In Dialogue with Classical Indian Traditions

Encounter, Transformation and Interpretation

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Brian Black, Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad
Dialogues in South Asian Traditions: Religion, Philosophy, Literature and History
  • New York, NY: 
    , March
     300 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Dialogue with Classical Indian Traditions is part of Routledge’s Dialogues in South Asian Traditions: Religion, Philosophy, Literature, and History, and is a continuation of a previous volume that focused on early forms of the religions of South Asia. Here, dialogue is queried in thirteen essays arranged in three parts: dialogue as encounter; as transformation; and as interpretation. While this division provides a general frame, its intention is not to be terribly strict. Indeed, this is how the editors describe the book’s purpose: “We could say that this volume curates instances of dialogue, but its ultimate purpose is to present the importance of each dialogue in its own context, thereby demonstrating the variety and pervasiveness of dialogue in different genres of the textual tradition (2).” With that, the bar of the overall volume does not seem to be set very high; it is about its individual contributions, and what is intended to be demonstrated hardly needs demonstrating.

That being said, many of the individual contributions are very informative studies of a plethora of South Asian texts and their religious traditions. For the present reviewer, the highlight of the volume in terms of insight and originality is its concluding essay, Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad’s “Dialogue in Extremis: Vālin in the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa.” The essay tackles one of the most problematic episodes of the Rāmāyaṇa, Rāma’s killing of the magic monkey Vālin, the brother-cum-enemy of Sugrīva who is Rāma’s ally, and the dialogue between the two on Vālin’s deathbed. Without going into the details of this episode, it is significant in the Rāmāyaṇa because it concerns Rāma’s dual nature as a human king and as the supreme God. The problem arising from this dual nature is that Rāma does something prima facie unjust for a human—he kills Vālin from hiding—yet as the supreme God he must be beyond all blemish. As Ram-Prasad puts it, “the theology of God who descents as man faces the various moral problems that come from the activities of the man” (231).

Against traditional readings that attempt to harmonize the human and the divine natures or subsume the first under the second, Ram-Prasad suggests that we read the story and the dialogue from the either/or perspective—Rāma as human or divine, one at a time—which is accommodated by “the spiritual mystery of Rāma consisting in being fully human while fully divine” (232). If, then, the episode and the dialogue are read with Rāma as human, they are “a compelling account of how hegemony functions” (232).

Alternatively, they indicate that “talking with God is ultimately not about argument but surrender” (232). I find this a most ingenious and productive approach, and while Ram-Prasad involves subaltern theory to construct his first reading, with certain sacrifices he could have also engaged the more organic notion of two (irreconcilable) truths, “conventional” and “absolute,” that are staple items in Advaita Vedānta and Buddhist philosophy.

There are certainly other contributions worthy of the reader’s time. For instance, James Madaio’s chapter on the Yoga-vāsiṣṭha is an engaging, and quite original, reading about dialogue between a text and its reader as a form of internal soteriology. Likewise, Lynn Thomas’ paper queries dialogues from the Mahābhārata to show that the concern with common humanity and associated human rights are largely Western notions, such that “a rigid, categorical distinction between animals and humans is neither self-evident, as is often presented, nor culturally neutral” (142).

My main issue with the volume is that several of the contributions are not particularly concerned with the wider setting of the works on which they focus. To illustrate, a chapter on the Mahābhārata compares the Bhagavad-gītā with another dialogue from the same work, focusing specifically on notions of time, dharma, and devotion. It is informative about the two dialogues, but blissfully innocent of the broad contexts of the three ideas, as if the Mahābhārata is a closed universe, which is odd given how much good and original work has been done lately particularly on dharma.

In other words, some of the papers are good accounts of intra-textual dialogues—dialogues that are in texts—but unconcerned with those dialogues that constitute them as texts in their broader milieu. As a counterexample, however, I want to commend J.G. Suthren Hirst’s contribution about Śaṅkara’s engagement with the Bhāgavata tradition, which contains many interesting new observations about the historical context of one of the most important intellectual heroes of South Asia.

All things considered, the volume is a valuable contribution to the study of the premodern religious traditions of South Asia, and it deserves to be read widely. One of its features, however, almost certainly guarantees that it will not receive such wide circulation: the publisher has decided to charge $155.00 for its 300 pages, which is all but an obituary for its burial on the shelves of university libraries.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Aleksandar Uskokov is a Lector in Sanskrit at the Macmillan Center for International and Area Studies, Yale University.

Date of Review: 
September 9, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Brian Black is Lecturer in Religious Studies in the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University.

Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad is Fellow of the British Academy, and Distinguished Professor of Comparative Religion and Philosophy at Lancaster University.


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