Laurie L. Patton. Bringing the Gods to Mind: Mantra and Ritual in Early Indian Sacrifice. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. Hardcover, xv + 289 pages.
Vedic hermeneutics has come a long way since the days of Rudolf Roth, Karl Geldner, Ralph Griffith, and Max Müller. Compared to today’s best interpretations, their pioneering efforts in comprehending and translating the Rig-Veda seem positively frail. Of course, the present generation of Indologists cannot help but stand on the shoulders of these industrious giants.
The early Indologists were busy with mastering the difficult grammar of Vedic Sanskrit and, invariably with the assistance of Indian pundits, to produce the first translations of India’s ancient scriptures. More recent generations of scholars chose to focus on the grammar of archaic thought itself. Our penchant for ratiocination makes us ill equipped to deal with the analogical-poetic thought patterns of the Vedic rishis. Yet, slowly but surely, Indologists are improving their ability to understand the meaning of the Vedic literature.
Bringing the Gods to Mind is a fine example of the progress made in Vedic hermeneutics. Lauri Patton, a professor at Emory University in Atlanta, is the author and editor of seven books, including Myth as Argument,Myth and Method, and a book of poetry capturing her year-long residence in India.
Patton begins her book with a clear articulation of the Vedic seers’ idiosyncratic style of thought and approach to poetry-making and the connection between their hymns and the obligatory rituals. She describes the rishis’ way of thinking as “associational” and reflects deeply on the “metonymic” cross-connections between poetry and ritual. Her insights are very important and should open up the Vedic scriptures to deeper levels of interpretation. Her own efforts as a translator demonstrate that this newly won understanding has already yielded good results.
Using recent writings on the theory of metonymy, she has many worthwhile things to say about the fit between poetry and ritual, which revolves around what the Sanskrit writers call viniyoga, or “application.” This concept is an umbrella term for how the thoughts behind the Vedic hymns are to be enacted in a ritual context—a complicated but enormously fascinating subject. This includes some very thought-provoking reflections on the employment of mantras in Vedic ritualism.
Patton’s book is meant to give the reader a taste of the noetic and cultural universe of ancient India. As such it is only a promising but important beginning. It would appear , the Vedic seer-bards are at long last given their due at the hands of mainstream Indology. Far from having been primitive poetasters, the rishis emerge as extremely skillful and thoughtful poets.
This intellectually challenging but fascinating monograph will delight anyone interested in India’s earliest philosophical ruminations and ritual culture. The author combines admirable erudition with highly readable eloquence. As can be expected from an academic monograph, the reader must be prepared to navigate a whole bunch of technical terms. A small challenge, considering this book will telescope us back 4000 years to the seminal beginnings of Indian civilization, which some have come to regard as the oldest continuous civilization on Earth.
Copyright ©2006 by Georg Feuerstein. All rights reserved.
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