This talk has its genesis in John Huehnergard's Presidential address last year (March 2018, published as Huehnergard 2018). Those who heard it will remember it. For those who did not--and have not yet read it in the Journal--John presented and discussed ancient letters: a school boy's frustration with his mother because of his inadequate wardrobe allowance, a wife annoyed with her merchant husband for criticizing the goods she sends him, a brother worried about angering his sister. After the talk and amid many appreciative comments, my colleague Patrick Olivelle sighed, "We can't do that." "Do what?" I asked, and he said that because we--meaning we who work on premodern South Asia--don't have personal documents, we can't get the same feel for the lives of the people we study that John's letters provide. He was right, of course, but others, including Patrick himself, have tried to find the people behind the texts we do have. What I will attempt this evening is also an experiment in hunting through an ancient text for the human lives it shadows.
My textual hunting ground is the Suparnadhyaya, "The Tale of the Eagle," a Sanskrit poem probably of the late Vedic and pre-Epic period, which is to say, dating to some uncertain time around or before the beginning of the Common Era. (1) It is not a lengthy text--it counts around 160 verses--nor a terribly significant one in the history of Sanskrit literature. There are only eight manuscripts of it so far reported, including a single late commentary (Tripathi 2016: 26, 29-31). But the story it told had more success than the text itself, since the great Indian epic, the Mahabharata (at 1.14-30), embeds a version of the tale based on our text and thereby transmitted the story to the later tradition.
The Suparnadhyaya tells how the eagle Garuda (2) rescued his mother by stealing the soma, the drink of immortality. Garuda's story begins with his birth. Once upon a time, the god Indra offended a group of sages, the Valakhilya sages, who gave a portion of their ascetic power to the eagle Tarksya, asking him to use it to produce a son who would avenge Indra's insult. As a result Tarksya's wife Vinata lays three eggs. In her impatience to see her children, she cracks open two of them too soon, giving birth to two incomplete sons (Sup 3.2-4). From the third is born Garuda, the magnificent and vastly powerful eagle (4.1). Later Vinata, who had already established herself as not the sharpest tool in the shed, loses a wager to Kadru, mother of snakes, and as a result she becomes Kadru's slave (7.1). Good son that he is, Garuda assumes part of his mother's servitude. But he makes a bargain with the snakes that if he brings them the drink of immortality, they will release his mother from slavery. That is the set-up; I will return to the main action in a moment.
Now, one key to the audience of this text is a short prose passage appended to the beginning (Sup 1.5). It gives approximately correct information on the meter and length of the text and the occasion at which it is to be recited. It's that occasion that interests me: the text says that parvany adhyayane brahmanabhisravane ca viniyogah "its employment is at half-month during Vedic study and during the recitation of Vedic explanatory texts." By "Vedic study" (adhyayana-) the passage refers to students' memorization of the core texts of the Veda and by "recitation of explanatory texts" (brdhmanabhisravana-), it means their learning of Vedic exegetical works. (3) This context thus places "The Tale of the Eagle" among brahmin boys and young men who were learning to recite and to interpret the Veda. Moreover, the story addresses particularly those who were learning the oldest and most illustrious part of the Veda, the Rgveda. The story of Garuda has its origins in two Rgvedic hymns that tell how Manu, the first sacrificer, sent a trained falcon to steal the soma and bring it back to earth. Manu could then ritually offer the soma to the gods, thereby sustaining them and winning their support. The text connects itself to these two hymns by claiming that their poet, Vamadeva, was also the composer of the "Tale of the Eagle."
Locating this story in the midst of Vedic study also explains why "The Tale of the Eagle" was recited at the half-month. In a tradition that still continues, Vedic students have time off from their study each new-moon and each full-moon day. The Baudhayana Dharmasutra, which is of a similar age as "The Tale of the Eagle," quotes an earlier Vedic text that even increases the number of days off: BDhS 1.21.22 hanty astami hy upadhyayam, hand sisyam caturdasi I hand pahcadasl vidydm, tasmdt parvani varjayet "The eighth day [that is, the day of the half-moon] slays the teacher, the fourteenth day slays the pupil, and the fifteenth day slays the knowledge; therefore, he should refrain from recitations during the days of the moon's change" (Olivelle, tr.). Or again, according to one contemporary informant, trying to learn the Veda on a new-moon day "is like fetching water in a sieve" (Knipe 2015: 144).
So what did and what do students do on days when they aren't learning Vedic recitations? The ancient texts don't tell us. In contemporary Maharashtra, some Vedic schools perform traditional Vedic rites, or adaptations of these rites, or other domestic rituals. Or students might study other non-Vedic works. Or in schools that do not require as much high-mindedness, students might watch movies or television or play cricket (Larios 2017: 134). That is to say, these days off can include things that are fun. And here is where I leap into the unknown but I believe the not unlikely. Can we read "The Tale of the Eagle" as a text composed for the entertainment and edification of students on their days off from memorization of Vedic texts? I think so, and to do so helps us understand both the text and the audience it addresses.
With some exceptions, the Suparnadhyaya takes the form of verse conversations between pairs of characters. Often characters will introduce themselves, but there are instances in which who is speaking is not clear. Because "The Tale of the Eagle" consists of dialogues, one early and again recently revived theory is that it is a proto-drama or even the earliest Sanskrit play (Tripathi 2016: 10, 16-19). If it is a play, however, it is a singularly hectic one, since the text would have more than thirty "scenes," with a change of "scene" occurring every five verses or so. That would suggest a great deal of running on and off stage. But the text may have been performed by one or two reciters, who could signal changes of location and speaker by gesture, voice, or just explanation. However it was presented, it surely was an entertainment.
Much of the poem, especially its first half, is comic. I realize that there are problems with this claim. Tragedy we can recognize, but detecting what a distant and ancient culture thought was funny can be a trickier proposition. Nonetheless, there are universal theories of humor, the most famous of which is "incongruity theory," which holds that laughter arises from a mismatch between expectation and realization or between abstract concept and real object (Glasgow 1995: 85). And this text shows a variety of just such incongruities.
Among them are exaggerated sizes and abilities. For starters, consider the Valakhilya sages, who empowered Garuda's birth. These sages are smaller than a thumb. (4) Their story begins when two of them, who are carrying home the stem of a leaf for firewood, fall into the muddy footprint of a cow and get stuck (Sup 2.3). The god Indra sees this, finds it hilarious, and laughs at the sages (2.4). The insulted sages then engineer the birth of Garuda to take revenge on Indra. But lilliputian sages with...