Monthly Archives: November 2015

Revisiting the notion of orality

by Naomi

At the Work-In-Progress seminar of the Asian Religions Network last Friday I talked through some of my conclusions from the book, and Joachim Gentz very astutely put his finger on an important area that I was not giving due consideration, namely the oral culture in which many of my stories and characters were circulating.

The trouble with pondering orality is that we don’t really know when texts that were composed orally were written down, and it seems likely that many texts (including narrative ones) continued to be transmitted in written and oral forms simultaneously. Written compositions also sometimes deliberately emulate features of an oral composition. As a result, I have tended towards the position that the distinction between oral text and written text is not so relevant to my work. And when I talk about texts, I do not mean to imply that they are necessarily written.

However, as well as talking about texts, I have been talking about narratives, and about the characters that feature in those narratives. In particular, I have been exploring how (and when and why) characters have ended up in multiple narrative traditions. As such, an oral storytelling context, in which tales exist in a reasonably fluid form, composed of events and characters and motifs but varying with each retelling, is very relevant to my research.

The process by which oral story traditions became crystallised into what we might call “literature” or perhaps more simply “texts”, is elusive from this historical distance, but nonetheless rather crucial to my project. A. K. Ramanujan’s oft-quoted comment on the Rāma traditions springs to mind:

These various texts not only relate to prior texts directly, to borrow or refute, but they relate to each other through this common code or common pool. Every author … dips into it and brings out a new crystallization, a new text with a unique texture and a fresh context. (“Three Hundred Rāmāyaṇas,” in Paula Richman, ed. Many Rāmāyaṇas, 46. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991.)

This process of crystallisation, when stories about common characters were fixed in texts or works of literature (oral or written), marks an important watershed in the development of distinct bodies of religious narrative during the period I am researching. And a representation of a character that comes from the common story pot will be of a different kind to one that deliberately responds to a rival literary tradition.

An example may help to illustrate what I mean. My research suggests that at the time the earliest jātakas were composed, the Mahābhārata did not exist as a work of literature, though some of its characters and events – for example Draupadī and her five husbands, Kṛṣṇa and his brother(s), and Vyāsa the noted sage – were widely known. Although it includes these familiar characters, jātaka literature does not try to present a rival version of the epic, and neither does early Jain narrative, though this too contains stories about, for example, Draupadī. In contrast, the later Jain Universal History narratives do present fully formed rival narratives of the epics, whch clearly respond to an existing literary tradition.

So it seems to me that although the distinction between oral text and written text is not so important to my work, the distinction between fluid oral story traditions and works of literature or texts is vital. I will need to give this area a lot more thought.


by Naomi

I have finished a first draft of all the book chapters for my project monograph, and so it is time to revisit some of the bigger questions and context, review my material, and make a start on a conclusion. In an excellent piece of good timing, I have spent the week in Cardiff meeting with James and discussing our project themes and questions at length.

I must say, it is gratifying to see that exploring this narrative material really has helped us to better understand the early history of Indian religions, and the ways in which they interacted during their formative periods. Here are a few snippets of what I am able to conclude after my study of shared characters:

There is evidence of borrowing and responding in all directions, and also of all three traditions responding to earlier Vedic narrative. It is not simply a case of Buddhist and Jain traditions responding to prior “Hindu” traditions, as scholarship has tended to assume. As such, it has become important for me to review my terminology, as I have not always been very clear in my use of ‘Brahmanism’, often implying unintentionally that Brahmanism is chronologically prior to Buddhism and Jainism. In the redraft I am going to be careful to distinguish between Vedic traditions, which of course pre-date Jain and Buddhist traditions and emerge from a different region, and Brahmanical compositions such as the Epics and dharma texts, which were composed after the advent of Jain and Buddhist traditions, and in awareness of rival ideas, narratives and groups.

We can see evidence of specific historical moments of interaction that resulted in narrative sharing. For example the god Brahmā, as Greg Bailey pointed out long ago, is preserved in the earliest Buddhist texts in a manner that suggests he was a significant deity in and around the early heartland of Buddhism. This is supported by archaeological evidence, as well as by textual evidence of an early enthusiasm for Brahmā that was later eclipsed by devotion to Viṣṇu and Śiva. The absence of Brahmā(s) in later Buddhist narrative, as well as in Jain narrative, reinforces this argument. In contrast, Viṣṇu and Kṛṣṇa hardly found a home in early Buddhist narrative traditions, though they were thoroughly incorporated into Jain stories, hinting at another node of close interaction between two of the three traditions. There are several other examples in the book too.

Jain and Buddhist traditions cannot be grouped together in terms of their responses to rival traditions or to Vedic cultures. Although they share much in common, these two north-eastern traditions also have very distinct histories, with Jain tradition prior to Buddhist tradition, but early Buddhist scriptures appearing to be earlier than early Jain scriptures, as well as from a different region. As such they speak to different social conditions and different moments of inter-religious interaction. With different ideological positions on key areas such as karma, they also respond in varied ways to rival ideologies. There is ample evidence of this in their narrative materials.

Textual chronologies can be assisted by studying narrative interactions. Although contributing to textual history was not a major aim of my work, it is interesting to see that, for example, several specific examples of narrative sharing suggest that the Rāmāyaṇa is prior to certain early Buddhist texts, and prior to the Mahābhārata. My contribution to the large debate over textual chronologies will be modest, but hopefully helpful nonetheless.

There are lots of different types of narrative sharing! This is rather obvious really, but I am starting to try to tease out all the different types, such as the inclusion of characters that belong to a common narrative heritage, the absorption of a new character who offers no challenge to orthodoxy, or who offers some challenge that can be neutralised through adjustments, or the use of a character or motif from a rival tradition as a means of polemic or satire or parody.

There are significant key themes that cut across all three traditions. Again, this is no surprise, but nonetheless important to explore. In particular, shared characters speak to that central tension between worldly responsibility and the need to renounce, and narrative motifs such as familial attachment and the grief of separation are used to interesting (and varied) effect in all three traditions, reflecting different attitudes to the tension. In addition, the use of divine characters allows each tradition to explore what we might call rival theologies, or rival understandings of cosmology and cosmo-history.

This is just a little taster of some of the areas that are going to feature in my conclusion, and that are going to inform my redrafting process. The final book is a still a little way off, but the process of tying together the research I have done over the past few years is proving very enjoyable!