Encountering the Goddess: A Translation of the Devi-Mahatmya and a Study of Its Interpretation

Encountering the Goddess: A Translation of the Devi-Mahatmya and a Study of Its Interpretation

Encountering the Goddess: A Translation of the Devi-Mahatmya and a Study of Its Interpretation

Encountering the Goddess: A Translation of the Devi-Mahatmya and a Study of Its Interpretation

Synopsis

Coburn provides a fresh and careful translation from the Sanskrit of this fifteen-hundred-year-old text. Drawing on field work and literary evidence, he illuminates the process by which the Devi-Mahatmya has attracted a vast number of commentaries and has become the best known Goddess-text in modern India, deeply embedded in the ritual of Goddess worship (especially in Tantra). Coburn answers the following questions among others: Is this document "scripture?" How is it that this text mediates the presence of the Goddess? What can we make of contemporary emphasis on oral recitation of the text rather than study of its written form?

One comes away from Coburn's work with a sense of the historical integrity or wholeness of an extremely important religious development centered on a text. The interaction between the text and later philosophical and religious developments such as those found in Advaita Vedanta and Tantra is quite illuminating.

Relevant here are the issues of the writtenness and orality/aurality of 'scripture, ' and the various ways by which a deposit of holy words such as the Devi-Mahatmya becomes effective, powerful, and inspirational in the lives of those who hold it sacred."

Excerpt

All serious writing, I suspect, is in some measure autobiographical. Whatever subject matter we choose is evidence of ideas that have somehow caught our fancy, traces of things which we have thought about for a while. I am aware of such a personal dimension to this book, not only because of the many people who have contributed to its completion, but also because it reflects part of my own intellectual odyssey over a number of years.

Like many of my contemporaries, I was captivated as an under- graduate by the study of books, particularly historically significant books, and, among them, the books of religion, especially the Bible. the detailed study of Jewish and Christian scripture, with its "source hypotheses" and the like, was intrinsically interesting and challenging. Finding myself some years later in the process of becoming a comparativist or historian of religion, deeply interested in the great Goddess of India, I was still drawn to the study of written documents, but with an uneasiness about the terms of comparison: the status of written records seemed to vary cross-culturally, but we simply took for granted the legitimacy, and the significance, of comparing them. Over the past decade or so, a fair number of scholars in widely varying fields have begun to pay attention to such matters, and this book is, in part, my contribution to that discussion. Since I introduce some of the issues in the discussion early on in chapter 1, I will not anticipate them here. the following very general orientation may, however, be helpful.

What we am about is trying to understand the range of attitudes that we human beings have had toward written documents, particularly those that have been religiously significant. Not all cultures and times sham the assumptions that we in the modern West have on this matter. If we were to display the range of opinions along a spectrum, I suspect . . .

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