Versions of the same myth? Brahmā and Vyāsa / Vālmīki / Buddha

by Naomi

In his book The Mythology of Brahmā (OUP 1983) Greg Bailey points out that Brahmā encourages Vyāsa and Vālmīki to teach their compositions (the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa respectively) to others. Similarly, it is Brahmā who convinces the Buddha to teach the dharma to others. Bailey suggests that these three examples of Brahmā inspiring the transmission of teachings ‘are really versions of one myth’ (p.175). This view is echoed, without reference to Bailey’s work, in Bruce Sullivan’s Kṛṣṇa Dvaipāyana Vyāsa and the Mahābhārata (Brill 1990: 13): ‘Brahmā has the same role in relation to the dissemination of the dharma in these myths, which are so similar that they may be regarded as versions of the same myth.’

Many scholars have seen the involvement of Brahmā in encouraging the Buddha to teach as an anomaly: Why would the Buddha be reluctant to teach? How was he unaware of the benefits his teaching would bring? By way of solution Bailey argues (p.181) that ‘this myth is really about Brahmā and only secondarily about the Buddha.’ In other words, seeing it in the light of other versions of the myth helps to explain why it was included in the Buddha’s lifestory.

While I find Bailey’s analysis helpful, and agree that the parallel episodes can be usefully taken into account when assessing Brahmā’s role in initiating the Buddha’s teaching career, the issue of Brahmā’s involvement still seems to me to be unresolved. It is not enough to say that this episode was included because the redactors were aware of other versions of the myth. One still has to ask why the redactors felt it would be beneficial to the story to include it at all. Perhaps it was motivated by a desire to show Brahmā as supportive of and subservient to the Buddha, or to justify Buddhist teachings to a Brahmanical audience. Nonetheless it comes at the cost of showing Buddhism as dependent in some way on Brahmā. The redactors must have been aware of such considerations.

The treatment of this episode by Bailey and Sullivan raises a broader question for our project. Both scholars talk about these three episodes as different versions of the same myth. I am uneasy with such a description, since in each case the characters and context (including the content of the teaching) are quite explicitly different. I would prefer to talk about a shared motif, which grows out of – or perhaps contributes to – a stable element of characterization, namely Brahmā’s role in inspiring the communication of dharma.

It may help to introduce a comparison – Indra’s association with bringing rain. In many stories Indra brings rain, and this is often as a result of the virtue of the king, or the command of a sage (including the Buddha). However, it is unlikely that we would be tempted to describe such episodes as different versions of the same myth. Rather they are evidence of an element of Indra’s characterization: he is a rain-bringer, and he is subject to the superior powers of virtue or asceticism amongst humans. Thus the narrative motif is commonplace.

As these examples concerning Brahmā and Indra show, the lines between character and narrative motif are blurry to say the least. We understand characters largely through their actions and therefore through the plots – large or small – in which they are involved. Similarly we make sense of events in relation to the key players. Thus although we are not explicitly addressing shared narratives in this project, our research is clearly going to involve motifs and whole stories that are common to more than one tradition. Using the notion of character as an analytical tool will, I hope, help us to better understand stories and episodes such as the Buddha’s encounter with Brahmā.

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