Tag Archives: history

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.

Some musings on genre

by Naomi

One of the shared elements that we are exploring in this project is genre, both in terms of emic categories (eg jātaka, purāṇa) and etic ones (eg epic, biography). However, thus far, this element has tended to remain in the background of our studies of shared characters and roles. Recent presentations at Edinburgh’s Religious Studies research seminar have got me thinking again about how important the notion of genre is in our studies of religious narrative.

Brian Black’s paper last month, ‘Subverting Dharma? Dialogues with Women in the Mahābhārata‘, highlighted some important features of the dialogic form in the Mahābhārata; dialogue as a micro-genre is one area that James has been exploring in his study of the conversations of kings and sages. More recently, Hephzibah Israel’s paper ‘Translating the Sacred in Colonial South India’ explored the role of genre in the translation choices of missionaries in South India. Specifically, she discussed how the Tamil poetic form, associated in South India with religion, truth and beauty, was rejected by Protestants, who believed that plain prose was more conducive to the Truth. The Tamil prose Bible was the result, though there were also various other Christian attempts to translate the Gospel into Tamil verse epic remeniscent of, for example, Kampan’s Rāmāyaṇa.

The Protestant association of prose with rationality and truth, and poetry or literature with fiction, has affected my own area of scholarship too. As I argued in my 2010 book, early scholars were too affected by their own generic assumptions when assessing the value of jātaka stories. Identified as “folklore”, “fable” and “fairy tale”, jātakas were dismissed as fictitious stories of little religious value, quite the reverse of how Buddhist communities themselves perceived the genre.

Such considerations are relevant when looking at attitudes towards “other people’s stories” within early India too. One area that I am increasingly interested in is the relationship between the great Pāli jātaka book and the Mahābhārata. Scholars have already noted many parallel stories, characters and motifs. But what about genre? A jātaka has a particular generic form, distinctive to Buddhism (with even the closely related tradition of Jainism rejecting the genre). And yet I wonder, might it help to see the jātaka collection as in some way a parallel tradition to the Mahābhārata itself, an epic of impressive proportions and with a similar tendency towards including all stories? I have not yet looked into this enough to know if such an analysis is really possible or fruitful, but I do think that we open up new windows on the narrative traditions of early India by asking how genre is defined, understood, moulded, translated, transformed and rejected.

“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!

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.

Recognizing our Limits: c. 500 BCE to c. 550 CE as our period of enquiry

In a recent meeting, Naomi and I gave some consideration to our sources. In particular, we have been looking for ways to delimit the period within which we will focus our inquiries. In so doing, we hope to reduce both the number of textual sources that we will have to survey and make it easier to cross-reference those sources, where possible, with material culture (including epigraphic materials, by which I refer to writing that has been inscribed on stone, clay, metal or wooden items). We decided, to this end, that we would come up with both a historical starting point and a finishing point (or as scholars like to call them a terminus post and a terminus ante quem).

We started with our point of departure. Our thinking is, we hope, based on common sense; in order for us to engage in comparative inquires, it must be possible that Brahminical Hindus, Buddhist and Jains were in contact with one another. This makes the approximate date of origin of the youngest of the three traditions our logical starting point (in fact, given that religious traditions take a little time to become established and to socially and textually consolidate themselves, we are in all probability looking to a date somewhat after the ‘beginning’). Buddhism is the youngest of our three traditions (in scholarly terms, though all three traditions view themselves as belonging to an endless past in their respective cosmo-histories). The Buddha is thought by scholars to have lived from c.563 BCE- c.483 BCE. The Jains are contemporaries of the Buddhists, but are considered, both in traditional and scholarly terms, to slightly predate them; Mahāvīra is thought to have lived between c.597 and 522 BCE.   Given that we are not concerned with the precise moment of the  ‘foundation’ of Buddhism or Jainism (and acknowledge only the heuristic value of these, and other, ‘isms’) and are instead concerned with the point at which they became sufficiently consolidated both to absorb cultural influences and to influence others (the latter more than likely occurring after the former), we may take our historical starting point to be around 500 BCE (and more than likely somewhat later than this). This also means we do not have to place undue emphasis on such long-standing emic and etic controversies as the gap between the mahāparinirvāṇa of the Buddha and  the coronation of Aśoka Maurya (369-232 BCE), the great emperor of the majority of South Asia, who was inclined to Buddhism.

If we take this date as our historical starting point, we thus find ourselves with a South Asia that contains a wide variety of tribal communities and which features varied internal, and external, trade roots and fairly well-developed urban settlements (from Taxila in Peshawar in the North West to Kodumanal in Chera country in the South).  By the mid-third century BCE, we also have our first evidence of an indisputably literate South Asia in the form of the emperor Aśoka’s pillar and rock edicts. More than this, we have evidence of a degree of awareness of issues surrounding religious texts and authority in the form of the Bairat (Bhabru) stone inscription, in which Aśoka provides a list of his preferred sources of Buddhist tradition (none of which can be tied with any certainty to extant Buddhist sources).

As well as developments in literacy, by the second century BCE, we begin to find substantial art historical bodies of evidence, such as the ‘narrative’ art of the sanctuaries of Bharhut, Sañci and Bodhgaya. Both the development of writing and these developments in the art of sculpture and architecture suggest a complex pre-history. This makes our chronological starting point an exciting one.

While the beginning of our period of enquiry was fairly easy to establish (based on the idea that a three-way comparison requires all of the three things to be compared to be in existence). Its end point is much less easy to decide upon.  The problem is that Indian textual history is so difficult to order chronologically and that, even if one accepts a chronology, it is difficult – in the absence of much in the way of extant manuscripts for early South Asia – to pin any given chronology to historical ‘anchor points’. Much hangs on the inscriptional record (the language used in inscriptions, the works and people mentioned in them and their dates) and on the existence of commentaries (when a text explicitly mentions or is based upon another text, one at least has a relative chronology, i.e. you know that the ‘mentioner’ came after the ‘mentionee’, unless something very strange is going on). Important sects of the Buddhist and Jain tradition consider the C5th to have been pivotal in the development of their respective canons. For the Theravādins, the commentaries of Buddhaghoṣa (said to have lived in the C5th in Śri Laṅka) on a large part of the Pāli canon mark a watershed (and, for our purposes, help to delineate in detail the content of the canon). For the Śvetāmbara Jains, the council of Valabhī, also in the C5th, is said to be where a canon of 71 works were accepted (though that canon is decidedly non-identical to what is preserved to this day, as the Jains themselves acknowledge).  Brahminical literature presents itself as a series of commentaries and departures from earlier works from the period of the Brāhmaṇas, onwards, but the mid-part of the first millennium is considered to have been critical in the elaboration of new religious syntheses (particularly in the Purāṇa literature, which, even by Indian standards, is notoriously difficult to date; though we do find a list of eighteen major Purāṇas and also a list of minor Purāṇas in Al-Bīrūnī’s C10th Tarikh Al-Hind, which, while not fixing the content of these texts by any means, does at least confirm their importance by the close of the first millennium). The C6th marks the passing of a major, and distinctly Hindu focussed, imperial formation in Northern and Central India: that of the Guptas.  In the South, we have, in the same broad period, the emergence and consolidation of the Pallava dynasty, as well as the rule of the Kadambas (in what is now modern-day Karnataka) and the mysterious- and anti-Brahminical – Kalabhras – who vyed with the Pallavas (not to mention the somewhat reduced – from their historic heights – Pāṇḍyas, Cholas and Cheras).

I will explore our proposed historical end point in more detail: The Guptan emperor Budhagupta (c. 500 C.E.) leaves us some vocally Viṣṇu-focussed inscriptions (such as the one found on a pillar inscription in Eran, Madhya Pradesh). His reign does, however, find mention in Buddhist donative inscriptions (such as the one found on the pedestal of a Buddha image in Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh). Earlier Guptan monarchs are mentioned in Jain donative inscriptions (for example, the emperor Kumāragupta is mentioned in the dedication of a Jain image in Mathurā, which is dated to 432 C.E.). After the reign of Budhagupta, the Guptan empire began to fragment. This was a consequence of a combination of factors: struggles over the succession; rebellious feudatories (by which I refer to regional royal families who no longer wished to accept, or at least wished to renegotiate, the overlordship of the imperial Guptan dynasty); and the depredations of the Hūṇas, who were Central Asian tribal peoples. The Guptan heartlands were Magadha (which roughly coincides with that part of modern-day Bihar that is south of the Ganges). The first Magadhan land grant that does not mention the imperial Guptas dates to 551-2 C.E. (found in Gayā). While the dynasty seems to have persisted somewhat beyond this point, this is a convenient marker, if not a failsafe guarantee, of the effective end of the dynasty as a ruling power. A date around the middle of the sixth century is thus a convenient end point for our project’s activities because it precedes the political uncertainties, and complexities, of the fragmentation of the Gupta empire.

As well as the aforementioned developments in Brahminical ideology, the Guptan period is also associated with a wide variety of achievements in science, philosophy and literature (from the zero and heliocentric models of the solar system to that most famous manual of courtly life, amongst other things, the Kāmasūtra and the works of the great Sanskrit playwright, Kālidāsa). The period also includes the development of temple-based Hindu practice; perhaps the most striking early monument to this development is the Daśāvatāra temple in Deogarh, which was built c. 500 C.E. There are also considerable developments in Buddhist and Jain art and architecture.

The Guptas never conquered the deep south of the Indian subcontinent. The South of India, around 550 C.E. was largely under the control of the Pallava dynasty (to whom, by the C6th, the Kadambas were subordinates). Our period of interest takes us to the rule of Siṃhavarman III (550-560 C.E.). It is also worth noting that Cosmas Indicopleustes – the C6th Byzantine geographer – attests to the presence of Christianity in Kerala – in   522 C.E (so while we are considering a pre-Islamic South Asia, the subcontinent is not entirely pre-Christian).

The early Pallavas are known for their patronage of Jain, Buddhist and Brahminical traditions, though they are best known for their inclination to Śaivism. Notwithstanding this propensity, the Pallava centre of Kāñcīpura was a hub of Pāli Buddhism (but equally is thought to have been the original home of Dignāga, the great – Yogacāra – Buddhist logician, as well as the famous Jain author, Samantabhadra). In addition another noted Jain, Sarvanandin, is said to have composed his Prākrit work, the Lokavibhāga in 458 C.E. in Kāñcī (at least according to a later Sanskrit translation of it). Xuanzang, writing just after our period of enquiry, leaves us of picture of Kāñcī as a thriving Buddhist centre. Our period also encompasses the period of composition of the extraordinarily rich Śaṅgam literature and several epic compositions in Tamil that take up Hindu, Buddhist and Jain themes and issues, which I will not list here.

Linguistically, it is worth noting that, in the period we intend to focus upon, Brahminical tradition is largely transmitted in Sanskrit while Jain literature is restricted for the most part to Prākrits (such as Ardha-Māgadhī and Māhārāṣṭrī, which were learned forms of languages that were closer to vernacular speech than Sanskrit, as is attested by the variation in their phonology/orthography). Buddhist literature is – if we focus only on South Asia – circulating in both Pāli (a learned Prākrit used only for Buddhist sources) and Sanskrit. We also find material pertaining to all three traditions in Tamil (there is nothing extant for our period in old Kannaḍa, but it is likely that works were circulating by the C6th). Our period of enquiry largely predates the production of Jain literature in Sanskrit or their subsequent return to Prākrit and, in particular, to the later dialect of Apabrahmśa. However, the various rulers of India in the period in question used Sanskrit, the Prākrits, Tamil and the languages of their regions of origin, if they were from outside South Asia e.g. the Kuṣāṇas, who ruled large parts of North India from the early first to the third century C.E., used  Bactrian, Sogdian (both of which are Eastern Iranian languages) and Gāndhārī (a Prākrit) not to mention both the Greek and Kharoṣṭī writing systems. Manuscripts from our period of enquiry are extremely rare and mostly Buddhist. They are known only from repositories of texts in arid regions of Central Asia. The South Asian climate, sadly, does not conduce to the survival of works written on leaf, bark or paper.

Moving to palaeography (the study of ancient writing systems), our period encompasses the emergence, early development and large-scale consolidation of the art of writing in South Asia. At centre stage, we find Aśokan Brāhmī and its derivatives. However, it is important to note that, although the Aśokan inscriptions are largely in Brāhmī, we also find, in the North-West of India, Aśokan inscriptions in another early Indic script, Kharoṣṭī, as well as in Greek and Aramiaic. Brāhmī develops differently in the North and the South; Under the Pallavas, a distinct form of Southern Brāhmī develops, from which proto-Kannada develops (which further develops into the Kadamba script during our period of enquiry). Also derived from Southern Brāhmī is proto, or Pallava, Grantha (c. C6th). In the north, the Kuśānas and the Guptas also developed their own distinctive forms of writing, both of which are named after them and both of which are derived from Brāhmī. Perhaps following its own line of development from Brāhmī – and mentioned by, amongst others, Al-Bīrūnī, but dating to the c. C5/6th – is Siddhamatṛka, which was an important forerunner of the Nāgarī script; the latter, however post-dates are period of enquiry. These developments are known from the epigraphic record.

I will not even attempt to list the extraordinary range of works in the fields of religious literature, scientific speculation, philosophy, theology, grammar, poetics, metrics, poetry and drama, which are dated to this period, but I will say, in closing that, notwithstanding our historical ‘bookends’ – the rise of Buddhism and the fall of the imperial Guptas – Naomi and I have our work cut out for us!

All ‘periods’ are either somewhat arbitrary, or somewhat self-serving; ours is without doubt both of these things. However, our intention is to narrow down our field of enquiry to the point that we can meaningfully focus on the canonical and early commentarial literature of the Buddhists and Jains, as well as Brahminicial works from the Upaniṣads to the Purāṇas (and sundry other works in Sanskrit and the Prākrits) and have a hope of reading these with some reference to the encompassing historical context (which is so richly delineated in the inscriptions, architecture and material culture of the period in question, not to mention through its evocations in the literary, religious and scientific works – both Indian and non-Indian that are dated to, and after, it). It is a period that encompasses two major imperial formations (the Mauryan and the Guptan), waves of invasion (Greek and Central Asian), colonial expansion (into South East Asia) and, of course, the formative period of Buddhism, Jainism and post-Vedic Brahminical Hinduism. I doubt we will run out of things to do.