Monthly Archives: October 2013

The Historic Conversation of the Buddha and Prince Abhaya

In my last blog (on the historic conversation of Rāma and Jābāli), I examined an example of a dialogue between a king and a sage that was drawn from Brahminical tradition. I will look now at a Buddhist text.

The fifty eighth discourse of the Majjhima Nikāya, the ‘middle-length discourses of the Buddha’, provides us with an excellent – pithy – example of a dialogue featuring a king: the Abhayarājakumāra Sutta is named for prince Abhaya (lit. ‘prince Fearless’), who is one of its central protagonists. The action begins with a nefarious plot by a Jain mendicant, one Nātaputta. He suggests to king Abhaya that he ask a difficult question of the Buddha in order to humiliate him. The question hinges on the idea that the Buddha cannot speak disagreeable words and yet he delivered to Devadatta – his schismatic cousin – a prediction of a birth in a hell, which according to our Jain sage, could hardly have been agreeable to the latter. Nātaputta’s idea is that, if the Buddha says yes he can say things that are disagreeable, then he is not an enlightened being and, if he cannot, then there is the fact of Devadatta’s chagrin.  Nātaputta gleefully goes on to suggest the following:

Imaṃ kho te rājakumāra samaṇo Gotamo ubhatokoṭikaṃ pañhaṃ puṭṭho samāno n’eva sakkhīti uggilituṃ n’eva sakkhīti ogilituṃ.

Prince,  on being presented with this two-pronged question (ubhato-koṭika pañham), Gotama will neither be able to vomit it up, nor swallow it down!

Nātaputta adds, somewhat viscerally, that this question will, in this way, be ‘like an iron spike (ayo-sanghāṭaka) in his throat’. Prince Abhaya agrees to the request of the Jain sage. He invites the Buddha to lunch in order to surprise him with his knotty question. He then says to the Buddha:

Bhāseyya nu kho bhante Tathāgato tam vācaṃ yā sā vācā paresaṃ appiyā amanāpā ti.

Now, revered sir, could a Tathāgata utter a speech disliked by others, [which was] diasgreeable to them?

The initial response of the Buddha is as brief as it is brilliant:

Na kho ‘ttha rājakumāra ekaṃsenāti

Prince, surely this is one sided (ekaṃsena)?

Abhaya appreciates the subtlety of this response and states that the Jains have lost the debate already. Why is the Buddha’s answer so subtle? Firstly, it shows that the Buddha knew already of the trap that had been set for him, which is a sign of his enlightened status. There is however a doctrinal in-reference in this response as well: the Jains, from an early period were famous for their philosophical scepticism; building on the epistemology of another prominent anti-Vedic sect, the Ājivakas, they developed the idea of anekāntavāda, which means ‘more than one point of view’. This doctrine holds that, for the unenlightened, the truth of a given proposition cannot be finally known (in more formal – scholastic – explanations of the term, such as one finds in the Tattvārthasūtra, which is a philosophical synthesis, in Sanskrit, of Jain doctrine that dates to the beginning of the Common Era, it comes to refer to seven ways in which a proposition may be true or false, or neither, or both of these things). By setting such a trap for him, the Buddha is thus suggesting that Nātaputta has acted in bad faith in relation to his own epistemology and, by not knowing this, has demonstrated his lack of enlightenment (and the limits of his own tradition’s philosophical standpoint). The Buddha goes on to explain that, just as you would take a foreign object out of a child’s mouth (and – rather handily – there happens to be a baby sitting on prince Abhaya’s knee at just this moment in our tale), the Buddha – from compassion derived from superior knowledge – acts at the right time to help others. This is again, a rather well-formulated response; Nātaputta’s gleeful description of questions, and indeed, iron spikes, that are impossible to either vomit up, or swallow down (a recurrent phrase in this sutta), are here projected into a paediatric context. This allows the Buddha to reposition himself: he is not the ‘chokee’ (as Nātaputta would have liked him to be), nor the ‘choker’ (as Nātaputta himself attempted to be, at least by proxy), he is the one who acts to remove the obstacle that causes choking in the first place; he is the paediatrician, if you will (you – as readers – might groan, but medical metaphors are by no means alien to Buddhist rhetoric). This draws a sharp, albeit implicit, moral contrast between the sophistry of Nātaputta and the compassion of the Buddha.

The Buddha completes his rhetorical hat trick by turning to a much-loved metaphor in early Indian philosophical discourse: that of the chariot. In both Brahminical and Buddhist sources, this metaphor is deployed as a means of discussing the senses, cognitive faculties and the reality, or lack thereof, of  the Self – or Ātman – as a transmigrating essence (the metaphor is found – to name only a few examples – in the Katha Upaniṣad – 1.3.3-4; the Saṃyutta Nikāya – 1.134-55; and the Milinda Pañha – 2.1.72 ff. It is a metaphor that is used in Classical and Patristic sources as well, as, for example, in Plato’s Pheadrus and Jerome’s Commentary on Ezekiel). However, in the Abhayarājakumāra Sutta, rather than the constitution of the self, the metaphor is used to discuss knowledge of reality more broadly: in response to a question from prince Abhaya, as to how much the Buddha prepares his answers in advance, the Buddha contends that he understands reality as fully as Abhaya – as a good warrior prince – understands the workings of a chariot. He concludes:

Sā hi rājakumāra Tathāgatassa dhammadhātu suppaṭividdhā yassā dhammadhātuyā suppaṭividdhattā ṭhānaso v’ etaṃ Tathāgataṃ paṭibhātīti.

Prince, because the Tathāgata understands the basis of reality (dhammadhātu) and on the basis of sound reasoning has full comprehension (suppaṭividdhattā) of it, [the answer] occurs (paṭibhāti) to the Tathāgata.

There might be another sly poke at the Jains here; for the Jains enlightenment entails full omniscience, which adds up to a complete and simultaneous knowledge of being in its entirety (described most fully in the fifth aṅga of the Śvetāmbara Jain canon, the Bhagavati Sūtra). For the Buddhists, abhiññā, or ‘special knowledge’, is more limited and focuses on facilitating the path to enlightenment (though it still includes the capacity to read minds and know one’s own former births and those of others, amongst other things; a rich description of these powers is given in the Sāmaññaphala Sutta of the Dīgha Nikāya, the ‘Longer Discourses of the Buddha’). Here, however, by means of comparing his knowledge of reality to that of a trained warrior’s knowledge of a chariot, the Buddha seems to intimate something somewhat closer to the Jain ideal (notwithstanding the ink that might be spilled over the precise meaning of the word dhammadhātu here and the substantial differences between Buddhist and Jain ontology).  He, at the very least, implicitly suggests that his knowledge of reality is as highly developed as it is possible for it to be – this is, indeed, the suggestion of the Sutta as a whole, of course. At the close of the Sutta, Prince Abhaya decides not just to become a lay follower of the Buddha, but to be ordained as a monk.

It seems, then, that in this Buddhist example of a dialogue between a prince and a sage, we find certain similarities to the example I took up in my last blog, which was drawn from the Rāmāyaṇa: there is certainly – once again – a context of inter-religious rivalry, even if there is no direct statement of Jain doctrine (only the plotting of a Jain sage); there is also a heroic dimension to the response of the Buddha (as there was to that of Rāma and Vasiṣṭha contra Jābāli). I mean by this that the audience is not in any doubt as to the likely outcome of the debate as it unfolds (i.e. we know who the ‘hero’ is). Another way of capturing the distinction might be to view dialogues as either ‘closed’ or ‘open’ (with ‘open’ referring to those materials that seem to be willing to debate the veracity or worth of a rival views – though I am well aware that  – even in quite somber philosophical sources – the deck is often stacked against the intellectual opponent!).  The two dialogues are therefore propaganda; they are a form of communication that is designed to influence the attitudes of their audience. There are also some important contrasts in the two examples: Rāma is not persuaded by Jābāli, while Abhaya is persuaded by the Buddha (so persuaded indeed that he seeks ordination and not simply affiliation as a lay person). However, although these are different outcomes, the centre of gravity in the two stories is – I would argue – the same: in both cases the narrative is set up to occasion a series of clear statements about preferred religious ideology and also about the authority of the teaching: Rāma offers a clear statement as to what constitutes the ‘right thing to do’ in this life and a clear rejection of Jābāli’s views. This is followed by Vasiṣṭha offering an eon-spanning vision of the descent of gods and kings, which culminates in the person of Rāma. The teaching is thus anchored in the status of the teacher, who, in this case, is Rāma (ably assisted by the Brahmin sage, Vasiṣṭha, in a wonderful demonstration of Brahmin-king reciprocity, which itself communicates something very clear about the preferred organisation of social and religious elites in our text). In our Buddhist example, the Buddha is presented as being more circumspect; he foils the plans of the Jain sage Naṭaputta, and offers a teaching as to ‘right thing to do’ (i.e. teach out of a compassion rooted in the superior understanding of the nature of things occasioned by enlightenment). He then uses the metaphor of the chariot to assert the extent of his knowledge of the nature of reality (which is not the same sort of claim as we find in the Rāmāyaṇa, but it is still an appeal to a rather special form of authority). The heroic dimensions of the two texts – and their different, but equally prominent, appeals to authority, lead me to think of them as intended for an audience already predisposed to the ideologies and practices presented in them. That is to say, they strike me as inward rather than outward looking. However, given how little we know of the likely audiences of these texts, this is only a tentative conclusion.

So, even at this early stage, some clear dichotomies and key words are emerging for my analyses: inward vs. outward looking; ‘heroic’ or ‘closed’ vs. ‘realistic’ or ‘open’; propaganda; and persuasion. I will turn, in my next blog, to an example drawn from Jain literature.

The Historic Conversation of Rama and Jabali

As part of my investigation into the historic conversations of gods and kings, I am surveying a wide range of Brahminical, Buddhist and Jain sources. For the next few weeks, I will share my thoughts on stories as I encounter them (the stories that is). I will also reflect on issues of method in relation to the study of stories drawn from different religious traditions. Today, I will just throw you into the midst of the action of one particular story:

Jābāli, a man who is not without confidence in the veracity of his own opinions, is on the back foot: he started strongly, with a series of pithy aphorisms, that he hoped would play well with his audience:

kaḥ kasya puruṣo bandhuḥ kim āpyaṃ kasya kena cit /

yad eko jāyate jantur eka eva vinaśyati //

Who is kin to whom? What is gained this way?

Alone you are born and alone you will die.

arthadharmaparā ye ye tāṃs tāñ śocāmi netarān /

te hi duḥkham iha prāpya vināśaṃ pretya bhejire //

I grieve for those that place virtue above

Profit: for there is no redress in death.

However,  Jābāli’s audience is King Rāma, and this is the Rāmāyaṇā, which is one of the two great epics of Brahminical Hindu culture (I am considering material from its second book at the moment – 2.100-103 to be precise), and both hero and text give our hapless sage short shrift: Rāma summarily rejects Jābāli’s views:

bhavān me priyakāmārthaṃ vacanaṃ yad ihoktavān /

akāryaṃ kāryasaṃkāśam apathyaṃ pathyasaṃmitam  //

Good sir, your speech, designed to please, pleases

Me not. It strikes a pose, but is bunkum.

Rāma strenuously defends the productivity of the pursuit of virtue. He cites the examples of divine king, Indra (devarāj), who performed a hundred sacrifices (śatam kratūnām) to obtain his overlordship of the gods, and of the asceticism of the great sages. He finishes with a somewhat pietistic conclusion. It is delivered in a different metre to the bulk of his speech: this is the Vedic triṣṭubh – the dominant metre of the ṚgVeda – which has 44 syllables arranged in four feet of eleven in two lines. This is in contrast to the majority-metre of the Rāmāyaṇa, the anuṣṭubh, which is rare in Vedic sources. The anuṣṭubh has 32 syllables arranged in four feet of eight (again across two lines).  Rāma’s conclusion is thus metrically as well as religiously conservative (I render it in Alexandrines here, in contrast to the pentameter I have used above).

satyaṃ ca dharmaṃ ca parākramaṃ ca; bhūtānukampāṃ priyavāditāṃ ca /

dvijātidevātithipūjanaṃ ca; panthānam āhus tridivasya santaḥ //

Truth, duty and courage; compassion and kind words;

Gifts to Gods, Guests and Brahmins; these lead to heaven.

dharme ratāḥ satpuruṣaiḥ sametās; tejasvino dānaguṇapradhānāḥ /

ahiṃsakā vītamalāś ca loke; bhavanti pūjyā munayaḥ pradhānāḥ //

On earth, honour the wise; they are benign and pure:

Ever inclined to virtue; vigorous and kindly.

If this was not enough, Valmīki, the putative author of our text and the ādikavi (or ‘first poet’) himself, in the opening line of the present dialogue describes our nihilistic sage as dharmāpetya, ‘at variance with the law’. In contrast, he describes our righteous king – and sometime god incarnate – as dharmajña, ‘law-knowing’. There is thus no doubt as to which way our author leans in this clash of contending ideologies. Yet it is worth noting that Jābāli is described as a high ranking brahmin (a brāhmaṇa-uttamaḥ) in the opening of this dialogue, so he is not without a certain status.

So upset is Rāma at the words of Jābāli, another even more prominent sage, Vasiṣṭha, has to explain away the latter’s words as an aberration (the result of how upset Jābāli is at Rāma’s banishment from his ancestral kingdom). He assures king Rāma that Jābāli ‘knows the comings and goings of this world’, which is, in Sanskrit: ‘jānīte lokasyāsya gatāgatim.’ Vaisiṣṭha follows this assertion, not with a contending philosophical viewpoint, at least not explicitly, but with a genealogy, which spans from the origin of the cosmos to that of the royal house of Rāma. This is implicitly ideological however: the house of Rāma is connected to the primary creative act of Brahmā; a theistic universe is thus established (a thousand miles from the materialism of Jābāli, who said there was nothing beyond the world of our immediate experience). Even as the universe is presented with all its gods and kings in good order, a teleology is asserted: generations of gods and kings bring us to righteous Rāma. Vasiṣṭha knows, then, in our text, which side his bread is buttered on!

Jābāli’s views are those of the Lokāyata or Cārvāka school (the former means ‘worldly’ while the later means the ‘agreeable doctrine’ or cāruvāka). This is a system of thought that is marked for its studied scepticism. It finds mention in Buddhist, Brahminical and Jain sources, but very few independent works survive to us (the Arthaśāstra, an early South Asian manual of statecraft, aligns itself with the founder of the Lokāyata tradition, one Bṛhaspati, and some later philosophical works contain Lokāyata elements). The Dīgha Nikāya (a canonical Buddhist text in Pāli) includes a Lokāyata sage, one Ajitakeśakambala, who was a contemporary of the Buddha. The Buddhists associate him with the doctrine of ‘annihilationism’,  or ucchedavādha (lit. ‘the doctrine of destruction’),  which they hold a low opinion of.  The Lokāyata’s believed that everything has its ‘own nature’ (svabhāva), which causes it to do, and be, as it should do, or be. There was thus, in their view, no cause and effect; svabhāva makes fire hot and sugar sweet and nothing further is required  (other than the four fundamental elements of water, heat, air and space). On this basis, they emphasised the transience of existence and the importance of happiness in one’s lifetime (for there would be no others, which is to say there would be no reincarnation at all). It is therefore ironic that Vasiṣṭha, in defending Jābāli from the wrath of Rāma, suggests that the latter knows the ‘comings and goings’ – in Sanskrit gatāgati – of the world, as gatāgati  also means reincarnation; Vasiṣṭha’s sense of humour is thus presented as being rather dry.

The dialogue of Jābāli and Rāma is an interesting one for the historian of Indian religions; it dramatizes the interaction of contending religious ideologies in early South Asia; the Lokāyata philosophy comes into conflict with conservative Brahminical ideology and, at least on this occasion, it is showered with opprobrium by both hero and author. Our text is thus propagandistic; it ‘stages’ religious debate in order to emphasize the superiority of a particular viewpoint. The question that remains is whether or not Buddhist and Jain narratives assert themselves in a similar fashion. If the answer is yes, then we may be looking at a loosely definable genre of text, which offers religious polemic, or self-assertion, in a form that is intended to be both accessible and persuasive. This idea begs, however, a further series of questions: are all such dialogues aggressively critical of their opponents? Is religious polemic always the agenda or are dialogues used simply to assert religious ideologies? Are the ideas presented by ‘opponents’ ever accepted or granted at least a degree of worth or usefulness? Why was it important to have kings visibly accepting or rejecting a given religious ideology? Are all dialogues between gods, sages and kings really comparable? What differences are there between them? Do these differences abide by, or cross over, perceived religious boundaries? What sort of audience would these tales have had? There are more questions of course, but I think that is enough for now!

I will report back on my findings in relation to some Buddhist and Jain sources soon.

The Historic Conversations of Gods, Kings and Prophets

Over the last few months, my interest has been caught by the way in which Jain, Hindu and Buddhist texts all contain conversations between religiously authoritative individuals (I use the word prophet advisedly, hoping that readers will interpret it in a more general sense than ‘one who speaks with divine inspiration’) and kings. More generally, I have been struck by the repeated use of literary ‘conversations’ to express ideas across early South Asian religious traditions.  There is a Sanskrit word for a dialogue: it is saṃvāda (which literally means ‘together-speech’ (saṃ-vāda). This term is often compounded with another Sanskrit word, itihāsa, which means ‘so indeed was it’ (iti-ha-āsa). This word is more ordinarily translated – somewhat contentiously- as ‘history’. Itihāsa-samvāda, which I will render today as ‘historic conversations’ are an important and recurrent feature of early South Asian religious literature (and I include as religious literature all those works that take up superhuman entities or forms of transformative knowledge).  Given that Naomi and I are interested in shared elements in the narratives of Buddhist, Jain and Hindu traditions, it would seem remiss not to explore this rather interesting literary form. I hope to share a few examples of this type of narrative over the next few weeks and months, as well as my initial thoughts about them.