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A Dark World of Incest And Cultural Attitudes

Kumkum Roy

By Jonathan A. Silk
Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, New Delhi, 2009, pp. xviii + 347, RS.995.00


Riven by Lust is a deceptively slim volume: the main text is a little over 200 pages. However, it encapsulates scholarship that is breathtaking in both its depth and range. Silk opens up a fairly well known theme, that of schism within the early Buddhist tradition, but, in the course of investigating the biography of the putative author of the rift, guides us deftly through the dark world of incest and cultural attitudes towards it. The work, Silk informs us, distills insights arrived at through over two decades of scholarship, tracking faint traces of the narrative through Sanskrit, Pali, Tibetan, Chinese and Japanese sources. The author is acutely aware of the need to juxtapose text with context, as he argues persuasively for the existence of more than one version of the Oedipus complex in the Indian context. In the course of his discussion, he both takes into account and moves beyond the contours of the debate as outlined by A.K. Ramanujan (in for instance, A.K. Ramanujan, 1984, ‘The IndianOedipus’ in Oedipus: A Folklore Casebook, eds Lowell Edmunds and Alan Dundes, pp. 234– 261, New York, Garland Publishing), and Robert P. Goldman (for example, Robert P. Goldman, 1978, ‘Fathers, Sons and Gurus: the Oedipal Conflict in the Sanskrit Epics’, in Journal of Indian Philosophy, Vol. 6, pp. 325– 392), both of whom are cited more than once. These scholars drew on regional (especially Kannada) and Sanskritic traditions respectively. Perhaps the greatest strength of Silk’s argument is his insistence and demonstration of the existence of other possibilities that he opens up through a fascinating exploration of Buddhist sources. One of the major sects within early Buddhism, that of the Mulasarvastivadins, attributed one of the earliest schisms to a certain Mahadeva. Apart from being assigned responsibility for the schism, he was represented as having an incestuous relationship with his mother, and of committing three murders: that of his father, an arhat (a person who had attained enlightenment) and his mother (who proved to be unfaithful to him), besides misleading innocent initiates. It is this macabre history that Silk unpacks, prising apart its component elements, tracing their lineages through different strands of Buddhist (and other) traditions, through centuries and across several parts of Asia. Silk’s central argument is that matricide, patricide and the murder of arhats were recognized as grievous sins within the Buddhist tradition. For all of these, it was believed, the culprit would be transported to ...

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