Talking Jātaka and Avadāna in Vienna

It has been a busy term. However, I have finally settled down to write about my experiences at the 17th Congress of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, which was in Vienna in August of this year. Naomi asked me to act as discussant on a panel entitled, ‘Buddhist Narrative Genres’, which took up, in particular, the form and content of Jātaka (stories of the previous lives of the Buddha) and Avadāna (stories of significant Buddhists – though we shall see the limitations of such characterisations). This was a very interesting experience and I thought I would share some of both what I discovered and what I thought as a consequence of those discoveries. The programme of the panel was as follows:


I took a particular approach to my role as discussant, which was based on a thought experiment, in which I imagined myself the editor of the collected papers of the panel. I asked myself, ‘How would I introduce them?’ and, ‘What were their points of analytic agreement and disagreement?’ I had the advantage of being able to do this in front of the author themselves.

All of the papers taken together substantiated a central hypothesis, which is: the definitions of Jātaka and Avadāna are fuzzy. I know this is hardly likely to cause a sharp intake of breath. However, as is quite normal in humanistic research, the journey is quite as important as the destination. In exploring the fuzziness of generic difference, the panellists had to come to terms, each in their own way, with a number of critical issues:

  • how scholars theorize Buddhist narrative
  • how Buddhists theorize Buddhist narratives (in different times and places)
  • how Buddhists with – or in spite of – their own, or scholarly, definitions and presuppositions USED Jātaka and Avadāna, or Jatakāvadāna (and the conjoined a is neatly representative of some ways of using these texts)

Now all of this happens – at least in the papers given during the panel – on the basis of textual evidence. This is the place where several things collide: hoary – and sometimes newly-minted – tradition; the historical contexts of authorship, transmission and adaptation; and scholarly and religious categories of analysis.

Naomi kicked off the panel with a rich demonstration of the inherent flexibility of the Jātaka form, as it is deployed in the Avadānaśataka. It appeared to me that she tacitly – and tactfully – suggested that the cart may have been placed before the horse in the study of Jātaka and Avadāna. By this I mean that the macro-analytic characterisations of the generic form of Jātaka and Avadāna, as involving either chronology or progression, perfection or devotion, may need to be re-tested against texts like the Avadānaśataka, which are typologically ‘resistant’. Put in another way, the scholarly recipe may not entirely match this particular Buddhist dish. Naomi’s emphasis on the particularities and peculiarities of the text before her suggested the need for groups of tales to be carefully contextualised, both doctrinally and practically, before we may draw distinctions between genres of Buddhist narrative text regardless of what we are told (by ‘insiders’ or  ‘outsiders’). Naomi’s paper left us with a distinct scholarly task: to progressively integrate narratives with inferentially recovered communities of reception. In the case of the Avadānaśataka, the communities so recovered were certainly not distinguishing between Jātaka and Avadāna in a hard and fast fashion.

Timothy Lenz – with the greatest of scholarly respect – was the fly in the ointment of the panel. His Gandhāran Avadānist was a level-headed and practical fellow, not much taken up with matters doctrinal. Tucked under his arm (forgive my exclusive language, it is for rhetorical purposes only) – and going under the rubric of Avadāna (and rubric is a rather appropriate term in that it means not just a heading, category or class, but also a custom or guideline) – is a collectania, a homiletic aidemémoire, which is intimately connected to the day to day demands of the religious professional, who is active in the public sphere. He has no time for the sprawling cosmographical vistas of the Avadānaśataka; his goals are exemplification and persuasion. Tim’s vision of Avadāna as collectania is challenging for the theorisation of generic form, if we seek to hang it on doctrinal features of Buddhism, such as karma theory. We cannot rest here, however, as Tim was well aware. To say that an Avadāna, or a Jātaka, is discourse-as-exemplification is to say too much, or not enough: as a definition it captures also the Hitopadeśa, for example, which surely shows that it will not entirely do (or might do, but only in the context of a larger enquiry). Yet we are in a tricky position; Naomi showed that the dominant characterisations of the Jātaka and Avadāna do not adequately capture what is going on in the Avadānaśataka, while Tim showed that Gandhāran context was one in which we could not even be guaranteed that an Avadāna would have anything at all to do with key Buddhist doctrines. What to do?

Karen Muldoon-Hules offered us two models of Jātaka-Avadāna transmission, which imply, perhaps, different classes of religious professional. Notwithstanding the pitfalls of historicism with limited data, Karen offered us a picture of the Virūpā Avadāna travelling as ‘Ur text’ and as ‘summary’. The former was subject to adaptation, as it moved from India to Tibet, while the latter was subject to ‘unpacking’, as it moved along the Silk Road from India to China.  These two modes suggest – at least to me – that Naomi and Tim might both be on to something: an ongoing process of literary adjustment and doctrinal engagement might be contrasted with a more missionary or pastoral context. We might dub these the scholastic and the pastoral (taking mission to be an expression of pastoral engagement and mildly regretting as I do the Christocentric, but expressive, terminology I am using). This means that, building on Karen’s contrasting modes of transmission, we have two possible states of affairs:

  1. The transmission of discourse according to institutionally-derived scholastic norms
  2. The application of discourse to the needs and concerns of a varied public

This is, of course, a spectrum rather than a hard and fast opposition. I have little doubt that these capture two rather significant modes of textual transmission and are more or less conducive to the two poles of narrative practice thus far established (of doctrinal or ritual engagement vs. socio-political ‘fit’).

Rachel Pang moved us to a consideration of a C19th Tibetan engagement with Jātaka materials, which reflected the ‘summary’ form that Karen identified in her paper. However, it was a summary form that was by no means lacking in the ‘karmic nod’ that Tim so missed in the Gandhāran materials. Rachel questioned the possibility of a formal definition of Jātaka, Avadāna or Jatakāvadāna. This followed from her wish to emphasise the religious concerns of her sources and the limits of western and Sanskrit criticism. She contrasted the simplicity of her source with the kāvyic excesses of Aśvaghoṣa to good effect, for example. What emerged was precisely a demonstration of the fact that we are looking at a spectrum of usage. Her source was a homiletic summary that was, nonetheless, with its heavy dependence on its auto-commentary, scholastically engaged, even if pastorally focussed.  The author of her source, Shakbar, is, then, a useful middle term in the ongoing enquiry.

Arthid Sharavanichkul explored Jātaka materials in a Thai Theravādin context. The fuzziness in the use of the term Jātaka that he uncovered recalled the blurring of the boundaries between Jātaka and Avadāna that Naomi found in the Avadānaśataka in her paper, notwithstanding the fact that the Thai sources do not know the term Avadāna. Arthid showed how, in a Thai context, the existing overarching definitions and descriptions of Jātaka and Avadāna, viz. those of Strong and Ohnuma, don’t entirely work (though they are instructive) because the Thai materials demonstrate a blended emphasis on both sacrifice and devotion. Naomi offered us a text that – at least in titular terms – is an Avadāna, but one that is replete with Jātakas. Arthid offered us the opposite. This is a neat demonstration of the fundamental fuzziness of the categories under investigation and the central hypothesis of my – currently – imaginary edited volume.

I put a number of questions to the panel in the discussion that followed. I asked them if they had brought us closer to a formal or an extended definition of Jātaka and Avadāna. I also asked them if they thought that they had, in fact, shown us that either sort of definition is an impossibility. I also asked more general questions such as, ‘Is fuzziness always fuzzy?’ by which I referred to the way in which any given instantiation of a genre might choose to subvert or adapt the conventions of that genre and thus depart from it while also confirming the existence of parameters of composition. Put in another way, I asked, ‘When is generic confusion, in fact, artistry/innovation?’ I also asked if scholarly fuzziness was defensible. I suggested that scholars of religion might (as J.Z. Smith concluded in his Reimagining Religion) simply change the way in which they go about defining some of the things they set out to explore, such as by means of extended or polythetic definitions. Other questions were more context-specific: for example, I asked if there was a Brahminical or a Jain elephant in the room. By which I referred to the difficulty of exploring issues of literary and expressive culture on the basis of distinct religions when they share a common cultural context (not true, of course, as Buddhist traditions moved beyond South Asia, but here the question would just concern other – for example, Chinese and Tibetan – elephants in the room). The answers to these questions broadly suggested that comparative studies would be desirable, that definitions were probably superfluous – though not all had given up hope – and that I asked too many questions!

I would like to offer my sincere thanks and congratulations to the panel convenors (Naomi and Karen) and contributors for a supremely stimulating afternoon. I would also like to think Steven Collins, who offered a range of insights as our discussions progressed. In thinking about the goals of the present project, the panel contributed much in terms of thinking through the range of uses of religious narrative both within and beyond our period of enquiry and also the real need – at least in an early Indian context – to move across the boundaries that exist between Hindu, Buddhist and Jain studies.

Talking deities in Bristol

by Naomi

My work on gods as characters that are shared between Brahmanical Hindu, Jain and Buddhist narrative sources had another outing this week at Bristol University’s Religious Studies research seminar. I talked about five strategies that Buddhist and Jain traditions use when incorporating gods from wider Indian mythology, namely multiplication, making mortal, subordination, cleansing of problematic characteristics, and explanations for the origins of worship. Using Buddhist portrayals of Brahmā(s), Jain portrayals of Kṛṣṇa, and Buddhist and Jain approaches to Indra as examples, I argued that these five strategies are used by both traditions, though to different extents in different cases, in order to make the gods more understandable within a karmic paradigm, and to underscore the superiority of liberated teachers over divine beings. I further argued that such narrative strategies demonstrate that the gods were sufficiently important to early Jain and Buddhist communities that they had to be included, albeit in a modified way, and that the characterisation of gods in these “atheist” traditions therefore deserves to be properly studied.

As always, the discussion following my paper was very helpful, and I am grateful to the audience for their thoughts and questions. I am particularly grateful to those members of the audience who were not very convinced by my argument that multiplying the gods was a way to reduce their importance, and who therefore forced me to clarify my position. Other – more predictable – enquiries about the society of the time and the likely audiences for the texts and stories reminded me that such questions – however difficult they are to answer – need to be addressed in the work I am doing. During meetings this week, James and I have been getting to grips with the general introduction for our project monograph, so the question of what we can and cannot know about the early Indian context is very much at the forefront of my mind.

The post-paper conversation also touched on the difficult question of how we understand humour in early narrative sources. While trying to ascertain what would have been considered funny in a culture so far removed from our own is a tricky endeavour, it seems clear to me that some of the Buddhist and Jain stories about the gods only really work if the audience is aware of the gods’ associations and characters within Vedic and Brahmanical narrative, and that the storytellers are playing with these associations. And yes, I think some of the ways in which the Jain and Buddhist storytellers did this is very funny, and that is one of the reasons why I am finding this research so stimulating!

“Research-led teaching” and the perils of chronology

by Naomi

We have been neglecting this blog of late, as it has been a very busy semester. Apologies to all our readers! I have still been reading and writing alongside my teaching and admin duties, however, and I want to share with you a few thoughts about how this project has been making me think differently about my teaching, and vice versa.

This semester I have been teaching a course for first and second year students entitled “Religions of South Asia” (named in honour of the illustrious journal!) that explores early Indian religion from the Vedas through to devotional and philosophical schools of Hinduism, via early Jainism and Buddhism. Meanwhile, one of my main research tasks has been putting together parts of the general introduction for our project monograph, including an overview of the historical context for our project. There are therefore obvious synergies between my teaching and research in recent months.

One problem that I have been wrestling with in my class has been the order of presentation. Currenlty I begin with Vedic religion, move into Brahmanical ideas, including the emerging tension between householder duties and the new renouncer movements and associated ideas about karma and liberation, then talk about Jainism, then Buddhism, then back to Hinduism for the epics and Purāṇas and some philosophical and devotional movements. It holds together well enough, with its broadly chronological frame.

The problem comes when I talk about the origins of Jainism and Buddhism, and the relationship between these traditions and Brahmanical Hinduism. I try to stress the geographical setting for these new traditions in the northeast, and the possibility (as highlighted by Bronkhorst) of an independent cultural background responsible for new ideas, including karma and rebirth. However, because I have already talked about the Upaniṣads and the Brahmanical tension between householder and renouncer ideals, the natural assumption of the class – following also the main body of existing scholarship – is that Buddhism and Jainism emerged within a powerfully Brahmanical culture, reacting to ideas such dominant ideas as caste and ritual, and taking on karma and rebirth from the “Hindu” fold. The chronology of my presentation creates an unintentional implication of a causal relationship.

If only I could move the class to another room to discuss Buddhism and Jainism, symbolic of the move from northwest to northeast! If only we had more time in the class to discuss the different theories and arguments about the relationship between Brahmanic and Shramanic. If only we could move to a purely thematic approach, drawing on all the traditions in a discussion of key ideas and concepts, without causing total confusion for the students who are new to the whole scene.

On the understanding that none of these is possible, I am looking at ways to change the order in which we move through the topics in order to anticipate – and prevent or at least raise questions about – these assumptions.

The same challenges are there in the writing of the project monograph introduction. Like introductory courses, introductory chapters are trying to do too much – to survey in a broad and authoritative manner, yet also to acknowledge diversity of scholarship and highlight areas where understanding is weak. Something as simple as the order of presentation can instill in the reader a sense of chronology or of hierarchy, which may not be intended by the author. And while students provide constant feedback to the lecturer, and communicate their level of understanding through class discussions and assessments, we cannot always anticipate what our readers will take away from our writing.

I am not finished with either challenge yet, but I am enjoying both!

Nathan McGovern’s dissertation on Buddhists and Brahmans

by Naomi

I have just been reading Nathan McGovern’s 2013 doctoral dissertation (submitted to the University of California Santa Barbara) ‘Buddhists, Brahmans, and Buddhist Brahmans: Negotiating Identities in Indian Antiquity’ and enjoying his novel approach to the whole question of the relationship between Buddhism and what I tend to call Brahmanical Hinduism (for want of a better term). This reading is part of my current work drafting up sections of the introduction to our project monograph, work that has taken me back to Bronkhorst and Gombrich as well as into new scholarship.

McGovern’s dissertation is seriously long, and contains several self-contained sections on such topics as the relationship between the Nikayas and Agamas, the oral transmission of early Buddhist texts (including the application of Parry-Lord Oral Theory), and the history of ‘encounter dialogues’ between the Buddha and brahmins. For me, however, the most interesting aspect was the way in which McGovern tries to reconcile Bronkhorst’s Greater Magadha theory with the pervasive presence of Brahmanical themes and terms in early Buddhist texts.

In brief, McGovern broadly accepts Bronkhorst’s theory that Buddhism arose in a non-Brahmanicised area and from a distinctive Greater Magadhan culture, and he broadly rejects the theory that Buddhism arose in reaction to a dominant Brahmanical culture. (His review of the scholarship on both sides of this debate makes interesting reading in itself.) However, he is not fully convinced that core ideas about karma, ātman and saṃsāra necessarily emerged out of Greater Magadhan culture, and in particular, he argues that the widespread presence of brahmins and Brahmanical terms and ideas in Buddhist texs cannot be readily explained if we assume that Buddhism emerged without Brahmanical influence. Thus he argues for a new model, in which we assume that there was a common set of terms and ideas in circulation, which were drawn upon by the different religious groups of the day. These later became more rigid as competition between groups increased.

A key example, for McGovern, is the term brāhmaṇa itself, which he argues did not always refer to what we now label brahmins (or Brahmans, in McGovern’s preferred usage) as a distinct social group defined by birth or Vedic learning. Rather, it was a general honorific used, like others such as muni, by a variety of religious groups, including Buddhists, who used it to describe the ideal person. Only later, as “new Brahmanism” (using Bronkhorst’s terminology, as McGovern does) rose in power and influence in the areas in which Buddhist groups were developing, did the Buddhist authors cede use of the term to their opponents, and reframe their perspective on brahmins in polemical terms.

Perhaps McGovern’s overall thesis is best summed up in his own words (from his conclusion on p.632):

I argue that these sectarian traditions [Buddhism and Brahmanism] cannot be understood as essentialized, metahistorical agents, such that one could arise purely in “reaction” to another. Rather, they must be understood as fluid, constantly interacting entities that emerged out of a common substratum and only coalesced as discernable sects through a long process of identity-formation, wherein terms such as “Brahman” were hotly contested between different groups – in this case, the early Buddhists and the proponents of the new Brahmanism.

I hope that McGovern will find a suitable avenue for the publication of his work, which makes a real contribution to an important debate about how we understand the interaction between Buddhist and Brahmanical groups during their formative periods.

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.