Monthly Archives: January 2013

Krishna in Jain Literature 1

Like Naomi, I have been thinking about Hindu gods that travel. In particular, I have been reading about Krishna, who is among the most famous of Hindu deities in, and beyond, South Asia.

Among my more interesting readings this week was a paper by Anne Monius. The paper is entitled ‘Dance before Doom: Krishna in the Non-Hindu Literature of Early Medieval South India’ (in Alternative Krishnas: Regional and Vernacular Variations on a Hindu Deity, SUNY, Albany, 2005, pp.139-149). Monius provides a description and analysis of two appearances of Kṛṣṇa in Tamil literature (one example that is likely to be Jain, the other explicitly Buddhist). In both examples, reference is made to a dance involving Kṛṣṇa, which is of great beauty. The first text is the Cilappatikāram (assumed to be Jain) and the second is the Maṇimēkalai (which is Buddhist). Monius questions interpretations of these passages as merely indicators of a – now lost – devotional dance tradition and instead focuses on their role in the narratives of which they are a part. She contends that, in both cases, the efficacy of devotion to Kṛṣṇa is being questioned. This is because, in both stories, the central protagonists come to a sticky end in spite of having made offerings to Kṛṣṇa. She argues that this is not because of a deep-seated rejection of Hindu practice, but rather due to a fundamental commitment in both texts to the inevitability of karmic consequences. She states (rather elegantly):

The beauty of Krishna, without an accompanying understanding of the power of karmic forces at work in human lives, is a portent of doom in these early medieval non-Hindu texts.The dance to ward off evil becomes instead a prelude to the suffering of karmically unaware royal patrons and devotees. (p. 147)

This paper potentially raises some rather interesting issues for our project; it appears, in Monius’ analysis, that what is at issue here are what I shall term the ‘limits of grace’. The idea that a given deity or practice is powerful, but limited, and capable of being surpassed either by the power of another being (or not at all, as in the examples above), is one that recurs in, for example, Sikh hagiographical literature, where a wide variety of significant non-Sikh figures appear (some of historical record, some legendary), such as the Tantric sage Gorakhnāth. These figures are offered respect, but are, ultimately, subordinated to Gurū Nānak. What I particularly like about Monius’ example is that this is not a simple case of character-driven ‘one-upmanship’, but rather reflects a deep-seated assumption about how the universe works – namely that karma is inevitable -, which is worked into a delightful, albeit implicit, rebuttal of the extent of the power of a key deity from another tradition.

‘Getting it Wrong(ish)’ as a Literary Genre

Not everything that we are reading and thinking about on this project relates wholly to literary characters. We are also thinking about issues of textual genre and cultural factors that might have stimulated certain sorts of story-telling activities. To that end, I recently read a very interesting paper by the well-known Indologist Phyllis Granoff.

Granoff, in her ‘Being in the Minority’ (in Jain Doctrine and Practice: Academic Perspectives, J.T. O’Connell ed. University of Toronto Centre for South Asian Studies, Toronto, 2000, pp.136-164) explores, very lucidly, narrative responses to the (medieval) Jain experience of being in a religious minority. She contrasts Jain attitudes to Buddhism and Hinduism in her sources. She shows that the Jains were perhaps more concerned with the appeal of Buddhism – as a ‘cognate’ tradition – than that of Hinduism. She sheds light, in particular, on the concept of chiṇḍikā, ‘temporary lapses’ as a literary trope in medieval Jain literature (she suggests that this sort of story is not found in earlier Jain sources). These texts deal with circumstances in which a Jain has to do something that conflicts with their religious principles. Granoff states:

The stories of the chiṇḍikās…speak to us directly of the fears that could surface in a minority community and they openly address the question of the pressures that might be brought to bear on a person to abandon his own community and join the majority. (p.163)

It is worth considering the idea of a conceptual and literary parallel between ‘temporary lapses’, ciṇḍikā, in Jain tradition and apad-dharma (which I have seen glossed as ’emergency religious principles’), in Hindu sources. This is a recurrent narrative theme in, for example, the Mahābhārata (ably examined by Adam Bowles in his Dharma, Disorder and the Political in Ancient India: The Apaddharmaparvan of the Mahābhārata, Leiden, Brill, 2007), which emerged, not perhaps when Hindus were in a minority, but in all likelihood in a period when the Brahminical religious establishment was subject to considerable competition from Jain and Buddhist traditions (in the years immediately before the commencement of the Common Era).

Greg Bailey on Brahmā

In my quest to find out more about gods as narrative characters I have just been reading Greg Bailey’s The Mythology of Brahmā (Delhi: OUP, 1983). Bailey’s main thesis is that Brahmā is always associated with pravṛtti, in other words he is a god of world affirmation, associated with creation, sacrifice, and the restoration of order. Using stories from the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa, Pāli suttas and a selection of Purāṇas, Bailey explores various aspects of Brahmā’s characterization using his pravṛtti nature as the ordering principle.

It is often said that Brahmā, unlike his fellow trimūrti gods Viṣṇu and Śiva, never really had a cult of devotion. However, Bailey assesses textual, inscriptional and material evidence and concludes that ‘it is probable that Brahmā was a very popular and widely worshipped god in north-central and north-east India (and perhaps western India) from the beginning of the fourth century B.C. or slightly earlier’ (p.34). Part of his evidence base comes from Pāli texts that portray Brahmā either as a ridiculous and deluded deity or as a devotee of the Buddha – as Bailey points out, both attitudes imply that Brahmā-worship was a strong rival tradition at the time of the texts’ composition. Certainly the inclusion of Brahmā (and his double-act partner Indra) in so many Buddhist texts implies that he was a character that could not be ignored.

Following this exploration of Brahmā worship and a few other preliminaries concerning pravṛtti vs nirvṛtti and the Vedic antecendents of Brahmā, Bailey begins his analysis of the narrative materials. He divides this into two sections, addressing the cosmogonic myths and avatāra myth respectively, and his pravṛtti thesis continues throughout both. Brahmā, he argues, is associated with creation, ahaṃkāra (ego or individuality), desire, possessions, worldliness and sacrifice. In the avatāra myth he is dharma within the world, never transcending it as Viṣṇu does. His ordinances and boons serve to maintain dharma even when they appear to do the opposite, and thus he is also linked to fate, karma and saṃsāra. He symbolises kingship and social order. He serves to mediate between gods and men (like the brahmins who mediate between humans and gods through sacrifice), as well as between demons and gods, and gods and other gods. In short, he is lord of pravṛtti.

Bailey’s book has been a great way for me to orient myself within Brahmanical portrayals of Brahmā, and although he does not discuss Jainism and nor is he interested in the Buddhist portrayals in their own right (he does not note, for example, the multiplication of Brahmās in Buddhist cosmology and narrative) his comments and analysis are very thought-provoking. His use of pravṛtti as ordering principle and analytic key feels a little forced at times, but nonetheless he has brought together some rich narrative material and used it to paint a delightful portrait of a largely-neglected deity.

“Hindu” gods in Buddhist and Jain narrative?

As all scholars of South Asian religion know, many of the top dogs (or gods) of the Vedic pantheon have found their way into Buddhist texts and practices. Brahmā (or, more correctly, one of the Brahmās) entreats the Buddha to teach others, and listens to sermons himself. Śakra (Indra) appears in many jātaka stories to test the Bodhisattva by asking for gifts of body parts, or to order Viśvakarman to build hermitages for him when he renounces. Śakra also supports the Buddha in his final life, offering him food or bringing much-needed rain when the Buddha demands it. Vaiśravaṇa (Kubera) also turns up from time to time, not least as a point of comparison when describing wealthy individuals. In past lives the Buddha is said to have been born as Śakra, Brahmā, or the divine sage Nārada. These “Hindu” gods don’t only show up in stories – it is well-documented that Buddhists often worship them too.

This begs the question as to why many scholars of Buddhism continue to refer to them as “Hindu” gods (with or without scare-quotes).

Similar questions can be asked of Jainism, which also includes several familiar divinities in its narrative corpus and ritual practice. For example, are Kubera or Brahmā, listed as attendant yakṣas of Jinas, Hindu gods?

One of the broad aims of this research project is to cross over (and in some cases break down) the boundaries that have been put up between the “-isms” of early South Asia. A study of the role of gods in Buddhist, Jain and Brahmanical Hindu stories seems a reasonable way to begin this task, and it will form my initial focus. I will be exploring what we can learn from the inclusion of the same named South Asian deities in whole variety of narrative contexts, and asking such questions as: Is the Brahmā of Buddhist suttas the same as the Brahmā of the Mahābhārata? (He does, after all, have many faces. Perhaps in this way he serves as a useful model for our comparative project!)

Jain Strategies for Survival and Growth: Some Thoughts Based on a Paper by Olle Qvarnstrom

Qvarnström, O., ‘Stability and Adaptability: A Jain Strategy for Survival and Growth’ in Jain Doctrine and Practice: Academic Perspectives, Joseph T. O’Connell ed. University of Toronto Centre for South Asian Studies: Totonto, 2000, pp.113-136.

This paper takes up the ways in which Jain traditions have dealt, historically, with issues of popularity and growth and the influence of other religious traditions (chiefly Hindu, with some mention of Buddhist). He focuses in particular on the Yogaśāstra and its commentary,the Svopajñavṛtti, which are both by the C12th Jain scholar, Hemacandra (a Śvetāmbara). He shows how Hemecandra (and others) consciously adopted doctrinal material from other sources, but in such a fashion that they became distinctively Jain (or at least appeared so). He points out that Jains had always allowed for variation in ‘civic’ ceremonial and only insisted on particularity in matters pertaining to mokṣa. He points to the Jain doctrine of anekāntavāda as one of systematic tolerance. However, he also emphasises differing responses within the Jain community: Hemacandra is critical of the idea of  Ṛṣabha – the first Jain tīrthaṅkara – as an avatāra of Viṣṇu. Qvarnström contrasts the fact that the Jains were successful in (a) opposing the use of the avatāra doctrine to absorb their key figures and (b) nevertheless adopting and adapting mainstream Brahminical narrative sources (such as the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata) with the fact that the Buddhists did not achieve any of these things. He also points to the use of goddess cult as an integrative strategy, which, from a very early period, addressed the potential threat of bhakti (by consigning goddess worship to a sphere of religious activity that was not connected with mokṣa). He follows this with a consideration (p.121ff) of Jain adaptations of Hindu understandings of meditation and the impact of Tantric thought – emphasising the influence of Kaśmīri Śaivism. He closes with a consideration of the role of royal patronage in Jain history- suggesting that the end of Jainism as a missionary faith coincided with the end of its royal patronage. His conclusion is couched in more general terms that take up the concepts of ‘stability’, ‘adaptability’, ‘integration’ and ‘purification’ in the history of inter-religious relationships and the general history of religion. The paper is an interesting one, with conclusion that reach beyond Jain and even South Asian studies, to the wider field of religious and social history.

It strikes me that one might compare this with the categories put forward in Geen and Black et al (which Naomi has summarized in an earlier blog): Are characters sometimes analogues of religious traditions as a whole? They share a similar capacity for change, whilst also retaining a certain continuity across texts, genres and traditions. I would not wish to push such a parallel to far, but characters do seem to resemble the broader ideological formations of which they are a – shifting – part. 

The Birth of Vidura in the Sanskrit Mahabharata

Having translated the account of his death last week, I thought I would translate an account of Vidura’s birth. 

In the book of the descent of the primary lineages (ādi-vaṃśa-avataraṇa parvan) of the Ādiparvan (‘The Book of Beginnings’) of the Mahābhārata, we find the following brief account of the birth of Vidura: 

Her it is in Sanskrit (C.E. Mbh. 1.57.77-81):


śūle protaḥ purāṇarṣir acoraś coraśaṅkayā //
aṇīmāṇḍavya iti vai vikhyātaḥ sumahāyaśāḥ // 77 //

sa dharmam āhūya purā maharṣir idam uktavān //
iṣīkayā mayā bālyād ekā viddhā śakuntikā // 78 //

tat kilbiṣaṃ smare dharma nānyat pāpam ahaṃ smare //
tan me sahasrasamitaṃ kasmān nehājayat tapaḥ // 79 //

garīyān brāhmaṇavadhaḥ sarvabhūtavadhād yataḥ //
tasmāt tvaṃ kilbiṣād asmāc chūdrayonau janiṣyasi // 80 //

tena śāpena dharmo ‘pi śūdrayonāv ajāyata //
vidvān vidurarūpeṇa dhārmī tanur akilbiṣī // 81 //


Here is my verse translation:


Accused of being a thief, Aṇīmāṇḍavya

The sage, old, though potent still, was impaled.

Outraged, he spoke thus to the god of Law:

From callow youth, long ago, I stabbed a bird.

This wrong I know, but none other comes to mind.

Why then was my abstinent life ignored?

There is no higher sin than slaying a

Brahmin; you shall be born in a Śudra’s womb! 

Cursed by that sage, subtle Dharma, righteous,

faultless and true, took birth as Vidura.


In Prose:


An ancient sage (purāṇarṣir) called Aṇīmāṇḍavya, much celebrated (vikhyātaḥ) [and] immensely splendid (sumahāyaśaḥ) [was] impaled (protaḥ) on a stake (śule) on suspicion of being a thief (coraśaṅkayā). The great sage promptly challenged (āhūya purā) Dharma [the god of the Law] speaking thus  (idam uktavān): As a consequence of youthful folly (bālyād), I impaled (viddhā) a small bird (śakuntikā) with a stick (iśīkayā). That offence (tat kilbiṣaṃ) comes to mind (smare), O Dharma, [but] no other (nānyat) wrongdoing (pāpam) does. Why (kasmāt) did  my abundant (sahasrasamitam) austerities (me tapaḥ) not prevail (na ajayat) in this case (iha)? Since (yataḥ) the killing of a Brahmin (brāhmaṇavadhaḥ) is weightier (garīyān) than the killing of all other creatures (sarvabhūtavadhād), you, on account of this offence (tasmāt kilbiṣād), will be born in the womb of a Śudra (śudrayonau)! [The] intelligent, righteous, faultless and subtle Dharma, cursed with the form of Vidura, was indeed born into the womb of a Śudra.

‘Layers’ and ‘Wholes’ in the Study of Pre-modern Indian Texts

I have been wondering about a long-running controversy in Indian textual studies as to the relative merits of analyzing a given textual tradition either ‘into layers’ or ‘as a whole’. I am sure that these two things mean little to someone not in the business of analyzing pre-modern texts, but it is an important issue for our project as, more and more, scholars are identifying with one or the other camp. Beyond this, the issue of how scholars approach religious texts is, in particular, an important one. Questions concerning the historical origin and development of the canonical texts of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists, to name only the most prominent religious traditions, are both contentious and important (and not just to academics). Before I begin my ruminations, I suspect it might be useful for me to say precisely what I mean by analyzing sources ‘into layers’ (by which I refer to textual criticism) or ‘as a whole’ (which I call textual analysis).

The analysis of texts into ‘layers’ involves the examination of  the available manuscripts of a given textual tradition to see which parts of it came first and which later. There are quite complex ‘rules’ about how to compare manuscripts with one another, but the basic principle is simple: one finds similarities and differences between manuscripts and consider why they might be there. This is the main business of textual criticism. The practice of textual criticism is also often extended to include educated guesswork as to the development of a given text before we have direct manuscript evidence for it (this is very important in Indian Studies, where there is little manuscript evidence before the latter part of the first millennium CE). This sort of guesswork is often based on the idea that one style of writing (or speaking) might be earlier than another one, or that the presence or absence of words borrowed from other languages  is significant. Scholars also look for relationships between different texts (especially if we have more reliable dates for some of them). In Indian Studies, for example, there are a considerable number of Chinese versions of Buddhist texts for which we have reliable dates. This can help us, even if only tentatively, to say something about the date of non-Buddhist sources that have something in common with the Buddhist ones. Scholars also make use of corroborating historical data, such as literature or material culture. They even use their own ideas about the order of development of ideology and practices in India to suggest the presence, or absence, of ‘layers’ of composition in a given text. This might be described as the use of educated guesswork from one area to inform educated guesswork in another! Whatever the precise method, the goal is a constant: the re-construction of the history of  the development of a given text.

The analysis of a text ‘as a whole’ involves a consideration of its structure and content in order to say interesting things about its nature and probable function. It relies heavily on the close and careful reading of a given source in order to say something about the key ideas and themes that circulate within it. Such readings pay close attention to the words and language that are used, and to any features of a text that appear to provide an insight into the logic of its composition (and use). This sort of close-reading tends to be accompanied by a less dogged focus on dates, and the order of development of ideas and practices, and more on the characterization of textual ‘concerns’. These analyses are often informed by broader academic interests in the reconstruction of such things as gender, personhood or the exercise of power.  Suchlike analyses are often subsequently historically contextualized on the basis of the idea of a ‘fit’ between the ‘concerns’ of the text and the ‘concerns’ of a given period. Scholars also use a wide variety of literary and material cultural sources in order to corroborate their ‘readings’ of a given text (and its historical context). This is often no less of an example of the use of one form of guesswork to inform another than we saw in the practice of textual criticism. Whatever the precise method employed, the goal of textual analysis is a constant: the reconstruction of the purpose of a text on the basis of its design (whether or not this purpose was consciously known to its authors and subsequent users or not).

Black and Geen exemplify this second ‘holistic’ camp in their introduction to their edited volume ‘The Character of Character in Early South Asian Religious Narratives’ (see Naomi’s summary of this volume in another post for the full bibliographical details). They comment:

Although we draw upon both philological and historical studies, as well as other trajectories in western scholarship, we have taken a more synchronic approach, accepting an individual text as it now exists and taking it as a unified whole. (p.9)

Such a comment conceals some knotty problems for the person engaging with pre-modern Indian texts. To take a text ‘as it now exists’ is often, for the ‘synchronic’ reader, to take up a text that has already received the attentions of someone practicing the discipline of ‘textual criticism’ (this is true for a large number of the texts cited in the bibliographies of Black and Geen’s volume). In fact, this is invariably the case unless one is studying a specific manuscript (or an unedited printed edition). As if to emphasize this contradiction, Black and Geen go on to say:

…we merely suggest that a preoccupation with textual layers often results in a glossing over of the creative and deliberate ways by which early South Asian narratives have been composed, compiled and edited. (p. 9)

Now, this is an extraordinary claim and one which says more about the current division between those who read in ‘layers’ and those who read in ‘wholes’ than anything else; the very means by which we know anything about how a text has been ‘compiled and edited’ (if not always composed) is through textual criticism. What is, in fact, being said here is that a synchronous reading reserves the right to postulate an overarching textual logic on the basis of observable features of the text regardless of how it has been edited by others. I am not saying that this is necessarily wrong (that depends on the particular text, the evidence available for it and the quality of the editor, not to mention the quality of the ‘synchronic’ reading), but I am saying that there is no need to repudiate textual criticism if this is one’s agenda. Black and Geen’s volume is of the highest quality and my comments in no way detract from the rigor of their overarching analyses nor of the quality of the individual contributions. My concern is the idea that we have to ‘choose’ between reading in terms of ‘layers’ and ‘wholes’.  One might also mention the fact that we are ‘turning away’ from the very means by which the majority of texts that we use in pre-modern Indian Studies were made. More than this, I am concerned that we are being inconsistent in our treatment of the role of inference in the two ‘types’ of textual study; the person who addresses issues of textual development and change over time is increasingly branded a reactionary and a crank if they posit a development based upon, but moving beyond, the available evidence, while the ‘synchronist’ is granted considerably more freedom and is labelled progressive for doing much the same in relation to textual content. This is not a scientific stance. For our project, I hope that Naomi and I can rest between the two ‘camps’ and indulge in the luxury (and necessity) of speculation about both ‘layers’ and ‘wholes’.