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.