Category Archives: reviews of scholarship

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!


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!

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.

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.

Early Buddhist Transmission and Trade

by Naomi

Since we decided to narrow down our key time period to 5th c BCE – 5th c. CE (see James’ post in the summer) I have been attempting to educate myself further about this period of South Asian history in general. I know a fair amount about the texts already, but tying these to material evidence such as inscriptions and images has tended to be outside my area of expertise. As part of my mission to embrace the material evidence for early South Asian history, I have just read Jason Neelis’ book Early Buddhist Transmission and Trade Networks (Brill, 2011).

The book is seriously dense, drawing together a multitude of data from primary and secondary sources. The focus is upon trade routes that provide evidence for the presence and movement of Buddhism, and the author is particularly interested in the Northwestern borderlands surrounding Gandhara. However, the education provided by this book is far broader. In particular, chapter 2, ‘Historical Contexts for the Emergence and Transmission of Buddhism within South Asia’, provides a lengthy (116 pages) and detailed overview of South Asian history throughout our own period of interest and a little further on into the late first millennium.

Reading this book was an enriching experience, but with my poor memory for names and dates I can’t imagine I will remember very much more than the broadest overview. Its real value – at least for my purposes – is as a reference tool, bringing together the latest research and supplementing the written summaries with maps, tables and images. Unfortunately the prohibitive price of Brill books means this particular reference tool will not be able to live on my shelves, but will have to be taken back to the university library. Nonetheless I am sure I will be returning to it again and again.

Divinity in Jainism

My attention has turned to the characterization of the gods in Jainism. Alongside working my way through the key primary sources, I have been trying to locate any secondary works that deal with the nature of the gods in Jain traditions, but this search has merely served to highlight a general reluctance to acknowledge the existence of the gods at all. On a recent trip to Oxford I ordered up two books –  Harisatya Bhattacharyya’s Divinity in Jainism (Madras 1925) and P. Ajay Kothari’s The Concept of Divinity in Jainism (Jaipur 2000) – and on my return to Edinburgh I tracked down Robert J. Zydenbos’ pamphlet The Concept of Divinity in Jainism (the 1992 Roop Lal Jain Lecture, published by the University of Toronto Centre for South Asian Studies in 1993). So what did I learn from these three works with almost identical titles?

Bhattacharyya’s work is one of comparative theology, trying to read a notion of divinity into the Jain concept of a perfected soul. It is clearly an attempt to find a notion of God comparable to the Christian one. The book contains nothing at all about the gods (devas).

Kothari’s book also spends a lot of time on the idea of the perfected soul as a god, and thus the potential of all humans to become gods, an idea he also finds in Buddhism. Thus while Chapter 2 ‘The Concept of Divinity in Hinduism’ is about Vedic and Upanishadic gods, Chapter 3 ‘The Concept of Divinity in Buddhism’ is about buddhahood and nirvana as a form of divinity and the Buddha’s rejection of the notion of an all-powerful creator god. There is a very short discussion of the devas in a section entitled ‘Celestial beings (non-divine beings)’. The Buddha is lauded as the supreme deity. In Chapters 4 and 5, on the Jain concept of divinity, Kothari does give some attention to the different types of deity, but once again the focus is on moksha as the supreme divinity and the role of karma in impeding divinity.

Zydenbos’ lecture immediately acknowledges this bias towards finding a notion of divinity in Jainism that allows it to make comparisons with (and even claims to superiority over) Christian notions of God. He also acknowledges the fact that many Westerners assume there are no gods in Jainism, yet in India Jains are commonly found worshipping gods as much as (and often the same gods as) their Hindu neighbours. Against this backdrop Zydenbos makes a number of useful observations about the role of various deities, including the yakṣas and yakṣīs that become the attendant deities of the jinas (several of which are shared with the Hindu pantheon).

There is obviously more to be done to explore the role of the deities in general – and of specific named deities – in the Jain traditions. My next stop will be J.P. Sharma’s Jaina Yakshas (Meerut 1989), which I hope will help shed a little more light on these important deities. Meanwhile onwards with the Bhagavatī Sūtra, which is revealing some interesting material on Indra (Sakka)…


Sohnen-Thieme on Indra

by Naomi

I have just been reading two articles on Indra by Renate Söhnen-Thieme: ‘Indra and Women’, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 54/1 (1991): 68-74, and ‘Indra in the Harivaṃśa’ in Robert P. Goldman and Muneo Tokunaga (eds) Epic Undertakings. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2009, pp. 335-369. I have yet to read her ‘Rise and decline of the Indra religion in the Veda.’ (in Witzel, M, (ed.), Inside the texts – beyond the texts. New Approaches to the study of the Vedas) but hope to access this on my next trip to a research library.

I very much enjoyed Söhnen-Thieme’s clear and concise writing, as well as her ability to move between traditions with ease. Her work made me think again about two aspects of Indra’s characterization:

1. Indra as replaceable: Söhnen-Thieme highlighted several more stories in the Harivaṃśa that show Indra as replaceable (relating to Skanda, Nahuṣa and King Raji) and offered some interesting discussion about the relevance of Indra being both name and position, and therefore lending himself to stories of challenge and usurpation. This nicely complemented my previous observations on stories from the Mahābhārata and Buddhist Jātakas.

2. Indra as womanizer: I had often wondered why Indra/Sakka/Śakra doesn’t appear to seduce women in Buddhist texts despite his reputation as a womanizer in Brahmanical texts, and despite his seduction of Ahalyā being known in Buddhist texts. Söhnen-Thieme actually argues that Indra’s reputation is largely ill-deserved – he actually blesses marriages and makes them fruitful, and only once succeeds in seducing a human woman. So it would seem that the contrast between Vedic/Brahmanical and Buddhist characterizations is not so strong after all.

Another thought-provoking aspect of Söhnen-Thieme’s work was her discussion of the ways in which Viṣṇu (=Kṛṣṇa) begins to usurp the position of Indra in the Harivaṃśa, despite being his younger brother. It strikes me as rather interesting that the two main gods in Buddhism – Indra and Brahmā – both lose popularity in Brahmanical and later Hinduism, even as they are preserved and elevated within Buddhist texts.