Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

The Rig Veda between Two Worlds. le Rgveda Entre Deux Mondes

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

The Rig Veda between Two Worlds. le Rgveda Entre Deux Mondes

Article excerpt

The Rig Veda Between Two Worlds. Le Rgveda entre deux mondes. By STEPHANIE JAMISON. Publications de I'Institut de civilisation indienne, no. 74. Paris: College de France, 2007. Pp. 172.

This series of lectures given at the College de France faces, like its title, in two directions. In her search for the elusive "poet" and "poem" of early Indian literature, Jamison begins and ends her essays elsewhere: on the one hand, with a meticulous examination of Avestan evidence and, on the other, with a set of speculations on the "reinvention" of poetry (kdvya) in the much later "classical" period. In between, presumably, the "poet" (kavi) and the "poem" (sukta, narrowly speaking) of the Vedic (largely Rgvedic) period are, it is hoped, to be found.

It is a characteristic of Jamison's work to take up issues that have long been settled (or thought to be so) and, by a clever repositioning of the evidence, to find utterly novel perspectives that freshen and reinvigorate our views of the Indian past. This work is typical. In the first lecture, through the optic of the Avesta and its preoccupation--long recognized--with the views of one authorial voice (whether he be a real Zarathustra or a literary convention makes no difference), Jamison revisits the "parallel" Rgveda, making the point (that is only obvious in such contrasts) that whatever authorial voice is present in that text (and over two hundred "authors" are recorded in the Anukramanis), it has been largely muted both by Indian traditionalists (who take the Veda to be literally "authorless") and by modern scholarship (which prefers linguistic and line-by-line readings in the context of a stereotypical "Veda" assumed to be the largely uniform work of faceless "singers"). Jamison's first task is thus to rediscover the "voice" of the Vedic poet, and this is done, after her fashion, in a most unusual (but after reading the analysis, almost too obvious) way--by pinning down pronominal usage. In fact, the contrast with the Avesta is thereby reinforced, and even rationalized, for we learn that (to a very great extent) the Vedic poet rarely has dialogue with the gods, but only speaks to, or about them; in fact, in the Veda, the poet, after the perfunctory invitation, prefers the most distant third person--with the resultant flavor that in the Avesta the addressee (usually Ahura), normally addressed in the second person, is much more "present" to the authorial "I" than are the largely absent gods of the Veda, who are rarely talked to but endlessly "praised." Indeed, in the Veda, only gods or divine beings address others in the first person (a phenomenon Jamison calls "ventriloquism"). Verbal usages are adduced as well in support of this paradigm--which, in its subtle way, reacquaints us with (at least the existence of) the "poet" of these "poems." Tantalizingly in sync with these multiple contrasts is the etymological conundrum (which will be resolved in the sequel), viz., that the word here understood as 'poet', kavi, is in its Avestan cognate form, kauui, never used in that sense, but only as an attribute of "royal" personages.

In the second lecture, we turn to the poem, which is similarly "rediscovered"--beginning, this time, in good Aristotelian fashion, with a survey of the largely fruitless efforts of Western commentators to discern a typical "structure"--that is to say, a principle of compositional unity--in the thousand or so individual poems of the collection. The well-tried model of "prayer" is examined in some detail, with its tripartite structure of "invocation, laud, and request"--but found, as such, to characterize so few poems as to be virtually worthless as even a descriptive tool. Jamison opts for a more Wittgensteinian approach, with multiple formal possibilities providing a palette among which the poet chooses. But she ultimately focuses on one--which she calls the "omphalos" structure (for it is discernible in other works of Indo-European antiquity)--one that has (for her) the significant advantage of implying an authorial purpose apart from mere imitation of ready-made formats. …

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