How to do things with Sanskrit: Speech act theory and the oral performance of sacred texts

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    It is now half a century since J. L. Austin published his seminal work, How to Do Things with Words, in which he first articulated his theory of speech acts. Since then, his core idea that verbal utterances convey more than what is simply implied by the words alone has become axiomatic. In this paper, I will describe the use of Sanskrit verses in an oral tradition known in Hindi as a Bha¯gavata-katha¯ ("Divine narrative" or "Stories about God"), as practiced by teachers in the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), popularly known as the Hare Krishna movement. Verses drawn from the important Hindu text, the Bha¯gavata-pura¯na, form a key component of these events, yet few if any in the audience are able to understand them directly. As part of an ongoing inquiry into power and authority within a Hindu episteme, I use speech act theory to explore the function of these verses. Bha¯gavata performances are compared with qur'anic recitation in the Comoros and the recitation of certain Buddhist texts in Mustang, Nepal. I argue that Sanskrit verses in this event have what Austin terms "perlocutionary" significance: that is, they have a meaning and a function other than that conveyed by the words alone. They enable the exponent to demonstrate publicly his status, to establish his authority, and prove his direct access to the text. The performance of Sanskrit verses, even though it may be semantically inaccessible to the audience, validates the oral discourse by tying it directly back to the authority of the original source text. Here, speech act theory is applied not to the semantic content of the utterance, but to the choice of language in which the utterance is made.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)519-537pp
    Issue number5-6
    Publication statusPublished - 2015


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