Category Archives: history

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!

Project Roundtable in Edinburgh

by Naomi

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.

What makes a story a ‘version’ of another story?

by Naomi

In this project we are mostly looking at shared narrative elements, such as characters and genres, rather than shared narratives themselves. However, the latter do feature as well, and in recent weeks I have been pondering what exactly makes a story a ‘version’ of another story, rather than a completely separate story in its own right.

Two things have prompted this musing. Firstly, I read the new Penguin Classics translation of Barlaam and Josaphat, which its subtitle declares to be ‘A Christian Tale of the Buddha’. I got a bit cross about this, as you can see in my posting on my personal blog, as it seems to me that while the Buddha’s lifestory and the hagiography of Saint Josaphat share a few narrative motifs, they are not at all versions of the same story. The Christians did not accidentally sanctify the Buddha, they simply made use of some interesting story elements found in his biography.

Why is the story of Josaphat not a ‘version’ of the Buddha’s lifestory? In my view, the main reason is that the narrative divergence is too high – there is far more original material than shared material, and the original material sends the story in a totally different direction to the Buddha’s lifestory. However, counter arguments might be formed using evidence that the composers were trying to create a version of an existing story, evidence including a shared name (Josaphat is traced back to Bodhisattva) as well as shared narrative elements.

The second prompt for this musing was the task of proof-reading some jātaka stories, for a translation, with Sarah Shaw, of the final ten jātakas of the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā, that will be published by Silkworm Press later in the year. When reading through the Vidhura-jātaka I was reminded again of a recent article that compares this story with Vidura’s role in the Mahābhārata (Klara Gönc Moačanin, ‘Epic vs. Buddhist Literature: The case of Vidhurapaṇḍitajātaka’, in Petteri Koskikallio (ed.) Parallels and Comparisons: Proceedings of the Fourth Dubrovnoik International Conference on the Sanskrit Epics and Purāṇas: 373- 98. Zagreb: Croation Academy of Sciences and Arts, 2009.). Moačanin suggests that the Vidhura-jātaka and the Mahābhārata dicing episode have a common source, since they share several features but also have their own variations. I find this argument unconvincing, in part because it assumes that poets and storytellers did not feel free to innovate, and thus that any original content must be drawn from some prior source that includes it. It is more likely, in my view, that the composers of the Vidhura-jātaka made free use of existing motifs and characters that they were aware of from the Mahābhārata (including a gambling king and his loyal honest steward), and added to this whatever innovations they wished (including mixing around with names and statuses, and adding a magical jewel that reflects the whole universe, a horse that can walk on water, and a demon who abducts the steward as a way of gaining his nāga bride).

If we accept my analysis, that the Vidhura-jātaka draws on existing motifs but is not limited by them, then does the Vidhura-jātaka contain a ‘version’ of the Mahābhārata dicing episode? Again, the narrative divergence suggests not, but the existence of common motifs and names suggests yes.

Perhaps, in the end, all we have here is an issue of terminology. We need a clear idea of what a ‘version’ of an existing story is, and how it differs from the creative use of common motifs and characters, and other forms of intertextuality. The oft-quoted words of the great A. K. Ramanujan are worth mentioning here, for although he wrote them of the Rāmāyaṇa we might usefully apply them more widely. He speaks of ‘a common pool of signifiers’:

‘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, if one may hazard a metaphor, dips into it and brings out a unique crystallization, a new text with a unique texture and a fresh context.’ (A.K. Ramanujan, ‘Three Hundred Rāmāyaṇas’, in Paula Richman, ed., Many Rāmāyaṇas (University of California Press 1991), p.46)

However, while Ramanujan’s explanation of how ‘versions’ of a story emerge is very pertinent, we must not lose sight of the innovation possible in telling stories more generally. Not all stories with common elements are versions of one another. Some may dip into several pools and combine the results; others may borrow from one text and invent new embellishments; yet others are completely new. The gambling king and his loyal steward Vidhura come from another text, but we need not seek a similar explanation for the origins of other aspects of the Vidhura-jātaka. Likewise, while the childhood experiences of an Indian prince who becomes a religious teacher may have their origins in a pool of Buddha-biography signifiers, the Barlaam and Josaphat story is an innovation far more than it is a ‘version’ of anything else.

My musings seem to have concluded that it is usually far more fruitful to talk about shared narrative elements than it is to talk about versions. And such shared elements, as this project is demonstrating, come in many different forms, with different explanations and contexts and lessons for the scholar.

Talking deities in Bristol

by Naomi

My work on gods as characters that are shared between Brahmanical Hindu, Jain and Buddhist narrative sources had another outing this week at Bristol University’s Religious Studies research seminar. I talked about five strategies that Buddhist and Jain traditions use when incorporating gods from wider Indian mythology, namely multiplication, making mortal, subordination, cleansing of problematic characteristics, and explanations for the origins of worship. Using Buddhist portrayals of Brahmā(s), Jain portrayals of Kṛṣṇa, and Buddhist and Jain approaches to Indra as examples, I argued that these five strategies are used by both traditions, though to different extents in different cases, in order to make the gods more understandable within a karmic paradigm, and to underscore the superiority of liberated teachers over divine beings. I further argued that such narrative strategies demonstrate that the gods were sufficiently important to early Jain and Buddhist communities that they had to be included, albeit in a modified way, and that the characterisation of gods in these “atheist” traditions therefore deserves to be properly studied.

As always, the discussion following my paper was very helpful, and I am grateful to the audience for their thoughts and questions. I am particularly grateful to those members of the audience who were not very convinced by my argument that multiplying the gods was a way to reduce their importance, and who therefore forced me to clarify my position. Other – more predictable – enquiries about the society of the time and the likely audiences for the texts and stories reminded me that such questions – however difficult they are to answer – need to be addressed in the work I am doing. During meetings this week, James and I have been getting to grips with the general introduction for our project monograph, so the question of what we can and cannot know about the early Indian context is very much at the forefront of my mind.

The post-paper conversation also touched on the difficult question of how we understand humour in early narrative sources. While trying to ascertain what would have been considered funny in a culture so far removed from our own is a tricky endeavour, it seems clear to me that some of the Buddhist and Jain stories about the gods only really work if the audience is aware of the gods’ associations and characters within Vedic and Brahmanical narrative, and that the storytellers are playing with these associations. And yes, I think some of the ways in which the Jain and Buddhist storytellers did this is very funny, and that is one of the reasons why I am finding this research so stimulating!

“Research-led teaching” and the perils of chronology

by Naomi

We have been neglecting this blog of late, as it has been a very busy semester. Apologies to all our readers! I have still been reading and writing alongside my teaching and admin duties, however, and I want to share with you a few thoughts about how this project has been making me think differently about my teaching, and vice versa.

This semester I have been teaching a course for first and second year students entitled “Religions of South Asia” (named in honour of the illustrious journal!) that explores early Indian religion from the Vedas through to devotional and philosophical schools of Hinduism, via early Jainism and Buddhism. Meanwhile, one of my main research tasks has been putting together parts of the general introduction for our project monograph, including an overview of the historical context for our project. There are therefore obvious synergies between my teaching and research in recent months.

One problem that I have been wrestling with in my class has been the order of presentation. Currenlty I begin with Vedic religion, move into Brahmanical ideas, including the emerging tension between householder duties and the new renouncer movements and associated ideas about karma and liberation, then talk about Jainism, then Buddhism, then back to Hinduism for the epics and Purāṇas and some philosophical and devotional movements. It holds together well enough, with its broadly chronological frame.

The problem comes when I talk about the origins of Jainism and Buddhism, and the relationship between these traditions and Brahmanical Hinduism. I try to stress the geographical setting for these new traditions in the northeast, and the possibility (as highlighted by Bronkhorst) of an independent cultural background responsible for new ideas, including karma and rebirth. However, because I have already talked about the Upaniṣads and the Brahmanical tension between householder and renouncer ideals, the natural assumption of the class – following also the main body of existing scholarship – is that Buddhism and Jainism emerged within a powerfully Brahmanical culture, reacting to ideas such dominant ideas as caste and ritual, and taking on karma and rebirth from the “Hindu” fold. The chronology of my presentation creates an unintentional implication of a causal relationship.

If only I could move the class to another room to discuss Buddhism and Jainism, symbolic of the move from northwest to northeast! If only we had more time in the class to discuss the different theories and arguments about the relationship between Brahmanic and Shramanic. If only we could move to a purely thematic approach, drawing on all the traditions in a discussion of key ideas and concepts, without causing total confusion for the students who are new to the whole scene.

On the understanding that none of these is possible, I am looking at ways to change the order in which we move through the topics in order to anticipate – and prevent or at least raise questions about – these assumptions.

The same challenges are there in the writing of the project monograph introduction. Like introductory courses, introductory chapters are trying to do too much – to survey in a broad and authoritative manner, yet also to acknowledge diversity of scholarship and highlight areas where understanding is weak. Something as simple as the order of presentation can instill in the reader a sense of chronology or of hierarchy, which may not be intended by the author. And while students provide constant feedback to the lecturer, and communicate their level of understanding through class discussions and assessments, we cannot always anticipate what our readers will take away from our writing.

I am not finished with either challenge yet, but I am enjoying both!

Nathan McGovern’s dissertation on Buddhists and Brahmans

by Naomi

I have just been reading Nathan McGovern’s 2013 doctoral dissertation (submitted to the University of California Santa Barbara) ‘Buddhists, Brahmans, and Buddhist Brahmans: Negotiating Identities in Indian Antiquity’ and enjoying his novel approach to the whole question of the relationship between Buddhism and what I tend to call Brahmanical Hinduism (for want of a better term). This reading is part of my current work drafting up sections of the introduction to our project monograph, work that has taken me back to Bronkhorst and Gombrich as well as into new scholarship.

McGovern’s dissertation is seriously long, and contains several self-contained sections on such topics as the relationship between the Nikayas and Agamas, the oral transmission of early Buddhist texts (including the application of Parry-Lord Oral Theory), and the history of ‘encounter dialogues’ between the Buddha and brahmins. For me, however, the most interesting aspect was the way in which McGovern tries to reconcile Bronkhorst’s Greater Magadha theory with the pervasive presence of Brahmanical themes and terms in early Buddhist texts.

In brief, McGovern broadly accepts Bronkhorst’s theory that Buddhism arose in a non-Brahmanicised area and from a distinctive Greater Magadhan culture, and he broadly rejects the theory that Buddhism arose in reaction to a dominant Brahmanical culture. (His review of the scholarship on both sides of this debate makes interesting reading in itself.) However, he is not fully convinced that core ideas about karma, ātman and saṃsāra necessarily emerged out of Greater Magadhan culture, and in particular, he argues that the widespread presence of brahmins and Brahmanical terms and ideas in Buddhist texs cannot be readily explained if we assume that Buddhism emerged without Brahmanical influence. Thus he argues for a new model, in which we assume that there was a common set of terms and ideas in circulation, which were drawn upon by the different religious groups of the day. These later became more rigid as competition between groups increased.

A key example, for McGovern, is the term brāhmaṇa itself, which he argues did not always refer to what we now label brahmins (or Brahmans, in McGovern’s preferred usage) as a distinct social group defined by birth or Vedic learning. Rather, it was a general honorific used, like others such as muni, by a variety of religious groups, including Buddhists, who used it to describe the ideal person. Only later, as “new Brahmanism” (using Bronkhorst’s terminology, as McGovern does) rose in power and influence in the areas in which Buddhist groups were developing, did the Buddhist authors cede use of the term to their opponents, and reframe their perspective on brahmins in polemical terms.

Perhaps McGovern’s overall thesis is best summed up in his own words (from his conclusion on p.632):

I argue that these sectarian traditions [Buddhism and Brahmanism] cannot be understood as essentialized, metahistorical agents, such that one could arise purely in “reaction” to another. Rather, they must be understood as fluid, constantly interacting entities that emerged out of a common substratum and only coalesced as discernable sects through a long process of identity-formation, wherein terms such as “Brahman” were hotly contested between different groups – in this case, the early Buddhists and the proponents of the new Brahmanism.

I hope that McGovern will find a suitable avenue for the publication of his work, which makes a real contribution to an important debate about how we understand the interaction between Buddhist and Brahmanical groups during their formative periods.