About the Book
Tales for the Dying explores the centrality of death and dying in the narrative of the Bhagavata-Purana, India’s great text of devotional theism, canonized as an integral part of the Vaisnava bhakti tradition. The text grapples with death through an imaginative meditation, one that works through the presence and power of narrative. The story of the Bhagavata-Purana is spoken to a king who is about to die, and it enables him to come to terms with his own passing. The work does not isolate dying as an issue; it treats it on many levels.
This book discusses how images of dying in the Bhagavata-Purana relate to issues of language and love in the religious imagination of India. Drawing on insights from studies in myth, literary semiotics, and depth psychology, as well as from Indian commentarial and aesthertic traditions, the author examines the power of myth and narrative (storytelling or hari katha) and shows how a detailed awareness of the Puranic imagination may lead to a revisioning of some long-held presuppositions around India religious attitudes toward dying. By casting Vaisnava bhakti traditions and Puranic narrative in a fresh light, the mythic imagination of the Puranas takes its place on the stage of contemporary discourse on comparative mythology and literature.
“Beautifully written Profound. Jarow does a wonderful job of showing just how relevant the Bhagavata-Purana can be, both for the study of religion and for reflecting on the human condition itself”.
About the Author
E. H. Rick Jarow is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Vassar College and the author of In Search of the Sacred: A Pilgrimage to Holy Places.
In a citation from the Satyricon of Petronius at the opening of T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land, the Sibyl—who has received a “gift” of immortality from Apollo and has thus been cursed to age forever, despairingly declares, “I want to die.” One might read this as a variant of the futility of the ego’s project of self-preservation, but there is a particular gruesomeness in the unchallengeable cruelty of the gods here. Dying would be a relief, and the world as it is seems to possess no ethical sensibility at all.
Indeed, this is often how we feel in the face to suffering and death despite the most inventive protestations of discourses on divine justice. And, as we see in the above instance, there may even be fates worse than dying. In the Hindu-Buddhist imagination, death often comes as part of a package of inevitable “fourfold miseries” which include birth, disease, and old age; which in turn are part of another package of “threefold miseries;” those caused by nature, by gods, and by other beings. And while the spectre of death haunts us as a species, when the righteous king, Yudhisthira, is asked by the Lord of Death in the Mahabharata: “What is the most wonderful thing?” He responds, “Day after day countless beings are sent to the realm of Death, yet those who remain behind believe themselves to be deathless.”
Freud declared that the unconscious refuses of recognize death, and perhaps this is one reason that I want to write on dying, to work at making the unconscious conscious, to try and meet death in its multidimensionality, not just as a feared or denied end to a short, puzzling human life. I also want to meet death multiculturally, to look at imaginative discourse around death and dying (and there may only be imaginative discourse here) through a tradition which is neither my own by birth or by language.
What is the draw here beyond an affinity for Indian languages and literatures, a penchant for the “exotic-other,” a training in Asian Studies, and extended residence in India? At the center of this project, I imagine, is the tormenting truth of impermanence. And what I find so intriguing about Indian Epic and Puranic discourse is their particular way of grappling with this universal: not by directly staring it down, or meditating on it in a cremation ground, but rather through performing another kind of meditation, an imaginative one that works through the presence and power of narrative, of stories. The Bhagavata-Purana, the focus of this work, does more than just relate stories. It is, after all, a “Purana” and hence an immense compilation of narratives, genealogies, encyclopedic accounts to epic-lore, didactic teachings, philosophical polemics, legendary chronologies, platitudes of all kinds, and a host of other subjects. Moreover, as the great Vaisnava text of devotional theism, the Bhagavata (as it is usually called) is filled with prayers, hymns of praise, and narratives aimed at inculcating a devotional sensibility in its audience. All of this has been much discussed in both scholarly and religious-devotional circles and is clearly “above board.”
What is not often discussed is the fact that the Bhagavata also contains a collection of narratives told to someone who is about to die, and for some reason or other (could Freud be helpful here)? This fact has rarely been made the center of any discussion on the Purana. It is this fact and its possible implications that I address in the following volume, not only in terms of “Puranic Studies,” but also within the discourse of mythic and narrative responses to death, dying, and loss.
Can a meditation on this text speak through space and time? Without being hopelessly essentialistic, I would like to believe so. If religious texts (and experiences) were entirely culturally determined, they would not cross cultures and languages as easily as they do. What comes down to us as Purana is, after all, already an amazingly variegated amalgam of previous discourse that has been (and continues to be) fluidly transmitted through time. Moreover, if religious texts and experiences were unequivocally unique to their place and time, they would not invite the ongoing interpretive traditions which continue to surround them. This is particularly pertinent with regard to the Sanskritic tradition, since commentaries on texts (and this holds true in the Bhagavata) often postdate a respective work by a number of centuries. The commentaries, as essential and help-ful as they are, more often than not represent particular interpretive communities with their own ideological predilections and agendas. The fact that commentators like Sridhara, Vallabha, and Visvanatha, representatives of specific sampradayas (disciplic lineages), have come up with such dramatically different visions of the same Purana, exemplifies a characteristic nature of Bhagavata discourse: it continues to speak, in different forms to ongoing interpretive communities, whether they be theological, local performance-oriented, scholarly text-oriented, or otherwise!
Jiva Gosvami, the medieval bhakti theoretician and commentator on the Bhagavata-Purana, coined a phrase: acintya-bhedabhedatattva (inconceivable oneness and difference). This sensibility, I would argue, is not akin to the nihilism of a misinformed Buddhist or hyper-deconstructive practice, but resembles the compassion of the Great-Vehicle that honors the very inconceivability upon which we live and die. Death, in this regard, is not an undiscovered country to be feared or to be heroically charted with a map and compass. There are no great voyages and returns in the Bhagavata as with Gilgamesh, nor are there heroic rescue attempts from the underworld, as with Orpheus. Rather, dying is met through the weaving of the paradox of essence and existence, not in an explanatory mode, but through the mythic amplification of the human longing for immortality and its encounter with temporality, necessity, and limitation. Thus, while the principle text for this meditation is one from seventh-to-tenth century India, one which continues to exert influence to this day, questions asked are the &ldqu