Authors’ Q&A

Heavenly Exploits: Buddhist Biographies from the Dívyavadána (volume one of six)

Joel Tatelman

Q. Over the weekend I was browsing through the Buddhism section of my local chain bookstore (Barnes and Noble) and, much to my shock, ran across a copy of Joel Tatelman’s volume in the Clay Sanskrit Library. I must say that it is a rather handsome volume! The cover noted that it was volume one (of an unstated number of volumes) and the short prefatory matter didn’t seem to indicate what he was selecting—and why—out of the total number of lives of the Buddha in the text which he is translating. But then perhaps I didn’t read closely enough.

A. As for the basis on which I selected the four stories I edited and translated, well, I could only fit four into one volume, so I chose four that I know well and have consistently enjoyed. I also tried to choose stories that give a flavour of ordinary life, i.e., that are more than just religious stories. As I believe I stated in the introduction, for me part of the value and pleasure of avadánas is that, unlike much doctrinal literature and pretty much all philosophical literature, they give the reader glimpses of ancient Indian society and of Buddhism “on the ground:” family life, economic conditions, the lives of the rich and poor, contemporary religious practices, Buddhist and non-Buddhist, etc. Beyond that, I also chose the stories for their intrinsic literary and thematic interest.

I’d also want to remind the reader that none of the stories in this first volume are, strictly speaking, “lives of the Buddha.” That is, they are not játakas. The Buddha is frequently involved and plays an important role, but the stories focus on Purna, Makándika and Anúpama, Koti·karna, etc. Játakas and avadánas are of course closely related, the former being the model or inspiration for the former. One significant difference between the two genres is that játakas are always mostly about the past life or lives, while avadánas, especially the ones in the Dívyavadána, frequently focus on the present life. This leads to a little more historical verisimilitude than one often finds in játakas.

Much Ado About Religion

Csaba Dezső

Q. Why has Csaba Dezső translated the word “nīlāmbaras” as “black blankets,” and not “blue blankets”?

A. Translating the names of colours from Sanskrit is often tricky, since English terms frequently do not cover exactly the same range on the colour scale as the Sanskrit ones do. “Nīla” means basically “dark coloured”, and can refer to anything from dark blue to jet black. “Blue” in itself does not convey the darkness of the colour, and “dark blue blankets” sounds perhaps a bit awkward.

Q. Why has Csaba Dezső translated the word “āgama” in the title (Āgamaḍambara) as “religion” and not “scripture”? “Religion” is a post-enlightenment concept and thus it is not appropriate in the context of mediaeval Indian culture.

A. I agree that “religion” is a heavily loaded term, but so is the word “scripture”, since its primary meaning is “the sacred writings of the Old or New Testaments or both together, or a short passage of the Bible,” though, in a wider sense, it can certainly mean “any writing or book esp. when of a sacred or religious nature” (cf. Webster’s dictionary). On the other hand Jayánta’s play is not just about a “display of sacred texts” but also an “extravaganza of religious practices,” and it is the antisocial conduct of the black blankets and the Shaiva adepts which is of crucial importance when they are expelled from Kashmir. One could certainly translate “āgama” in the compound as “religious traditions” in order to mitigate the modernity of the word “religion.”