Authority Anxiety and Canon (Essays in Vedic Interpretation)


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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

Item Code: NAS140
Edition: 1995
Publisher: Sri Satguru Publications
ISBN: 8170304253
Language: English
Size: 9.00 X 6.00 inch
Pages: 348
Other Details: Weight of the Book: 0.5 Kg