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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.

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