Last Friday, shortly before the start of the Spalding Symposium on Indian Religions, James and I hosted a roundtable discussion on the themes of our project. Jonathan Geen (Western University, Ontario) and Brian Black (Lancaster University) were our invited speakers, and we were also joined by Spalding Symposium keynote speakers Stephen Berkwitz (Missouri State University) and Uma Chakravarti (Delhi), as well as Anja Pogacnik (Edinburgh), Sarah Shaw (Oxford), Elizabeth Harris (Liverpool Hope), Anna King (Winchester), Jessie Pons (Bochum), Margo Guagni (Venice), Hephzibah Israel (Edinburgh) and Dermot Killingley (Newcastle). The discussion was very lively and thought-provoking, and helped us to reflect upon the aims and themes of our project as we move towards its final stages.
After a brief introduction to the project from James and myself, including an overview of the shape of our proposed project monograph, Brian got us started with some reflections on questions we had circulated in advance, which can be read here: Spalding Roundtable 2015
Brian began by commenting on the question of what we mean by a literary character, drawing attention to the article he and Jonathan wrote on this very subject (for a Journal of the American Academy of Religion special issue, 79/1, 2011). He reinforced the importance of studying characters not as means to access historical people, but as literary characters that may obey some sort of narrative logic, who perhaps carry certain consistent associations in different contexts, or demonstrate particular teachings through their lifestory. At the same time, he highlighted the limitations of a solely literary approach, and underscored the value of character-analysis as a tool for doing comparative work across religious traditions.
On the subject of role, Brian noted his own interest in the ways in which a character’s gender, caste, religion, etc, tends to result in the character having a generic role that shapes what they talk about or do. For example, some of his work on the Mahābhārata has suggested that when a woman and a man have a conversation in that text, they tend to talk about gender. In other words, role informs content.
Moving onto genre, Brian noted the pros and cons of both emic and etic genre labels, and highlighted the importance of taking smaller-scale genres – which might be better labelled ‘forms’ – into account, for example, the dialogic form. He helpfully noted that the key criteria for using a label should be whether or not it opens up our study, rather than shutting it off. In conclusion, Brian noted the problems of trying to access the history of a given narrative, and the need to move away from questions of textual chronology onto more fruitful study.
Jonathan Geen then spoke about his perspective on comparing narrative elements across traditions, which results from many years studying the Jain and Hindu versions of the Mahābhārata story, albeit largely with a focus on a later period than our own project (which, as he pointed out, misses out some of the best Jain narrative literature!). He spoke of the lightbulb moments that occurred when he began to unpick the mysteries of the Purāṇas by reading Jain literature, and of how this led him to see the value in comparing the two sets of mythology. He highlighted the basic principle of comparative work, namely that the many similarities mean that where there are differences these are very revealing. Thus the literature of one tradition can be better understood by comparing it with another.
Moving onto a specific example, Jonathan talked about his own work on medieval Jain Pāṇḍava stories, which exhibit a lot of connections with the better-known Hindu versions. As a result, they have to be read with the Hindu epic in mind, as they are both products of the same literary milieu. Although a literary comparison is itself useful, Jonathan highlighted the occasional possibilities of seeing historical context through the patterns of the literature. For example, he suggested that the sudden rise in Jain interest in Pāṇḍava stories in the 13th and 14th centuries should probably be linked to contemporary historical events, particularly the restoration projects at the important Jain pilgrimage site of Shatrunjaya.
Discussion was then opened up to all those present, with a number of recurrent themes coming up, including: the extent to which it is possible to infer history from story; the possibility of stories carrying more than one meaning, and the need therefore for sophisticated scholarly analysis; the similar sorts of tensions, for example between king and renouncer, that tend to be found across all three traditions; the different types of interactions, from polemical to inclusive, that can be found in the narratives and in the ways traditions engage with each other; the difficulties in accessing Jain resources, which are largely understudied; the need for collaborative work in order to study all three traditions in proper depth; the problematic tendency to see Buddhism and Jainism through Brahmanical lenses; and questions of hermeneutics.
I would like to thank all those present, but especially Jonathan and Brian, for giving us such a stimulating discussion. We will be continuing to reflect on the comments for some time to come.