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.

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