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Text to Tradition (The Naisadhiyacarita and Literary Community in South Asia)

Text to Tradition (The Naisadhiyacarita and Literary Community in South Asia)
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Item Code: NAN351
Author: Deven M. Patel
Publisher: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
Language: English
Edition: 2016
ISBN: 9788121513203
Pages: 277
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details: 9.5 inch X 6.0 inch
weight of the book: 615 gms
About the Book

Written In the Twelth Century, the Naisadhiyacarita (The Adventures of Nala, King of Nisadha) is a seminal Sanskrit Poem beloved by South Asian literary communities for nearly a millennium. This volume introduces readers to the poem’s author, his reading communities, the modes through which the poem has been read and used, the context through which it became canonical, its literary offspring, and the emotional power it still holds for the culture that values it.

Text to Tradition privileges the intellectual, affective, and social forms of cultural practice that inform a region’s people and institutions. It also proposes a new way to conduct literary historiography, understanding literary texts as “traditions” in their own right and emphasizing the various players and critical genres involved in their reception. The book underscores the importance of the close study of individual works to building a history of literary cultures. In addition, it creates a groundbreaking model for approaching the study of other venerated South Asian texts.

About the Author

Deven M. Patel is an assistant professor of Sanskrit languages and the literatures of South Asia at the University of Pennsylvania. He writes on literary history, the formation of literary communities, and the broader significance of literature and exegesis as cultural practice in South Asia.


Compared to what we know about classic works with long reception histories from other parts of the world, we have a surprisingly shadowy understanding of what great literary works composed in South Asia meant to generations of audiences. In earlier "histories of literature," individual works were often presented as static texts with an intrinsic set of features and values that could be uncritically implicated in a narrow or generalized history of a period, a region, or a genre. Accordingly, the emphasis in these works was almost always on the text itself (or, more commonly, groups of texts) and rarely ventured to address how an indigenous literary tradition received and experienced one of its key texts. As such, after more than a century of scholarship, even now we can only gather a vague idea of what kinds of reading communities-and reading practices-clustered around works of literature that continued to remain relevant for a culture over centuries. The case of Sanskrit poetry (karya) and specifically a genre known as mahakavya (literally, a "long" or "great" poem) is emblematic of this poverty in our historical comprehension. Several Sanskrit mahakavya are widely understood as classics of South Asian literature, and while sophisticated studies of individual mahakarya have become available recently, no existing work has yet treated a single poem's literary history from the point of view of its audiences.' Considerable advances and important contributions to the understanding of the intellectual history of Sanskrit culture have been made in the past few decades-especially concerning rich traditions of poetics from the sixth through seventeenth centuries. However, outside of understanding literary culture through the universalizing rubrics of formalized poetics, more investigation into other aspects of the lives of texts is needed to fully explain a literary tradition's view of itself.

Missing, for instance, are serious discussions about an individual Sanskrit poem's reading communities and their reading practices, a sense of what tied a particular work's readership together over centuries, and what the dynamics of difference between these audiences, separated by time and space, were. There is a complex relationship, as philosophers like Paul Ricoeur have argued, between "the world of the text" and "the world of the reader," but the two have been conflated to such an extent in much of the early scholarship on Sanskrit literature that, even today, it is virtually impossible to think of individual works as having a complicated history mediated by various approaches to explain and interpret a text over time.' Missing also is an acknowledgment of the complex, conflicted, and even contradictory effect that knowledge of a text's long history has on readers at varying points in history, including the present. Admittedly, linking individual texts, or even genres, with real communities of readers from premodern South Asia is a difficult task. This is especially the case for texts with long reception histories for which we have centuries-long gaps in tangible evidence to explain how individuals and certain social groups approached them or how they might have functioned within institutions dedicated to learning and teaching literature. Nevertheless, based on the evidence we do have, certain questions can and remain to be addressed. For example, outside of the alankarasastra, what are the different types of readership a Sanskrit poem attracted across centuries? What were some of the diverse explanatory or interpretive practices readers brought to the text? What tied all of them together?

Some of these questions first came up for me while encountering references to a twelfth-century Sanskrit poem entitled the Naisadhiyacarita. Histories of Sanskrit literature consistently noted that the Naisadhiyacarita (literally, the Deeds or Adventures of Nala, King of Nisadha), or simply the Naisadhiya, was considered to be the "last" of the great poems of the classical Sanskrit tradition and that "to the purely native taste," it had been preferable to all other long Sanskrit poems, studied and praised more frequently than even Kalidasa's works.' But I also read contrary statements in other histories of Sanskrit literature: I was confused by the stark gulf that these authors suggested: that the Naisadhiya could once be considered, by some, as the finest poem in Sanskrit while others now would barely recommend, if not dismiss altogether, the idea of picking it up. Some years of actually reading Sanskrit poetry, and not just secondary reviews of it, disabused me of trusting the opinions of literary scholars trained to write about it under the spell of nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century aesthetic expectations." I gathered that while centuries of premodern reading must have embraced feelings of identification with the poet, most colonial—era scholarship on the Naisadhiya-and on much of Sanskrit literature- sought to separate itself from the premodern practices of Naisadhiya commentary. Premodern audiences addressed the Naisadhiya as part of a tradition of classic mahakavya, and, therefore, to write a commentary on the poem meant to try to become an ideal reader for a poem one clearly respected. Modem critics from the colonial period, by and large, ignored or underplayed the tradition in which the text was understood, received, and taught. At the same time, however, much of this literary-historical scholarship desired some form of connection with scholastic engagements from the past and, thus, to maintain a relationship with a continuous discourse of the Naisadhiya.

Recognition of this shift in scholarly attitude notwithstanding, the modern critiques of the Naisadhiya also inspired a strong curiosity: What could the "native taste" have actually meant across time, and what did a "traditional type" of reader like about the Naisadhiya that these later critics clearly despised? Could we recover forms of literary awareness and criticism about the poem that might have existed in the past, and might still-or no longer-exist in the present? Ultimately, this curiosity led me to investigate documents, agents, and social contexts that would otherwise have remained invisible to a project solely focused on the text itself. What began, therefore, as a modest exploration of one of the greatest works of South Asian poetry has now also become a book about dozens of arguably less-important works, composed by dozens of men over hundreds of years. Rather than speak of a single literary work, therefore, I claim to write here about a singular tradition of a literary work: the Naisadhiya tradition.

A Tradition of A Text

The word tradition, even when applied to literary texts, can be a protean designation, open to being shaped {or disfigured} to suit hosts of possible pasts, presents, and futures. Most simply, a literary tradition may refer to sets of textual and scholarly practices that grow up around a root or source text (mula-grantha in Sanskrit). Tradition, thus, explains an ongoing set of self-aware text-critical and aesthetic engagements with a powerful literary object that span centuries. These engagements include, but are not limited to, formal commentaries, narrative texts, encomia, pseude—pigrapha, translations, visual representations, anonymous snatches of literary-critical discourse available from oral tradition, and modern forms of literary criticism.

A well-known maxim in Sanskrit explains: "a commentator knows but not the poet" (vyakhyata janati na tu kavih). Accordingly, the most important documents for my study are commentaries on the Naisadhiya written in Sanskrit from the thirteenth to twentieth centuries. In addition to being different hermeneutic orientations to the poem, commentaries serve as storehouses for encomia (prasasti) to the Naisadhiya and biographical information about the text, the author, and the reception history of the poem. Commentaries help us, among other things, to trace the poem's legibility through history. They present sites for competing aesthetics and draw out important contrasts between the creative and critical enterprises intrinsic to Sanskrit literary culture-the work of the poet (kavi) and the scholar (pa1:t~ita). Tradition also frames sets of shared tastes and values that, over time, undergo subtle changes and even reversals. Recognizing that certain literary texts can, in many situations, be encountered autonomous to any mediating influences, it seems that very many other works, by dint of their age and reputation, can never be approached through such a naive lens. Tradition, therefore, rather than fortifying the idea that literary works are received unmediated, trans-historically, and are available to all people at all times in all contexts, actually helps us to move away from this fiction.

Finally, tradition serves as a label for the effect produced in readers when encountering and sustaining an older and influential work that brings with it centuries of readings, reading practices, and dramatic shifts in context of reading. In applying a concept like tradition to frame a diverse reception history for an 800-year-old poem like the Naisadhiya, this book pays special attention to the critical concepts associated with reader-reception theories developed in the latter half of the twentieth century. In particular, my understanding of a Naisadhiya tradition encompasses seeing commentators, at different turns, as different types of readers and part of different types of reading communities. Thus, following one stream of reader-response theory, Text to Tradition delineates the reading practices of empirical readers and reading communities in specific historical situations in order to reconstruct the contributions of human agents in forming the Naisadhiya tradition as it exists for us today," I see the literary-historical agenda of my study as less guided by an urge to understand the Naisadhiya as such and more focused on the critical engagements that explore its changing intelligibility from the point of view of different audiences at different periods. I plot, therefore, a selective trajectory that focuses on those moments when the Naisadhiya tradition turns to analyze its own history, as my primary concern is with the way readers of the poem throughout history imagine and write about their relationship with each other and with their predecessors. I have sought to articulate those changes, tracing the history of the tradition through some of its most important transitional moments.

I am also sympathetic to other understandings of an "audience" as largely a critical fiction-an implied reader-and wish fruitfully to see the Naisadhiya tradition as largely an effect the poem has had on readers throughout history. Here I interpret reader identifications with Sriharsa and the Naisadhiya as largely an affinity to effects rather than objective entities. Thus, we may posit readers' response to a Sriharsa effect or to a Naisadhiya effect rather than to an actual poet and poem. Each discursive engagement with the poem sees it as something different. There are multiple Naisadhiyas, in other words, conceived in different ways by commentators-as-editors, commentators-as-interpreters, biographers and hagiographers, or by literary critics. The poem's discursive genres also develop independently of the poetic traditions of encomia, imitation, and oral verses speaking of rivalry between poems and generally produce a different kind of Naisadhiya as the object of scholarship, evaluation, and commentary. The shifting and unpredictable nature I identify with the Naisadhiya tradition at various historical moments also speaks to a notion that neither the text nor its empirical readers have an independent status but are rather mutually constituted/absorbed into an "interpretive community" that determines, at any given point, what the text is."

The Text of the Tradition

The text at the heart of the tradition is an extraordinary one. The following chapters, where I explore and discuss the Naisadhiya's unique aesthetic as a poem and what I am calling the Naisadhiya tradition, will make clear what makes it so extraordinary. First, however, I briefly address the choice of this particular work over and above hundreds of other candidates, especially when the reception histories of equally neglected works of more well-known poets like Kalidasa remain to be written.

The Naisadhiya emerged at an important moment in South Asian literary and intellectual history. It was produced at the eve of a new political dispensation in northern India that would gradually but definitively realign the patronage networks of Sanskrit literary and intellectual production. At a time when vernacular languages were boldly moving into the literary realm, the Na4iadhfya had an unprecedented role in catalyzing change in various literary cultures of South Asia. The Naisadhiya's awareness of regional languages is manifested, for example, in a twelfth-century Sanskrit enriched by neologisms, a distinctive style and syntax, a turn toward the use of popular subgenres well represented in the literary cultures of the newly emergent languages, and the use of vernacular meters. New works on poetics dealing with topics of trope and rhetoric crop up during the time of Sriharsa to keep pace with the transforming aesthetics of kavya in Sanskrit and the regional languages. It is the first, and in some cases the only, mahakavya translated into the early literary cultures of South Asia's regional languages. In addition to being a source text for Pahari painters during the eighteenth century and Kathakali dramatists since the seventeenth century, it has also been read as religious allegory by audiences since the sixteenth century.

The poem is an emblem of a literary age in transition. The Naiadhiya was both a distillation of past mahakavya practices and a model for future poets working in multiple South Asian languages. Less than a century after its composition, the legacy of the poem began to take shape through the emergence of Sanskrit commentaries and biographies of both the poem and poet. By the fourteenth century, literary communities across the subcontinent came to see the Naisadhiya as the fifth and final text in a canonical formulation known as the paiicamahakavya, or "the five [classic] mahakavya," which include the works of Kalidasa (fourth century CE?), Bharavi (sixth century), and Magha (seventh century). The Naisadhiya both affirms inherited norms of the mahakavya tradition (from earlier poets like Kalidasa, Bharavi, and Magha) and also galvanizes new trends in Sanskrit and regional South Asian literatures. As we shall see, however, the energy it infused in the genre was not unanimously lauded among the critics historically. Its unstable position as a "great work," therefore, in the divergent evaluative matrices of Sanskrit literary communities has rendered the poem both a confirmation and a disruption of familiar patterns in works that precede it. Finally, its relative lateness (the twelfth century), in relation to other established classics, makes the poem coeval with the unprecedented increase of secondary kavya-related documents in South Asia (formal commentaries, narrative accounts, translations, and adaptations), supplying its historical record with a richly detailed and textured archive-clearly the most extensive of any mahakavya we have. The diverse history of this important Sanskrit literary work's reception from the twelfth to twentieth centuries, therefore, effectively indexes the wider changes that characterize the literary landscape of South Asia in the second millennium.



  Acknowledgment ix
  Introduction 1
  The Naisadhiya's Aesthetic 17
  Eight Centuries of Commentary 49
  The Naisadhiya Interpreted and Overinterpreted 81
  Struggles Over the Text 107
  Secondary Waves of Reading 131
  Legends of the Naisadhiya 153
  The Tradition Expands to the Regions 175
  Conclusion 203
Appendix 1: Sanskrit Text of Citations From Commentaries and Narratives 211
Appendix 2: Encomia (Prasasti) To Sriharsa and the Naisadhiya 229
  Notes 233
  Bibliography 261
  Index 269
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