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.


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