The Literary Life of Yājñavalkya

By Steven E. Lindquist

Subjects: Hindu Studies, India And South Asian Studies, Philosophy Of Religion, Asian Literature
Series: SUNY series in Hindu Studies
Hardcover : 9781438495620, 348 pages, December 2023
Paperback : 9781438495637, 348 pages, June 2024

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Table of contents

Introduction: Narrative and Method

1. The Origins of a Sage

2. The Mature Yājñavalkya and the BrO hadāraṇyaka

3. An Ancient Sage and the Paradox of the New

4. Yājñavalkya beyond the Veda

Conclusion: Yājñavalkya and Ancient Indian Literary Memory
Appendix: Text and Translation of BrO hadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad (Kāṇva) Chapters 3 and 4

A literary and historical investigation into an ancient Indian religious thinker, tracing his rise in importance in the Hindu tradition.


In this fascinating study, Steven E. Lindquist investigates the intersections between historical context and literary production in the "life" of Yājñavalkya, the most important ancient Indian literary figure prior to the Buddha. Known for his sharp tongue and deep thought, Yājñavalkya is associated with a number of "firsts" in Indian religious literary history: the first person to discuss brahman and ātman thoroughly; the first to put forth a theory of karma and reincarnation; the first to renounce his household life; and the first to dispute with women in religious debate. Throughout early Indian history, he was seen as a priestly bearer of ritual authority, a sage of mystical knowledge, and an innovative propagator of philosophical ideas and religious law. Drawing on history, literary studies, ritual studies, Sanskrit philology, narrative studies, and philosophy, Lindquist traces Yājñavalkya’s literary life—from his earliest mentions in ritual texts, through his developing biography in the Upaniṣads, and finally to his role as a hoary sage in narrative literature—offering the first detailed monograph on this central figure in early Indian religious and literary history.

Steven E. Lindquist is Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies, Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professor, and Director of Asian Studies at Southern Methodist University. He is the editor of Religion and Identity in South Asia: Essays in Honor of Patrick Olivelle.


"Lindquist traces the textual references to Yājñavalkya from their pre-Buddhist beginnings to their classical and postclassical contexts, all while avoiding the pitfalls of mostly pointless inquiries into the 'historicity' of Yājñavalkya. As such, the book is unique within the field of Indology because it goes beyond the usual dismissive descriptions of such personalities as mere eponyms or arbitrary placeholders for sagely authority. In contrast, Lindquist shows how coherent features of thought and rhetorical style provided a solid core text-persona called Yājñavalkya, around whom a host of distinctive ideas and styles of debate and expression were carried through several genres of Vedic and classical Hindu sacred writing." — Donald R. Davis Jr., University of Texas at Austin