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Laurie L. Patton is Associate Professor of Early Indian Religion at Emory University. She is the author of Myth as Argument: The Brhaddevata as Canonical Commentary (de Gruyter, 1996) and the editor of Authority, Anxiety, and Canon: Essays in Vedic Interpretation (State University Press of New York, 1994); Myth and Method (University of Virginia Press, 1996); and the forthcoming Jewels of Authority: Women and Text in the Hindu Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2000). She is the author of over twenty-three articles on Vedic interpretation, comparative mythology, and religion and literature. She is also the editor, with Purushottama Bilimoria, of the series “Toward a Comparative Philosophy of Religions.” She serves as chair of the Department of Religion at Emory.


Abstract of paper given at Hinduism and Ecology conference:
Nature Romanticism and Violence in Rig Vedic Interpretation

It is by now a commonplace to speak of the nature romanticism of Western nineteenth century Rig Vedic interpretation, especially that of Max Mueller, Abel Bergaine, and others. In the last twenty years of scholarship, Indological nature romanticism, and its attendant intellectual heritage, has become the locus classicus for criticism of Indological knowledge--the first place we look when we want to point out the distortion of knowledge about the other.

In this paper I want to move beyond such criticism in two specific ways: First, I want to place the nineteenth century construction of nature within a larger interpretive frame, comparing it to several earlier school of interpretation: the ritual schools of Ashvalayana and Shankhayana (ca. 6-4th century B.C.E.), the Niruktan (etymological) perspective of Yaska (5th century B.C.E.), and the Vijayanagaram perspective of Sayana (ca. 14th century C.E.). By making this comparative move I want to show that nineteenth century Indolologists, while responsible for their own distortions, are not the first "reconstructers"; the natural imagery of the Rg Veda is reconstructed at every moment in its interpretive history.

Thus follows my second point: Cast in this more historical light, the nature romanticism of the 19th century is distinguished from its earlier counterparts by its refusal to engage the world of ritual violence in which the Rg Veda originally emerged. The two "worlds" presented by Rig Vedic metaphor, natural beauty and sacrificial violence, are intertwined in Ashvalayana, Taska and Sayana, albeit in very different ways. In Western Indology, the two are separated, and two very different pictures of Vedic world emerge: the first is pastoral, beautiful and mystic, and the second is violent, bloody, and primitive. This separation occurs because of a basic misunderstanding of how Vedic metaphor works in its ritual contexts. Violence, I argue, is inherent in the Vedic metaphoric process, and Vedic metaphors of the beauty of the natural world must be understood in this light. This examination of the case of Rig Vedic interpretation might give us helpful and cautionary signposts to follow as we examine ancient texts with our own contemporary environmental concerns.


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Hinduism and Ecology conference participants