Authority and Meaning in Indian Religions
Hinduism and the Case of Valmiki
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This title was first published in 2003. Can a text be used either to validate or to invalidate contemporary understandings? Texts may be deemed 'sacred', but sacred to whom? Do conflicting understandings matter? Is it appropriate to try to offer a resolution? For Hindus and non-Hindus, in India and beyond, Valmiki is the poet-saint who composed the epic RÃ mÃ yaÃµa. Yet for a vocal community of dalits (once called 'untouchables'), within and outside India, Valmiki is God. How then does one explain the popular story that he started out as an ignorant and violent bandit, attacking and killing travellers for material gain? And what happens when these two accounts, Valmiki as God and Valmiki as villain, are held simultaneously by two different religious groups, both contemporary, and both vocal? This situation came to a head with controversial demonstrations by the Valmiki community in Britain in 2000, giving rise to some searching questions which Julia Leslie now seeks to address. Exploring the relationship between sacred text and religious meaning, Leslie presents a critical, text-historical study of the figure of Valmiki drawing on the sacred texts traditionally attributed to him: the VÃ lmÃ£ki RÃ mÃ yaÃµa and the YogavÃ siÃ¹Ã±ha RÃ mÃ yaÃµa, both in Sanskrit. While identifying and examining the various strands of popular stories concerning Valmiki, Leslie disentangles the earliest evidence for him from the narrative threads of passing centuries, and considers the implications of that process. This ground-breaking analysis, illustrated with paintings of Valmiki, makes a unique contribution both to our understanding of the interlocking beliefs of many religious communities and to a greater awareness of the problematic relationship between sacred text and contemporary religious meaning. Invaluable to students of both the study of religions and South Asian studies, this book will also be of interest to Indian communities in the diaspora seeking to understand their roots, including (but not exclusively) the Valmikis.
Table of Contents
Contents: Situating the problem; Contextualizing the person; Identifying 'Valmiki' in early Sanskrit texts; Tracing motifs in Sanskrit and vernacular texts; Drawing conclusions for today; Glossary; Bibliography; Index.
'This extraordinary book marshals unimpeachable scholarship, rich in fascinating historical detail and mythological imagination, to tackle questions that are angrily, sometimes violently, debated in both scholarly and faith communities everywhere today: Who has the right to talk about someone else's religion? A fascinating study of untouchables, caste rivalries, the mythologizing of history, and the revolutionary rise of a low-caste religion of devotion.' Wendy Doniger, University of Chicago 'An interesting and important book: I found it both fascinating and novel in the way that it brings together textual issues and contemporary concerns. It breaks significant new ground in a rigorous and illuminating manner, accessible to all. I warmly recommend it.' John Brockington University of Edinburgh. 'A remarkable feat of scholarship. I particularly relish the way in which Julia Leslie interweaves her concern to understand the emotive issues of identity that beset a contemporary UK South Asian community with her painstaking and authoritative detective work on Sanskrit texts.' Eleanor Nesbitt, University of Warwick 'This is an important book that contributes not only to Hindu Studies but also to contemporary debates about culture and meaning in a multicultural context. This is excellent scholarship that draws on a wealth of learning, takes seriously the importance of texts in any understanding of contemporary Hinduism, and is very well written.' Gavin Flood, Stirling University 'This important and scholarly book by Julia Leslie breaks entirely new ground. Elegantly written and lucidly argued, it should be read by everyone interested in Hindu Studies or in contemporary debates about the politics of recognition, self-representation and identity in a multifaith society. It will also be warmly welcomed by all whose who are interested in Dalit (ex-untouchables) communities as it brings together and evaluates a wealth of material both in India and the UK... What is ultimately impressive about this book is the model of scrupulous and responsible scholarship if offers in seeking to deconstruct the conflicting understandings of different religious communities... this fascinating and eirenic book can be read with advantage by anyone engaged in intro-or inter-faith dialogue.' Interreligious Insight 'This is an important addition to scholarship and a book that I know I will be using on many occasions in my teaching, not only in courses on South Asian religion but also in more methodological introductions to the study of religions... a book that tells us much about authenticity, narrative construction, truth-claims and identity formation.' Bulletin of the British Association for the Study of Religions 'Leslie's book is a testament to the energy of an engaged scholar bringing together religious and scholarly communities, numerous footnores indicating reponses from colleagues consulted.' Journal of Punjab Studies 'One of Leslie's final projects, this book is an impressive testament to both her meticulous and wide-ranging scholarship on Indian religion and her deep engagement with its social and cultural context... Apart from a magisterial survey and analysis of Sanskrit and vernacular sources on the poet's legend, the book offers an insightful discussion of the socio-cultural politics of 'untouchability' both in India and in its diaspora, and a timely meditation on the role and limitations of academic scholars in clarifying vexed issues of religious and ethnic identity. The book is thus at once a lasting contribution to religious and historical research, an important intervention in contemporary 'culture wars', and a revealing study of the aspirations and struggles of a still-marginalized and oppressed community.' Religious Studies Review '... a fascinating take of how religious authority and meaning are constantly (re)negotiated, and the tensions between historical data and religious meaning. Throughout the book, Leslie sensitively and self-reflexively contemplates the rights and duties of scholars... Her own skillful scholarly historicising is evident throughout... Topics are clearly laid out throughout the book, with numerous helpful summaries.' Religion