Poetry of sight: literary contexts of the Mahāyāna imaginaire
This thesis is a study of the visually spectacular aspects of Mahāyāna sūtra literature, and closely related Buddhist Sanskrit materials, from the 1st century BCE to the 4th / 5th century CE approximately. While the early Mahāyāna remains historically obscure, it has recently been characterised as primarily a literary movement, and scholars have considered the role of practices of vision and visualisation, metaphors of sight, and the impact of these on epistemic expressions within these texts. However, the role of existing poetic conventions, the deft handling of Buddhist and Indic literary tropes and topoi as facets of a distinct imaginary, and the use of this material in a conscious manipulation of a visual mode of the imagination for aesthetic, rhetorical, soteriological, and other semantic constitutive and communicative ends remain underexplored. ] Thus, the main aim of this study is to survey and interrogate these ‘visual materials’ in a more methodical manner than has been previously undertaken. Moreover, the thesis presents novel methodological approaches to this material that engage with the visual mode. The present work is also concerned with arguing for a closer affinity of the Mahāyāna with Sanskrit and Middle Indo-Aryan poetic praxis, and with creating sufficient conditions for a concrete imagination of these spectacles. Therefore, this study explores the representations of visual experiences in these texts, discusses the constructive role of metaphor in imaginaries, and situates the views on ‘imagination’ found within them. It also devotes attention to the interconnected source domains of prominent metaphors such as the world-turning emperor, the cosmos, the paradisiacal garden, the palace, the wish-fulfilling tree, gems, and thunderous clouds. Such explorations demonstrate the literary continuities of this textual movement, support the documenting of a conventional stock of imagery, and are integrated throughout the close comparative reading of examples drawn from three polythetic categories: visions (darśana, vidarśana, saṃdarśana), descriptions (varṇaka / varnanā), and miraculous spectacles (prātihārya, vikurvita). Each category is explored through a variety of approaches: conceptual mapping, narrative inquiry, semiotic analysis, and visual reconstruction. A quantitative analysis demonstrates that the high ‘impact’ of the corpus of examples is disproportionate to its volume. A general review of the relevant ‘visual material’ in relation to traditional types of Buddhist literature (aṅgas) highlights the affinity of Mahāyāna authors with Indic poetic technique through their use of signature figures of comparison (dṛṣṭānta, upamā, and rūpaka / upacāra), sound, and meaning. The continuities evidenced by representations of visionary experience, and a typology of miracles of collective sight, demonstrate the importance of topoi in the Mahāyāna rhetoric of superiority. An analysis of descriptions in the Larger Sukhāvatīvyūhasūtra identifies structured patterns as rhetorically deployed poetic means, and highlights in particular the use of concatenation and its relation to Prakrit poetry. This is an identification that problematises previous understandings of these passages as stencils of visualisation practices similar to the recollection of the Buddha (buddhānusmṛti). A novel method of visual (re)construction is applied to the opening materials of the Gaṇḍavyūhasūtra. The process of reconstruction provides a pellucid view of the verbal text and reveals a sophisticated strategy of textual production involving formal features such as lists, linguistic formulas, and repetitions in combination with literary imagery organised into structures such as crescendo, escalation, and oscillation that disrupts the boundaries of the visual and verbal in a considered manipulation of affect. The framework for this method traces significant textual parallels in the Lalitavistara and Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā, finds the cloud to be the most obvious icon of the text overall, and the nidāna of the Gaṇḍavyūhasūtra to be plausibly understood as a literary act of generous devotion suitable for ritualised performance. The study as a whole reveals the ‘visual materials’ to be primarily literary constructions within the purview of a Mahāyāna imaginary that is distinct in its inspiration from eidetic and spontaneous visionary experiences. Nonetheless, the exploration of literary contexts adds complexity to our understanding of this literature’s relationship with visual practices, and reinforces the view of the Mahāyāna as a literary movement that made ample use of existing literary techniques and imagery in novel ways. Its visual reconstructions reveal complex textual strategies deployed for rhetorical and affective ends, and serve to open up the Mahāyāna sūtra’s imaginable domains for further scrutiny and discussion. The methodological innovations prompt a novel ‘visualised reading’ of these spectacular texts, reflect the ambiguous boundaries between the visual and verbal in these materials, and provide a lexicon and template for their future research.