Jacobsen on Hindu Hell

Knut A. Jacobsen’s ‘Three Functions of Hell in the Hindu Traditions’, NVMEN, 56, 2009, pp. 385-400. This paper forms part of an entire volume dedicated to ideas of ‘hell’ across religious traditions. Jacobsen provides a brief overview of hell, as it is developed in the Mahābhārata, the Manusmṛti and the Bhagavata and Garuḍa Purāṇas. In this clear and enjoyable paper, Jacobsen outlines three functions of hell in Hindu traditions: the narrative, the social and the economic. The narrative function of hell, according to Jacobsen, is to stimulate the audience. He cites the example of the close of the Mahābhārata, when its hero, king Yudhiṣṭhira, discovers his immediate family in hell and his enemy in heaven. Due to his exemplary behaviour, he is informed by Indra that, upon death, good people must go to hell – albeit briefly – (to atone for their limited wrongdoings) while bad people go briefly to heaven (to enjoy the strictly limited consequences of their virtue) and then to hell. This somewhat odd doctrine (at least in Hindu terms) is not explored by Jacobsen, but he righty emphasises how compelling the close of the Mahābhārata is. As Jacobsen remarks, ‘hell makes a good story.’
The social and economic dimensions of hell are connected in Jacobsen’s paper. He sees the Manusmṛti, Bhagavata and Garuḍa Purāṇa as engaged in complimentary activities. The three texts establish the spectre of hell and a series of ritual measures to avoid it, which are the monopoly of the Brahmin (which insures both high status and high income for Brahmins). The Manusmṛti provides a list of 28 hells, which the Bhagavata Purāṇa describes in detail. Jacobsen is not convinced that hell is fully integrated in the Manusmṛti, however. He suggests that it is separate from the realm of rebirth (which he sees as dominated by Saṃkhyan philosophical ideas). The key idea in the Manusmṛti, which the Garuḍa Purāṇa (in its Pretakhaṇḍa) takes up and extends, is that a crime (pātaka) may be absolved by a vow (kṛcchra). In the Garuḍa Purāṇa an elaborate system of gift giving is further established, in which a person near to death, or their relatives, may engage in acts of conspicuous Brahmin-patronage.
After pages of perceptive analysis and observation, Jacobsen’s conclusion is somewhat low key; he emphasises the fact that hell is not really very significant to Hindus and calls for sociological research on the topic. One might add to this the need for more historical research; I am not at all sure that hell was lacking in importance for Hindus in all times and places in the past, especially where Jain and Buddhist traditions were well-represented. This is something that I will have to substantiate in my ongoing research. Jacobsen’s paper is, however, an excellent overview of four very significant sources for Hindu tradition, which I recommend to anyone interested in the topic of hell(s) in Hindu tradition.

Heaven and Hell in Early South Asia

After my broad Spalding paper, which took up overarching approaches to the significant past across Hindu, Buddhist and Jain narrative sources, I thought I would turn to a related sub-topic: that of heaven and hell, and their several inhabitants, across the three religious traditions. My paper at the Spalding focussed on the contrast between the dominantly genealogical orientation to the past in Brahminical sources (and their emphasis on the capacity for divine intervention in the universe and their reliance on a ‘blueprint’, of sorts: the Vedas) to that of the – different – transmigratory histories of Buddhist and Jains (and in particular their agents of religious insight viz. Buddhas and Jinas). Now, heaven and hell might not seem an obvious development from this broad theme. They are however of critical importance; heaven and hell play a major role in both Buddhist and Jain traditions in discussions of the ramifications of one’s actions after death and the long process that may, or may not, lead to release from rebirth. In Hindu traditions, the posthumous fate of one’s ancestors, and their ritual support in their afterlives, are a pressing concern, as well as, of course, one’s own personal destination (and all this is integrated with a variety of ‘mokṣic soteriologies’ that avoid both heaven and hell). Thus kinship and genealogy, as well as transmigration and ethics – and the elephant in the room of rebirth – mokṣa – are all richly interrelated. My Spalding paper mentioned the relatively slow rate of adoption of explicitly transmigratory ‘story arcs’ in Brahminical tradition compared to the thorough integration of rebirth in largely contemporaneous legal texts (where the transmigratory consequences of wrongdoings are painstakingly mapped out; to steal curd, for example, is to be reborn as a flamingo in the Manusmṛti). Heaven and hell also recurrently appear in epic and Purāṇic narratives (as does Yama, with Citragupta, in his role as a psychopomp, or judge of the dead, and Yama is known in Buddhist and Jain sources – something I will also explore). Their evocation seems to vacillate between a focus on the ramifications of karma and a more social, kin-oriented, emphasis on the fate of one’s ancestors (and – on occasion – the relation of all this to renunciation and release from rebirth). What is more, the divine realms are used to mirror forms of earthly (bhumic?) social and political organisation (one only has to read the account of the divine sabhā – ‘courts’ or ‘assemblies’ – of the second book of the Mahābhārata to see this). On the other hand, Buddhist and Jain sources emphasise the role of heaven and hell in establishing the consequences of actions. It tends to be religiously significant figures (not all of them positive examples), who are described in detail in their ongoing karmic journeys (as I have mentioned before: a sort of spiritual, multi-life, bildungsroman). This is not to say, however, that there is no concern for the posthumous fate of one’s relatives; certainly in Buddhist tradition the idea of making offerings for the sake of others, many of whom are deceased, is well known both in the distant past and to this day (and, on occasion, groups of people co-transmigrate). There is also a recurrent concern to depict recurrent social networks in successive lives in the Jātakas and elsewhere. All three traditions also routinely integrate heavens and hells in vast descriptions of the cosmos and the theatres of human action within it. Heaven and hell, and their associated narratives, thus allow one to explore Hindu, Buddhist and Jain attempts to marry religious doctrine with understandings of the physical and meta-physical universe (and on occasion to engage in utopian and dystopian political thought) in narrative.They are also very intimately connected to sets of ritual practice (the Hindu śrāddha and a variety of Buddhist rituals associated with the ‘transfer of merit’). They are thus an excellent means of providing a ‘lens’ through which to approach the broader topic of the relationship between kinship, genealogy, karma and its cessation in early Indian religious traditions and the use of narrative in this regard. Well, that is the plan anyway.

Reaching the middle of the project

by Naomi

We are now halfway through the Story of Story project, and so James and I met this week in Cardiff to review our progress. Enjoying the uncharacteristicly Welsh sunshine, and benefiting from conversation with Indological colleagues, we looked back over what we have achieved so far, and forwards towards what we want to get out of the remaining 18 months.

We have enjoyed presenting papers relating to different aspects of our research over the past months, and this has been helping us to firm up plans for the contents of our project monograph, which we anticipate having six substantive chapters on various aspects of the connected narrative traditions of early South Asia, as well as a co-authored introduction. The book will work outwards from a focused character-study (most likely Indra) through various case studies of roles, lineages and sub-genres, to a broader concluding chapter addressing the fundamentals of the shared narrative universe of South Asia.

Another key area of discussion was the public engagement side of project, on which expect more postings in the coming months as we start to turn our ideas into reality…

Some broader reflections on early South Asian Mytho-history

I have explored, over my last few blogs, some of the distinctive features of our three traditions’ differing approaches to the construction of the significant past (and anticipated future). The differences hinged on a the degree of emphasis placed on transmigration (emphasised in Buddhist and Jain materials) or genealogy and divine intervention (which loomed large in Brahminical tradition). What emerges are three distinct ‘cosmic dramas’ that are distinguished by differing metaphysics, and models of, and for, human behaviour (I take the phrase ‘cosmic drama’ from Carl Becker’s 1932 essay on systems of thought in pre-modern and early modern Europe – The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers). These ‘dramas’ are based on the insights of two humans – the Buddha and the Jina – and one – decidedly non-material – textual agent of revelation, the Vedas. The human agents, the Buddha and the Jina, have no role as creator (as you may recall, the Buddhavaṃsa assumed that the Vedas were perennial, or at least very old indeed). Their status is based on their insight into the true nature of being, which in turn allows them to narrate – and, crucially, correctly interpret – the history of the cosmos, which in all three cases – at least by the period just before the beginning of the common era – is handily peppered with the recurrent emergence of parallel agents of insight – viz. buddhas or tīrthaṅkaras – or parallel agents of creation – viz. the Vedas and, more often than not, the divine catalyst Brahmā (whose role will, in due course be usurped by other deities). To this are added, in Brahminical tradition, developing ideas of the avatāra.
The Vedas are conceived to be constitutive of the cosmos and to offer insight into the true nature of being (although even as they are aggrandised in the Mahābhārata, they are also sometimes delimited in their significance: Kṛṣṇa, after all, in the Bhagavad Gītā, says that the proper subject of the Vedas are the three constitutive qualities of existence (the guṇas), and then immediately admonishes Arjuna to ‘be not the three guṇas’). They are, of course, combined with a variety of theisms in later tradition, in which the relationship between Veda, the Absolute and a Personal God are variously interpreted. In short, at a high level of abstraction, I have focussed on theoretical differences between the three traditions as they are expressed in narrative sources as they are played out in the construction of overarching chronologies of being, and of the presence or absence of religious knowledge. My attempt to ‘earth’ these analyses, by means of a very brief characterisation of certain ideological developments on the epigraphic record was little more than a reception historical ‘band aid’ (and one which disproportionately favours elite self-presentation). To balance my analyses more successfully, there must be a consideration of similarities, influences and the relationship between theory and practice (both in terms of clearly demarcated ritual activities and the more general social context of our three ‘cosmic dramas’). This research, upon which I am already embarked, will consider the differing rates of absorption and creative integration of religious ideas in both explicitly didactic and narrative literature. It appears, for example, that the Dharmaśāstra literature is more able to absorb transmigratory ethics than narrative sources are in immediately post-Vedic Brahminical sources (from the Bṛhaddevatā to the Epics). On the other hand, the Buddhist sources exhibit an uneasy relationship with the possibility of posthumous ritual intervention on behalf of one’s ancestors. I am still searching the Jain material for signs, should there be any, of parallel concerns. Here narratives of heaven, hell and of various ghostly forms will, I suspect, be very important, as they recur across all three traditions (something I will address in a blog entry soon).
In this regard, it is important not to assume that differences in religious philosophy necessitated radical forms of social separation amongst religious groups. The fact that ‘monastery’, ‘hermitage’ and ‘court’, not to mention ‘village’, ‘city’ and ‘empire’, are as much scholarly tropes as well-understood historical phenomena does not help matters (and we have not even got that far in imagining the audiences entailed by these imaginary contexts!). Harjot Oberoi’s classic study of pre-colonial Pañjāb (The Construction of Religious Boundaries) with its evocation of a world in which one might be a member of the Sikh panth, but employ Brahmins for important life-cycle rituals and visit Hindu and Muslim holy places for the purposes of enhancing fertility or removing disease, for example, while not, of course, directly applicable, should at least sensitize us to the potential complexity of the situation ‘on the ground’ in early South Asia. It is also the case that we face real difficulties, which have dogged Classical Indology, in establishing when we should read our narrative sources as reflective of concrete social situations and practices and when their generic form means that we should not (for a parallel in western literary history try reading late eighteenth century or early nineteenth century ‘pastoral’ as unproblematically reflective of social realia – arcadia was evoked precisely because of a diametrically opposed situation on the ground, of course: that of the industrial revolution. The paucity of the historical record in early South Asia means that the (textual) cart is not just placed before the horse, it is forced to lead it.

Some Reflections on Mytho-history and the Epigraphical Record

Our knowledge of the reception of the sources I have considered in my recent blog entries is very limited. We can reconstruct some things from commentary and evidence of intertextuality, as well by comparison. Visual culture can also help in this regard. Archaeology, more generally, can provide contextual data. It is inscriptions, however, more than any of these other sources, that allow us to reconstruct something of the cultures of reception and the relative persuasiveness of texts and ideologies in early South Asia (at least amongst those able to commission inscriptions on metal and stone). They are, of course, no more a neutral record than the text themselves.
Meera Viśvanathan, in a stimulating paper on the forms of descent recorded in Brahmī inscriptions composed between 300 BCE and 300 CE (which forms part of an edited volume on genealogy and history, which Simon Brodbeck and myself edited for Religions of South Asia in 2011), shows that, while we find records of kinship networks amongst land owners, merchants and Brahmins, we do not find consolidated royal genealogies until the first century of the Common Era. She states, ‘the recording of genealogies is not a constant in the inscriptional record. It assumes importance at particular junctures and fulfils particular needs.’ (p. 263). This is also very clearly the case, if we proceed to consider some Guptan and post-Guptan inscriptions.
In Guptan royal inscriptions there is evidence of an attempt by the Guptans to present themselves as bona fide kings very much on the Brahminical model (as users of Sanskrit, as patrons of learning, as givers of lavish gifts to Brahmins). The heroes of the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaṇa were an important part of this self-presentation. This is demonstrated, for example, by the Supiā pillar inscription of Skandagupta (dated to 460-461 C.E.), in which we find the following (in the translation of the Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum, as are all that follow it):

The prosperous Skandagupta, the mahāraja (who) resembled a cakravartin (chakkra[vartti]) in strength and valour, Rāma in righteous conduct and Yudhiṣṭhira in truthfulness, conduct and self-control (satya-ācāra-vinaya).

I suspect the term chakkravartti is intended in its Hindu sense here (Skandagupta, after all, only resembles such an august being). The concern to compare Skandagupta to the heroes of the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇā is clear. The understandings of time that we saw imperfectly systematized in the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa seem to have also established themselves very firmly amongst the Guptans; the Bilṣad pillar inscription of Kumāragupta I (415-16 C.E.) includes the statement that this king follows the practices of the kṛta yuga (kārttayuga). This suggests, of course, yugic awareness (by now an established feature of Purāṇic discourse in all probability), but also a resistance perhaps to the entropic nature of their progress (from an age of perfection to one of strife).
In copper plate donative inscriptions, we find very clear evidence of an awareness of the putative author of the Mahābhārata, Kṛṣṇa Dvaipāyana Vyāsa. Successive land grants cite the authority of Vyāsa, in a series of formulaic stanzas, as to the consequences of a king failing to honour a land grant:

And it has been said by the Divine Dvaipāyana:
He (who takes away land) given by himself or others, (having become a worm in excreta) rots with his forefathers.
The giver of land rejoices in heaven for sixty-thousand years. (He who resumes it and he who assents to it may dwell in hell for as many years).

This warning, in a more or less abbreviated form, is a common feature of land grants of this type. In the land grants of successor kings the verses are explicitly credited to the Mahābhārata and not just to Dvaipāyana. Vyāsa’s warning is extended in two Dāmodarpur land grants (both of Kumāragupta I). In these texts, we find the following exhortation:

Carefully preserve the land that has already been given to the twice born (pūrvva-dattām dvijāti[bhyo]) (by) Yudhiṣṭhira, the best of land-owners. Preservation is more meritorious than grant (of land).

This śloka calls to mind the culmination of the Aśvamedha in the Aśvamedhikaparva of the Mahābhārata, which I translate as follows:

Then Yudhiṣṭhira gave to those present in the sacrificial enclosure , as decreed, a thousand crores of gold coins and to Vyāsa the earth (vasuṃdhara lit. the ‘container of wealth’). Having accepted the earth, the son of Satyavatī, Vyāsa, said to that king, the best of the Bhāratas, Yudhiṣṭhira, who is dharma himself, “O first amongst kings, you sir will be entrusted with this the earth! Give to me its equivalent in gold because Brahmins pursue wealth.

Guptan epigraphy demonstrates that the Rāmāyaṇa and, in particular, the Mahābhārata, as well as functioning as a resource for self-aggrandisement, inform the Guptan legal framework, at least in the matter of land grants to Brahmins.
Much more direct references to the characters and events of the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa abound in later inscriptional sources and are combined with a new feature: genealogical integration. The Bilhari stone inscription of Yuvarājadeva II (dated to c. 975 C.E.), for example, is a tour de force of descriptive excess. As well as rich comparisons to various luminaries of the Brahminical imagination, the Chālukyas are said to descend from Droṇa (the military instructor of the heroes of the Mahābhārata), while Yuvarājadeva II himself (a Kalacuri) has his descent traced from Arjuna Kārtavīrya (a heroic king that appears in the Mahābhārata, the Rāmāyaṇa and the Purāṇas). The Guptans do not trace their descent from epico-purāṇic characters. Many of their successors do. There is thus perhaps something of a progression here; it is one that moves from the complete absence of consolidated royal genealogies, before the C1st CE (though some awareness of kinship groups, such as gotra); to comparison to ‘epic’ heroes in the context of consolidated genealogies of immediate forebears, to the C6th CE; to the – at least partial – genealogical integration of mythic lineages in the latter part of the first millennium.
It is equally clear from this brief survey that neither the Buddhist or Jaina visions of the significant past are getting much of a look in. However, Jeffrey Samuels, in a paper on the development of the Boddhisattva ideal cites Śrī Laṅkan epigraphy, from the C8th, in which kings are willing to claim the status of bodhisatta. This may be part of a parallel process of mytho-historical and doctrinal integration in a Buddhist context, but I would need to do much more work to substantiate such a claim. In any case, it is clear that inscriptions can be of help in exploring, at least elite, engagement with early Indian narrative.

More from the Spalding Symposium: on the Jaina Kalpasutra

Moving now to Jain tradition, and continuing my analysis of the construction of the significant past across the three traditions, an obvious place to start is the Kalpa Sūtra attributed to Bhadrabāhu. This text is ancillary to the Śvetāmbara canon (a Cheda Sūtra). The canon itself supposedly took something like its present form at the council of Valabhī in the middle part of the C6th CE. Paul Dundas dates the Kalpa Sūtra itself to the first or second century BCE, but is far from certain in this regard (see his The Jains p 23). Others have dated it to the mid-part of the first millennium (e.g. Malvania, cited in Dundas p. 282). The Kalpa Sūtra (and the Āvaśyaka literature, which I will not take up today) offer, amongst other things, the earliest accounts of the lives of the 24 tīrthaṅkaras (of the present half of the cosmic cycle).
The Kalpa Sūtra, in complete contrast to the Buddhavaṃsa, begins with the present tīrthaṅkara and works backwards. It closes with a very long pedigree of senior monks, which it calls a therāvalī, and an account of the monastic prescriptions for the rainy season retreat (parjuṣanā – which is a much celebrated time of year across early Indian literature).
The Kalpa Sūtra is something of a middle term between the Buddhavaṃsa and the Brahminical epics in that it combines an emphasis on transmigration with a rich consciousness of genealogy.
There is no frame narrative in the text at all. The external narrator tells us, in detail, of the birth and ministry of four tīrthāṅkaras, as well as listing the other twenty. There is mention of the extraordinary omniscience of the tīrthaṅkara, which I give in Lalwani’s translation:

121. Then Śramaṇa Bhagavān Mahāvīra became the venerable victor, omniscient, all-knowing, all-observing; knew he and saw he all categories of gods, men and asuras in all the worlds…knew he and saw he their open deeds as well as their secret deeds (in Ardhamagadhī, their āvī-kamma and raho-kamma).

But this is in no way related to the capacity for the tale of the tīrthāṅkaras to be told (as is often the case implicitly or explicitly for the buddhavācana). Neither do we find the emphatic first person at all. The text is narrated, in its entirety, in the third person. There is no sense of the personal transmigratory journey of Mahāvīra either, such as we find in the progress of Sumedha (this is to do, of course, with differences between Jain and Buddhist understandings of the karmic process that leads to liberation, which I will not detail here, but which Naomi explores in some detail in her most recent book).
The accounts of the lives of the tīrthānkaras and the enumeration of their followers are formulaic, like those of the Buddhavaṃsa, and have largely the same cumulative impact: a cosmo-historical teaching pedigree is established. The list, in brief, of the twenty other tīrthankaras extends this and creates a vast chronological framework for transformative insight. The inclusion after this of a list of senior monks (and their associated gaṇas, śākhās and kulas) extends this list into the arena of immediate history. Of course, parallel material may be found in Buddhist and Brahminical sources: from the Buddhist Bāhiranidāna to the teaching pedigrees of the Upaniṣads and the elaborate Brahminical genealogies of the Gotrapravaramañjarī, but not in this precise combination. The final chapter on the monastic discipline appropriate to the rainy season retreat ‘grounds’ the text in concrete ritual practice, as the teaching pedigree does, in terms of the more recent history of the transmission of Jain teachings.
In terms of genealogical consciousness, we find descriptions of Brahminical lineages, as well as of Kṣatriya ones. These genealogies are placed in a transmigratory framework. Lalwani translates (again I give some Ardhamagadhī terms for clarity):

2. After the liberation of 21 tīrthaṅkaras who were born in the race of Ikṣvāku (the ikkhāga-kula) in the line of Kaśyāpa (kāsava-gotta) and of two others born in the race of Hari (hari-vaṃsa) and the line of Gautama (goyam-sagotta), 23 tīrthaṅkaras in all.

The Kalpa Sūtra is more detailed in its coverage of the lives of the first tīrthankara, Ṛṣabha, and the last one, Mahāvīra. The text presents a rather odd birth narrative for Mahāvīra, in which he is transferred, as an embryo, from the womb of Brahmin woman to that of a Kṣatriya at the behest of Indra. Paul Dundas has interpreted this as a part of a pattern of Brahmin-Kṣatriya rivalry. While this may, no doubt, be the case, it is to the ‘fathers’ of Mahāvīra that I would like to turn and specifically to their interpretation of the portentous dreams of their wives when they are pregnant with Mahāvīra. On hearing of the fourteen auspicious signs that accompany the birth of a tīrthāṅkara, the first ‘father’ of Mahāvīra, the Brahmin Ṛṣabhadatta, anticipates the great achievements of his son in Vedic learning. While his kṣatriya father, Siddhārtha, looks forward to his son’s martial achievements. Both fathers offer us textbook interpretations of their wives prophetic dreams in terms of the idea-typical preoccupations of their varṇas. The movement between wombs, as well as perhaps expressing rivalry, also allows for Mahāvīra to assimilate some of the qualities of both varṇas. It is after this that the specialist dream interpreters are called upon. The interpreters of dreams present two alternatives in their interpretation of the dream (familiar to us also from Buddhist tradition): the child will be an arhat or a cakravartin. Of course, we know already, by the frequent reference to Mahāvīra as a tīrthaṅkara, which way the story is likely to proceed. The point is the development of an ideal human that, depending on the circumstances, can be an idealised temporal or spiritual leader. The narrative of embryonic transfer reflects this, even if Mahāvīra will, of course, go beyond ‘mere’ Vedic learning.
In the tale of Ṛṣabha, which shares many descriptions with that of Mahāvīra, we hear that Ṛṣabha, before his renunciation and during his period of earthly rule, introduced the fundaments of civilisation – from agriculture to the written word – and left one hundred sons to rule after him. This recalls the role of Pṛthu in Brahminical tradition, as the epico-purāṇic stabilizer of the earth (albeit the former is part of a foundation myth of a rather more domesticated type: Ṛṣabha does not ‘milk the earth’, but rather sets up trade unions and teaches numeracy and literacy). This is perhaps a complimentary myth to that of the embryonic transfer, but differently polarised: here it is the paradigmatic role of the king, and especially the cakravartin, that is emphasised.

The Kalpa Sūtra thus does much that the Buddhavaṃsa does, but speaks also to the genealogical – and political – emphases of the Brahminical sources. It also, as was the case for the Buddhist material, retains a small space for divine intervention- by Indra, albeit of a more restricted, facilitatory, type.

From the Spalding Symposium: On the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata


In my second blog entry that seeks to compare approaches to the significant past, and future, in Hindu , Buddhist and Jain tradition, I will explore, briefly, the Brahminical epics: Vasiṣṭha, in the Rāmāyaṇa’s second book, provides the following account of the origin of the world in order to instruct his king, Rāma, in the necessity of primogeniture, which Pollock translates as follows:

2.102.2: “I want you now, master of the world, to learn from me the origin of this world. Everything was once just water, and within this water the earth was fashioned. The Sef-existent Brahmā then came into existence with the gods.

2.102.3: He then became a boar, raised up the treasure-laden earth, and created the whole moving world with the help of his accomplished sons.

2.102.4:  Brahmā the everlasting, the eternal and imperishable, arose from space. he begot Marīci, and Marīci a son named Kaśyapa.

2.102.5 Kaśyapa begot Vivasvan, the Sun. Manu is recorded as the sun of Vivasvan – he was the first lord of creatures – and the son of Manu was Ikṣvāku.


There follows a genealogical account of the generations of the solar lineage, which culminates in Rāma:

2.102.29: And you, known far and wide as Rāma, are his eldest son and heir. Assume , then, the kingship that is your own and show regard for the world, your Majesty.


This account presents a history of the universe that is theistic, catalyzed by Brahmā and based on the genealogical succession of royal authority. It makes no mention of the Vedas (which is not inappropriate given the context of the instruction: of a noted Brahmin sage instructing a prince, whose inheritance is being reluctantly set aside by his father, king Daśaratha). The Mahābhārata, in its twelfth book, offers us a little more detail with regard to the creative agency of Brahmā and the Vedas, which I translate as follows:

12.326.104: Hundreds and thousands of mahākalpas pass together with creations and dissolutions, O Indra of Kings. At the beginning of each creation, Brahmā the mighty creation-maker remembers.


A little later on in the same book, Brahmā makes it clear that creation is dependent on the Vedas. I translate a portion of his speech as follows:

12.335.29-30: The Vedas are my most excellent eyes, they are my ultimate strength. They are my great refuge. The Vedas are the highest brahma… Without the Vedas the world of my creation is in darkness. Without the Vedas, how would I dutifully act to create the worlds?


One cannot help but observe that there is a similar change in grammatical person in these two ślokas, as there was in the Buddhavaṃsa; the pivotal statement of the dependency of Brahmā, and thus all living beings, on the Vedas is narrated in the first person. In a text as multi-voiced as the Mahābhārata one cannot, of course, say this is part of a conspicuous pattern of usage. Nonetheless, Brahmā’s speech does, without doubt, add emphasis and drama here. What is clear is that saṃsāra is predicated on the agency of Brahmā and the presence of the Vedas. This cyclical understanding of cosmic time is then fleshed out by the idea of the mahāyuga and yuga, the eon and era respectively. The Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata, somewhat patchily, subscribe to the idea of their being four distinct eras in each eon (the well-known kṛta-, dvāpara-, treta- and kali-yugas, whose moral and religious character vary).

The Mahābhārata combines accounts of creation and, indeed, recreation with a vast amount of concrete genealogical detail and a dependency on prophecy, oath and curse to act as the engine of narrative progression. The genealogies – and associated kinship ideologies – of the Mahābhārata have been explored in great detail by my colleague at Cardiff University, Simon Brodbeck, in his The Mahābharata Patriline.  The brute fact of the genealogical emphasis of the two texts is sufficient for my purposes today.

The Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata are, in contrast, only lightly seasoned with transmigratory narrative.  In the Mahābhārata, the story of Ambā, the reason for Draupadī’s five husbands, the birth of Vidura and a few other isolated tales are all that we are provided with. In the Rāmāyaṇa there is even less in the way of rebirth stories: Kausalyā adduces an earlier birth to explain her misfortune and Sītā’s past life as Vedavatī is mentioned in the context of a prophecy of Rāvaṇa’s eventual demise. Although, there is sometimes mention of the transmigratory benefits of the hearing of the Rāmāyaṇa or Mahābhārata in the two texts (in their phalaśruti), these, as often as not, focus instead on healthy offspring and other more worldly benefits. Taken together it all amounts to little more than the cherry on a rum baba. This is notwithstanding the fact that rebirth is well-established in the – probably – largely contemporaneous Dharmasūtras. For example, the Āpastamba Dharmasūtra states, in Olivelle’s translation:

2.2.6: When a thief or a heinous sinner, whether he is a Brahmin, a Kṣatriya or a Vaiśya, completes his sojourn in the next world living in an interminable hell, he is born here again – a Brahmin as a Cāṇḍāla, a Kṣatriya as a Paulkasa, and a Vaiśya as a Vaiṇa. In like manner, others, when the fall from their castes as a result of singul acts, are born as outcastes in wombs that are the aftermath of their sins.


Indeed, dharmaśāstric literature presents us with vast lists of the transmigratory consequences of wrong doings of various types. This does not translate into a transmigratory narrative ‘web’ of the Buddhist, or Jain, type, however. That is not to say we find no trace of existential angst in Brahminical narratives: the Mahābhārata is full of it. The final book of the Mahābhārata, for example, contains the following passionate denunciation of conditioned existence, which I translate as follows:

18. 47-50. Thousands of mothers and fathers and hundreds of sons and wives proceed enjoying the cycle of death and re-birth and some go beyond. There are thousands of occasions for delight and hundreds for fear and, day after day, the foolish invest in these, while the learned do not. With arms held aloft, I lament, but no one hears me! From Dharma come profit and pleasure; for what purpose does it not serve?  Dharma should never be abandoned: not for pleasure, nor on account of fear or ignorance. The soul is indeed the primary cause. Dharma is eternal, but joy and sorrow are not.  The jīva is eternal but the bondage of the soul will not be!

In the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa, it seems that rebirth is – more or less – cosmologically and doctrinally integrated (though the details of this integration and where its philosophical loyalties lay are open to question and are the subject of much scholarly debate), but there is a distinct lack of narrative that capitalises on this.

What the Rāmāyaṇa mentions in passing, and the Mahābhārata deals with more fully, is the matter of divine incarnation. Rāma’s divine status is by no means emphasised in the Rāmāyaṇā, but it is mentioned (in, for example, books six and seven of the text). Kṛṣṇa’s divinity is more clearly established in the Mahābhārata (and I do not have time to rehearse the many references to it in, and outside of, the Bhagavadgītā here). Indeed, the Mahābhārata is perhaps more than anything else the story of divine incarnation; all of its major characters are deities that have taken birth to help in the project of the unburdening of the earth of a fractious warrior class (in a fashion that does not seem to sit well with the idea of ethicised  transmigration of either the Buddhist or Jain type). It is also the case that the heroes of the Mahābhārata, the Pāṇḍavas, are, of course, individually fathered by gods (in a process quite separate to their incarnation). The question of the stages of development of a fully fledged avatāra system (of sequential divine incarnation) is beyond the scope of the present paper (but has been cogently discussed by Hiltebeitel in the longer of the two recent books he has recently published on Dharma). The avatāra scheme is deserving of comparison with the patterns of incanration and intervention in Buddhist sources such as the Buddhavaṃsa, and Jain sources, which I will take up in other blog entries soon.

The Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata provide, then, an account of a longue durée of Indian cosmo-history that demonstrates a recurrent commitment to detailing the lineages of prominent kings and sages.  This is undertaken in parallel with a concern to present the gods (and God with a capital G on occasion) as capable of intervention in human life (by means of birth or manifestation or something that blends these two things). We thus have true pedigrees; of ritual specialists (Brahmins) and temporal leaders (Kṣatriyas) and an understanding of divine beings as capable of ‘cosmo-political’ intervention (as, for example, in the unburdening of the earth) and religious instruction (as is offered in the Bhagavad Gītā). However, putting it rather bluntly, the emergent understanding of divine incarnation seems to emphasise the political and social over the renunciative or at least seems to try to have its cake and eat it; Kṛṣṇa offers a teaching that encourages social action – even as one pursues mokṣa – and does so precisely as an intervention in an internecine royal conflict.

Both the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata demonstrate a lacklustre commitment to transmigratory narratives and constitute a social collective not karmically, but dharmically (by means of the inculcation of commitment to the recurrent necessity to confirm to a ritual and social ‘blueprint’ provided by the Vedas and their associated ancillary literature). They do this while simultaneously demonstrating an inconsistent commitment to a variety of religious philosophies (Vedāntic, Saṅkhyic etc.)  that are likely to have been the subject of śramaṇic influence – including, but not limited to, the ideologies of Buddhists and Jains.

If the Buddhavamṣa is a sutta becoming an epic story (of a rather triumphalist type), then the epics are perhaps the product of a piecemeal and rather reluctant transformation in the opposite direction.