Monthly Archives: April 2016

Symposium on Indian Religious Narrative

by Naomi

Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending the Spalding Symposium on Indian Religions, which was held at St Michael’s College, Llandaff, and warmly and efficiently hosted by Drs Simon Brodbeck and James Hegarty. The theme was “narrative” and so I enjoyed a packed weekend of papers on everything from Buddha-biographies to vetāla stories, punctuated by wonderful conversations with colleagues from around the world with a common interest in South Asian narrative.

James and I have been lucky enough to have had some hand in shaping the themes of the last two Symposia in line with our own interests. The 2015 theme was “dialogue”, which, along with “narrative”, forms one of the key terms of this research project. (I would say in our defence that in fact neither theme was initially suggested by us!) Both Symposia have offered rich opportunities to hear about research in allied areas, and to share our own perspectives and findings.

The Symposium this year had a lot of common themes, and discussion of these spilled out into coffee and meal breaks. One important area of discussion was the way in which we talk about genre, or how we use genre terms, whether indigenous or not. Several papers attempted to either define or characterise particular genres, such as purāṇa (in Elizabeth Rohlman’s paper), avadāna (in David Fiordalis’ contribution), or jātaka and udāna (in Eviatar Shulman’s paper). Definitions are often problematic, because they require something that is a “defining feature”, that is to say something that sets the genre apart from other genres. However, genres by nature appear to be quite fluid and difficult to pin down. (Indeed, I had a little Buddhist moment when I commented that a genre is a process and not a thing. More on that another time, perhaps.) An approach that seeks to characterise or exemplify a genre, rather than define it from the outside in, was helpfully advocated by Rohlman.

Another key theme was the way in which narrative and doctrine inter-relate. Important uses of stories include exemplifying teachings and glorifying teachers or other heroes. However, papers also drew attention to the ways in which stories can inform or shape doctrine, or the ways in which popular stories or characters may have to be accounted for within particular paradigms. Narrative “gaps” or “slippages” often highlight the areas that require further investigation (although, as we heard, such investigations can get one into trouble).

Related to the questions surrounding the relationship between narrative and doctrine is an even broader set of questions about the role of narrative in religious history. As the papers demonstrated, stories can be used in varied ways: as narrative frames for teachings; as forms of teaching; as conversion aids; as ways of expressing identities or boundaries; and as means of providing competing accounts of significant times, events or people. The special features of narrative, including an ability to draw audiences into new worlds, allow for these varied uses. And in addition to all this, stories are also entertaining, as Adheesh Sathaye reminded us in his discussion of Śivadāsa’s Vetālapañcaviṃśati.

My head has been buzzing since the weekend with all the interesting papers and conversations. As the semester winds down and I turn my attention back to my book, I will enjoy seeing my work within this larger picture. Many thanks to everyone who attended and made the Symposium such a wonderfully stimulating event!

Is a picture worth a thousand words?

by Naomi

I am busy putting the final touches to my book, and one of the remaining tasks is selecting images to include. The publisher says I can have up to 21 images, black and white, inside the book, plus I would like something quite striking for the cover.

It is the first time I have included images in a monograph. I have so far learnt three important lessons that no doubt you all knew already:

  1. It is easily possible to lose a whole day searching for suitable images. There are endless options, and also many long and winding paths to dead-ends.
  2. Although open access and creative commons licensing is gaining traction online, using images in publications is still very expensive because they are considered commercial activities, even in the case of research monographs.
  3. Lots of images look really rubbish in black and white!

So, the questions arise: How important is this image? Is this picture really worth a thousand words? Or is it mere decoration, and thus an unnecessary waste of time and money?

Of course the answers are different in each case. Few aspects of my monograph speak directly to the artistic record, but in those few instances an image really would be good. In other cases it can be a helpful illustration of a narrative or related argument. Here are some examples:


Bimaran Reliquary. Image © Trustees of the British Museum. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

One of the themes of my research has been the role of gods as characters in early Indian narrative, in particular how key named gods are included in the stories preserved in early Buddhist and Jain texts. Indra and Brahmā have been particularly central to my research, and so one of the images I feel helps to illustrate my work is that of the Buddha flanked by these two gods. The Bimaran reliquary, from the Gandharan region and dating to around the first century, is a particularly impressive example. It is held in the British Museum and the image is © Trustees of the British Museum but available for non-commercial use under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.

Nami and Indra

Indra tests King Nami. British Library MS Or. 13362. Image copyright: CCO 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

The fantastic Jainpedia website ( has a wealth of Jain manuscript images, including several illustrating narratives key to my research. Keeping on the theme of Indra, I particularly enjoy this image of an important motif associated with this god: his tendency to test human resolve. This motif is present across all three traditions, as I have discussed in previous blog posts. Here he is testing King Nami, who is the Jain equivalent of King Janaka in the Buddhist tradition, and who has also featured prominently in my research for this project. The image comes from British Library MS Or. 13362 (folio 27v), which is a fifteenth-century copy of the Uttarādhyayana Sūtra.Unfortunately this does not look great in black and white, and in any case the library does not have a high resolution copy of the image.

These are just two examples of the many images I have been exploring. Others include: pictures of multiple buddhas and jinas and the avataras of Vishnu, to go alongside my research into repeated patterns of heroic figures in the mythological past; illustrations of the magical dreams experienced by the mothers of jinas and buddhas; images of the many stories of King Janaka, the famous renouncing royal of Videha.

Of course the easiest and most affordable way to include images is to get them not from libraries and museums, but from colleagues. James has already very kindly supplied me with his collection of photographs. If any of you reading this think to youself, “Oh, I have a great picture of King Janaka/Indra/other,” then I’d be delighted to hear from you! Meanwhile I’d better get on with the more important task of editing the Introduction…