Monthly Archives: March 2013

Sakka (Indra) in Jataka stories

by Naomi

This week I have been surveying the character of Sakka in the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā and musing on the results.

Sakka appears in a total of 65 stories. In 19 of these he is identified as the Bodhisatta, in 14 he is the elder monk Anuruddha, in a further two he is identified with two other monks, and in 30 cases he remains unidentified with any character of the “present” at all. The choice of identification would appear to be linked to the story itself: when he plays a positive role – assisting, testing or teaching – then he can be usefully identified as the Buddha-to-be. Unless, of course, he is assisting or testing or praising the Bodhisatta, in which case he must be another individual. In those stories in which he appears threatened by the Bodhisatta’s virtue and makes various nefarious attempts to disrupt his ascetic or virtuous behaviour he tends not to be identified, whereas if he assists or praises the Bodhisatta he is generally identified with Anuruddha, the monk said to be foremost in his acquisition of the divine eye (dibba-cakkhu).

There are several repeated motifs involving Sakka’s interaction with the Bodhisatta. He orders the divine architect Vissakamma to build a hermitage for the Bodhisatta in nine stories. In 16 stories his throne is shaken or heated up by the virtue of the Bodhisatta. These stories then proceed with three motifs: Sakka tests the Bodhisatta (often in disguise as a brahmin seeking alms), Sakka tries to disrupt the Bodhisatta (including by tempting him with beautiful women), and Sakka praises the Bodhisatta. These motifs appear both independently and in combination – often Sakka begins by being concerned that the Bodhisatta wishes to oust him from his position, tests his virtue and ends up praising him and even offering a boon. Some such stories – for example the two versions of the Isisinga story – have clear Brahmanical parallels.

Sakka is also associated closely with virtuous women, as Sohnen-Thieme has noted (see earlier post). I found seven stories in which he is summoned by the virtue of a woman in peril, and in four of these cases her virtue causes his throne to heat or shake. In five stories he grants children, by persuading his fellow god (the Bodhisatta) to take birth.

Another motif found in four stories involves Sakka fetching a particularly virtuous human being, always the Bodhisatta, to heaven. In two cases he shares his heavenly kingdom with the human king Bodhisatta, and in two cases he offers to help the Bodhisatta remain in heaven but the Bodhisatta declines. In all four cases the Bodhisatta is fetched by Sakka’s charioteer Mātali, who also appears elsewhere in the jātakas. This is of course faintly reminiscent of the episode in the Mahābhārata in which Indra fetches Arjuna to heaven for a stay.

With the exception of the small number of stories in which Sakka makes a concerted effort to prevent the Bodhisatta from practising his virtue, the god is always a positive character, usually intervening to help or teach humans. This characterization is necessary given the understanding of the type of behaviour required for rebirth as Sakka, namely good and generous conduct (as we discover in at least 8 of the stories).

My survey of primary sources has a long way to go, but fruitful points of comparison are already presenting themselves.

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Sohnen-Thieme on Indra

by Naomi

I have just been reading two articles on Indra by Renate Söhnen-Thieme: ‘Indra and Women’, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 54/1 (1991): 68-74, and ‘Indra in the Harivaṃśa’ in Robert P. Goldman and Muneo Tokunaga (eds) Epic Undertakings. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2009, pp. 335-369. I have yet to read her ‘Rise and decline of the Indra religion in the Veda.’ (in Witzel, M, (ed.), Inside the texts – beyond the texts. New Approaches to the study of the Vedas) but hope to access this on my next trip to a research library.

I very much enjoyed Söhnen-Thieme’s clear and concise writing, as well as her ability to move between traditions with ease. Her work made me think again about two aspects of Indra’s characterization:

1. Indra as replaceable: Söhnen-Thieme highlighted several more stories in the Harivaṃśa that show Indra as replaceable (relating to Skanda, Nahuṣa and King Raji) and offered some interesting discussion about the relevance of Indra being both name and position, and therefore lending himself to stories of challenge and usurpation. This nicely complemented my previous observations on stories from the Mahābhārata and Buddhist Jātakas.

2. Indra as womanizer: I had often wondered why Indra/Sakka/Śakra doesn’t appear to seduce women in Buddhist texts despite his reputation as a womanizer in Brahmanical texts, and despite his seduction of Ahalyā being known in Buddhist texts. Söhnen-Thieme actually argues that Indra’s reputation is largely ill-deserved – he actually blesses marriages and makes them fruitful, and only once succeeds in seducing a human woman. So it would seem that the contrast between Vedic/Brahmanical and Buddhist characterizations is not so strong after all.

Another thought-provoking aspect of Söhnen-Thieme’s work was her discussion of the ways in which Viṣṇu (=Kṛṣṇa) begins to usurp the position of Indra in the Harivaṃśa, despite being his younger brother. It strikes me as rather interesting that the two main gods in Buddhism – Indra and Brahmā – both lose popularity in Brahmanical and later Hinduism, even as they are preserved and elevated within Buddhist texts.

On comparative religion

by Naomi

This week I attended a public lecture here in Edinburgh entitled ‘Teaching the Abrahamic Religions: A Subversive Enterprize?’ delivered by Guy Stroumsa, Professor of the Study of the Abrahamic Religions, University of Oxford. Stroumsa’s basic argument appeared to be that studying the three “Abrahamic” traditions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) together presents certain dangers but is nonetheless a compelling and worthwhile approach. It set me wondering about what scholars of South Asian religions can learn from such endeavours and vice versa.

One of Stroumsa’s most forceful points was that we must be aware of the difference between comparative religion and interfaith discourse. The latter, he argued, is interested in commonalities, whereas the academic enterprise of comparative religion focuses upon differences. Reflecting on my own approach, I would prefer to say that I use the commonalities to explore the differences. So, for example, in my recent work on stories of karma and rebirth in Buddhist and Jain texts I look at how a very similar set of doctrines concerning cosmology, ethics and soteriology play out rather differently in the narratives. And in this project we are using common characters, roles and genres to explore the ways in which three traditions developed in dialogue with and opposition to one another.

Stroumsa argued that one of the dangers of the comparative approach is a tendency to crystalize the traditions, to take a snapshot of Judaism, Christianity and Islam and therefore to simplify them. He suggested that the most productive form of comparative religion is that which focuses on moments of transformation and pays attention to specific historical contexts. His advice applies equally to scholars of South Asian religion: Brahmanical Hinduism (or whatever else we want to call it), Indian Buddhism and Jainism are three traditions that are – like the “Abrahamic” traditions – linked both structurally and historically. They are therefore asking to be studied together. Yet such a comparative study must situate itself in a specific historical context in order to avoid essentialising the three traditions.

Maybe scholars of the “Abrahamic” traditions can learn something from scholarship on South Asian religions, which benefits from being largely free of the theological investment and interfaith motivation that have tended to accompany the former. With a strong historical focus, albeit one that is rather broadly conceived, my hope is that this project will bring about similar benefits to those highlighted by Stroumsa, namely a more complete picture of religious development and a better appreciation of the ways in which religious traditions change and interact over time.

More on Indra in the Mahabharata

by Naomi

I have just finished reading book 3 of the Mahābhārata and in it I found further interesting material regarding Indra’s characterisation. As I noted in an earlier post, I was surprised to find two elements of Indra’s Buddhist role in the Mahābhārata, namely his fear of being ousted from his position as Indra, and his tendency to test the virtue and commitment of ascetics or moral figures. Two episodes towards the end of the Āraṇyakaparvan have given me further cause for reflection.

In 3.213ff we learn about the origins and great powers of Skanda. After he has subdued everyone, the gods pay him homage, and in 3.218 brahmin seers suggest that he should become Indra. Even Śakra says that he is superior, and that he should become Indra. Skanda, however, declares himself the servant of the king of the gods, and declines to become Indra.

Here once again we see the possibility that Śakra/Indra might be ousted from his position as king of the gods, though this time by another god rather than a powerful human. However, in this episode it is clear that “Indra” is a title, or a position, rather than an individual. As such Śakra might have had to become subservient to Skanda as the new Indra, but he would not have been eliminated as an individual. This is somewhat different to the Buddhist position, in which Śakra’s fear of being replaced is linked to his awareness that he is only a temporary occupant of heaven. He will, in due course, die and be reborn elsewhere, and another individual will take his place. His fear of losing his title is thus presumably linked to his fear of losing his divine birth altogether.

It would appear that the narratives are deliberately playing with the ambiguity implicit in the term Indra, which has a very basic meaning of king or lord. The term does not of course always refer to the god of that name, for just as Indra is the Indra of the gods, Rāvaṇa is the Indra of the rākṣasas, and various humans are said to be Indras of the kings and so on. Thus Indra’s very name is closely linked to his apparent replaceability, perhaps explaining the propensity of stories in which his position or individuality are challenged.

The second passage of interest, 3.294, relates Indra’s visit to Karṇa in disguise as a brahmin in order to beg from him his divine armour and earrings. In my previous comments on the same episode as related in 1.104 I suggested that this episode parallels the Buddhist motif of Indra testing the virtue of a human, as he so regularly does with the Bodhisattva. In response, Christian Ferstl was kind enough to bring my attention to the Karṇabhāra version of this story, in which Śakra’s motivation is not to test, but explicitly to harm Karṇa and thus improve the chances of his son Arjuna winning in combat. In the relation of this episode in book 3 this same motivation is clear. The interaction appears less like a god testing a human’s virtue and more like a god deliberately manipulating a human whose is known to be dedicated to giving to brahmins. However, significant parallels with Buddhist stories remain – Indra in disguise as brahmin supplicant asks for an apparently impossible gift which is nonetheless granted with predictably gory results. The motivations and results may vary, but the motif appears to have had a lively presence in South Asian narrative.

Bring on book 4 – I am thoroughly enjoying my exploration of the Mahabhārata!