By Jeanne H. Kilde
As the students left campus last May, a group of religious studies scholars from around the Twin Cities area descended on the Program in Religious Studies for a day-long workshop on "Text and Orality" within the study of religion. Noted scholar of Hinduism Dr. Wendy Doniger, from the University of Chicago, kicked off the day with an excellent lecture on the use and ramifications of these categories in the study of Hinduism.
Her enlightening paper pointed out that our general assumption that information conveyed in written form is more fixed and permanent than that conveyed orally is severely challenged, if not disproved, by two seminal Hindu works, the Rig Veda and the Mahabharata. The Rig Veda, for instance, transmitted orally for centuries, was carefully memorized and conveyed, word for word, even intonation for intonation. It was an extremely "fixed," even frozen "text." The Mahabharata, in contrast, was transmitted orally but also written down, and the extant written versions vary a great deal. This text was clearly understood to be quite fluid by those who wrote down versions of it. Doniger examined a number of related issues in her discussion of the social class and gender ramifications of many other works. Formal responses to Dr. Doniger's paper were provided by Dr. Simona Sawhney of the Asian Language and Literatures Department (ALL) and James Laine of Macalester College and were followed by a lively discussion among all the workshop participants.
That afternoon, scholars from several CLA departments, including Classical and Near Eastern studies, ALL, history, and writing studies, presented papers on issues pertaining to text and orality in Buddhism, biblical studies, and Native American studies.
The event, funded by a grant from CLA's Scholarly Events Fund and sponsored by the Program in Religious Studies in partnership with ALL and the Institute for Advanced Study, provided an opportunity for religious studies scholars from around the region to get together and discuss a topic that has bearing for anyone who studies religion. The transmission of ideas and stories is a central component of religious practice. While comparing such practices across traditions was not the goal of the conference, becoming familiar with the issues around studying these practices across religious traditions was quite illuminating.
This was the third annual summer workshop for faculty and graduate students offered by the Program in Religious Studies. We look forward to continued support from our generous sponsors and the participation of prolific U.S. scholars of religion.