Stretching her observations across some 200 pages, Naomi Appleton has managed, in her book, to fence in a scholarly enclosure into which she has herded not only the three major dharmas of the subcontinent but also some of their most important deities and heroes. Appleton may have been somewhat uncertain about attempting such a feat, so one can well understand her anxieties. In the acknowledgement page, which precedes the text, she has cited endorsements from scholars and colleagues from Cardiff and Edinburgh Universities as well as from conferences held in Liverpool, Lancaster and Manchester. Further validation is provided in the list of references in the Bibliography which is divided into primary and secondary sources. The list of secondary sources has some three hundred and thirty scholarly works of which just over 10% refer to Indian authors. One may well ask oneself, just how is it that the evidence for critical Indian scholarship on the subject of Indian dharmas is so sparse? Is it possible that the health of Indian scholarship about our ancient traditions has become so neglected that not enough work of significance is being produced by Indian scholars, at least not significant enough to be shared with other international scholars at large? This situation is certainly true of the research work on the Buddhist tradition for which the volume of scholarly work authored by Tibetan, Chinese and European authors is enormous while that of Indian scholars remains very sparse. The work of Atlantic scholars such as Appelton and Wendy Doniger need to be placed in this global context of research work that is coming out from non-Indian scholars on ancient Indian traditions. It is quite possible to argue that the receptive intellectual environment for recognizing non-Indian scholarship on Indian traditions has become rather hazardous. Consider the fate of Doniger’s 2009 book The Hindus: An Alternative History that was withdrawn by Penguin and pulped. Here was a book authored by a respected American scholar who is 74 years old and spent her academic career as a Sanksrit scholar working on India only to get her most important work trashed, not by scholars but by an andolan defending Indian traditions.
It is in these currently bigoted times that Appleton has written to introduce us to a comparative approach in which she has chosen some sacred characters across the three early Indian religions (Brahmanical Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism) and explored the ‘key religious and social ideals…, points of contact, dialogue and contention between the different world views’. She does so by focusing on the gods, heroes and kings that are manifest in the three traditions. She is no ordinary scholar and is well versed in the ancient languages as is evident from her published translations of early Buddhist narrative collections and the references in the primary sources in her bibliography. For her, the importance of writing this comparative study lies in her giving us the ‘early South Asian narrative traditions because of their relevance to the concerns of the day, such as the role of deities, the qualities of a true hero or good ruler and the tension between worldly responsibilities and the pursuit of liberation’.