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Authority Anxiety and Canon (Essays in Vedic Interpretation)

Authority Anxiety and Canon (Essays in Vedic Interpretation)
Item Code: NAS140
Author: Laurie L. Patton
Publisher: Sri Satguru Publications
Language: English
Edition: 1995
ISBN: 8170304253
Pages: 348
Other Details: 9.00 X 6.00 inch
weight of the book: 0.5 kg

A FIGHT HAS BEEN RAGING over the ownership of the sacred relic of the body of the RgVeda (and over the question of whether it is, in fact, a corpse) for over a century, from the days of Colebrooke and Wilson, perhaps cresting in 1890, when E Max Muller published his edition of the Sanskrit text and brought it to the consciousness of Europe. There have been two main warring camps, each consisting of a small, elite group: on this side, German (and British) philologists, in their obsessively neat ranks of scholarship, and on that side, Brahmins, in their equally (but separately) obsessive ranks of ritual. Each has claimed the Veda, for very different purposes and on very different grounds. The anti-Orientalists, following Edward Said, have argued that European scholars have somehow simultaneously inflicted the Veda upon the Hindus and kept it from them; and the subaltern/Marxist coalition, in a parallel rut, have argued that the Brahmins have done the same double damage.

But now a third party has entered the ranks, academicus ex machina, to rescue the Veda from the depth of the Ocean of Obfuscation to which those twin demons, European and Brahminical, had abducted it' Now it appears that (if we accept the wise dictum of Antoine de Saint Exupery's Petit Prince, that you can only truly own something that you take care of) the Veda belongs neither to the anal-retentive nor to the sanctimonious, but to the methodological. More precisely, the Veda has attracted the attention of a group of historians of religions in North America, which turns out to be intellectually, if not geographically, midway between Benares and Berlin.

This shift in the center of gravity, this tilting of the axis mundi, may be attributed in part to the excitement stirred up in the 1980s by two works by American scholars. First (in 1982) came Jonathan Z. Smith's article on canon, an article that has now itself become canonical in our field: "Sacred Persistence: Toward a Redescription of Canon" (to which several of the chapters in this volume refer, beginning with Laurie Patton in the introduction). In many ways, the ghost in the (methodological) machine of the present volume is not F. Max Muller but Jonathan Z. Smith. Then (in 1989) Brian K. Smith published Reflections on Resemblance, Ritual and Religion, a book that took a bold look at the Veda's canonical status within Hinduism and issued in a New Age in the study not merely of the Veda but of the whole religious complex that we call Hinduism.

Laurie Patton, who had already been plowing her own furrow in the rich field of the Vedas, joined with Brian K. Smith and others laboring in other parts of the forest, and they converged on an American Academy of Religion panel in 1990. That panel, in its turn, served as a magnet for yet other scholars with yet other interests in the Veda. The result is this volume.

When I first discussed the possibilities of this series with Bill Eastman (who surely deserves a medal for courageous publishing-perhaps he should be made Knight of the Multiauthored Volume), I said I hoped the series would include both classical studies and the cutting edge of new studies. I did not then imagine that a single volume would do both at once, but this is that volume. For, after all, the Veda is as Ur as it gets, while the young scholars who have written this volume represent the nouvelle vague in approaches to religious texts. They carry their theoretical assumptions not as shields to protect themselves from unexpected and recalcitrant dirty data (what Mary Douglas called "matter out of place"), but as awkward backpacks that get heavier with every step, burdens that can neither jettison nor ignore. It is their honest attempt to grapple with the theoretical monkeys on their backs, while still paying careful attention to the Indological tradition before them, that makes these chapters both so solid and so stimulating. Whatever the Veda may or may not be anywhere else (and it is precisely this question that is so hotly debated throughout this volume), it is certainly very much alive and well in these pages.


THE POET KABIR'S WARNING that the one who studies the Vedas "gets entangled and dies therein"' is one to be taken quite seriously. Until recently, the study of the Veda has been philologically rigorous yet theoretically moribund. Also until recently, the influence of the Vedic canon on the rest of Indian religious history has been inadequately addressed. One of the few scholars to address the issue, Louis Renou, ends up closing off rather than opening up possibilities for further research in this area. In his small but influential essay, "The Destiny of the Veda in India,"2 Renou asserts that over time the Vedic canon became a kind of empty icon, signifying various kinds of prestige and power, but little else. According to Renou, in the classical and modern religious traditions of India, only the "outside" of the Veda has survived. Renou concludes rather sadly, "The Vedic world, whose essence has passed . . . was no more than a distant object, exposed to the hazards of an adoration stripped of its textual substance."

The present volume joins other recent Indological scholarship in demuring from such conclusions.' The book began as a panel at the American Academy of Religion, held in New Orleans, Louisiana, in late 1990, and continued as a series of informal discussions and conversations well into 1991. The panelists argued that the substance of the Veda is indeed integrated into later traditions. What is more, they demonstrated that Renou has missed the most interesting point of departure: even if it were true that only the outside of the Veda survives in later periods, that "outside" itself is not uniformly received. Such a point is simply illustrated by the commonplace fact that the Vedas can refer either to the four earliest collections of verses (the Rg-, the Sama-, the Yajur-, and the Atharva-Vedas), or to an aggregate of early Indian works, including the four Vedas, the Brahmanas, and the Upaniads. (The chapters in the present volume use both definitions, depending on which historical period is being discussed.) While Renou perceived that the Veda takes on various patterns of influence in different systems of Indian thought, he failed to see how that variety is precisely the reason why inquiry into the vicissitudes of Vedic influence is fruitful.

The chapters in the present volume develop the perspective of that panel, taking up the question of the Vedas from a theoretical as well as a philological and historical basis. In a particularly helpful theoretical essay, "Sacred Persistence," J. Z. Smith asserts that canon is a salutary category in the study of religion because it incorporates questions of authority and innovation simultaneously. In the study of exegesis, one can focus upon both the limiting of canon and the overcoming of that limitation through ingenuity. Smith also suggests that because canons can take the form of ritual objects and spoken words as well as texts, both written and oral media can be taken into account.

Too few scholars have taken up the preliminary challenge that Smith makes to the study of religion, with one notable exception. In his book, Reflections on Ritual, Resemblance and Religion,5 Brian K. Smith, one of our contributors, argues that the amoeba-like cluster of practices and beliefs now called "Hinduism" can be defined as Hinduism precisely by their appeal to the Vedas as their canonical authority. While the question of defining "Hinduism" itself remains open, his suggestive study paves the way for more specific studies to delineate the history of the reception of the Vedas in various genres of discourse and at various points in India's religious history. Indeed, the very element that might define "Hinduism" is also the element that most richly exposes the heterogeneity of Indian religious practices.

In order to incorporate such heterogeneity, each of the chapters in this volume engages a twofold study: the theoretical question of canonicity and the historical question of the continuation, appropriation, or rejection of Vedic authority in different forms of Indian religions. These chapters modify and challenge J. Z. Smith's ideas about limitation and ingenuity in canon formation and exegesis. In doing so, these studies also specify and diversify Brian Smith's more general suggestions about the place of the Veda in Indian religions. For example, in their studies of the Brahmanas, the ritual philosophical works that follow the four Vedas, David Carpenter, Barbara Holdrege, and Brian Smith all argue that the Brahmanas view the Vedas primarily as a form of ritual and cosmological speech (Vac) that guarantees social status; the Vedas are not collections of oral "texts" that are to be limited or expanded through exegesis. David Gitomer, Frederick Smith, and Francis Clooney all push the definition of canonical exegesis further by inquiring about the Vedic canon's relationship to discourses that are simultaneously "inside" and "outside" the Vedic tradition. While texts from the Puranic, Vedantan, and NaOicthastra traditions all claim some kind of development from Vedic origins, their perceptions and methods of maintaining Vedic authority differ radically. Finally, J. E. Llewellyn, Anantanand Rambachan, Dorothy Figueira, and I take the insider/outsider question one step further-examining how contact with the West affects notions of canonicity. In this period, the Veda is subject to the more strident exegetical strategies of universalization (Llewellyn), rejection (Rambachan), and romanticization, whether in the service of colonialist (Figueira) or anticolonialist (Patton) ends.

As its title suggests, this volume incorporates two themes that are closely related to each other: authority and anxiety. Many of the chapters are concerned with the question of the maintenance and modification of a Vedic authority that has already been established, and remains, to a large extent, unquestioned. The second theme, that of anxiety, addresses explicit tensions about Vedic authority itself-how it is used by non-Vedic traditions, how it is controlled, and how it is overturned. It should be noted at the outset that the distinction between these two sections is one of degree, not of kind. Any tradition that attempts to maintain an authori-tative canon necessarily involves some anxiety over the boundaries of that canon, no matter how well accepted they may be. Relatedly, any anxiety about Vedic canon itself involves either a reassertion of Vedic authority or an appeal to another kind of authority.

The chapters move chronologically, delineating varying responses to the Vedic authority in the realm of philosophy, literature and drama, and narrative. Not surprisingly, the volume begins with two chapters dealing with the early Brahmanical interpretation of the four earliest Vedic texts-the Rg-, Yajur-, Sama-, and Atharva-Vedas. In his chapter, "The Mastery of Speech," David Carpenter argues that the limitation of Vedic canon is motivated by a kind of uneasiness. The management of canon is achieved far more frequently through narratives depicting the control of oral speech than it is through the precise numbering and cataloguing of the content of the Sarphitas, or collections, that make up the four Vedas. Carpenter substantiates this suggestion by showing how the Brahmanical appro-priation of the goddess of speech, Vac, is far different from the earlier portrayals of Vac found in the Samhitas. The later Brahmatias apprehen-sively depict Speech not as a benevolent muse of poetic eloquence, but as a potential danger to be managed and circumscribed.

In "Veda in the Brahmanas: Cosmogonic Paradigms and the Delimi-tation of Canon," Barbara Holdrege follows up on Carpenter's "detex-tualizing" of the Vedic canon. She argues that the Brahmanical tradition's emphasis on the form of the Vedic mantras over their content is integrally connected to the mantras' status as "primordial impulses of speech" that constitute the source and model of creation. Through the actions of the creator Prajapati, the Veda is cosmologized, so that forms of the Veda correspond to levels of creation.

In his chapter, "The Veda and the Authority of Class," Brian Smith picks up on the cosmological themes introduced by Holdrege and asks about their social meaning. He maintains that the Brahmana texts have a specific strategy for classifying the Veda according to the varna, or "social estate" system. Through an analysis of the various hierarchical equivalences (bandhus) made in the Brahmanas, as well as through the representation of the Vedas in Brahmanical narratives, Smith shows that the Brahmanas seal the distinctive social scheme of the varnas as "cosmologically aboriginal" and "authentically Vedic." For Smith, the canonical Vedas are inextricably linked to an idealized form of social hierarchy.

In his chapter, Frederick Smith engages the so-called classical Indian tradition through a close reading of the Bhagavata Purana as a Vedic text. The Puranic appropriation of the Vedas involved reshaping the mysterious, mantrically constructed Vedicpurusa into the all-encompassing, sectarian deity purusottama. In addition, Puranic authors manipulated geneaology to align themselves with Vedic sages, and employed contemporary philosophical ideas to prove Vedic infallibility. Finally, Smith argues that the central concern of the Purana was not the performance of Vedic ritual per se. Instead, the Bhagavata Purana used the Vedas and Vedic ritual as a repertory of persuasive invocational and evocational images-shaping the Vedas toward its own theological ends.

The next two chapters take up the classical Indian traditions from the perspective of the philosophy of Vedanta and the aesthetic theories of Sanskrit drama. In his chapter "From Anxiety to Bliss," Francis X. Clooney takes up the question of Vedic interpretation from a dual perspective-that of Vedantic debate and that of the contemporary Western scholar. While contemporary Vedic exegetes may find their initial enthusiasm giving way to anxiety about the possibility of "right meaning," they can learn a good deal from the Vedantan perspective. Clooney goes on to provide an example: in pondering a crucial passage from the Taittiriya Upanisad, the Vedantans must decide whether or not certain verses refer to brahman. In his analysis of what the "right meaning" is to Vedantan commentators, Clooney discusses not only the ways in which Vedic authority is maintained, but also the specific criteria used within Indian tradition for the "right reading" of Vedic texts. From the perspective of Vedanta, salvation itself is at stake in the interpretive process, and right meaning can only come about through a gradual, temporally attained understanding of the text.

David Gitomer's chapter, "Whither the Sweet Thickness of Their Passion?" provides a detailed analysis of the natyopatti myth-the myth of origins of Sanskrit drama. While many Indologists have attempted to ascribe Vedic origins to this myth, Gitomer argues persuasively that the narrative is of a different nature entirely. The story is loosely allegorical, designed to impart priestly prestige to a dramatic profession anxious about its status.

**Contents and Sample Pages**

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