Some broader reflections on early South Asian Mytho-history

I have explored, over my last few blogs, some of the distinctive features of our three traditions’ differing approaches to the construction of the significant past (and anticipated future). The differences hinged on a the degree of emphasis placed on transmigration (emphasised in Buddhist and Jain materials) or genealogy and divine intervention (which loomed large in Brahminical tradition). What emerges are three distinct ‘cosmic dramas’ that are distinguished by differing metaphysics, and models of, and for, human behaviour (I take the phrase ‘cosmic drama’ from Carl Becker’s 1932 essay on systems of thought in pre-modern and early modern Europe – The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers). These ‘dramas’ are based on the insights of two humans – the Buddha and the Jina – and one – decidedly non-material – textual agent of revelation, the Vedas. The human agents, the Buddha and the Jina, have no role as creator (as you may recall, the Buddhavaṃsa assumed that the Vedas were perennial, or at least very old indeed). Their status is based on their insight into the true nature of being, which in turn allows them to narrate – and, crucially, correctly interpret – the history of the cosmos, which in all three cases – at least by the period just before the beginning of the common era – is handily peppered with the recurrent emergence of parallel agents of insight – viz. buddhas or tīrthaṅkaras – or parallel agents of creation – viz. the Vedas and, more often than not, the divine catalyst Brahmā (whose role will, in due course be usurped by other deities). To this are added, in Brahminical tradition, developing ideas of the avatāra.
The Vedas are conceived to be constitutive of the cosmos and to offer insight into the true nature of being (although even as they are aggrandised in the Mahābhārata, they are also sometimes delimited in their significance: Kṛṣṇa, after all, in the Bhagavad Gītā, says that the proper subject of the Vedas are the three constitutive qualities of existence (the guṇas), and then immediately admonishes Arjuna to ‘be not the three guṇas’). They are, of course, combined with a variety of theisms in later tradition, in which the relationship between Veda, the Absolute and a Personal God are variously interpreted. In short, at a high level of abstraction, I have focussed on theoretical differences between the three traditions as they are expressed in narrative sources as they are played out in the construction of overarching chronologies of being, and of the presence or absence of religious knowledge. My attempt to ‘earth’ these analyses, by means of a very brief characterisation of certain ideological developments on the epigraphic record was little more than a reception historical ‘band aid’ (and one which disproportionately favours elite self-presentation). To balance my analyses more successfully, there must be a consideration of similarities, influences and the relationship between theory and practice (both in terms of clearly demarcated ritual activities and the more general social context of our three ‘cosmic dramas’). This research, upon which I am already embarked, will consider the differing rates of absorption and creative integration of religious ideas in both explicitly didactic and narrative literature. It appears, for example, that the Dharmaśāstra literature is more able to absorb transmigratory ethics than narrative sources are in immediately post-Vedic Brahminical sources (from the Bṛhaddevatā to the Epics). On the other hand, the Buddhist sources exhibit an uneasy relationship with the possibility of posthumous ritual intervention on behalf of one’s ancestors. I am still searching the Jain material for signs, should there be any, of parallel concerns. Here narratives of heaven, hell and of various ghostly forms will, I suspect, be very important, as they recur across all three traditions (something I will address in a blog entry soon).
In this regard, it is important not to assume that differences in religious philosophy necessitated radical forms of social separation amongst religious groups. The fact that ‘monastery’, ‘hermitage’ and ‘court’, not to mention ‘village’, ‘city’ and ’empire’, are as much scholarly tropes as well-understood historical phenomena does not help matters (and we have not even got that far in imagining the audiences entailed by these imaginary contexts!). Harjot Oberoi’s classic study of pre-colonial Pañjāb (The Construction of Religious Boundaries) with its evocation of a world in which one might be a member of the Sikh panth, but employ Brahmins for important life-cycle rituals and visit Hindu and Muslim holy places for the purposes of enhancing fertility or removing disease, for example, while not, of course, directly applicable, should at least sensitize us to the potential complexity of the situation ‘on the ground’ in early South Asia. It is also the case that we face real difficulties, which have dogged Classical Indology, in establishing when we should read our narrative sources as reflective of concrete social situations and practices and when their generic form means that we should not (for a parallel in western literary history try reading late eighteenth century or early nineteenth century ‘pastoral’ as unproblematically reflective of social realia – arcadia was evoked precisely because of a diametrically opposed situation on the ground, of course: that of the industrial revolution. The paucity of the historical record in early South Asia means that the (textual) cart is not just placed before the horse, it is forced to lead it.


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