World Philologies Seminar
Do 15 Mai 2014 | 16:00–18:00

The Biographical Imperative: the Life of the Historical Buddha in Nineteenth Century Scholarship

Roy Tzohar (Zukunftsphilologie Fellow 2013-2014/Tel Aviv University); Chair: Esha Sil (Zukunftsphilologie Fellow 2013-2014)

Freie Universität Berlin, Raum JK24/122d, Habelschwerdter Allee 45, 14195 Berlin

The second half of nineteenth century Europe witnessed an explosion of editions, translations, and literary reconstructions of the Buddha’s biographies, both in the scholarly and popular mediums. Within this context the paper will focus on the ‘historical turn’ by which the Buddha was commonly held to be a historical figure, and the founder of a world religion. Instrumental in the successful promulgation of this view were the highly popular writings of Hermann Oldenberg and T.W. Rhys Davids, both prominent scholars who wrote with an eye on broader readership. Focusing on the more ‘authentic’ Pali sources, both promoted an historical positivist approach which aimed at separating and recovering the ‘factual’ life story of the Buddha from the semi legendary accounts of the tradition. This, however, often resulted in the reconstruction of the life story according to a Western and modern understandings of the ‘self’, as set forth by modern biographical conventions. A close reading in some of the works of both scholars shall serve to demonstrate the ways in which the historical life of the Buddha was carved from the Pali canon to fit the size of a western modern biography. It is argued that due to the implicit constraints laid by the discourse of modern historicity; merely historicizing the Buddha meant actively imagining him in terms of a modern subjectivity. Rendered in this way, the life story of the Buddha became a fertile ground for European interpretation and manipulation, and an easy vehicle for conveying both its aspirations and discontent concerning modernity.

Roy Tzohar is Assistant Professor in the East and South Asian Studies Department at Tel Aviv University and currently affiliated Zukunftsphilologie Fellow. He holds a PhD (with Distinction) from the Religion Department at Columbia University (New York, 2011), and an MA (summa cum laude) in philosophy from Tel Aviv University’s Interdisciplinary Program for Outstanding Students. During his Zukunftsphilologie fellowship Roy Tzohar will expand upon his dissertation, dealing with the philosophical role and meaning of figurative language (upacāra) in early Indian Sanskrit philosophical discourse, taking the Buddhist Yogācāra school’s theory of metaphor as a case study. During the proposed research Roy Tzohar will focus on developing the theoretical framework for the intertextual analysis of these materials, substantiating the need for an interrelated analysis of the literary and the philosophical within Buddhist texts, complemented by a diachronic perspective provided by the history of ideas. This work will be integrated into his more comprehensive, ongoing research project about early Yogācāra thought, for which Roy Tzohar has received the Marie Curie IRG fellowship from the EU (CORDIS) and which will culminate in a book manuscript. 

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