Dialogue in Early South Asian Religions

Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain Traditions

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Dialogues in South Asian Traditions: Religion, Philosophy, Literature and History
  • New York, NY: 
    , July
     278 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


South Asian religious literature would hardly be what it is without dialogue. If one were to remove all the dialogic elements from the Hindu epics, the Buddhist jātakas, or the Jain Agamas, for example, little of what makes for the richness and dynamism of these works would remain. Little of these and so many other sources would be left at all, in fact. As scholars of South Asian religions have begun to think about literary dialogue broadly in terms of form and function, it appears to be everywhere, crossing genre lines and traditional boundaries alike. 

Ubiquitous as dialogue may be, however, only rarely has it received focused attention in its own right. Most welcome, then, is Dialogue in Early South Asian Religions: Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain Traditions, an eleven-chapter volume that begins the series “Dialogues in South Asian Traditions: Religion, Philosophy, Literature, and History.” Series editors Brian Black and Laurie Patton edit this first volume, and in doing so, they usher in what one hopes will be a new era of sustained, committed inquiry into dialogue’s many possible roles across the South Asian literary landscape. 

In the series abstract, Black and Patton address a question no doubt foremost on readers’ minds, namely, what will count as “dialogue” going forward? Dialogue, they state, will be approached in its widest sense. Verbal exchanges in the form of “discussion, debate, argument, conversation, communication, confrontation, and negotiation” may be subject to analysis. Accordingly, there is no single understanding of dialogue around which the first volume’s chapters coheres. Rather, examinations of early Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain sources are organized into three parts, each of which explores a distinct aspect of dialogue (3), or, in effect, a particular type of relationship exhibited or cultivated by dialogue, however it is conceived. 

Part 1, “Dialogues Inside and Outside the Texts,” foregrounds the text-reader relationship. Collectively, the four chapters in this section explore the reflexive or meta-dialogic capacities of literary dialogue. Here, we see dialogic passages speak, both implicitly and explicitly, to their own significance. By reading for the ways in which dialogues draw attention to themselves as such, Patton, in her analysis of Ṛg Veda 7.103, the Frog Hymn, models a way to gain theoretical insight into dialogue as a literary device. Alf Hiltebeitel and Naomi Appleton examine the narrative framing function of dialogue in the great Hindu epics and Buddhist birth stories, respectively.

Furthermore, Anna Aurelia Esposito, writing on Jain canonical literature, demonstrates how complex compositional forms like embedded dialogical frames can be read as arguments in and of themselves. A text rife with nested exchanges about karma’s inscrutability, for example, might prove formally (and fittingly) inscrutable itself (91). Overall, part 1 inspires future inquiry into dialogue’s agency: As text-internal dialogues depict parties in conversation, what text-external roles do those dialogues envision for themselves? 

Part 2, “Texts in Dialogue,” centers on structural affinities among sources within a single tradition. Together, the three chapters in this section exemplify creative thinking around what it means for texts to claim certain others as interlocutors, not only, or even primarily, through content but also via form. In their analyses, both Douglas Osto (on the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras) and Elizabeth M. Rohlman (on Purāṇas and Gītās) show how stylistic similarities enable newer, would-be-influential texts to draw on the authority of already weighty precursors.


Additionally, Andrew J. Nicholson, writing on the genre of Gītā (“song”) in relation to narrative and philosophical works, argues that tending to formal resonances—even subtle ones across different genres—can reveal philosophical rigor in texts admired above all for their poetic beauty. In each case, we see how form can speak volumes. Paraphrasing Rohlman’s conclusion captures the thrust of part 2 well: By mirroring the shape of another, a dialogue can declare a specific heritage and, at the same time, situate a source within a vast network of meaning, one that expands well beyond the boundaries of a particular time and place.

The four chapters in part 3, “Moving Between Traditions,” focus on interpersonal relationships. Two questions comprise this section’s heart: (1) How are dialogues—and the rhetorical moves made therein—informed and inflected by the identities of their participants? And (2) what, if anything, can literary dialogues tell us about real-life social dynamics? For readers especially interested in the first question, Lisa Wessman Crothers provides an in-depth consideration of how non-verbal or para-dialogic elements can drive a courtly exchange. Readers interested in the second question, on engaging in literary analysis and speculative history in tandem, are encouraged to read the chapters by Michael Nichols, Jonathan Geen, and Brian Black in a complementary way. As a unit, these chapters attest to what Black calls a “recurring commitment to exploring difference through dialogue” (256), whether ancient India’s literary dialogues reflect real-life exchanges in history, or they suggest idealized interactions among parties of different castes, traditions, or genders.

Organizing the chapters this way indeed draws attention to some of the major aspects of dialogue as we find it employed across early Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain sources. Likewise, it reminds us of the degree to which we choose our interpretive lenses on an ad hoc basis. Considering the overlap in themes, the richness of the primary sources at hand, and the multiplicity of ways dialogues can be interpreted, a reader interested in any one of these relationships (i.e., text-reader, text-text, or interpersonal) would nevertheless benefit from reading each part with their own interests in mind. 

The inclusion of case-specific, working definitions of dialogue at the outset of certain chapters would have anchored several analyses. One often wonders, at least, what understandings of “dialogue” informed an author’s choice of sources or steered the initial phases of a text’s examination. But, ultimately, the exploratory nature of this volume as a whole is one of its many virtues, as is the willingness to take a capacious view of dialogue. Each chapter models a way to produce thicker descriptions of dialogue—both in terms of what dialogue might look like and what it can do—by working up from instances of dialogue itself.

Moreover, just as embracing the lability of “dialogue” may help scholars discover unexpected features of their sources, it might also allow for greater comparison beyond South Asia. Dialogue has long been undertheorized by scholars of religion and literature broadly speaking, and so, along with future volumes in its parent series, Dialogue in Early South Asian Religions stands poised to guide the conversation around dialogue on a grand, global scale.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Elizabeth Angowski is Assistant Professor of Religion at Earlham College.

Date of Review: 
August 26, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Brian Black is Lecturer in Religious Studies at Lancaster University.

Laurie Patton is Professor of Religion and Dean of Arts and Sciences at Duke University.


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