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Lecture | Friends of the Kern Institute lecture

Narratives and figures in transition

Thursday 18 October 2018
Drinks afterwards
Lecture series Society of Friends of the Kern Institute (VVIK)
P.N. van Eyckhof 3
P.N. van Eyckhof 3
2311 BV Leiden
Room 5

“Consisting of all the gods”: Viṣṇu’s strength or weakness? by Sanne Dokter-Mersch
In the sixth/ seventh century, a new text was composed in North India: the Skandapurāṇa. This Purāṇa (i.e. a compendium of narratives) contains various stories centering around god Śiva, his wife Pārvatī, their son Skanda and other Śaiva figures, places and concepts, exposing a Śaiva ideology. In some myths, however, god Viṣṇu is the main figure. It is remarkable to find these Vaiṣṇava myths within the Śaiva mythology of the Skandapurāṇa. Three of these are manifestation myths, in which Viṣṇu manifests himself as Narasiṃha (“Man-lion”), Varāha (“Boar”) and Vāmana (“Dwarf”) in order to conquer the Asuras, the archenemies of the gods. The Skandapurāṇa authors made some major changes to the myths as they were known at the moment. One of the changes is that the authors set a new image of Viṣṇu. In this paper, I will discuss one element that contributes to this renewed portrayal, viz. the way the Skandapurāṇa used the concept of sarvadevamaya- in relation to Viṣṇu. This compound, meaning “consisting of all the gods”, had been applied to Viṣṇu and other gods well before the Skandapurāṇa. I will lay out its root meaning and context in other sources, how the Skandapurāṇa authors transformed the concept and why.

Why must Devadatta be a good monk in his early religious career? How Vinaya discussions of Saṅghabheda help us make sense of Devadatta narratives by Channa Li
Devadatta is perhaps the most notorious culprit in Buddhist literature, accused of splitting Śākyamuni Buddha’s monastic community, attempting several times to murder the Buddha, suborning Ajātaśatru to commit patricide, and so forth. However, in every version of his biography, we also find positive records concerning Devadatta’s early religious career. Why did Buddhist composers choose to consistently preserve the account of Devadatta’s early success, even though it results in tensions between different aspects of his personality and conflicts with his image as a pure evil-doer? While not accepting previous scholars’ explanation that these positive records reflect a “historical” Devadatta who was a sacred monk, I argue to understand the significance of his early achievement in Buddhist schismatic context: Vinayas require that a Buddhist has to be a proper or even respectful monk to legally qualify as a schismatic. The creation of the respectful Devadatta should properly be understood as a literary device which allows him to fulfil the prerequisite for being a schismatic.

Sanne Dokter-Mersch
Sanne Dokter-Mersch has a Bachelor’s degree in Comparative Indo-European Linguistics and a Master’s degree in Asian Studies, both from Leiden University. She currently works as a PhD candidate at the Leiden Institute for Area Studies on the Skandapurāṇa. She studies how and why Vaiṣṇava myths have been incorporated into this Śaiva Purāṇa, by comparing the Skandapurāṇa with earlier and contemporary texts. As member of the international Skandapurāṇa team, she contributes to the on-going critical edition of the text.



Channa Li
Channa Li is a PhD candidate in Buddhist studies at Leiden University. Her fields of interest range widely from the Buddhist cultures and materials along the Silk Road (esp. Dunhuang), to the significance of Buddhist narratives in helping us visualize the ideological history of Buddhism in ancient India, China, and Tibet. She partly focuses on Buddhist translations made by medieval Chinese and Tibetan monks, especially Tibetan sūtras translated from Chinese. Her PhD thesis highlights the diversity of Buddhist views on the power dynamics between the Buddha and his disciples through stories surrounding the top disciple Śāriputra and the disobedient disciple Devadatta.

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