The Character of Character

At the start of a new project it makes sense to review the most important scholarship on related issues. For me this has begun with reading (in some cases re-reading) the series of articles on South Asian religious characters in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion 79/1 (2011).

Jonathan Geen and Brian Black have been pioneers in the study of characters that cross the boundaries between South Asian religious traditions, and their introduction to this volume lays out the rationale for such study. They highlight four issues: (1) Stability: the impressive stability exhibited by characters that have multiple appearances; (2) Flexibility: the ability of characters to also be adapted or even inverted to make new points; (3) Inter-textuality: since the same characters appear in different texts, examining literary characters is a good way to explore connections and dialogue between traditions; (4) Demonstrability: the ability of characters to demonstrate (or, as Lindquist prefers, embody) a particular ideal or teaching.

The papers that follow this introduction all speak to some of these issues, though with different degrees of relevance to our project. As a whole they highlight the importance of studying literary characters and narrative motifs, of acknowledging that in some cases, as Lindquist (p.36) puts it, ‘story functions as argument’, and of paying attention to the form and context of teachings as much as to the teachings themselves.

Geen’s article, ‘Fair Trade and Reversal of Fortune: Krsna and Mahavira in the Hindu and Jaina Traditions’, is an excellent example of what can be achieved by looking at the presentation of characters in different religious traditions. Geen examines two examples: (1) The presentation of Jain teachers in Hindu texts, namely the inclusion of Jain features in the characterisation of the deluder of demons that is the ninth avatara of Visnu, and the later identification of the Jina Rsabha as a minor avatara of Visnu. (2) The incorporation of Krsna into the Jain “Universal History”, where Jain disapproval of his antics is clear from the fact that he is sent to hell, but his soteriological importance is reinforced by a prediction to future Jinahood.

Brian Black’s ‘Ambattha and Svetaketu: Literary Connections Between the Upanisads and Early Buddhist Narratives’ is another example of examining shared characters. Here Black argues that the character of Svetaketu the arrogant young brahmin in the Upanisads is actually the same as the character Ambattha found in the Digha Nikaya. Furthermore he argues that the Buddhist text draws on Upanisadic literary devices, namely the debate setting and the motif of head-shattering, suggesting a familiarity with the Upanisadic genre.

These two papers, along with the others in the volume, serve to demonstrate what can be learnt from concentrating on narrative materials in general, and the notion of character in particular.

One thought on “The Character of Character

  1. Pingback: Characterisation | Anne Skyvington

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