Riven by Lust (Incest and Schism In Indian Buddhist Legend and Historiography)

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Item Code: IHJ012
Publisher: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
Author: Jonathan A. Silk
Language: English
Edition: 2009
ISBN: 9788121512039
Pages: 363
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 9.9 inch X 6.5 inch
Weight 740 gm
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Book Description
From the Jacket

Riven by lust explores the tale of a man accused of causing the fundamental schism in early Indian Buddhism but not before he has sex with his mother and kills his father. In tracing this Indian Buddhist Oedipal tale Jonathan Silk follows it through texts in all of the major canonical languages of Buddhism Sanskrit, Pali Tibetan, Chinese and Japanese along the way noting parallels and contrasts with classical and medieval European stories such as the legend of the Oedipal Judas. Simultaneously he investigates the psychological and anthropological understandings of the tale to mother son incest in light of contemporary psychological and anthropological understandings of incest with special attention to the question of why we consider it among the worst of crimes.

In seeking to understand how the story worked in Indian texts for Indian audiences as well as how it might work for modern readers this book had both horizontal and vertical dimensions probing the place of the Oedipal in Indian culture Buddhist and non-Buddhist and simultaneously framing the Indian Oedipal within broader human concerns thereby contributing to the study of the history of Buddhism the transmission of narratives in the ancient world and the fundamental nature of one aspect of human sexuality.

Starting form a brief reference in a polemical treatise Riven by lust demonstrates that its authors borrowed and intentionally accepted a preexisting story of an oedipal antihero. This recasting allowed them to calumniate their opponents in the strongest possible terms through the rhetoric of murder and incest Silk draws on a wide variety of sources to demonstrate the range of thinking about incest in Indian Buddhist culture thereby uncovering the strategies and working methods of the ancient polemicists. He argues that Indian Buddhist and Hindu while occupying the same world for the most part thought differently about fundamental issues such as incest and hints at the consequent necessity of a reappraisal of our notions of the shape of the ancient cultural sphere they shared.

Provocative and innovative Riven by Lust is a Paradigmatic analysis of a major theme of world mythology and a signal contribution to the study of the history of incest and comparative sexualities. It will attract readers interested in Buddhism Indian studies, Asian studies comparative culture mythology psychology and the history of sexuality.

Jonathan A Silk is Professor in the Study of Buddhism at Leiden University.



This is an ambitious book and at the same time a limited one. It attempts to stitch together a variety of sometimes quite diverse materials aiming ultimately to create a quality form them. If it ends up looking slightly less like the haphazardly sewn together contents of a ragbag slightly more like Joseph’s coat of many colors I will judge it a success. I would then like to think of this book as an essay in that terms literal sense an attempt a try. The very endeavor itself in one aspect of this ambition. In addition in the course of cutting up laying up and stitching together along the way cross cultural patterns of Oedipal tensions and tremor. This too is also an ambitious aim. At the same time the book strives to expose if that is an appropriate metaphor the layers and valances of self image and self understanding associated with Buddhist conception of Buddhist history and sectarian legitimacy in India and beyond. In order to do this I focus centrally on a single story and its implications form one perspective this book is narrowly intended as a historical and in particular rhetorical inquiry into own episode in Indian Buddhist historiography and rhetoric and ancient India and by extension to those interested in the historiography and rhetoric of religious tradition sin general. But the topic itself compels attention to another audience as well one interested in these Buddhist stories not so much for what they may say about the history of Indian Buddhism or the deployment of religious rhetoric but for what they may ultimately contribute to a picture of certain possibly universal human psychological modes.

To unpack the central story around which all else revolves I attempt to survey all of Indian Buddhist literature to take into account non-Buddhist Indian literature and to touch on Buddhist literature produced outside of India. This is ambitious if not downright foolhardy. And therein lie some of the limitations of the book since it ahs naturally proven impossible to fully contextualize and appreciate on their own terms all the sources upon which I have drawn all the works I have referred to all the ideas I have invoked. I would nevertheless maintain that the overall unity of the project is its own best apology.

There are, however several issues that should be mentioned as specific limitations on this project. One problem that plagues any attempt to set Indian Buddhist materials in a coherent historical framework is our almost complete ignorance regarding the chronology and even geographical origins of many if not almost all of the relevant texts. The sectarian origins of texts help us narrow down their geographic origins a bit. Theravada materials in the Pali language as we now have them have been transmitted for about 1,500 years in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia although some of the older materials may more directly reflect older mainland Indian sources. It is fairly certain that the materials belonging to the mulasarvastivada tradition many of which survive only in Chinese or Tibetan translations are product of the northwest of the Indian subcontinent and area comprising what we now know as Pakistan and Afghanistan and that general region. Likewise there are reasons to associate many of the Sarvastivada texts with nearby areas especially Kashmir. The question of the localization of Mahasamghika materials is considerably more complicated and no good geographic specification is possible.

In a number of cases the materials I studied led to lengthily consideration that did not find a place in this book. I have published a number of articles addressing certain related problems and would direct interested readers to these more specialized publications for further details and materials Likewise it proved impossible to include editions of the many texts to which I refer and with the exception of short passages I have refrained from citing the originals of the many translation I offer. I plan to make available the texts I prepared on a website.



Our journey begins with a story and I use the terms narrative story and I use the terms narrative story and tale more or less interchangeably along with words such as account rather than employing them as strict technical terms of folklorists or literary studies. The story at the core of this experiment is one of a man who ahs sex with his mother and kill his father. For some to cite Hillel entirely out of context all the rest is commentary. Psychoanalytically minded readers may find my interest in historical detail both overwhelming and ultimately irrelevant in light of the deeper psychological truths in play here. My own interests however lie more in the Buddhist traditions of India than they do in the abstractions of human psychology hence how and why Buddhist authors told their stories I see as question not merely of Freudian imprint but also as opening windows to Buddhist self-understanding. I will argue that Buddhist authors intentionally took up and deployed the story of an Oedipal Antihero to prosecute a particular agenda of sectarian polemical propaganda. In order to understand what they did why they might have done it and how their tactic appears to have been received I attempt to reconstruct ancient Indian and particularity Buddhist attitudes toward incest in doing so I hope to visualize the environment within which the core story would have been received further discussions of the wider significance of Indian attitudes may be reliably engaged in only upon this basis.

An introduction to the structure of the book will help to make clear it’s over all intentions. I have divided the work into twenty chapters the first of which is dedicated to setting out the basic problematic with which the remainder attempts to come to terms. In chapter 1 I introduce the core narrative of the man called Mahadeva who has a love affair with his mother and kills his father. I then explore how and why this story provides a good point of departure for asking question about the development of sectarian Buddhism in India on the one hand and the putative universality of social psychological norms with respect to incest on the other.

Chapter 2 introduces the historical situation of early Indian Buddhist sectarianism and the explicit polemical context within which the story of Mahadeva is related in an important scholastic text the Abhidharma Mahvibhasa while chapter 3 offers a somewhat more detailed look at the story itself and its narration chapter 4 briefly discusses indigenous Buddhist thinking about the stock set of crimes of which Mahadeva is accused in which interestingly no great stress is put on his incest the focus being rather on his murders. The overwhelmingly positive nature of Buddhist ethics is highlighted in this context by the fact that commission of even the worst imaginable crimes does not lead to eternal damnation that idea playing essentially no role in Buddhist thought or mythology.

Chapter 5 investigates what other traditional Buddhist sources relate about the story of Mahadeva and looks at how his story is told in East Asian and Tibetan Buddhist sources as well. Although these later traditions may represent developments of Indian thinking rather than strictly reflecting Indian ideas or interpretations as a sort of native commentary authored by those form within the tradition they serve as valuable resources for our understanding.

Since the story of Mahadeva is presented as a justification or rationale for the creation of the initial schism that split the previously unified monastic community it is important to survey the ways this schism is portrayed in traditional sources. This is the task if Chapter 6 which introduces the accounts of Buddhist doxogrpahies. Here too some attempt is made to understand why the character of Mahadeva may have been chosen for the role of instigator of the schism with particular attention to the significant of is name.

Where did the authors or editors of the story of Mahadeva find their material? Is it historical account or something else? Chapter 7 presents what I believe must represent the source of the story in the tale of Dharmaruci as found in the Divyavadana a collection of Buddhist stories transmitted separately from their original homes but which are mostly traceable to the literature of monastic rules. In the story of Dharmaruci we find the same basic narrative of an Oedipal criminal yet no connection with any sectarian or schismatic concerns. This sets the stage for my contention that the compliers of the Abhidharama Mahavibhasa intentionally borrowed the story of Dharmaruci fitting it to their own needs.

Chapter 8 explores the portrayal of the protagonist Mahadeva/Dharmaruci and through and examination of the manner in which his moral culpability is presented begins to support the arguments that the Dharmaruci story was intentionally and self-consciously adapted and transformed into the calumnious story of Mahadeva. In this context issues related to sexual assault and psychological conditioning are considered and the applicability of modern discussions of these problems to ancient Indian society debated.

Chapter 9 briefly introduces a trope Indian sources share with literature from the classical Greek and Roma world to China that of the perverse Persians for whom it is alleged incest was a religious obligation. The purpose of this survey is to establish that the ancient Indians like their neighbors strongly disapproved of incest notwithstanding the fact that the explicit objections to Mahadeva’s behavior all center on his murders and demonstrate no overt concern with his incest. Part of my overall argument is that although Indian Buddhists may not discuss it in the context of the Mahadeva story they certainly were concerned with incest which they did find objectionable although not unimaginable. Buddhist treatments of incest nevertheless appear to stand is contrast to those of ancient Indian Hindu sources an issue considered in chapters 15, 16 and 17.

Chapter 10 explores the motif of the bedrock the literary device in which sexual partners are portrayed as unaware of their mutual identities or where one partner is unaware of the identity of the other. Here I argue once again that a crucial transformation took place when the storey of Dharmaruci was lettered into that of Mahadeva a reorientation in which the protagonist was intentionally made culpable.

Chapter 11 introduces a second Indian telling of the story of Dharmaruci that of the eleventh century Kashmiri poet Ksemnedra, Ksemendr’s presentation which is directly based on that in the Divyavadana gives us a rare opportunity to see how a traditional reader understood and retold the story of Dharmaruci.

In chapter 12 we turn to other presentations of the same basic plot in many of which the central character is differently named. This survey allows us to the argument the popularity of the story in surviving Buddhist literature and to further the argument that a pre-existing story was taken over by the compliers of the Abhidharama Mahavibhasa with self conscious intent. Chapter 13 widens the scope by taking cognizance of a range of incest stories in Indian Buddhist literature with the goal of gaining some appreciation surprisingly that the motif exists here and there in Indian Buddhist texts a presence the important further implications of which are explored later chapter 14 focuses nun and the multiple instances of incest that punctuate her life story. This is followed in chapter 15 by a broader look at the Oedipal in ancient Indian society in general framed buy and examination of the ideas of A.K. Ramanujan and Robert Goldman concerning what Ramanujan has called the Indian Oedipus. Here we enter a more theoretical realm one dealing with cross cultural patterns of though and the nature of the human psyche.

The Buddhist evidence uncovered in the earlier chapter I argue man challenge the hypotheses of Ramanujan and Goldman but additional evidence may also be found in other sources. Some of this evidence forms the focus of chapter 16 which studies the motif of Joseph and the wife of Potiphar stories of a mother figure’s attempts to seduce a some figure. Examples of both Buddhist and non Buddhist stories demonstrate that the motif of mother son incest one crucial leg of the Oedipal tripod is relatively widely found in classical Indian literature albeit in slightly displaced fashion. Further evidence for the presence of the Oedipal in ancient India overlooked by Ramanujan and Goldman may be discovered even in several Puranas scriptures highly valued behind traditions. Two instances are studied in chapter 17 which explores their differences form and similar to Buddhist presentation of the same theme .

Chapter 18 is devoted to a contrastive case from medieval Europe in which we find in the tale of the Oedipal Judas a presentation structurally remarkably similar to but ultimately conceptually quite different from that of the Indian Buddhist Mahadeva. The starkest contrast comes from the work the popular recounting one clear purpose of which was antisemitic incitement while the Mahadeva story was always focused internally on intra Buddhist sectarian concerns and quarrels.

In chapter 19 turn to the basic question of what may have inspired its authors to deploy the Oedipal tale of Mahadeva. Here I investigate the hold that incest has on human mentality and try to trace the social and biological bases of the fascination. Modern scientific thinking sees the roots of incest abhorrence in both biological and psychological causes and I suggest that an understanding of these factors helps us see how ancient Indian attitudes Buddhist and non Buddhist alike fit into larger human concerns.

The final chapter forging Mahadeva argues that the authors of the Mahadeva story self consciously utilized a pre-existing story of an oedipal criminal the story we now know as the tale of Dharmaruci in order to promote their own sectarian agendas and demonize their opponents. This story and other we have encountered not only challenge the picture Ramanujan and Goldman have painted of an Indian oedipal a picture based solely Indian worlds of though. This in turn raises questions with regard to some of the ways ancient Indian evidence has been used in comparatives universal and theoretical discussions of the oedipal finally my essay ends for her perhaps concludes is not the best word with an appreciation of the position in which the ancient Indian Buddhist historians found themselves as they tried to understand Mahadeva’s history both in the sense of a chronicle of what happened and as a lesson for how to understand and appropriate the past in this sense I suggest our job as modern historian does not fundamentally differ from that of the historians of old.




  Preface ix
  Acknowledgments xi
  Technical Details and Abbreviations xiii
  Introduction xv
1 Incest and Schism 1
2 The Creation of Sects in Early Buddhism 12
3 The story of Mahadeva 17
4 The Buddhist Context of Sin 21
5 Mahadeva in other Sources 38
6 Schism Accounts in Buddhist Doxographies 58
7 The story of Dharmaruci 64
8 Abuse and Victimhood 76
9 Persian Perversities 82
10 The Bedtrick 88
11 Retelling Dharmaruci’s Story 100
12 Dharmaruci in other Sources 110
13 Incest in Indian Buddhist Culture 125
14 The Story of Utpalavarna 137
15 The Indian Oedipus 164
16 Joseph and the Wife of Potiphar 171
17 Further Dimensions of the Oedipal in India 180
18 The Medieval European Oedipal Judas 189
19 Why Incest Taboos? 202
20 Forging Mahadeva 217
  Notes 229
  Glossary 303
  Works Cited 305
  Index 335

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