Monthly Archives: May 2013

Janaka in the Mahabharata and the Jatakas

Recently I have been translating the (Maha) Janaka Jataka and musing about what an interesting story it is – 

Janaka’s father loses his kingdom and his life to his younger brother, and Janaka is brought up in a neighbouring kingdom after his pregnant and widowed mother escapes. When he discovers his true identity Janaka insists upon reclaiming his father’s kingdom and so goes to sea to raise money for an army. He is shipwrecked but rescued by a goddess, who takes him to Mithila and leaves him sleeping in the park. Meanwhile Janaka’s uncle has died leaving no heir but only instructions that whoever can please his daughter and solve certain riddles should become king. The Brahmin advisors find Janaka in the park and, seeing his auspicious marks, invite him to be king. Janaka pleases the princess (by ignoring her!) then solves the riddles, then rules justly, then renounces. This takes some time – a hundred odd verses praising Mithila but simultaneously communicating his impatience to leave it behind are followed by an impassioned argument with his wife, who wishes to stop him entering the forest.
It is this spousal argument that I came across today as I was reading the Shanti Parvan of the Mahabharata. Yudhisthira refers to Janaka in support of his own decision to renounce, and his brother Arjuna responds by recounting the arguments of Janaka’s wife against his renunciation.
King Janaka of Mithila (or several kings of this name) is well-known in Indian narrative so it was no great surprise to encounter him in the Mahabharata. What intrigued me was the context – Janaka is used in an argument as to whether or not Yudhisthira, who has just regained his kingdom through a long and determined and painful process, should renounce. The fuller story of the Jataka makes the parallel even more instructive, for Janaka too has gone to great lengths to get his kingdom back before giving it all up. In the Jataka this only serves to highlight the strength of Janaka’s resolve, whereas in the Mahabharata renunciation is the wrong choice.
I am left wondering whether or not the compilers and audiences of the Mahabharata would have been aware of Janaka’s back-story as found in the Jataka, or whether perhaps the Jataka was composed in the light of the Mahabharata reference. Whatever the history of interaction may have been, these two references to a common character shed light on one another in curious ways.

Śakra/Indra in Jain narrative

by Naomi

I have been getting stuck in with the early Śvetāmbara Jain sources, and Śakra is proving to be an interesting character, as always. Although I still have some way to go with my survey I have already encountered several motifs familiar from the Mahābhārata and Buddhist sources, for example:

1. The battle between Sakra and the asuras is mentioned in several texts. In the (Bhagavatī) Vyākhyā-prajñapti Sūtra the chief of the asuras runs away and hides behind Mahāvīra, and Sakra has to withdraw his thunderbolt in order to avoid harming the Jina.

2. As bringer of rain: I have not yet found this explicitly associated with Śakra, though there is an episode in the Jñātādharmakathāḥ in which “a god of the Saudharma heaven” (the heaven of which Śakra is said to be the Indra) brings unseasonable rain to ease the pregnancy craving of a queen. His control over the rain as well as his summoning by a man undertaking asceticism suggest this is the same motif as is usually associated specifically with Śakra. In the (Bhagavatī) Vyākhyā-prajñapti Sūtra it is said that when Śakra wants it to rain he usually asks other gods to sort it out, since all gods are able to make rain. So the texts appear to be downplaying Śakra’s significance as an individual.

3. Testing the virtue of a human being: The familiar motif of Śakra taking on the appearance of a brahmin and visiting a human to test his resolve is found in the Uttarādhyayana, when Śakra visits King Nami (who later becomes a Jina). Curiously, a couple of other stories show a different god carrying out a similar test, motivated by hearing Śakra praise the great virtue of the human. Rather than being another example of the texts seeking to minimize Śakra’s significance as an individual, this looks like an attempt to prevent Śakra being associated with dubious behaviour.

4. Supporting and praising awakened/liberated teachers: Just as Śakra supports and praises the Buddhas, he also supports and praises the Jinas, celebrating and assisting with the various stages of their pursuit of liberation.

The stability of Śakra’s character across all three traditions is therefore quite impressive, though there is also significant flexibility and variation. I look forward to drawing together some more detailed analysis in due course.