Recent scholarship has challenged the anachronistic projection of the modern category of the poem onto premodern texts. This article attempts to theorize how one might construct an alternative to modern conceptualizations of “the poem” that more closely appropriates the conceptualization of textuality in the Rigveda, an anthology of 1028 sūkta
s “well-spoken (texts)” that represents the oldest religious literature in South Asia. In order to understand what these texts are and what they were expected to do, this article examines the techniques by which the Rigveda refers to itself, to its performer, to its audience, and to the occasion of its performance. In so doing, this article theorizes a “performance grammar” comprising three axes of textual self-reference (spatial, temporal, and personal); these axes of reference constitute a scene of performance populated by rhetorically constructed speakers and listeners. This performance narrative, called here the adhiyajña
level, frames the mythological narratives of the text. By examining the relationship between mythological narrative and performance narrative, we can better understand the purpose of performing a text and thus what kind of an entity Rigvedic “texts” really are. While this article proposes a rubric specifically for the Rigvedic context, its principles can be adapted to other premodern texts in order to better understand the performance context they presuppose.
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