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’.

Sometimes it is Hard to be a (Jain) Woman

In his short paper, ‘Dhik Strītvam: Wailing of Women in the Jaina Pāṇḍava-Purāṇa’ (in Harānandalaharī: Volume in Honour of Professor Minoru Hara, eds. R. Tsuchida and A. Wezler et al., Reinbeck, 2000 pp. 135-141), the well-known scholar of Jain Traditions, Padmanabh Jaini, offers a translation of a portion of the Jain Pāṇḍava Purāṇa in which Jain women bemoan their lot. I quote from his translation:

A life in the household is only for the hope of attaining happiness on the account of the love of a husband. He truly is the power for us women who are powerless. Who would stay in the household without him? (Jaini p. 139, Pāṇḍava Purāṇa 13. 137)

He suggest that this sort of critical outpouring is little known in Jain literature. It is, however, a common enough feature of the Hindu Mahābhārata, upon which the Jain Pāṇḍava Purāṇa is based. It occurs to me that what we might be witnessing here is the transference of more than just a popular story from a Hindu to a Jain context. It is conceivable that something of the restless ambivalence of the Mahābhārata is being transferred as well. Perhaps sometimes it is not just the content but also the function of a given textual form that is transferred. This is something that Naomi and I will have to investigate further.

The Death of Vidura in the Sanskrit Mahabharata

For my first post, I thought I would offer a short translation from a Sanskrit text. It takes up the death of one Vidura, who is an important character in the great Hindu narrative poem, the Mahabharata. Vidura is a chatty and sagacious fellow, who can remind of you of an ascetically-inclined Polonius on occasion (but try not to hold that against him). Vidura also appears in Buddhist and Jain literature (and Naomi and I will discuss him in more detail in later posts). His death is a dramatic and strange one in the Mahabharata, which is why I present it here. You will, no doubt, be left with more questions than answers at the end of it, but that is rather the point.


The death of Vidura occurs towards the end of the Mahābhārata, in the Āśramavāsikaparvan (‘The Book of the Residence in the Hermitage’). The Mahābhārata as a whole takes up the tale of a family feud between two groups of cousins, the Kauravas and the Pāṇḍavas, but it is also a repository of Brahminical Hindu religious thought. At this point in the story, the Pāṇḍavas have already defeated the Kauravas in a horrific war. In the aftermath of the war, the remnants of the Kauravas (chiefly the elderly generation, who were not combatants in the aforementioned war) have to make peace with the Pāṇḍavas. They co-habit, in an uneasy relationship, in the royal capital of Hastinapura, which was built by the Pāṇḍavas. Their king is the Pāṇḍava monarch,Yudhiṣṭhira. Vidura has been a trusted adviser of both sides. Dhṛtarāṣṭra in his old age, and ever-mindful of the losses he has sustained, retires to the forest with his wife, Gāndhārī, as well as the mother of the Pāṇḍavas, Kuntī, and Vidura. They plan to lead an ascetic life in a forest hermitage (an Āśrama in Sanskrit). Unbeknownst to the characters, Vidura is the incarnation of the god of religious law, Dharma, on earth. Dharma was cursed to an earthly birth when he was overly severe in his judgement of the life of an ascetic called Māṇḍavya. Complicating matters is the fact that Yudhiṣṭhira is the son of Dharma, though he is the adopted son of one king Pāṇḍu.

Dramatis Personae

Yudhiṣṭhira – the Pāṇḍava king

Dhṛtarāṣṭra – the defeated Kaurava monarch and father of Duryodhana, who was the chief opponent of the Pāṇḍavas

Vidura – the half-brother of Dhṛtarāṣṭra (fathered upon a serving girl by their father, Kṛṣṇa Dvaipāyana Vyāsa – who is also the putative author of the Mahābhārata)

The Sanskrit Text

Taken from the Pune Critical Edition of the Mahābhārata (15.33.15-32):

ity uktaḥ pratyuvācedaṃ dhṛtarāṣṭro janādhipam /
kuśalī viduraḥ putra tapo ghoraṃ samāsthitaḥ // 15 //

vāyubhakṣo nirāhāraḥ kṛśo dhamanisaṃtataḥ /
kadā cid dṛśyate vipraiḥ śūnye ‘smin kānane kva cit // 16 //

ity evaṃ vadatas tasya jaṭī vīṭāmukhaḥ kṛśaḥ /
digvāsā maladigdhāṅgo vanareṇusamukṣitaḥ // 17 //

dūrād ālakṣitaḥ kṣattā tatrākhyāto mahīpateḥ /
nivartamānaḥ sahasā janaṃ dṛṣṭvāśramaṃ prati // 18 //

tam anvadhāvan nṛpatir eka eva yudhiṣṭhiraḥ /
praviśantaṃ vanaṃ ghoraṃ lakṣyālakṣyaṃ kva cit kva cit // 19 //

bho bho vidura rājāhaṃ dayitas te yudhiṣṭhiraḥ /
iti bruvan narapatis taṃ yatnād abhyadhāvata // 20 //

tato vivikta ekānte tasthau buddhimatāṃ varaḥ /
viduro vṛkṣam āśritya kaṃ cit tatra vanāntare // 21 //

taṃ rājā kṣīṇabhūyiṣṭham ākṛtīmātrasūcitam /
abhijajñe mahābuddhiṃ mahābuddhir yudhiṣṭhiraḥ // 22 //

yudhiṣṭhiro ‘ham asmīti vākyam uktvāgrataḥ sthitaḥ /
vidurasyāśrave rājā sa ca pratyāha saṃjñayā // 23 //

tataḥ so ‘nimiṣo bhūtvā rājānaṃ samudaikṣata /
saṃyojya viduras tasmin dṛṣṭiṃ dṛṣṭyā samāhitaḥ // 24 //

viveśa viduro dhīmān gātrair gātrāṇi caiva ha /
prāṇān prāṇeṣu ca dadhad indriyāṇīndriyeṣu ca // 25 //

sa yogabalam āsthāya viveśa nṛpates tanum /
viduro dharmarājasya tejasā prajvalann iva // 26 //

vidurasya śarīraṃ tat tathaiva stabdhalocanam /
vṛkṣāśritaṃ tadā rājā dadarśa gatacetanam // 27 //

balavantaṃ tathātmānaṃ mene bahuguṇaṃ tadā /
dharmarājo mahātejās tac ca sasmāra pāṇḍavaḥ // 28//

paurāṇam ātmanaḥ sarvaṃ vidyāvān sa viśāṃ pate /
yogadharmaṃ mahātejā vyāsena kathitaṃ yathā // 29 //

dharmarājas tu tatrainaṃ saṃcaskārayiṣus tadā /
dagdhukāmo ‘bhavad vidvān atha vai vāg abhāṣata // 30 //

bho bho rājan na dagdhavyam etad vidurasaṃjñakam /
kalevaram ihaitat te dharma eṣa sanātanaḥ // 31 //

lokāḥ saṃtānakā nāma bhaviṣyanty asya pārthiva /
yatidharmam avāpto ‘sau naiva śocyaḥ paraṃtapa // 32 //

English Translation

I offer, first of all, a verse translation. This attempts to capture some of the excitement of the Sanskrit text. However, for those of you that can’t get by without a prose translation with lots of Sanskrit words in brackets, I provide one after the verse text.

Dhṛtarāśṭra said: ‘Vidura is well,

My dear. He performs strict austerities.

Seen here and there, he lives on air, his bones

And veins in stark relief. He eats nothing.’

Just then, with matted locks and smeared with filth,

Naked but for the pollen of wild flowers,

Slave-born Vidura was seen from afar.

Turning to look at them, he stopped in his tracks.

Yudhiṣṭhira gave chase; alone, he ran

Into the woods. Here and there, seen and unseen,

He vigorously pursued him. Shouting,

‘O Vidura! It is I your cherished king!’

Deep in the lonely woods, noble Vidura

Ceased to run. He took refuge by a tree;

A mere shadow of a man, wasting away,

Yet known in an instant by the king.

And then, coming into his presence, the king,

Within earshot, said, ‘I am Yudhiṣṭhira.’

Vidura, unblinking, fixed his gaze upon

His lord and by it, was united with him.

Limb on limb and breath on breath, Vidura

Merged their senses and their beings entire.

Wise Vidura, as if afire, entered

The king’s body, with his yogic power.

Leaning against a tree, eyes fixed ahead,

The king saw that life had now fled his frame.

Full of vigor, suffused with new powers

The Dharma king, Pāṇḍu’s son, remembered all.

Full of knowledge, he recalled lives gone by;

Just as had been described to him before.

Yudhṣṭhira thought to cremate his friend,

But a heavenly voice began to speak:

‘O king, burn not this man; you are him

And he is you; he is the god Dharma!

My prince, heaven awaits him. He goes now to

An ascetic’s rest, well-earned. Do not grieve!’



And now for the prose translation:

This being said, Dhṛtarāśṭra answered that lord of men: My son, Vidura is well; he performs terrible austerities (tapo ghoraṃ). [15] Living on air (vāyubhakṣo), abstaining from food (nirāhāraḥ), emaciated (kṛśa), [and] with prominent veins (dhamani-saṃtataḥ), he is sometimes seen by Brahmins around (kva cit) this desolate (śūnye) forest (kānane). [16]  As he said this, with matted locks, holding a stick in his mouth as a form of penance (vīṭā-mukhaḥ), emaciated, a naked mendicant (digvāsā), his limbs smeared with filth (maladigdhāṅgo), and bespeckled with the pollen of wild flowers (vana-reṇa-samukṣitaḥ), [17],  the slave-born one (kṣattā) [Vidura], was spotted (ālakśitaḥ) at a distance [and] the lord of the earth [Yudhiṣṭhira] was informed of this (tatra-ākhyāta); having seen the people (janam dṛṣṭvā)  [Vidura] suddenly stopped (nivartamānaḥ sahasā) [and] turned toward the hermitage (āśram prati). [18] King Yudhiṣṭhira ran after (anvadhāvan) him entirely on his own (eka eva) [and], entering the forest (praviśantaṃ vanaṃ ghoraṃ), [Vidura was] visible then invisible (lakṣya-ālakśya) here and there (kva cit kva cit). [19] O! O! Vidura! [It is] I your cherished (dayitas) king Yudhiṣṭhira! Speaking thus, the lord of men, exerting himself (yatnād), followed after him. [20] Then Vidura, the best of the brightest (buddhimatāṃ varaḥ), having sought refuge (āśritya) by a tree (vṛkṣam), remained (tasthau) in an isolated (vivikta)  [and]  lonely spot (ekānte) there, in the interior of the forest (vanāntare). [21] Clever King Yudhiṣṭhira recognised (abhijajñe) him of great intellect [though he was] exceedingly emaciated (kśīṇabhūyiṣṭham), possessing only the shape (ākṛtī-mātra-sūcitam) [of a man]. [22]  And then, gesturing (saṃjñayā), the king spoke in his presence (pratyāha). Standing in front [of him] (agratas sthitaḥ), uttering the words (vākyam uktvā)  ‘I am Yudhiṣṭhira’, within earshot of  Vidura (vidurasya-āśrave). [23]  Then he [Vidura], unblinking (animiṣo), regarded the king intently (samudaikṣata); Vidura fixed (saṃyojya) his gaze (dṛṣṭiṃ) upon him (tasmin) [and] was united [with him] by means of [that] gaze. [24]  Wise (dhīmān) Vidura entered (viveśa) [Yudhiṣṭhira], limb by limb (gātrair gātrāṇi); merging (dadhad) indeed life-breaths with life-breaths and senses with senses. [25] Vidura, by means of his tejas, as if afire, entered the body of that lord, the dharma king, using (āsthāya) the power of his yoga (yogabalam). [26]  Meanwhile, the body of Vidura, with unblinking eyes (stabdhalocanam) lent against the tree (vṛkṣa-āśritam) and the king saw that life was gone (gata-cetanam) [from him]. [27] Then [the king] felt (mene) himself [to be] possessed of strength [and] many [new]positive qualities (bahuguṇam) And then, the powerful dharmic king, Pāṇḍu’s son, remembered (sasmāra). [28] O lord of men, he was possessed of knowledge (vidyāvān) of all his former selves (paurāṇam ātmanaḥ sarvaṃ) and mighty energy; the conduct of yoga had been described to him by Vyāsa. [29]  But the Dharma King then wished to perform the appropriate rite for him. He  was desirous of cremating [him]. Just then a  voice said: [30]  O! O! King! this one known as Vidura (vidura-saṃjñakam) is not to be burnt. This body (kalevaram) here [is also] yours! It [is] the eternal dharma! [31] O prince, the [heavenly] worlds known as Saṃtānaka will be his! This he has attained, by means of his ascetic duties; do not grieve O destroyer of foes! [32]

The Character of Character

At the start of a new project it makes sense to review the most important scholarship on related issues. For me this has begun with reading (in some cases re-reading) the series of articles on South Asian religious characters in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion 79/1 (2011).

Jonathan Geen and Brian Black have been pioneers in the study of characters that cross the boundaries between South Asian religious traditions, and their introduction to this volume lays out the rationale for such study. They highlight four issues: (1) Stability: the impressive stability exhibited by characters that have multiple appearances; (2) Flexibility: the ability of characters to also be adapted or even inverted to make new points; (3) Inter-textuality: since the same characters appear in different texts, examining literary characters is a good way to explore connections and dialogue between traditions; (4) Demonstrability: the ability of characters to demonstrate (or, as Lindquist prefers, embody) a particular ideal or teaching.

The papers that follow this introduction all speak to some of these issues, though with different degrees of relevance to our project. As a whole they highlight the importance of studying literary characters and narrative motifs, of acknowledging that in some cases, as Lindquist (p.36) puts it, ‘story functions as argument’, and of paying attention to the form and context of teachings as much as to the teachings themselves.

Geen’s article, ‘Fair Trade and Reversal of Fortune: Krsna and Mahavira in the Hindu and Jaina Traditions’, is an excellent example of what can be achieved by looking at the presentation of characters in different religious traditions. Geen examines two examples: (1) The presentation of Jain teachers in Hindu texts, namely the inclusion of Jain features in the characterisation of the deluder of demons that is the ninth avatara of Visnu, and the later identification of the Jina Rsabha as a minor avatara of Visnu. (2) The incorporation of Krsna into the Jain “Universal History”, where Jain disapproval of his antics is clear from the fact that he is sent to hell, but his soteriological importance is reinforced by a prediction to future Jinahood.

Brian Black’s ‘Ambattha and Svetaketu: Literary Connections Between the Upanisads and Early Buddhist Narratives’ is another example of examining shared characters. Here Black argues that the character of Svetaketu the arrogant young brahmin in the Upanisads is actually the same as the character Ambattha found in the Digha Nikaya. Furthermore he argues that the Buddhist text draws on Upanisadic literary devices, namely the debate setting and the motif of head-shattering, suggesting a familiarity with the Upanisadic genre.

These two papers, along with the others in the volume, serve to demonstrate what can be learnt from concentrating on narrative materials in general, and the notion of character in particular.