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The Double-Voiced Rig Veda: Poetics and Power Dynamics of Formal Structuring Devices


The term “poetic grammar” refers to the formal patterns that distinguish poetic registers from other modes of speech: for example, patterns in meter and rhyme schemes. For many poetic traditions, function is also a distinguishing feature: epic poetry is a vehicle for heroic lore, for instance, and liturgical hymns convey entreaties to gods. Thus, poetic genres are characterized in terms of patterns in sound or typical topics; connections between form and function are most often left unexplored. My dissertation examines relationships between traditional formal “structuring devices” and the quite heterogeneous functions of a selection of hymns from the Rig Veda, the most ancient of Indic liturgical texts and one of considerable self-conscious poetic intricacy. Working in the traditions of interdisciplinary poetics pioneered by such figures as Roman Jakobson and Mikhail Bakhtin, and building on the insights of historical linguistics, I will explore how the phonological, grammatical and lexical patterns that comprise formal structuring devices are used to shape a discourse, and to further specific rhetorical goals of the Rigvedic poet Vasiṣṭha, among other speakers.

Most Rigvedic hymns are embedded within ritual contexts; the poets are the primary speakers, and gods, patrons and ritual officiants the usual addressees. In addition, dialogue hymns present conversations between divine and human consorts and spouses. Structuring devices connect passages that affirm the norms of poetic grammar with variations that counter or distort them, creating a double-voiced discourse (i.e. “heteroglossia”) that helps certain speakers, whose lack of divinity, lower class, or disfavored gender puts them at a disadvantage with their interlocutor, gain control of ritual interactions. This dissertation will thus connect the formal conventions of Rigvedic poetics to poet-patron power dynamics, negotiations across the human-divine power differential, and changing gender roles in ritual—all relatively new lines of inquiry.

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