Profile by Matthew Clark BACK
Born in Sri Lanka, Olivelle received his B.A. (Honours) in 1972 from the University of Oxford, where he studied Sanskrit, Pali and Indian Religions under Thomas Burrow and R.C. Zaehner. He was awarded a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1974 for a thesis containing the critical edition and translation of Yadava Prakasa's Yatidharmaprakasa. Between 1974 and 1991 Olivelle taught at Indiana University. Since 1991 he has been Professor of Sanskrit and Indian Religions in the Department of Asian Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.
Since 1975, Olivelle has also received fellowships from several other institutions, including the American Institute of Indian Studies (1975), the National Endowment of the Humanities (1977-78), Wolfson College, University of Oxford (1977-78; 1981-82), the American Institute of Indian Studies and Smithsonian Institution (1982), the Guggenheim Foundation (1996-97), and the American Council of Learned Sciences (2000-2001). Olivelle was honoured in 1997 by the University of Western Michigan, as the Mircea Eliade Lecturer in Comparative Religion; as the Christie and Stanley E. Adams Jr Centennial Professor in Liberal Arts, from 1998 until 2000, and as the Alma Cowden Madden Centennial Professor in Liberal Arts, from 2000, at the University of Texas; and as the 2001 Gonda Lecturer at the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.
During his twenty-five year career, Olivelle's contribution to Indology has been enormous, his publications including twenty book reviews, thirty articles and a dozen books. To date, Olivelle's published books are: The Origin and Early Development of Buddhist Monachism (1974); Vasudevasrama Yatidharmaprakasa: A Treatise on World Renunciation [Parts I and II] (1976-77); Samnyasapaddhati of Rudradeva (1986); Renunciation in Hinduism: A Medieval Debate [Volumes I and II] (1986-87); The Samnyasa Upanisads: Hindu Scriptures on Asceticism and Renunciation (1992); The Asrama System: History and Hermeneutics of a Religious Institution (1993); Rules and Regulations of Brahmanical Asceticism [Yadava Prakasa's Yatidharmasamuccaya] (1995); The Upanisads (1996); The Pancatantra: The Book of India's Folk Wisdom (1997); The Early Upanisads: Annotated Text and Translation (1998); Dharmasutras: The Law Codes of Ancient India (1999); The Dharmasutras of Apastamba, Gautama, Baudhayana, and Vasistha [in Sources of Indian Law, edited by Olivelle].
In the earlier part of his career, Olivelle's main area of research was on renunciation and related issues of dharma within the Hindu tradition. His articles, translations, annotations and introductions to texts associated with asceticism and renunciation both provided critical insight into the development of specific traditions, and also furnished future generations of Indological scholars and other interested readers with texts that were previously difficult to access or only available in Sanskrit. Olivelle's painstaking work and meticulous scholarship have rendered texts into English that not only reads well but also maintains a high degree of translational accuracy. In the last decade or so, Olivelle has produced articles on topics that include: food and the Indian ascetic; the semantic history of the term ananda; women and Indian technologies of immortality; the social significance of hair in South Asian traditions; and caste and purity, in a study of the language of the Dharma Literature. Olivelle has also contributed articles on asceticism and renunciation to several volumes on the Hindu tradition, including: Studies in Dharmasastra (edited by Richard Lariviere, 1984); Identity and Division of Cults and Sects in South Asia (edited by Peter Gaeffke and David A. Utz, 1984); The New Encyclopaedia of Religion (edited by Mircea Eliade, 1986); Monasticism in the Christian and Hindu Traditions (edited by Austin B. Creel and Vasudha Narayanan, 1990); Rules and Remedies in Indian Classical Law (edited by Julia Leslie, 1991); Sources of Indian Religions (edited by Donald S. Lopez, 1995); Asceticism (edited by Vincent L. Wimbush and Richard Valantasis, 1995); Harper Collins Dictionary of Religion (edited by Jonathan Z. Smith, 1995); Hair: Its Power and Meaning in Asian Cultures (edited by Alf Hiltebeitel and Barbara D. Miller, 1998); The Companion to Hinduism (edited by Gavin Flood, in press).
In recognition of his scholarship, Olivelle received, in 1994, the American Academy of Religion's Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion (in the Historical category), for his book, The Asrama System, a stimulating and comprehensive account of the development of one of Hinduism's most important institutions. In 1998, he received the A.K. Ramanujan Translation Award for his translation of the Upanisads, the first entirely new translation of those texts for over fifty years.
Since 1998, Olivelle has been the Oxford University Press Delegate for Books and World Religions, and is currently the General Editor of the book series, 'Sources of Indian Law', published by Motilal Banarsidass. His current projects are a book on the ancient Indian social construction of the body, and a critical edition of the Manava Dharmasastra (The Laws of Manu). When Olivelle visited SOAS for the Come and Meet Seminar, he discussed his current work on Manu, among other topics. Interestingly, his research into the scheme of the text has convinced Olivelle that it represents the work of one brilliant mind.
Olivelle's broad knowledge of Indian Sanskrit texts and the development of the Hindu tradition, his eye for detail and ability to contextualise the significance of details, and his vast output of work of the highest standard will leave scholars in his debt for many a generation to come.
Matthew Clark is currently a research student in the Department of the Study of Religions at SOAS, researching renunciation in Hinduism, under the supervision of Dr. Julia Leslie.