Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Dying to Redress the Grievance of Another: On Praya / Prayopavesa(na) in Kalhana's Rajatarangini

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Dying to Redress the Grievance of Another: On Praya / Prayopavesa(na) in Kalhana's Rajatarangini

Article excerpt

In this essay, I examine selected narratives in the Rajatarangini that invoke a specific practice of suicide by starvation, what is referred to as praya, prayopavesa, and/or prayopavesana. Commonly attested in the legal literature as well as in the epics, praya is normally deployed there to redress financial grievances, to force debtors to pay their due. The use of the practice in the Rajatarangini is often quite different from this, however: Kalhana suggests that Brahmins, and others, engaged in the fast-unto-death not only to redress their own (financial) grievances, but also the grievances of others. In particular, Kalhana presents praya as a tool used to compel Kashmiri kings to conform to the dharmasastric strictures of good government, to promote policies favoring not only Brahmins but also other, non-Brahmin subjects. The existence of such a form of the fast-unto-death is significant, for it signals a potentially unselfish use of caste, however imperfectly and corruptly the Rajatarangini shows it to have been applied: by threatening their own deaths and promising thereby the karmic and social consequences of brahminicide, Brahmins sought to compel those sovereigns who pursued their own narrow interests to better serve the common good. That this is so raises a trio of vital concerns regarding (1) the nature of the fast and its modern legacies, and (2) the nature of royal succession, on the one hand, and (3) on the other, the proper role of social and political elites in premodern South Asia. 

INTRODUCTION

While Hindu law has traditionally forbidden acts of willful self-harm, labeling them sinful, (1) there are, parallel to this proscriptive tradition, various social institutions that make positive use of suicide. (2) In the present essay I propose to examine selected instances of a particular form thereof--death by willful starvation--which was commonly deployed to "redress a grievance," as E. Washburn Hopkins expressed it in the title of his foundational essay on the subject (Hopkins 1900). In particular I propose to survey selected instances of the practice in the Rajatarangini (RT), where Kalhana refers repeatedly to it with the commonly attested terms praya, prayopavesa, or (in one instance at least) prayopavesana. (3) Though Hopkins noted the presence of the practice in the Rajatarangini, he left it out of his study in favor of exemplars culled primarily from the Mahabharata and Ramayana, on the reasoning that the epics predate the historically comparatively late Kashmiri chronicle. (4)

The argument I wish to prosecute is this, that in setting aside the evidence of the RT, Hopkins failed to note a particular type, or facet, of the fast-unto-death, one that may be described as an act of dying to redress the grievance of another than oneself. (5) Specifically, instances of what may therefore be labeled unselfish (or, at the least, partially unselfish) suicides in the RT depict Brahmins, and others, engaging in the fast-unto-death to further what can properly be described as policy aims: they do so to effect changes in the way governance is administered in Kashmir, often for the good of Kashmiri subjects in general and not simply for the limited ends of selected individuals. Such acts raise a trio of vital concerns regarding (1) the nature of the fast and its modern legacies, and (2) the nature of royal succession, on the one hand, and (3) on the other, the proper role of social and political elites in premodern South Asia.

HOPKINS'S HEPTADIC TYPOLOGY OF SUICIDE BY STARVATION

Hopkins offers a heptadic typology of praya that progressively offers increasingly more specialized definitions of the practice. (6) He begins first by surveying what he characterizes as more general uses of the fast-unto-death, followed by exemplars of what, in accordance with the law books of Manu, (7) Brhaspati, (8) and Apastamba, (9) he identifies as its most definitive function--what he refers to as its "legal use" (p. …

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