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Vol 39  No 12
Apr. 5, 2007


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Fellowship to aid search for ancient answers in Hindu text
by Leslie Vryenhoek

Dr. Patricia Dold will use her Shastri Fellowship to continue exploring an obscure Sanskrit text that contains the story of Satī and Śiva, and the ten goddesses that surround them on this image from the temple at Kāmarūpa in India.

Religious Studies professor Dr. Patricia Dold has been awarded a prestigious Shastri Fellowship that will fund six months of research in India.

This is the second Shastri award for Dr. Dold, who received a doctoral fellowship in 1992.

This latest fellowship will allow her to build on that doctoral work, finishing the translation and analysis of an obscure Sanskrit text, the Mahābhāgavata Purāna. Written in north-east India between 1400-1600, the text contains 81 chapters of Hindu narratives from the perspective of Śāktism, a form of Hinduism that exults the Goddess. The text has been the subject of little academic scrutiny, and no other researcher has perceived it as having extensive internal coherence, as Dr. Dold believes it does.

In 2008, she will spend several months in India, primarily in the ancient city of Banaras, where she hopes to work with some of the same scholars who previously helped her unravel challenging passages.

“I want to work with Indian scholars on the specific parts of the text that I have trouble with,” she explained. “This is their tradition, and there are nuances in the language that don’t show up in any dictionary.”

In Banaras, she will also have access to numerous manuscripts of the text.

But while the scholarly resources she requires are in Banaras, the heart of her research will see her return to the state of Assam in India’s north-east, and to the 16th century temple at Kāmarūpa that is crucial to her understanding of the text’s origins.

“This is a famous pilgrimage site. It’s considered a hotbed of transgressive Tantric practice and aggressive magic,” Dr. Dold explained, but asserted that the site’s infamous reputation does not reflect the religious practice of the majority of pilgrims.

Dr. Patricia Dold’s Shastri Fellowship will allow her to return to this 16th-century temple at Kāmarūpa, in northeast India to further her translation and analysis of an obscure narrative text.

“My work challenges that stereotype. I have argued that the Mahābhāgavata Purāna itself tries to correct such sensationalistic, sinister interpretations of religious practice at the site. I suspect that the vast number of people who come to the temple are ordinary devotees of the Goddess, and they come to cultivate a relationship with her.”

When she visited the temple in the ’90s, Dr. Dold had the opportunity to speak with temple officials, and they relayed stories that appear in the text she is working with, but in no other Hindu text. In particular, the local devotees knew the story of Satī, the refined and lovely wife of Śiva, transforming herself into the naked and wild Kālī after a fight with her husband, just shortly before her death. Kālī then divided into ten goddesses, collectively known as the Māhavidyās. These goddesses are worshipped in separate shrines found at Kāmarūpa.

Dr. Dold was particularly intrigued by the local knowledge of this part of the story, because there are very few copies of the Mahābhāgavata in existence – and no record of any in Assam, a state that was closed to foreigners until very recently.

“They knew very specific details, yet no one in the region can place this text.” Dr. Dold believes this belies a strong oral storytelling tradition.
“All we have in text are these little snapshots of a vast storytelling tradition. India is the storytelling culture,” she asserted, adding that Indians continue to look back at the old narratives and are now interpreting them in new media, such as film, for a global audience.

In future, she hopes to explore further the female relationships and sensibilities that these stories contain, and how women in the region of Kāmarūpa perceive their relationship with the goddess.

Shastri is a 40-year-old organization that promotes and enhances relations between Canada and India through academic research and scholarship funding. Memorial University recently reinstated its membership in Shastri. Dr. Dold is hoping to connect with other scholars here whose interests involve India, and to strengthen the university’s ties with Shastri.

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