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.

5 thoughts on “Sakka (Indra) in Jataka stories

  1. Robin Moore

    Hi Naomi. I have a question: how often in the Jatakas tales does Sakka come to earth because a rishi is practising some kind of austerity in a (overly) zealous fashion and thus causing some form of disturbance in heaven?

    Reply
    1. naomiappleton Post author

      Hi Robin. Thanks for your question. In the Jatakatthavannana I counted 22 stories in which Sakka’s throne shakes or heats up because of a human’s virtue. In sixteen of these it is the Bodhisatta’s virtue that is the cause, though he is not always a sage, often a householder of one sort or another. The most famous stories about rishis are the two about Isisinga (numbers 523 and 526), with some parallels in number 433 as well. However, in the Buddhist stories Sakka doesn’t get alerted because of excessive austerities (which would in themselves be discouraged, of course) but because of something good, such as extreme giving or other virtue in the face of difficulty. All the best, Naomi

      Reply
      1. Robin Moore

        Dear Naomi, thank you so much for your response. The reason I asked the question is because I am translating a book by Ven. Phra Payutto, in which he seems to state the following:

        The principle activity for rishis is to develop the jhānas, and they find delight in jhāna as a source of enjoyment (jhāna-kīḷā). Those who are skilled accomplish the eight concentrative attainments (samāpatti) and the first five of the six higher psychic attainments (abhiññā). They are resplendent in their powers and highly knowledgeable. Some of them practise religious austerities, attempting to burn away their sins by various means of self-mortification. Sometimes their austerities are so potent that the devas—including Indra—are troubled. Others worship fire according to the brahmanistic doctrine and tradition. The brahmans believe that worshipping fire and bathing in sacred water helps to purge one’s sins. (Fire worship was considered the leader or chief of all forms of sacrifice: aggihuttaṅmukhā yaññā.)….
        The goals of these renunciants were not always the same. Generally, they believed in the principle derived from the ancient rishis, that austerities burn off evil deeds and lead to purification, and that they generate inner powers. (The term ‘power’—teja—here is connected to tejo, which means ‘fire.’ One generates an inner fire or inner power.) Some of the rishis practised austerities to the extent that they caused distress to the devas, all the way to the Brahma realms. There are many such stories in which Indra had to come down to earth and sort things out. Some of the renunciants practised austerities for the sole purpose of being born in heaven.

        The author doesn’t state where these ‘stories’ are found, whether in the Jataka Tales or elsewhere. Let me know if you have any more insights on this matter. Best, Robin

      2. naomiappleton Post author

        Dear Robin,
        This sounds an interesting task! It is not clear from your extract whether or not he is talking about Rishis as portrayed in Buddhist sources or in (Brahmanical or Vedic) Hindu ones. Certainly the practice of austerities with the aim of burning off sins is not something that is portrayed in a positive light in Buddhist narratives. The practice of jhānas and the accomplishment of the samāpatti and abhiññā is, however, completely standard for a renouncer in Jātaka stories. Indra does come to disrupt ascetics in Brahmanical narrative too, though usually in such cases he is worried that the ascetic is getting too powerful and so tries to seduce him with some celestial nymph. Buddhist parallels to such stories include those I mentioned previously. More normally in Buddhist Jātakas we see Indra appear because of the great virtue of a human, rather than his/her powerful asceticism.
        All the best, Naomi

      3. Robin Moore

        Dear Naomi, once again I am so grateful for your kind and considered response. You are right – I don’t know if the author is referring to Buddhist or non-Buddhist texts. Unless I can ask the author about this directly, I may have to leave the translation non-specific. Robin

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