Saturday, November 28, 2009

Religions of the Library, Part Deux

Two Brief Case Studies (Buddhism and Orphic Dionysianism)

1. Each wooden block of the Korean Tripitaka (that is, the Korean version of the traditional Buddhist scriptural "canon") contains 644 Chinese characters. There are a total of 81,340 blocks, for a grand total of over 52 million characters (52,382,960). One of the shortest of these Buddhist texts, the Heart Sutra, is composed of only 262 Chinese characters, and it's English translation takes up about 275 words. So there is a very rough correspondence between individual Chinese characters and English words. There are 774,746 words in the combined Old and New Testaments of the King James Bible. The Buddhist "canon", then, is roughly 70 times larger than the entire Christian canon, and fully 300 times larger than the New Testament (which has a mere 181,253 words).

The contents of the Tripitaka are also found to contain a variety of works that were composed well after the Buddha had lived and died. In Mahayana Buddhism, especially, there are a number of Sutras that were either written centuries after the time of the Buddha, or are even claimed to have been "hidden" by the Buddha for others to discover later. The entirety of the Prajnaparamita texts, for example, which include the Heart Sutra, were, according to tradition, revealed to Nagarjuna, a Buddhist teacher who lived some time around the second to third centuries AD, when Nagarjuna traveled below the earth to visit Nagaraja, the King of the subterranean snake-people called "nagas".

2. Although no complete version of the Orphic myth of Dionysos survives intact, classical scholar Sarah Iles Johnston has pieced together "the story in it's entirety", using a famous passage from Olympiodorus' commentary on Plato's Phaedrus along with a variety of other sources:
Dionysus was the child of Zeus and Zeus' daughter Persephone. Dionysus succeeded Zeus; Zeus himself placed the child on his throne and declared him the new king of the cosmos. The Titans, jealous of Dionysus' new power and perhaps encouraged by Hera, used various toys, and a mirror, to lure Dionysus away from his guardians, the Curetes, and dismembered him. They cooked his flesh and ate it. Zeus, being angry at this, killed the Titans, and from their remains, humanity arose. Because humanity arose from material that was predominantly Titanic in nature, each human is born with the stain of the Titans' crime, but a remnant of Dionysus leavens the mixture. Each human must expiate the Titans' crime by performing rituals in honor of Dionysus and Persephone, who still suffers from the 'ancient grief' of losing her child; by doing so, humans can win better afterlives. Meanwhile Dionysus was in some manner revived or reborn.
[Ritual Texts for the Afterlife: Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets, p. 67]
Johnston goes on to point out that "the typical reader" will find parts of this story "weird" because it differs from more widely known Dionysian myths found in Hesiod, Homer, Ovid, etc. The "Orphic" version of the story of Dionsysus, however, was widely known in antiquity long before Olympiodorus (6th century AD) and significant references to the Orphic version are known from sources as early as Callimachus, Plato and even Pindar. To understand this, Johnston asks us to
remember that in contrast to Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, the religions of ancient Greece had no canonical, sacred texts. Myths and especially myths asssociated with cults, were fluid; now one version of a story and now another was invoked to suit particular circumstances.
[pp. 67-68]
So-called Orphism turns out to be a variant of Dionysianism, and one that is distinguished by it's own ritual texts and it's own version of the myth of Dionysos, a version that has multiple literary sources. Orphism is also closely identified with both Pythagoreanism and Platonism, and many of our most important literary sources for Orphism are late antique Platonic writings. The hieroi logoi of Orphism, then, include scripts for rituals, literary accounts of the cultic mythos, and an extensive philosophical literature stretching from Pythagoras (born ca 570 BC) to Olympiodorus (died 570 AD).

[Also see the original Religions of the Library post.]