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The Story of Story in Early South Asia

Story of Story in Early South Asia


Character and Genre across Hindu, Buddhist and Jain Narrative Traditions

A new three-year research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council

Naomi Appleton (University of Edinburgh) and James Hegarty (Cardiff University)

Stories are important. It is through story that we communicate who we are, who we are not, what we hope to be and what we fear we may become. Recent developments in the cognitive sciences have shown that, in fundamental ways, human beings need stories in order to organize their memories, to learn, and to relate to one another successfully.

Early South Asia, perhaps more than any other place on earth, has lived in and through its stories. South Asia has a vast repository of story traditions, which have been used to express insights into what it is to be human, into how the world works, its past, and what its future might be. These stories are integral to three of the world's most significant religious traditions, Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. However, research into these traditions has tended to remain separate and there has been little attempt either to move from one 'ism' to another or to integrate new perspectives on narrative and its role in human societies. This project sets out to do just that. It is our intention to explore the role of narrative across these three traditions in the context of recent perspectives drawn from cognitive, literary and linguistic theory. Such a vast task must be broken down, and so the project focuses on literary characters that are shared by all three traditions. By focusing on these characters and exploring the way they are used in different narrative traditions and ideological contexts, we will begin to trace the contours of a shared world of story-telling and story-hearing activities. This shared context, we will argue, was integral to the ways in which religious and political ideologies, identities and histories were transmitted and adapted in early South Asia. We will also suggest that the exploration of the role of story in early South Asian society, in the light of approaches to the study of narrative as integral to human cognitive and social development, opens up new vistas for research into the role of narrative both within and across pre-modern societies more generally. It can also help us to understand that no ideologies, identities, or histories, are fixed. This is an understanding that is of considerable importance if we are, as a society, to encourage inclusive and fluid models of identity and religious 'heritage'.

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