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Studying a Sanskrit classic through its reception

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Text to Tradition is an engaging study of the great Sanskrit 12th century mahākāvya Naiṣadhīyacaritra by Śrīharṣa. Instead of an analysis of the text itself, Patel examines the processes through which the Naiṣadhīyacarita rose to prominence in the literary communities of South Asia. By studying the text through centuries of interlocutors, Patel demonstrates how a text is shaped over time through commentaries, redactions, and as a pedagogical resource.
The primary object of study is the Naiṣadhīyacarita of Śrīharṣa, one of the five great epic Sanskrit poems (pañcamahākāvya). This classic work relates the story of Nala and Damayanti’s separation and eventual reunion and is last of the great works of the classical Sanskrit tradition. The text is also renowned as one of the most complex and innovative of the tradition. As a result, the Naiṣadhīyacarita has given rise to a strong and vibrant tradition of commentaries and analyses in traditional academic and religious literary communities in South Asia. Text to Tradition is an analysis of how this reception created the text as we know it today.

Chapter overview
The book is divided into seven chapters in addition to an introduction and conclusion. The first chapter examines the style and aesthetics of the Naiṣadhīya particularly as it relates to the broader mahākāvya tradition and genre and the other pañcamahākāvyas. In the second substantive chapter, Patel introduces “Eight Centuries of Commentary” in which he developed a historical periodization of the Naiṣadhīya’s commentarial tradition: early (13th-14th centuries), scholarly (15th century), and post-canonical (16th century onwards). The periodization of this chapter underpins the remainder of Text to Tradition providing a lens through which Patel views the changing tides of reception and presentation within the Naiṣadhīya’s various reader communities.
In Chapters 3 and 4, Patel examines the commentarial and editorial processes through which the text was shaped and reshaped. Patel demonstrates how four of the Naiṣadhīya’s commentators, Vidyādhara, Cāṇḍupaṇḍita, Mallinātha, and Nārāyaṇa, exemplify the periodization provided in Chapter 2. Of particular interest to this review was Patel’s adept discussion of Mallinātha’s commentary. The author places Mallinātha within the context of the scholastic tradition and the Naiṣadhīya as a traditional pedagogical resource for advanced Sanskrit students. Chapter 4 follows this methodology but shifts emphasis to a similar search for the authentic Naiṣadhīya. The author argues that the “text-critical arguments [concerning the Naiṣadhīya] distilled past attitudes about the poem and shaped, in turn, the inheritance of the Naiṣadhīya tradition among later generations of readers” (107).
In the fifth chapter, Patel examines “Secondary Waves of Reception” that were informed by the allegorical readings of the Naiṣadhīya that emerged during the post-canonical period of interpretation. In this secondary reading, the poem is disintegrated and disaggregated into smaller episodes that were used to explicate spiritual or philosophical teachings. Likewise Chapter 6 investigates the emergence of biographies and legends concerning both Śrīharṣa and the Naiṣadhīya in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Patel demonstrates how these legends are created within the context of literary-critique and are “narrative modes that do the work of literary criticism and literary history” giving an emic conception of the authorial voice (172).
Patel continues in Chapter 7 by expanding his scope to the regional “translations” of the Naiṣadhīya. Again the author places these works within the context of the previous literary-critical tradition by showing how the translations of the Naiṣadhīya incorporate earlier engagements from the Sanskrit commentaries, but how this also transitions the poem into a new literary context and to a new audience. Therefore, while it engaged with the earlier tradition it was “a creative act first and only then a commentary” (199).

The life or afterlife of a Sanskrit mahākāvya
Text to Tradition provides a remarkable approach to studying a text, not through the text alone, but paying proper attention to the processes of interpretation and editing and how they shape our understanding of a text. By focusing on the reception of reading communities, Patel has been able to show how a Sanskrit text continues an active life in literary circles centuries after it was written. The author, however, is not so much concerned with a biography of the text, but he is interested in its afterlife. That is to say, how the text has come to be remembered through commentaries, editing, and legends surrounding it.
With the author’s emphasis on the literary and textual critical context of the Naiṣadhīya tradition, however, this reviewer was left wondering about the audience beyond those that were editing, commenting upon, and translating the text. Who was the audience for such works? Patel implies various broader audiences, such as the court in the early period and religious audiences in later allegorical interpretations, but it seems like the default audience for the author were always students of Sanskrit. This may very well have been the case even with the regional Naiṣadhīyas, but there were also those for whom the allegorical interpretations were written, the religious readers. This reviewer was left wondering how important the text was outside of literary pedagogical circles and how much of a role that played in shaping not only how the Naiṣadhīya was read but why it was read. To put it another way, how is the afterlife of the text (commentary, editing, and translation) related to how and why the text is read by a community in the first place? This might be unknowable, but perhaps a more thorough discussion of the contexts in which the text is read or performed could enlighten the subject further.

Conclusion
Text to Tradition is a wonderful monograph in which Deven Patel takes his readers through the complex history of the Naiṣadhīya and its reception. The book is extremely readable and employs selected quotes from various authors from Western literature that helps place the author’s theoretical perspective within a broader context of literary studies; however, the book does assume certain knowledge about South Asian literature and language and might be difficult for some non-specialists. That being said the book seems perfectly suited for a graduate course or for non-specialists with some familiarity with South Asia and Sanskrit literary traditions.

Reviewed by: Caleb Simmons, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, University of Arizona (calebsimmons@email.arizona.edu)

Citation:
Simmons, C. 2016. A review of Patel, D.M. 2014. Text to Tradition: The Naiṣadhīyacarita and Literary Community in South Asia, posted online on 3 June 2016: newbooks.asia/review/studying-sanskrit

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