The parrot’s voice and the partridge’s feathers : the languaging of animals and animal language in early Indian texts
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Language about animals and the way writers “language” animals reveal a great deal about how humans model themselves, animals, and human-animal relations; pre-modern Indian literature is no different. The early poets and story writers of India transposed humans with animals and vice versa, usually via speaking birds. Sanskrit grammarians explored the question of what defines human and animal through the lens of speech, including bird speech. Recent research in the areas of animal studies and new materialism aids our understanding of these early literary forms and historical discussions from the subcontinent. I explore a number of Sanskrit and Pāli texts from literary, religious, and commentarial traditions in order to develop a new assessment of agency enacted through animal voice and speech. I posit that a “Brahmin-bird entanglement” has been existent since the Vedic period in texts and recitation practices and that Brahmins identified with and entangled their traditions with birds, accounting for bird names for ascetic practices, hymns, and Vedic lineages. Sometimes texts envisioned birds as retainers of Brahmanical traditions; at other times, entanglements between human and bird show how authors defined and differentiated religious identity. I propose a re-interpretation of authorship that challenges pre-existing ideas about the recitation tradition and creative acts of speech. Using evidence from epic, Puranic, and Buddhist literature along with grammatical debates and the early Sanskrit novel, I illuminate ideas concerning subjectivity, narration, and voice that were present in early Indian texts.