AAS Annual Meeting

South Asia Session 274

[ South Asia Sessions, Table of Contents | Panels by World Area Main Menu ]

Session 274: Creating an Interface: The Challenges of Interpreting Varieties of Material and Textual Evidence from South Asia, Part A: Religion, Ethnography, Literature

Organizer: Daud Ali, University of Pennsylvania, USA

This two-part panel seeks to highlight emerging methodologies that rely on various corpora of evidence in the writing of precolonial South Asia’s history. Recent interest in the precolonial past in South Asia has brought together scholars from very different disciplines, including religious studies, archaeology, literature, art history and history. Some of the most innovative work has come from scholars working with materials outside of the traditionally defined boundaries of their own disciplines, or from scholars correlating and combining different types of evidence (material, sculptural, monumental, epigraphic, numismatic, narrative, mystical, poetical, annalistic) and methods of interpretation. Such studies have clearly demonstrated the benefits of ‘border crossing’ and underscored the potential for a more nuanced appreciation of how seemingly unrelated bodies of evidence function together within a cultural formation. There has, however, been little explicit discussion and reflection to date on the technical and procedural aspects of interdisciplinary methodology. There has also been little reflection on the wider implications and possibilities which interdisciplinary work engenders. This panel seeks to provide a platform for interdisciplinary discussion and will emphasize the importance of bringing all types of evidence and interpretive methodology into productive dialogue. The papers of part A of this two-part panel will variously explore, through reflection and example, the interpretive methods relevant to religious (monastic and sufic) texts, literary representations, ethnographic accounts and archaeological evidence and the potentials for and problems of correlating them together to develop interdisciplinary frameworks for more nuanced understandings the South Asian past.

Textual Paradigms and Archaeological Evidence for Jaina Relic Worship in Ancient India
Peter Flugel, SOAS, University of London, United Kingdom

Jaina doctrine unequivocally rejects the worship of material objects. Considering the mythical passages on the post-funerary veneration of the bone relics of the Jinas by the gods in the canonical Rayapaseṇaijja, and of the cremation of the first Jina Usabha (Rsabha) and the disposal of his remains by the gods in Jambuddivapannatti, Jivajivabhigama and Bhadrabahu’s Avassaya Nijjutti, which have all been placed in the middle or late canonical period, W. Schubring nevertheless concluded that these “most certainly followed earthly examples” and that “cremation … was the rule”, which is equally said “of the Tīrthankaras”. If Schubring was right, then the practice of cremating the discarded bodies of ascetics, performed by householders (Jaina laity or the general public), and perhaps entombment of bone relics, was either introduced in the middle-canonical period, not too long after the composition of the later Cheya Suttas or, though less likely, always existed side by side with the monastic custom of simply abandoning the corpse. The later Jaina puranas reiterate the canonical narratives of the veneration of relics by the gods. The paper will address the problem of interpreting these early texts in the light of the archaeological evidence and earlier Buddhist and Brahmanical accounts.

Centers and Peripheries: Buddhism in Ancient Sri Lanka and Gandhara and Beyond
Osmund Bopearachchi, CNRS, France

The paper will show how the emergence of a composite iconography can be used as a source to write a social history focusing on networks and exchange rather than centers and peripheries. Ancient Sri Lanka and Gandhara were situated both at the “periphery” of the South Asian Subcontinent as well as at the crossroads of vast transcontinental and oceanic trade networks linking east and west. Far from receiving unidirectional cultural and economic impetus from the center, these regions formed “centers” of transmission in their own right and developed complex relations between themselves not mediated through the “center.” They played an important role not only in transmitting merchandise, but also in spreading philosophical and artistic expression. This paper takes artistic inspiration, one aspect of the cultural exchange between these regions, into consideration. An attempt will be made to demonstrate how the regions developed artistic forms characterized by a singularity as a result of their interactions with diverse cultures. Although the classical influence on Gandharan art can be seen as a continuation of Indo-Greek tradition, Gandharan reliefs depicting the Buddha’s life also owe a great deal to other regional traditions. Through these interactions, new syncretic forms were born. Likewise, in Sri Lanka, Buddhist art underwent drastic change as the focus of trade shifted horizons. In many cases, even without corroborating textual evidence, art shows the affects of different cultures. The impact caused by these cultural exchanges has left vestiges of the past in artistic “performances” among groups in both regions.

Staging Social Life in Ancient India: Perspectives from the Early Sanskrit Drama
Jesse Knutson, University of Hawaii, Manoa, USA

The Mrcchakatika is a socially and politically fraught play, and may even be the most dramatic of all Sanskrit dramas. At its outer frame lurks a revolution/coup d’état: a cowherd’s son, prophesied to become king, languishes in prison while the wicked king’s brother-in-law goes on a sociopathic rampage. The economically marginal characters evince a natural solidarity with the rebel, such that the fortunes of the poor are organically intertwined in the context of an oligarchic and oppressive order. What emerges is an elaborate figuration of the economic and, in an eerily modern fashion, the determination of social life and identity by the economic, with the overarching political narrative overdetermining these determinations. This paper explores central rhetorico-narrative linkages around the terms wealth, poverty, and virtue (guna), expressed as the hero’s versified laments. Poverty is linked with virtue, but its expression is ironically dependent on wealth. In an absurd crisis of chronic abjection, being and seeming never coincide. This essay suggests ways in which the contradictions and the crisis of representation evoked by these poems may reflect/reflect on a whole mode of production; ways in which a study of literary figuration can refigure the concepts we bring to a study of the ancient Indian past. How for example did the Sanskrit literary sphere intersect the social? How might certain genres unevenly grapple with uneven realities; how might we sketch a literary/historical method that does justice to this?

Living Histories: Interpreting Contested Shrine Histories from Medieval Gujarat to the Present
Samira Sheikh, Vanderbilt University, USA

This paper examines the histories of two popular Gujarati shrines: the sixteenth-century tomb complex of Pirana and the eighteenth-century temple complex of Bahuchara Mata. While hagiographies and religious compositions are usually considered the domain of scholars of religion, historians of precolonial South Asia are beginning to study such materials too. Some such compositions may be found safe in libraries, with dates and provenance intact. But many other religious texts that originated in precolonial times are still in use. Often modern recensions are the only ones available. What is the historian to do with religious texts and traditions that are still alive? What of their subsequent transmutations for political exigency or to shape group identities? What to do with traditions that are still contested in courts and in the media? When the historical record conflicts with religious orthodoxy? Must precolonialists stay cloistered with authentically dated precolonial texts and artifacts? Must they contend with current politics? And how is the historian's task different from that of the anthropologist or scholar of religion? As I interrogate my own practice of unraveling the longue durée histories of the shrines, I will illustrate two linked arguments: first, that it is only possible to approach the political matrix of precolonial religion through a creative interdisciplinary study of material, oral and textual survivals. And secondly, that it is vital to undertake such an interdisciplinary approach to precolonial religious history, if only to discern its indexical relationship to religious configurations of our own times.