Schedule: Spalding Online 2020

Please book your space via eventbrite: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/spalding-symposium-online-tickets-115876697321

Saturday 26th September 2020

Schedule 13.15-17.45 (British Summer Time)

13:15     Introduction and Welcome

13:30     Debating God’s Existence in Medieval Vedānta:

Vyāsatīrtha vs. the Navya-Naiyāyikas

  Michael Williams, IKGA of the Austrian Academy of Sciences

14.30     Toward a Theory of Scriptural Authority in Early Colonial India

Avni Chag, School of Oriental and African Studies

15.30     Short break

15.45     Reflecting on Animal Sacrifice through Dramatic Fiction: Examining Plays by Girish Karnad and Rabindranath Tagore
Mikel Burley, Leeds University

Graduate papers

16:45     The Royal Hospitality: A Comparative Study of Kingship in Vālmīki’s Rāmāyaṇa and the Jātakas

              Preeti Gulati, Jawaharlal Nehru University

17:15     Engaged Buddhism Across the Three Yānas: A Comparative Approach to a Developing Social Philosophy

              Manu Ato-Carrera, School of Oriental and African Studies

17:45     Closing Remarks and information about the 2021 Symposium

Abstracts for Spalding Online 2020

September 26th 2020, 1.15pm to 5.45pm (BST)

Abstracts [see post below for schedule and booking]

Debating God’s Existence in Medieval Vedānta: Vyāsatīrtha vs. the Navya-Naiyāyikas

Michael Williams, IKGA of the Austrian Academy of Sciences

This paper focuses on the philosophical writings of a sixteenth-century Vedānta philosopher named Vyāsatīrtha (1460–1539). Vyāsatīrtha was both an admirer and a critic of the works of the epistemologist and rational theologian Gaṅgeśa Upādhyāya (fl. 1350). Vyāsatīrtha’s magnum opusthe Tarkatāṇḍava, contains one of the most detailed critiques of Gaṅgeśa ever written by a Vedānta philosopher. His critique of Gaṅgeśa is currently the subject of a project hosted at the Institute for the Cultural and Intellectual History of Asia in Vienna.

In the Tarkatāṇḍava, Vyāsatīrtha takes on Gaṅgeśa’s claim that the existence and nature of god can be established through inferential reasoning. Despite being a devoted theist, Vyāsatīrtha argues that metaphysical truths like the existence of god are innately beyond the ken of human reasoning. In the “Chapter on God” (Īśvaravāda) of the Tarkatāṇḍava, he builds a case against Gaṅgeśa to prove that inferential reasoning is innately unable to grasp matters like the existence of god, just as one sense modality is unable to perceive the objects of another. Vyāsatīrtha shows in an elegant and playful dialogue that the empiricistic constraints placed upon inference by the Naiyāyikas themselves render it impossible for inference to support their larger metaphysical commitments.

In this paper, I will focus on Vyāsatīrtha’s critique of Gaṅgeśa’s attempts to infer the existence of a disembodied creator. Vyāsatīrtha argues that the rules of inference accepted by the Naiyāyikas themselves make it impossible for them to infer the existence of such an unprecedented being. He concludes that only the Veda can tell us about the existence and nature of god.

Toward a Theory of Scriptural Authority in Early Colonial Western India

Avni Chag, School of Oriental and African Studies

The advent of British colonialism in India is tangled with histories of ‘reform and renaissance’, which forced religious communities on the ground to negotiate and navigate the various currents and technicalities of religious change, secularism and nationalism. This paper explores how British prioritisation of understanding Hindu religious life and activity according to Christian ideas and principles has impacted and defined particular features of the Swaminarayan Sampradāya, an emerging Hindu devotional tradition in the early nineteenth century. At the turn of the century, Sahajānanda Svāmī (1781-1830), also known as Svāminārāyaṇa, already had a sizeable following, which was beginning to seep into the religious landscape across western India, present day Gujarat. Today his sampradāya is one of the most visible formations of Hinduism, with a rapidly growing global following and thousands of temples worldwide. Though it has a confident presence today with consolidated ideas of ritual, practice and theology, as well as canons of core texts, some of its early authoritative literature presents a paradoxical picture. Elements of surrounding dominant cultures – including customs and laws, devotional procedure and practice, theological principles and beliefs, structures and genres of texts – permeate certain early texts. Sometimes these interreligious elements appear incompatible with each other and with various renderings of Svāminārāyaṇa doctrine and praxis articulated elsewhere.

In this paper I look at one such text, the Śikṣāpatrī, a short letter of instructions on moral behaviour and devotional procedure, written for Svāminārāyaṇa followers by Sahajānanda Svāmī, the founder and accepted deity of the sampradāya. The Śikṣāpatrī is one of the most important texts of the sampradāya and venerated as scripture by many followers. The text’s early life included a formal ‘first draft’, which when compared with the popular recension in use today, appears less connected with the prevalent landscape of the time period. It is without any direct affiliations to theological schools, treatises and practices, a trend which is dominant in the popularised recension. I propose that changes made between the recensions are part of a series of calculated efforts by early members of the sampradāya to make the text appear ‘interreligious’, and, more significantly, a result of the effects of the British Christian presence in Gujarat at the time. I will demonstrate that the privileging of this text as ‘scripture’, and thus, its contents as ‘scriptural’, speaks of a perceived need to situate the text, and by extension the sampradāya, in relation to ready-established traditions and the British ruling authority. In so doing, I theorise how the early Svāminārāyaṇa Sampradāya utilised interreligious registers and axioms such as ‘scripture’ in its critically formative years as part of its larger project of self-authorisation. Furthermore, though interreligiosity within ‘scripture’ may have been a survival mechanism at the time, it appears to be central to how factions within the sampradāya identify and define themselves against each other today. 

Reflecting on animal sacrifice through dramatic fiction: Examining plays by Girish Karnad and Rabindranath Tagore

Mikel Burley, University of Leeds

Animal sacrifice has been a constant—and often controversial—feature of certain forms of religion in India over several millennia. It has also been a topic of artistic reflection. This paper first offers an overview of the place of animal sacrifice in Indian and Nepalese contexts before turning to an exposition and analysis of two highly relevant plays: Bali: The Sacrifice by Girish Karnad (2002) and Sacrifice by Rabindranath Tagore (1917). Far from being reducible to a didactic polemic either in support of or in opposition to animal sacrifice, each of these plays constitutes a nuanced enactment of conflicting positions, both between and internal to certain key characters. By bringing out these nuances, I argue that the plays exemplify how works of dramatic fiction, along with other art forms, can provide important resources for reflecting upon the complex motivations for and against the performance of animal sacrifice in Indian traditions.

The Royal Hospitality: A Comparative Study of Kingship in Vālmīki’s Rāmāyaṇa and the Jātakas’

Preeti Gulati, Jawaharlal Nehru University

An offering of food, drink, or shelter is a frequent literary motif across normative and narrative texts in early India, signifying not just reprieve, but also an honour for the receiver. When this transaction of hospitality involved the king, the embodiment of the ideal householder in early India, it determined not only the state’s relationship with the various subjects in its realm but also reflected the ideal socio-moral order. Who the king chose to host, to give to, and receive from were visible articulations of kingship and religion in daily life. This paper compares the notions of kingship in Vālmīki’s Rāmāyaṇa and the Jātakas as demonstrated in the transactional activity of royal hospitality.

Both Vālmīki’s Rāmāyaṇa and the Jātaka tales were codified into text roughly between 300 BCE and 150 CE but were in circulation as ‘folklore’ much before this period. These texts thus served as key performative texts on kingship, etching out the ‘ideal king’ as a role-model for emulation. This idealisation, and the deviation from the same, was most visible in dietary practices. As I shall show, both Vālmīki’s Rāmāyaṇa and the Jātakas, used the motif and narrative of royal hospitality to glorify and justify the material prosperity of the ideal king. Yet, these texts portrayed similar modes of extravagance such as among the rākśasas, niṣādas, yakṣas and yakṣanīs, as a propensity for ‘excess’ , ’indulgence’ and hence immorality, thereby delegitimizing their mode of kingship. This moral juxtaposition between the righteous and the immoral king is common to both the texts. Yet, what constituted as morally righteous or unacceptable was rooted in normative ethics of the respective religious traditions, and hence a comparative reading reveals the confronting and competitive ideologies of Brahmanism and Buddhism.

Current historiography on early Indian kingship prefers normative texts that clearly delineate political philosophy, like the Mahābharata or the Arthaśāstra. However, Vālmīki’s Rāmāyaṇa and the Jātakas, in combining the functions of narrative and normative literature, allow us to read in the enactments how normative codes manifested in daily life. In particular, the focus on royal hospitality demonstrates how cultural codes were embedded in policies of statecraft. Thus, Rāma’s interactions with various social orders, from ascetics to vānaras and niśada king Guha, were symptomatic of relations between sovereign powers and the contestations within. Similarly, comparative reading of occasions of royal hospitality, like consecrations, funerary or ancestral rites, departure of royal heirs to exile, or the items and the social strata of guests in these feasts, also reveals how Brahmanism and Buddhism used the institution of kingship to articulate their key tenets. For example, the Buddhist norms on claims to kingship, or even the receivers of royal hospitality, expanded and accommodated in ways that critiqued the rigidity of Brahmanical caste structures. Through these crucial comparisons, this paper highlights how quotidian practices of kingship were instrumental to define competitive modes of state authority and the ideal social order.

Engaged Buddhism Across the Three Yānas: A Comparative Approach to a Developing Social Philosophy

Manu Ato-Carrera, School of Oriental and African Studies

Since the emergence of the concept in the 1960s, engaged Buddhism is a term that has been used to describe a variety of religious movements emphasizing the capital role of civic action in religion as their distinctive feature, to the extent of incorporating under this category other similar groups from the late 19th century onward. Moreover, this concept has been applied to a vast number of Buddhist organizations in Asia and the West, to the point of being considered a new yāna by Christopher Queen, a scholar with extensive studies on the topic.   

However, not every kind of civic action performed by a Buddhist group falls under the criteria of engaged Buddhism. Nor has any of their chief representatives claimed to found a new yāna –with the sole exception of B. R. Ambedkar in 1950s India. In that regard, this paper aims to offer a comprehensive definition of the concept and the features of its social philosophy. This analysis reveals a high consistency between their principal leaders in their lives and works across the three Buddhist yānas, despite coming from a plurality of parallel origins. With that purpose, this comparative study focuses on the influential figures of Thich Nhat Hanh (Mahāyāna), the XIV Dalai Lama (Vajrayāna), and Sulak Sivaraksa (Theravāda).

Under these considerations, engaged Buddhism’s social philosophy appears as a post World War II pan-Asian and cross-yānic phenomenon in a context of interaction with Western and global cultures, constituting a paradigm shift in contemporary Buddhist ethics. Furthermore, in its ongoing development, it shows seven key features: civic action-oriented; critical and hermeneutical; insightfully interdependent; spiritually-rooted; nonviolent and compassionate; interreligious and globally driven; and politically unbiased.

A Short Online 2020 Spalding Symposium

We hope this message finds you all safe and well.

In light of the current Covid-19 situation and our spring event being cancelled we have decided to hold a short virtual Spalding Symposium this Autumn as a chance for the Spring presentees to showcase their current work. More details will be released in due course but we would like for you to save the date for 26th September 2020. In order to account for the various time zones we will keep the talks in the afternoon. The symposium will last no more than 4 hours. If you have any queries please feel free to email us at spaldingsymposium1@gmail.com.

Please continue to watch this space for other exciting updates and news.

Thank you and the Future

We are honoured to take on the co-convenorship of the Spalding Symposium of Indian Religions going forward, and very happy to have the ongoing support of Dr Brian Black.

We would like to take this opportunity to thank Dr Naomi Appleton for her expert stewardship of the Symposium as convenor and treasurer and for developing the internationally renowned status that this scholarly event has.  
We hope to continue the legacy of the previous convenors and organisers before us, maintain the prestige and integrity of this symposium, and continue to connect scholars and students in the UK and across the globe. In the spirit of this new convenorship, we are interested in ideas that you’d like to see in future symposiums and invite you to send these to our email address: spaldingsymposium1@gmail.com

Dr Avni Chag and Dr Karen O’Brien-Kop 

New convenors

After six years at the helm, I am passing on the convenorship of the Spalding Symposium. It has been a real honour to look after the event, with the help of Brian Black and also of local hosts at the various venues. Although a cancelled event in a pandemic was not how I hoped to conclude my convenorship, I am very excited to know that the new convenors will be bringing their fresh ideas and energy to take the event forwards. These new co-convenors (also co-treasurers) are Karen O’Brien-Kop and Avni Chag, and Brian Black will continue to support them as secretary. I know that the Symposium is in very capable hands, and I look forward to continuing to attend and support the event over the coming years.

Additional events around the Symposium


You are all warmly invited to join two additional events taking place on the days before and after this year’s symposium.

On Thursday 23rd April, Prof Maria Heim will give the Edinburgh Buddhist Studies Khyentse lecture on ‘Happiness, Pleasure, and Bliss in Early Buddhism and the Upanishads’, 4-5.30pm in the Martin Hall, New College.

On Monday 27th April, Prof Oliver Freiberger will be involved in a roundtable discussion on his new book Considering Comparison: A Method for Religious Studies (OUP, 2019), with colleagues from the School of Divinity, Edinburgh, 11-12.30 in the Martin Hall, New College.

If you would like to extend your stay in Edinburgh for this or any other reason, you can book additional nights in the symposium hotel by contacting them directly:

Motel One Edinburgh-Royal

18-21 Market Street
EH1 1BL Edinburgh
+44/131/220 073-0

If you have already booked a residential place at the symposium, please tell the hotel that you are staying as part of the group booking by Naomi Appleton, University of Edinburgh. They will charge you direct for any additional nights. You can also arrange additional guests (switching to double or twin occupancy) through the same method.

Booking for 2020 Symposium now open


With regret, this year’s symposium is cancelled. We hope to reassemble the programme for the 2021 meeting.

We are now taking bookings for the 2020 Symposium. Please follow this link to the University of Edinburgh e-pay system to register. Details you provide there will be used only for administering this event (including providing guest names to the hotel) and will not be passed to any other third parties. The full programme for the event is here.

Please note: We regret that we are unable to issue a visa invitation letter unless you are a speaker at this event.

As always there are two registration rates:

Non-residential £80

This includes full attendance at the Symposium, with lunches on Saturday and Sunday, dinners Friday and Saturday, and tea/coffee during the event.

Residential £250

This includes full Symposium attendance, lunches Saturday and Sunday, dinners Friday and Saturday, tea/coffee during the event, and two nights en-suite bed and breakfast at Motel One Edinburgh-Royal (a short walk from the Symposium venue New College).

Hotel places are limited so do book early to avoid disappointment. 

Cheaper accommodation options are available in the city, so you can book the non-residential rate and make your own arrangements, but be aware that Edinburgh accommodation sells out fast.

Please note that there are no concession rates. We do have a small number of free non-residential places available for UK postgraduate students and early career scholars who would not otherwise be able to attend. Please contact naomi.appleton@ed.ac.uk if you are interested, with a short statement of your research interests, current status, and why you particularly wish to attend the event.

Provisional Programme for 2020 Symposium

I am pleased to announce the draft programme for the 2020 Spalding Symposium. Booking will open shortly.

Spalding Symposium on Indian Religions

24th – 26th April 2020, University of Edinburgh

Provisional Programme:

Friday 24th April

1.45pm   Introduction and welcome

2.00-3.00pm   Opening keynote: Oliver Freiberger (University of Texas at Austin) – “Comparing Religion Within and Beyond South Asia”

3.00-3.30pm   Tea and coffee

3.30-4.30pm   Karl-Stéphan Bouthillette (Ghent University) – ‘The Spiritual Exercise of Comparing Doctrines: A Performative Function of Indian Doxographies’

4.45-6.15pm   Postgraduate Papers

Alex Owens (Lancaster University) – ‘The Greening of the Net: A exploration into the sensitive redeployment of Indra’s Net today within the field of environmentalism’

Manu Ato-Carrera (SOAS) – ‘Engaged Buddhism Across the Three Yānas:A Comparative Approach to a Developing Social Philosophy’

Ranjamrittika Bhowmik (University of Oxford) – ‘Mystical Utterances of Sahaja: The Soul-Body Amalgam in Caryāgīti, Tukkhā and Bāul-Fakir Songs of Bengal’

6.15pm Dinner


Saturday 25th April

9.00-10.00am   Maria Heim (Amherst College) – ‘Emptiness: Comparing Buddhaghosa and Śāntideva’

10.00-10.30am   Tea and coffee

10.30-11.30am   Stuart Sarbacker (Oregon State University) – ‘Pātañjala Yoga and Buddhist Abhidharma on Extraordinary Perfections and Accomplishments: A Comparison of Pātañjalayogaśāstra 4.1 and Abhidharmakośa 7.53 on the sources of Siddhi and Ṛddhi’

11.30am-12.30pm   Deepak Sarma (Case Western Reserve University) – ‘Comparison as means of colonization, comparison as strategy to controvert: Madhva Vedanta and Christianity’

12.30-1.30pm   Lunch

1.30-2.30pm   Christopher Austin (Dalhousie University) – ‘Comparing Double Victories and Double Felicities: A Pervasive System of Meaning in Indian Religion and Literature’

2.30-3.30pm   Postgraduate Papers

Krishnan Ram-Prasad (University of Cambridge) – ‘The Epic Cinematic Universe: Intertextual characters as a locus of comparison between Sanskrit and Ancient Greek literature’

Preeti Gulati (Jawaharlal Nehru University) – ‘The Royal Hospitality: A Comparative Study of Kingship in Vālmīki’s Rāmāyaṇa and the Jātakas’

3.30-4.00pm   Tea and coffee

4.00-5.00pm   Mikel Burley (University of Leeds) – ‘‘All is ambivalence’: faith and struggle in the poetry of Rāmprasād Sen and R. S. Thomas’

5.15-6.15pm   Keynote: Jacqueline Suthren Hirst (University of Manchester) ‘A Life of Comparisons’

6.15pm Dinner


Sunday 26th April

9.00-10.00am   Michael Williams (Austrian Academy of Sciences) – ‘Hindu Theodicies in Comparison: Vyāsatīrtha, John Calvin and the Problem of Suffering’

10.00-11.00am   Jonathan Geen (King’s University College, CA) – ‘Comparing for Chronology: Hindu and Jain Narratives of Kidnappings and Rescues’

11.00-11.30am   Tea and coffee

11.30am-12.30pm   Karen O’Brien-Kop (University of Roehampton) – ‘Proximal reading: Intertextuality, discourse analysis, and synchronic approaches to classical texts on yoga’

12.30-1.00pm Closing remarks

1.00-2.00pm   Lunch and then departure