The Historic Conversations of Gods, Kings and Prophets

Over the last few months, my interest has been caught by the way in which Jain, Hindu and Buddhist texts all contain conversations between religiously authoritative individuals (I use the word prophet advisedly, hoping that readers will interpret it in a more general sense than ‘one who speaks with divine inspiration’) and kings. More generally, I have been struck by the repeated use of literary ‘conversations’ to express ideas across early South Asian religious traditions.  There is a Sanskrit word for a dialogue: it is saṃvāda (which literally means ‘together-speech’ (saṃ-vāda). This term is often compounded with another Sanskrit word, itihāsa, which means ‘so indeed was it’ (iti-ha-āsa). This word is more ordinarily translated – somewhat contentiously- as ‘history’. Itihāsa-samvāda, which I will render today as ‘historic conversations’ are an important and recurrent feature of early South Asian religious literature (and I include as religious literature all those works that take up superhuman entities or forms of transformative knowledge).  Given that Naomi and I are interested in shared elements in the narratives of Buddhist, Jain and Hindu traditions, it would seem remiss not to explore this rather interesting literary form. I hope to share a few examples of this type of narrative over the next few weeks and months, as well as my initial thoughts about them.

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