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.

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