Viśvāmitra: Intertextuality and performance of classical narratives about caste
This dissertation, “Viśvāmitra: Intertextuality and Performance of Classical Narratives about Caste,” is a literary and folkloristic study of the epic and purān˙ic narratives of Viśvāmitra. Stories of this sage recount how, through sheer will and determination, this legendary king successfully changes his varna and becomes a Brāhman. In Sanskrit literature, he comes to be the most profound representation of human will and power, a character as much feared for his great temper as admired for his great compassion. Viśvāmitra is an icon of counter-normativity, and this dissertation seeks to understand how a set of legends about him, embedded within larger epic and purānic texts as ‘textual performances,’ construct literary spaces in which the boundaries of caste are negotiated.
Developing a post-Dumontian understanding of caste not simply as an unquestioned, watertight system of social categories but as contextual applications of ideologies, this dissertation seeks to foreground the narrative as the site where this historical negotiation of varna occurs. The narratological investigation of this dissertation explores how these legends performatively map varna categories onto domestic spaces within the storyworld. The successful movement of characters like Viśvāmitra across these varna/domestic boundaries produces ruptures within an ordinarily rigid social hierarchy. This study suggests that through such narrative maneuvers, counter-normative legends are able to raise legitimate questions about caste, questions that are not easily answerable and that compel retellings of these stories for centuries.
A comparative analysis of variation in the Viśvāmitra legends reveals that epic and purānic texts provide different normativizing answers to these questions through the embedding process—that is, in the ‘textual performance.’ To understand how this performance works, how interactions between narrators and audiences result in different interpretations of Viśvāmitra's challenges to orthodoxy, this dissertation compares the Sanskrit textual versions to those found in contemporary nāradīya kīrtan, a genre of Marathi devotional storytelling and preaching. This dissertation uniquely suggests that the concept of homology—the discursive equation of storyworld events to realworld issues through performer-audience interaction—is a critical aspect of performance, and ultimately the means through which legendary narratives become sites of ideological negotiation in traditional South Asian cultural forms.