Dialogue in Early South Asian Religions

by Naomi

I have just finished reading Brian Black and Laurie Patton’s edited volume, Dialogue in Early South Asian Religions: Hindu, Buddhist and Jain Traditions (Ashgate, 2015). I had read parts of it before (including my own chapter of course!), but to sit and digest it cover to cover was a real delight. Here are eleven essays, ranging broadly in terms of sources, but all speaking directly to the theme of dialogue, and all fascinating in their approach to exploring that theme.

The essays are divided broadly into three sections. Part 1, ‘Dialogues Inside and Outside the Texts’, looks at how dialogue within texts can suggest audiences and means of transmission, and contains four chapters on different textual traditions: Vedas (Patton), Epics (Hiltebeitel), Jain scriptural and narrative traditions (Esposito) and Buddhist jātakas (Appleton). Part 2, ‘Texts in Dialogue’, explores how texts are in dialogue with other texts within a tradition, such as how Mahāyāna texts use dialogic settings familiar from earlier Buddhist texts (Osto), or Purāṇic texts use dialogue to establish their ‘theological heritage’ (Rohlman) or how dialogically framed texts such as Gītās, polemics and doxographies challenge scholarly definitions of philosophy (Nicholson).

It is Part 3, ‘Moving Between Traditions’, that has most resonance for our current project, however, since the four essays it contains use dialogues as a means of understanding the relationships between different religious traditions. Michael Nichols kicks off with an exploration of dialogues in the Nikāyas that feature the Buddha and either brahmins, Jains or gods. He shows that the subject of discussion differs for each category of dialogue partner, and reveals something important about the Buddhist attitude to the different social groups. Jonathan Geen follows this with a look at how Jain dialogues in which a son persuades his parents of his need to renounce immediately despite his young age compare with some Hindu counterparts. Lisa Wessman Crothers then reads the often non-verbal dialogical exchanges between king and minister in the Mahā-Ummagga Jātaka alongside the Ārthaśāstra, in a discussion of deception and trust in royal relationships. Brian Black ends the volume with an exploration of three dialogues in Buddhist and Hindu texts that demonstrate dialogue’s ability to negotiate, transcend, and accommodate difference.

These essays resonate with our current project for a few different reasons. For a start, dialogue is clearly a shared generic form, used by all three traditions in a variety of intersecting ways, often in narrative contexts. In addition, literary dialogues are often used to explore encounters with various “others”, including members of rival religious groups, and so they can reveal something of mutual perceptions and inter-religious relationships.

The shared use of the dialogic form is something that James has become very interested in, as some of his posts here have suggested. For myself, it is dialogue more broadly conceived, such as the dialogue that occurs between and within the religious traditions of early India, that interests me. Sometimes this inter-religious encounter is explored using literary dialogues, but other times other shared narrative features, such as common characters or character roles, are made use of for a similar purpose. It is characters (including character roles and lineages) that have become my focus during the course of this project.

The edited volume is published in Brian Black and Laurie Patton’s series Dialogues in South Asian Traditions: Religion, Philosophy, Literature and History, in which we hope to place our own project monographs. The series is testament to the rising interest both in the dialogic form, and in the dialogues that exist between the various worldviews of South Asia. It is one to watch!

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