Tuesday, January 5

Layers’ and ‘Wholes’ in the Study of Pre-modern Indian Texts | The Story of Story in South Asia


For people who think history is boring, it frequently comes as a surprise that its like nailing jelly to the wall. It's constantly changing as new facts come to the fore. New interpretations are postulated. New beliefs are promulgated. Sometimes this is ok. Sometimes this gets people very excited. Specially when one talks about religious texts. 

The books we think are immutable like the Talmud bible Quran Ramayana and single versions of truth for all times are anything but. They have constantly changed. In layers. They are like clouds. They do exist but their shapes and sizes keeps on changing. 

That's why be suspicious whenever anybody says that this is the absolute truth. As an educated man, you will know that nothing is absolute in this world. 



‘Layers’ and ‘Wholes’ in the Study of Pre-modern Indian Texts | The Story of Story in South Asia

I have been wondering about a long-running controversy in Indian textual studies as to the relative merits of analyzing a given textual tradition either ‘into layers’ or ‘as a whole’. I am sure that these two things mean little to someone not in the business of analyzing pre-modern texts, but it is an important issue for our project as, more and more, scholars are identifying with one or the other camp. Beyond this, the issue of how scholars approach religious texts is, in particular, an important one. Questions concerning the historical origin and development of the canonical texts of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists, to name only the most prominent religious traditions, are both contentious and important (and not just to academics). Before I begin my ruminations, I suspect it might be useful for me to say precisely what I mean by analyzing sources ‘into layers’ (by which I refer to textual criticism) or ‘as a whole’ (which I call textual analysis).

The analysis of texts into ‘layers’ involves the examination of  the available manuscripts of a given textual tradition to see which parts of it came first and which later. There are quite complex ‘rules’ about how to compare manuscripts with one another, but the basic principle is simple: one finds similarities and differences between manuscripts and consider why they might be there. This is the main business of textual criticism. The practice of textual criticism is also often extended to include educated guesswork as to the development of a given text before we have direct manuscript evidence for it (this is very important in Indian Studies, where there is little manuscript evidence before the latter part of the first millennium CE). This sort of guesswork is often based on the idea that one style of writing (or speaking) might be earlier than another one, or that the presence or absence of words borrowed from other languages  is significant. Scholars also look for relationships between different texts (especially if we have more reliable dates for some of them). In Indian Studies, for example, there are a considerable number of Chinese versions of Buddhist texts for which we have reliable dates. This can help us, even if only tentatively, to say something about the date of non-Buddhist sources that have something in common with the Buddhist ones. Scholars also make use of corroborating historical data, such as literature or material culture. They even use their own ideas about the order of development of ideology and practices in India to suggest the presence, or absence, of ‘layers’ of composition in a given text. This might be described as the use of educated guesswork from one area to inform educated guesswork in another! Whatever the precise method, the goal is a constant: the re-construction of the history of  the development of a given text.

No comments: