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!)