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.

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