Though I am whead-987227_1920eak and tired now,

And my youthful step long gone,

Leaning on this staff,

I climb the mountain peak.

My cloak cast off, my bowl overturned,

I sit here on this rock.

And over my spirit blows

The breath

Of liberty

I’ve won, I’ve won the triple gems.

The Buddha’s way is mine.

[Trans. Uma Chakravarti and Kumkum Roy][1]

This poem from the ‘Therīgāthā’ (a collection of poems written by senior Buddhist nuns from about 600 BCE) is one of the earliest extant personal accounts written by a woman focusing on following a specific religious path. She doesn’t say much, this anonymous woman, but the sense of discovery and clarity as she sits poised for a fresh beginning is clear. The mix of anticipation and excitement at having found a path or ‘way’ that is as precious as the jewels she may have once worn makes her voice audible across time. What is remembered here is not the every day detail of a lifetime but an entire life distilled into one precious moment of change.

Is the autobiography not popular amongst Indian writers?

The idea that Indian writers have historically not been very comfortable writing about the self or using the autobiographical mode is a popular one. This is a point of view I heard often enough last summer, when I was based at the École Française d’Extrême Orient in Pondicherry to investigate autobiographical traditions in Tamil literature. Tamil pundits declared either that ‘great’ Indian writers do not believe in self-aggrandizement to the degree that writing an autobiographical account would require or agreed with the widely held opinion that Indians value community over the individual. Applying definitions of autobiography arising from European literary traditions to the Indian context has lent credence to the idea that (auto)biographical and historical writing came to South Asia with Mughal and later colonial introductions of these genres.

Since our primary texts are autobiographical accounts of conversion, we have been looking into the history and parameters of this literary form: to what extent can we take such statements on life-writing at face value? Did the authors of these accounts draw mainly on European patterns of writing about the self or was there also a repertoire of literary conventions and traditions available from within Indian literary and religious traditions that they could draw on? If, as it is widely held, the autobiography had not flourished as one of the better known literary genres, how did religious converts from before the eighteenth century express their changing beliefs? Were there any useful literary devices and tropes of life-writing that could be molded for this purpose? And did these mainly flourish within poetic genres?

Buddhist narratives: biographical traditions and speaking about the self

Attending the Spalding Symposium on Indian Religions in April this year ( gave us some useful leads that we’ve been able to follow up on. The Buddhist tradition for example has a strong biographical tradition, where as Juliane Schober (1997) tells us, the act of remembering the past lives of the Buddha and saints has played an important part in bridging the gap between “the ideal and the real” and between “the conceptual and the pragmatic”. The ‘Theragāthā’ and ‘Therīgāthā,’ poems by Buddhist monks and nuns, even if they may have survived as autobiographical fragments, provide us with fascinating glimpses into a tradition of writing about the self clearly conscious of its position or development within religious contexts. Handed down within a rich oral tradition, later preserved in writing from the first century BCE, what part, if any, have these played in the cultural memory of the writers we study from a more recent past?

[1] From Women Writing in India: 6oo BC to the Early 20th Century, ed. Susie Tharu and K. Lalitha, London: Pandora Press, 69-70.