Christopher Chapple, Navin and Pratima Doshi Professor of Indic and Comparative Theology, Loyola Marymount University 

"Scriptures in India's Religious Traditions"

Professor Christopher Chapple initiated the first of the Fall 07 ISS Brown Bag sessions with a presentation on the scriptural contours of the religious traditions of India. A brief but vivid video clip on the performed orality of textual traditions set the stage for a discussion on the antiquity, the oral and enduring character of scriptures in India, and the multi resistance positions with regard to interpretation.   

The Vedas occupy a pivotal scriptural reference point from where they engender a wide variety of attitudes and practices. If one were to take Agni (‘fire’) from among the Vedic pantheon as a starting point, one is able to thread the scripture-d structures of religious subjectivities in the form of rituals and accompanying symbolisms that are woven into the life of the practitioner. Periodic fire rituals accompanied by sacred hymns and crematory rites exemplify the underlying notion of one’s procession from and return to the creative power of Agni while daily rituals, like the Shraddha, play out the orality of the scriptural tradition on a regular basis. Yogic practices like the surya namaskar symbolize the power of illumination at dawn and also the kindling of Agni’s creative power. In like manner and beyond Agni, the other members of the pantheon open the possibilities of multiple forms of ritual language and practices that, as they are performed, draw out the practitioner from chaos to a state of blessedness via progressive stages of stabilization and directionality.

Interwoven in the layers of ritual practices and meanings, the Vedas engender philosophical constructs that fashion Hindu theology as a source of life principles. These constructs are drawn primarily from the Upanishadic discourses that are crystallized in mahavakyas or profound aphorisms like tat tvam asi (“that, you are”), the interpretations of which then fashion the various schools of Hindu philosophy. This interpretive level opens up the discursive space for multiple voices, contestations, and alternatives to Vedic culture that in turn engender non-Vedic scriptural traditions with their own resistive and constructive speculations reality and ethics. The Buddhist sutras and the Acaranga Sutra of the Jaina tradition, among the other reactionary scriptural positions, augment the richness and variety of the scriptural tradition beyond just the Vedic.
Questions for further consideration:
Given the multiple textual traditions, tellers and interpreters, do the smriti and shruti dynamics attempt to effect a standardization by canonization while simultaneously opening space for alternatives that might be seen as rupturing the closure? If so, does the Vedic texture remain the meta-narrative for scriptural traditions in India?

How do the practices and metaphysical speculations of the textual traditions intersect? Is the practitioner also the exegete and thus making the specialist hermeneut superfluous? How do such intersections play out in popular religion that is more defined by smriti and the personification of principles, gods and goddesses?

Reactionary moves against the Vedic heritage were, among other factors, necessitated because of their scripturalized exclusion. Among the varied textual posturing taken, how do such other-ed collectives re-inscribe themselves so that their non-Vedic indigenous traditions and their re-signifying of Vedic categories function alongside the dominant scriptural traditions of India?

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