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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama

Much Ado about Religion

Jayánta Bhaṭṭa

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To purchase Much Ado about Religion

Title: Much Ado about Religion
Author: Jayánta Bhaṭṭa
Genre: Play
Written: ca. 900 (Eng. 2005)
Length: 253 pages
Original in: Sanskrit
Availability: Much Ado about Religion - US
Much Ado about Religion - UK
Much Ado about Religion - Canada
  • Sanskrit title: आगमडम्बर (Āgamaḍambara)
  • Edited and translated by Csaba Dezső
  • This is a bilingual edition (but with the Sankrit Romanized, rather than printed in Devanagari)

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Our Assessment:

B : unusual mix, bogs down as drama

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Frankfurter Rundschau . 12/7/2010 Arno Widmann

  From the Reviews:
  • "Das Stück besteht aus sehr prätentiösen und scheinbar blutig ernst gemeinten Monologen und lustigen Streitszenen. Racine und Millowitsch in einem. Komplizierteste philosophische Probleme werden erörtert, Dinge, von denen wir nichts wissen, von denen wir auch, nachdem wir den Streitereien zugehört haben, nichts wissen. (...) Aber gerade die Vieldeutigkeit des Textes macht ihn so aktuell, lässt uns glauben, wir müssten ihn nur spielen, um ihn zu einem Teil von uns zu machen." - Arno Widmann, Frankfurter Rundschau

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Much Ado about Religion, written about 900, is a didactic play that takes on (some) religion in a mix of satire and call for tolerance. Relating directly to conditions in Kashmir of the time, and the local ruler, King Shánkara·varman, and his policies and rule, the arcane specifics remain -- despite a brief Introduction and quite extensive textual notes -- difficult to fully grasp. Much, however, is also more universal, and so the play is certainly more than of merely historical interest.
       Sanskrit dramas generally have a prologue that is a behind the scenes look at the production, the manager or director and some of the actors, for example, introducing the play by discussing the performance. Much Ado about Religion has such a Prologue -- promisingly titled 'Disillusion' -- which finds the Director complaining that a circle of Jayánta Bhaṭṭa's students:

has ordered me to put on a new work by their teacher, an extraordinary play called Much Ado about Religion. So how shall I stage it, since it is neither worldly nor does it follow the dramatic rules, and has never been performed ? Therefore it is better for me just to give up this wretched livelihood.
       Amusingly enough, that's what he does at the end of the short prologue, fed up: "with this intolerable thespian career, so full of trickery and illusion".
       Despite the Director's complaints, Much Ado about Religion is recognizable as drama, certainly in its early scenes. Jayánta takes on some of the most popular religions of the time -- and, more to the point, the way they are practiced -- and has some good satirical fun with various representatives of these on the stage.
       Act One is titled 'The Buddhists Defeated', so you know where that is going from the outset, and Jayánta has good fun in poking fun at first Buddhism and then Jainism -- and their followers. He mixes actual criticism of the often confusing and arguably illogical beliefs of these religions with broader comedy, showing how the followers aren't quite living up to their religions' (often ascetic) images.
       The arguments range from the general:
     One can hardly get to the bottom of Vedantic teachings. The stories told in the three Vedas are confusing with verbose detail.
       to more ... specific objections:
     The concomitance with the probandum, i.e., "momentariness," of the proof of "existence," which you Buddhists teach cannot be ascertained in a straight way, as can be in the case of smoke and fire, since no example appears to support it, and since therefore it is useless.
       Eventually a 'materialist' philosopher, Vriddhámbhi, comes on the scene, and argues that King Shánkara·varman has created a disastrous situation by allowing all these various religious followers to believe as they please -- and Vriddhámbhi has his own solution to the religious mix and mess:
I am going to take this opportunity to do away with God, set aside the world-to-come, demolish the validity of the Vedas, and thereby return the king back from this wrong path and establish him on the right track, so that concentrating on worldly prosperity he can enjoy his kingship for a long time.
       This, of course, sets off yet more debate about the nature of things -- this act is titled 'Religion Denied and Defended' -- and, of course, Vriddhámbhi's solution does not win the day.
       The final man to have his say is another philosopher, Dhairya·rashi, and in the final act -- 'Qualified Tolerance' -- he doesn't so much engage in debate as offer a grand (and lengthy) lecture. As the enthusiastic praise heaped on him afterwards suggests -- "his erudition is superhuman at the very least" -- his message of (some) tolerance win the day.
       Jayánta Bhaṭṭa does have some difficulty in balancing entertainment and argument; by the end, he's willing to give the stage over completely to Dhairya·rashi -- whose lesson might be the most interesting, but in its presentation is considerably less entertaining than some of the earlier bickering. Yet the complaint: "Enough of verbosity !" is one that fits considerably more of the play, too (and, indeed, is directed at a different character).
       As drama, Much Ado about Religion does bog down -- a modern staging would require heavy editing -- and as religious debate much revolves around issues that contemporary Western readers are unlikely to be familiar with; still, it's an intriguing work, and parts are genuinely funny and clever.

       Translation from the Sanskrit poses unique problems, and a work such as this -- combining both philosophy and more straightforward drama -- from over a thousand years ago poses additional challenges. Csaba Dezső gamely has at it -- with mixed results. Indeed, it's the very mixed nature of the results that stand out, as he veers between textual (and linguistic) fidelity and more creative takes: here is a drama that includes phrases such as: "Golly !" (an exclamation I don't think I've read in a book since childhood), "C'est la vie, sweetie", and the always popular: "Keep your hair on !"
       Conveying the religious/philosophical arguments poses a whole different set of problems, though with the endnotes interested readers can make their way quite far into the thickets. For the most part, the play does move along quickly enough that even those with limited knowledge of and interest in the doctrinal debates and details shouldn't be too put off by them -- though it must be noted that things get progressively worse (in this regard) as the play moves along. Here also the language can bog down, as Dezső must try to convey these complicated and specific concepts and arguments, and so these parts of the play often don't read quite so well.

       As to the Clay Sanskrit Library edition itself: these handy volumes are the perfect size and very attractive; while a more in-depth introduction might have been helpful, on the whole the apparatus for this volume -- with endnotes, bibliography, and an index -- is very sturdy. The debate whether a Romanized version (as opposed to printing the Sanskrit original in Devanagari) is preferable will, no doubt, continue -- I'd vote for the Devanagari, every time -- but certainly one can work with this presentation.

- M.A.Orthofer, 1 August 2011

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Much Ado about Religion: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Jayánta Bhaṭṭa (जयन्त भट्ट) flourished ca. 850 to 910 and is best known for his philosophical works.

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