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.