The passing away of the French scholar Madeleine Biardeau, translator of the Ramayana and an outstanding specialist of the Puranas, is a loss to understanding Hindu India…
Madeleine Biardeau, the widely respected French Indologist, passed away on February 1 in France. She was 88. Born in Niort, in the West of France, in 1922 into a middle class family of small entrepreneurs, Madeleine Biardeau joined the prestigious Ecole normale supérieure of Sèvres (restricted to girls then) at Paris, in 1943, where she studied philosophy. There she discovered the classical heritage of Indian culture with a group of young Christian women who were attracted by the so called spirituality of the East. Madeleine Biardeau, who was close to the Left Catholic milieu and had a strong secular feeling in spite of being herself a practising Catholic, departed from her friends and started learning Sanskrit intensively in order to study Hindu philosophy to which she devoted a great part of her academic life. But she did not intend to consider Hinduism only from her academic milieu far from India. Aware of the ancient tradition of scholarship that was still alive there, and very curious about the country and its people, she joined the University of Travancore for two years, in the1950s, learning much from the Pandits with whom she read Sanskrit texts. It was the beginning of a lasting intellectual and personal relationship with India, which she visited almost every year until the 1990s.
Her works can be broadly divided into three parts. First, she focused on Advaita Vedanta and translated the works of Mandana Misra, Vacaspati Misra and the grammarian Bhartrhari, which she commented in her doctoral dissertation on The Theory of Knowledge and the Philosophy of Speech in Classical Brahmanism (1964, in French). Elaborating on the notion of orthodoxy, Madeleine Biardeau sketched out the religious and intellectual principles that framed the Brahmanical mind-set of the tenants of Advaita Vedanta. These authors, who stressed the strict observance of sacrificial practices inherited from the Vedas, were concerned with the quest for salvation, moksha, considered as a way of escaping from the cycle of death and rebirth. Thus at the heart of Hinduism is set a structural tension between the man-out-of-the-world, the renouncer whose samnyasi is the typical example, and the ordinary man-in-the-world who bears the burden of his destiny, his karma. Furthermore, Madeleine Biardeau showed that this tension should be located within a wider cosmological representation of the word embedded within the main goals (purushartha) that structure the idealised life of the orthodox Hindu man. Brahmanism can be considered as expressing an anthropological understanding of the Hindu civilisation, as she put it a later book Hinduism: The Anthropology of a Civilisation(1994 for English translation).The second part of the work that Madeleine Biardeau conducted deals with the study of the Puranas, to which she devoted erudite books edited by the French School for the far East (Ecole française d'Extrême-Orient). Yet, her interest for the Puranas was part of a larger concern with Hindu literature, mainly the Epics, which constitute the third main area of Madeleine Biardeau's scholarship. In collaboration with two French Sanskrit scholars, Marie-Claude Porcher and Philippe Benoit, she translated into French the Ramayana of Valmiki (1999). Yet her last and major achievements remain the two edited volumes of the Mahabharata that she published in 2002. In this impressive work, which took her four decades to complete, she presented a detailed resume of the whole Epic that she completed by her own interpretation. Briefly, Madeleine Biardeau considered the Mahabharata as an intellectual and religious reaction against Buddhism whose appeal to the layman was upsetting Brahmanical values by dislodging the Brahmans from their privileged position in the mundane world. More generally, she used to say that the Epics, as well as the Puranas, should be read as a particular theological and philosophical genre which is eschatology, as both deal with the ultimate endings of cycle of events whether at the individual level or that of the cosmos.
Madeleine Biardeau not only worked in close association with Pandits either at the Deccan College at Pune or at the French Institute at Pondicherry (which was founded by the French Indologist Jean Filliozat in 1956), she relentlessly visited temples and places of worship in towns and small villages, questioning people from all castes, and enquired about their contemporary cults and rituals. Her book Stories about Posts: Vedic variations about the Hindu Goddess (2002 for the English translation) combines varied studies on the Sanskrit Epics, the Hindu Goddess, Vedic sacrifice and the interpretation of Hinduism.
The main argument that Madeleine Biardeau constantly belaboured in her work deals with the unity of Hinduism (see her contribution to T. N. Madan's edited volume The Hinduism Omnibus, 2003). As she recollected it in a rare published autobiographical statement : “From the beginning of my Indological studies I have been quite convinced that Hindu society was much less divided ideologically, that the top and the bottom were not so utterly alien to each other than was usually contended.”
Her own interpretation of Hinduism is close to the view expressed by Louis Dumont in his Homo Hierachicus (1966 for the French edition), which remains the most impressive understanding ever published on the caste system. This intellectual association of a Sanskrit scholar and of an anthropologist who both did fieldwork (mainly in South India), was long considered as typical of the French scholarship on India, although this blending of skills was not at all uncommon among Indian scholars since the very beginning of the 20th century. Yet the intellectual framework which underlines both Madeleine Biardeau's and Louis Dumont's understanding of Hinduism has been, and still is, debated among scholars of India who questioned the unilateral Brahmanical grounding of their scholarly approaches. Madeleine Biardeau was Directeur d'études at the fifth section of the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes at Paris, the stronghold of Indologists since the end of the 19th century, and in 1969 she succeeded Louis Dumont as head of the Centre for Indian and South Asian Studies at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales. Her death marks almost the complete disappearance of a whole generation of French scholars who profoundly redefined the intellectual understanding of (classical Hindu) India in the second half of the 20th century.
Roland Lardinois is a Sociologist at the French National Center for Scientific Research, is affiliated with the Centre d'Etudes de l'Inde et de l'Asie du Sud (EHESS, Paris). He is currently at the Centre for Human Sciences at Delhi