Textuality on the Brahmanical ‘Frontier’

The Genre of the Sanskrit Purāṇas

In: Philological Encounters
Travis L. Smith Seoul National University

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This article explores the unique textual dynamism of the Sanskrit Purāṇas, considering it as an essential feature of Purāṇa as a genre. While early textual scholars looked upon the extreme eclecticism and textual instability of this literature with disdain, the Purāṇas themselves were aware of their own fluctuation as a corpus, making efforts to justify it while also taming it, all the while boldly asserting Purāṇa’s canonical status and its ultimate coherence and authority. The complex and varied strategies that Purāṇa texts take in achieving these goals take on new significance in locating the origins of this genre in the new orthodox but inclusivist theistic movements of the early centuries of the Common Era, which operated on the frontiers of brahmanical culture. Purāṇa was a textual form conceived by such groups, and perfectly suited to the dissemination of their particular doctrines and practices. As such, Purāṇa was “frontier literature” in two senses: in the first place, it was composed and deployed primarily on the geographical margins of brahmanical orthopraxis; and secondly, the distinctive textual editability of Purāṇa texts made Purāṇa a site of constant sectarian and ideological contestation.

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