence including a shared name (Josaphat is traced back to Bodhisattva) as well as shared narrative elements.

The second prompt for this musing was the task of proof-reading some jātaka stories, for a translation, with Sarah Shaw, of the final ten jātakas of the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā, that will be published by Silkworm Press later in the year. When reading through the Vidhura-jātaka I was reminded again of a recent article that compares this story with Vidura’s role in the Mahābhārata (Klara Gönc Moačanin, ‘Epic vs. Buddhist Literature: The case of Vidhurapaṇḍitajātaka’, in Petteri Koskikallio (ed.) Parallels and Comparisons: Proceedings of the Fourth Dubrovnoik International Conference on the Sanskrit Epics and Purāṇas: 373- 98. Zagreb: Croation Academy of Sciences and Arts, 2009.). Moačanin suggests that the Vidhura-jātaka and the Mahābhārata dicing episode have a common source, since they share several features but also have their own variations. I find this argument unconvincing, in part because it assumes that poets and storytellers did not feel free to innovate, and thus that any original content must be drawn from some prior source that includes it. It is more likely, in my view, that the composers of the Vidhura-jātaka made free use of existing motifs and characters that they were aware of from the Mahābhārata (including a gambling king and his loyal honest steward), and added to this whatever innovations they wished (including mixing around with names and statuses, and adding a magical jewel that reflects the whole universe, a horse that can walk on water, and a demon who abducts the steward as a way of gaining his nāga bride).

If we accept my analysis, that the Vidhura-jātaka draws on existing motifs but is not limited by them, then does the Vidhura-jātaka contain a ‘version’ of the Mahābhārata dicing episode? Again, the narrative divergence suggests not, but the existence of common motifs and names suggests yes.

Perhaps, in the end, all we have here is an issue of terminology. We need a clear idea of what a ‘version’ of an existing story is, and how it differs from the creative use of common motifs and characters, and other forms of intertextuality. The oft-quoted words of the great A. K. Ramanujan are worth mentioning here, for although he wrote them of the Rāmāyaṇa we might usefully apply them more widely. He speaks of ‘a common pool of signifiers’:

‘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, if one may hazard a metaphor, dips into it and brings out a unique crystallization, a new text with a unique texture and a fresh context.’ (A.K. Ramanujan, ‘Three Hundred Rāmāyaṇas’, in Paula Richman, ed., Many Rāmāyaṇas (University of California Press 1991), p.46)

However, while Ramanujan’s explanation of how ‘versions’ of a story emerge is very pertinent, we must not lose sight of the innovation possible in telling stories more generally. Not all stories with common elements are versions of one another. Some may dip into several pools and combine the results; others may borrow from one text and invent new embellishments; yet others are completely new. The gambling king and his loyal steward Vidhura come from another text, but we need not seek a similar explanation for the origins of other aspects of the Vidhura-jātaka. Likewise, while the childhood experiences of an Indian prince who becomes a religious teacher may have their origins in a pool of Buddha-biography signifiers, the Barlaam and Josaphat story is an innovation far more than it is a ‘version’ of anything else.

My musings seem to have concluded that it is usually far more fruitful to talk about shared narrative elements than it is to talk about versions. And such shared elements, as this project is demonstrating, come in many different forms, with different explanations and contexts and lessons for the scholar.

Talking Jātaka and Avadāna in Vienna

It has been a busy term. However, I have finally settled down to write about my experiences at the 17th Congress of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, which was in Vienna in August of this year. Naomi asked me to act as discussant on a panel entitled, ‘Buddhist Narrative Genres’, which took up, in particular, the form and content of Jātaka (stories of the previous lives of the Buddha) and Avadāna (stories of significant Buddhists – though we shall see the limitations of such characterisations). This was a very interesting experience and I thought I would share some of both what I discovered and what I thought as a consequence of those discoveries. The programme of the panel was as follows:

IABS PANEL PROG

I took a particular approach to my role as discussant, which was based on a thought experiment, in which I imagined myself the editor of the collected papers of the panel. I asked myself, ‘How would I introduce them?’ and, ‘What were their points of analytic agreement and disagreement?’ I had the advantage of being able to do this in front of the author themselves.

All of the papers taken together substantiated a central hypothesis, which is: the definitions of Jātaka and Avadāna are fuzzy. I know this is hardly likely to cause a sharp intake of breath. However, as is quite normal in humanistic research, the journey is quite as important as the destination. In exploring the fuzziness of generic difference, the panellists had to come to terms, each in their own way, with a number of critical issues:

  • how scholars theorize Buddhist narrative
  • how Buddhists theorize Buddhist narratives (in different times and places)
  • how Buddhists with – or in spite of – their own, or scholarly, definitions and presuppositions USED Jātaka and Avadāna, or Jatakāvadāna (and the conjoined a is neatly representative of some ways of using these texts)

Now all of this happens – at least in the papers given during the panel – on the basis of textual evidence. This is the place where several things collide: hoary – and sometimes newly-minted – tradition; the historical contexts of authorship, transmission and adaptation; and scholarly and religious categories of analysis.

Naomi kicked off the panel with a rich demonstration of the inherent flexibility of the Jātaka form, as it is deployed in the Avadānaśataka. It appeared to me that she tacitly – and tactfully – suggested that the cart may have been placed before the horse in the study of Jātaka and Avadāna. By this I mean that the macro-analytic characterisations of the generic form of Jātaka and Avadāna, as involving either chronology or progression, perfection or devotion, may need to be re-tested against texts like the Avadānaśataka, which are typologically ‘resistant’. Put in another way, the scholarly recipe may not entirely match this particular Buddhist dish. Naomi’s emphasis on the particularities and peculiarities of the text before her suggested the need for groups of tales to be carefully contextualised, both doctrinally and practically, before we may draw distinctions between genres of Buddhist narrative text regardless of what we are told (by ‘insiders’ or  ‘outsiders’). Naomi’s paper left us with a distinct scholarly task: to progressively integrate narratives with inferentially recovered communities of reception. In the case of the Avadānaśataka, the communities so recovered were certainly not distinguishing between Jātaka and Avadāna in a hard and fast fashion.

Timothy Lenz – with the greatest of scholarly respect – was the fly in the ointment of the panel. His Gandhāran Avadānist was a level-headed and practical fellow, not much taken up with matters doctrinal. Tucked under his arm (forgive my exclusive language, it is for rhetorical purposes only) – and going under the rubric of Avadāna (and rubric is a rather appropriate term in that it means not just a heading, category or class, but also a custom or guideline) – is a collectania, a homiletic aidemémoire, which is intimately connected to the day to day demands of the religious professional, who is active in the public sphere. He has no time for the sprawling cosmographical vistas of the Avadānaśataka; his goals are exemplification and persuasion. Tim’s vision of Avadāna as collectania is challenging for the theorisation of generic form, if we seek to hang it on doctrinal features of Buddhism, such as karma theory. We cannot rest here, however, as Tim was well aware. To say that an Avadāna, or a Jātaka, is discourse-as-exemplification is to say too much, or not enough: as a definition it captures also the Hitopadeśa, for example, which surely shows that it will not entirely do (or might do, but only in the context of a larger enquiry). Yet we are in a tricky position; Naomi showed that the dominant characterisations of the Jātaka and Avadāna do not adequately capture what is going on in the Avadānaśataka, while Tim showed that Gandhāran context was one in which we could not even be guaranteed that an Avadāna would have anything at all to do with key Buddhist doctrines. What to do?

Karen Muldoon-Hules offered us two models of Jātaka-Avadāna transmission, which imply, perhaps, different classes of religious professional. Notwithstanding the pitfalls of historicism with limited data, Karen offered us a picture of the Virūpā Avadāna travelling as ‘Ur text’ and as ‘summary’. The former was subject to adaptation, as it moved from India to Tibet, while the latter was subject to ‘unpacking’, as it moved along the Silk Road from India to China.  These two modes suggest – at least to me – that Naomi and Tim might both be on to something: an ongoing process of literary adjustment and doctrinal engagement might be contrasted with a more missionary or pastoral context. We might dub these the scholastic and the pastoral (taking mission to be an expression of pastoral engagement and mildly regretting as I do the Christocentric, but expressive, terminology I am using). This means that, building on Karen’s contrasting modes of transmission, we have two possible states of affairs:

  1. The transmission of discourse according to institutionally-derived scholastic norms
  2. The application of discourse to the needs and concerns of a varied public

This is, of course, a spectrum rather than a hard and fast opposition. I have little doubt that these capture two rather significant modes of textual transmission and are more or less conducive to the two poles of narrative practice thus far established (of doctrinal or ritual engagement vs. socio-political ‘fit’).

Rachel Pang moved us to a consideration of a C19th Tibetan engagement with Jātaka materials, which reflected the ‘summary’ form that Karen identified in her paper. However, it was a summary form that was by no means lacking in the ‘karmic nod’ that Tim so missed in the Gandhāran materials. Rachel questioned the possibility of a formal definition of Jātaka, Avadāna or Jatakāvadāna. This followed from her wish to emphasise the religious concerns of her sources and the limits of western and Sanskrit criticism. She contrasted the simplicity of her source with the kāvyic excesses of Aśvaghoṣa to good effect, for example. What emerged was precisely a demonstration of the fact that we are looking at a spectrum of usage. Her source was a homiletic summary that was, nonetheless, with its heavy dependence on its auto-commentary, scholastically engaged, even if pastorally focussed.  The author of her source, Shakbar, is, then, a useful middle term in the ongoing enquiry.

Arthid Sharavanichkul explored Jātaka materials in a Thai Theravādin context. The fuzziness in the use of the term Jātaka that he uncovered recalled the blurring of the boundaries between Jātaka and Avadāna that Naomi found in the Avadānaśataka in her paper, notwithstanding the fact that the Thai sources do not know the term Avadāna. Arthid showed how, in a Thai context, the existing overarching definitions and descriptions of Jātaka and Avadāna, viz. those of Strong and Ohnuma, don’t entirely work (though they are instructive) because the Thai materials demonstrate a blended emphasis on both sacrifice and devotion. Naomi offered us a text that – at least in titular terms – is an Avadāna, but one that is replete with Jātakas. Arthid offered us the opposite. This is a neat demonstration of the fundamental fuzziness of the categories under investigation and the central hypothesis of my – currently – imaginary edited volume.

I put a number of questions to the panel in the discussion that followed. I asked them if they had brought us closer to a formal or an extended definition of Jātaka and Avadāna. I also asked them if they thought that they had, in fact, shown us that either sort of definition is an impossibility. I also asked more general questions such as, ‘Is fuzziness always fuzzy?’ by which I referred to the way in which any given instantiation of a genre might choose to subvert or adapt the conventions of that genre and thus depart from it while also confirming the existence of parameters of composition. Put in another way, I asked, ‘When is generic confusion, in fact, artistry/innovation?’ I also asked if scholarly fuzziness was defensible. I suggested that scholars of religion might (as J.Z. Smith concluded in his Reimagining Religion) simply change the way in which they go about defining some of the things they set out to explore, such as by means of extended or polythetic definitions. Other questions were more context-specific: for example, I asked if there was a Brahminical or a Jain elephant in the room. By which I referred to the difficulty of exploring issues of literary and expressive culture on the basis of distinct religions when they share a common cultural context (not true, of course, as Buddhist traditions moved beyond South Asia, but here the question would just concern other – for example, Chinese and Tibetan – elephants in the room). The answers to these questions broadly suggested that comparative studies would be desirable, that definitions were probably superfluous – though not all had given up hope – and that I asked too many questions!

I would like to offer my sincere thanks and congratulations to the panel convenors (Naomi and Karen) and contributors for a supremely stimulating afternoon. I would also like to think Steven Collins, who offered a range of insights as our discussions progressed. In thinking about the goals of the present project, the panel contributed much in terms of thinking through the range of uses of religious narrative both within and beyond our period of enquiry and also the real need – at least in an early Indian context – to move across the boundaries that exist between Hindu, Buddhist and Jain studies.

Talking deities in Bristol

by Naomi

My work on gods as characters that are shared between Brahmanical Hindu, Jain and Buddhist narrative sources had another outing this week at Bristol University’s Religious Studies research seminar. I talked about five strategies that Buddhist and Jain traditions use when incorporating gods from wider Indian mythology, namely multiplication, making mortal, subordination, cleansing of problematic characteristics, and explanations for the origins of worship. Using Buddhist portrayals of Brahmā(s), Jain portrayals of Kṛṣṇa, and Buddhist and Jain approaches to Indra as examples, I argued that these five strategies are used by both traditions, though to different extents in different cases, in order to make the gods more understandable within a karmic paradigm, and to underscore the superiority of liberated teachers over divine beings. I further argued that such narrative strategies demonstrate that the gods were sufficiently important to early Jain and Buddhist communities that they had to be included, albeit in a modified way, and that the characterisation of gods in these “atheist” traditions therefore deserves to be properly studied.

As always, the discussion following my paper was very helpful, and I am grateful to the audience for their thoughts and questions. I am particularly grateful to those members of the audience who were not very convinced by my argument that multiplying the gods was a way to reduce their importance, and who therefore forced me to clarify my position. Other – more predictable – enquiries about the society of the time and the likely audiences for the texts and stories reminded me that such questions – however difficult they are to answer – need to be addressed in the work I am doing. During meetings this week, James and I have been getting to grips with the general introduction for our project monograph, so the question of what we can and cannot know about the early Indian context is very much at the forefront of my mind.

The post-paper conversation also touched on the difficult question of how we understand humour in early narrative sources. While trying to ascertain what would have been considered funny in a culture so far removed from our own is a tricky endeavour, it seems clear to me that some of the Buddhist and Jain stories about the gods only really work if the audience is aware of the gods’ associations and characters within Vedic and Brahmanical narrative, and that the storytellers are playing with these associations. And yes, I think some of the ways in which the Jain and Buddhist storytellers did this is very funny, and that is one of the reasons why I am finding this research so stimulating!

“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!