This post ended up being kind of rambling, so please try to bear with my constant jumping around.
It occurred to me as I was reading my last post (and the comment from ‘Sard) that it reminded me of a book I recently finished: Sei Shonagon’s (or Shonagon Sei, if you prefer to put her personal name first) Pillow Book. Sei served Empress Teishi at the height of the Heian Period in Japan (approx. 794 – 1185 CE) for her own amusement and apparently because the Emperor was getting his courtiers to copy out a Chinese classic (which is compared to a reed mat) hence the suggestion that Sei’s book should form a “pillow” for it (hence the name) or something.
Anyways, The Pillow Book is basically one woman’s account of life in the Japanese Imperial Court. Here are some of the things she discusses in her book:
- Religious services (including how she wishes the Buddhist who was preaching was hotter, so at least she’d have something to look at)
- Random lists of places she finds interesting
- Flowers (often used in poetry)
- Politics (but rarely)
Now, if I knew nothing at all about the Heian Period (and I don’t, not really) and the only book I read was this one, I might assume that life for a woman in the Japanese Imperial Court was a mixture of poetry slams, pilgrimages, snobbery, and all around rosy idealism. Fortunately, my edition (by Penguin) has some great notes about the political situation at the time.
As it turns out, Sei paints a very idealized picture of life serving an Empress who wasn’t always completely secure in her position (if ever). There’s no room for dwelling on sorrow in The Pillow Book even the Empress’s death is completely glossed over as merely an unfortunate incident. In a way, it reminds me of shows like Leave it to Beaver when everyone could pretend that the 50s was pretty darn swell even when it….really wasn’t….at all.
There’s also the issue of time. Sei gives the court a very “timeless” fashion. At times, she might reference certain events that historians can accurately date, but good luck putting everything in chronological order. The fact is that even though it’s presented as a unified text, many portions were composed at a later date, and some passages were left out entirely from different translations.
It paints a very skewed picture, to say the least.
My point in saying all this is that I often found myself comparing The Pillow Book to texts like the Eddas, which were also chopped up and stuck together by someone with an agenda. The thing is that it’s sometimes difficult to realize just what a skewed picture we have unless we took the individual sections and tried to put them into chronological order, and it would be a whole lot easier if we had the originals, or, you know, primary sources in general.
Or, you know, just look at Hinduism. Do you know how many texts the various traditions collectively lumped under the label Hinduism are regarded as sacred (or at least vested with some sort of authority).
Well, yes, the Vedas are the oldest and vested with the most authority (want to give your tradition legitimacy, say you’re doing stuff that’s found in the Vedas, it works…although being from a teaching lineage does help) but the answer one of my profs. gave was that it was “as many books that would fill this classroom”
and it was a big classroom.
And you think your library is extensive?
So, that’s besides the point, the thing is, though, if you took the Vedas as the only source for information about Hinduism, you’re screwed, seriously. For one thing, no one sacrifices horses anymore, they became way too expensive, and the pantheon’s been shuffled around a bit. (Who the fuck is Ushas and where are all her temples?) Sorry Indra, the consensus is that Vishnu and Shiva are cooler than you now (but at least you’re still cooler than Brahma). Also, the average person doesn’t suddenly pack up and leave to become a wandering hermit nowadays (it happens).
Granted, Hinduisms have had lots of time to grow and change (plus, you know, colonialism) but seriously, if you tried to do to the Vedas what some people are trying to do to the Eddas nowadays. Yeah, good luck trying to find enough horses to sacrifice.
I kind of went rambling on, so here’s the short version:
Texts, they lie.