In search of a sage: Yājñavalkya and ancient Indian literary memory

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Lindquist, Steven Edward

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Yajnavalkya is perhaps the most important literary figure in ancient India prior to the Buddha. He is prominent in early Indian literature (ca. 8th c. BCE onwards), particularly in late Vedic ritual manuals, philosophical tracts, Epic literature, and Puranic ("legendary") texts. He is credited with writing a major legal treatise, the Yajnavalkyasmrti, and is considered one of India's earliest and most well-known thinkers. In ancient India, Yajnavalkya was a bearer of ritual authority, a sage of mystical knowledge, and a propagator of philosophical ideas and religious law. In modern times, he has come to personify the hoary past of the Veda and Vedic orthodoxy. In these various contexts, the figure of Yajnavalkya functions in a variety of ways -- he is a literary device, a cultural ascription of authority for certain beliefs and practices, and a representative of particular institutionalized modes of life (the idealized priest, mendicant, and sage). This project is an analysis of this literary figure in ancient and classical Sanskrit literature (the Satapatha Brahmana, the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad, the Mahabharata, the Yajnavalkyasmrti, and various Puranas). Through a close reading of the literature, I focus upon how this figure develops across time and across traditions, including, for example, the use and manipulation of related themes and the deployment of Yajnavalkya's sarcastic portrayal. Further, I argue that by analyzing both the early and later literary traditions we can surmise how the figure might have been "read" in the process of rewriting him into different contexts with different goals.