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!

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