Monthly Archives: November 2013

Engaging the public with South Asian narrative

by Naomi

As part of this project we hope to raise awareness of South Asian religious narrative amongst the wider public through publications and events. In particular we are working with storytellers in an attempt to engage audiences with the stories and create a better understanding of their role in South Asian life past and present. I had my first real taste of this on Saturday, when I hosted an evening of Jataka tales at the Scottish Storytelling Centre here in Edinburgh. The event was sponsored by a Knowledge Exchange grant from the University of Edinburgh.

The format of the evening was simple: After a short introduction from myself, two storytellers – Steve Killick and Mark Rivett – told five stories selected from the Pali Jataka collection, and there was then a short Q&A. Members of the audience were also given a programme with some images of the stories in Buddhist art and some further information about the Jataka genre and the individual stories chosen.

The cover of the evening's programme.

The cover of the evening’s programme.

The stories included three fairly short and simple tales to illustrate the diversity of styles and themes (Talkative Tortoise, Banyan Deer and Gentleheart) followed by two from the final ten stories, which are much longer and more closely tied to the perfections (Mahosadha and Vessantara).

The evening was a great success – rated ‘excellent’ by the vast majority of those who returned feedback forms. Several audience members commented that they had learnt a lot and been inspired to find out more about the stories.

Not every city is lucky enough to have a Storytelling Centre complete with theatre space, cafe and full-time events staff. Nonetheless we hope that the Jataka show may find a repeat elsewhere, and that other shows that directly stem from our current research will come to life in the future.

More on the Historic Conversations of Kings and Sages: Conquering the Conquerors in Jain Tradition

We have seen in my previous posts that literary dialogues and propaganda were natural bedfellows in the narrative traditions of both Hindus and Buddhists, but what of the Jains? They are no exception in this regard: in the Uttarādhyayana Sūtra of the Śvetāmbara Jain canon (in its eighteenth chapter), we find an interesting encounter between a King Sañjaya and an unnamed Jain mendicant (in Ardha-Magadhī, an aṇagāṛa), which will illustrate the combination in Jain tradition of polemic and appeal to royal authority. King Sañjaya is out hunting, we are told, and comes upon the aforementioned ascetic in a forest grove. He greets the sage, but receives no answer:

āsaṃ visajjaittāṇaṃ aṇagārassa so nivo ⎥
viṇaeṇa vandae pāe bhagavaṃ ettha me khame ⎥⎥ 5 ⎥⎥

Unhorsed, the king bowed down before the sage.
He said, ‘O holy one, forgive my fault.’

The king is afraid that he will be reduced to ashes. However, the sage emerges from his meditation and asks the, perhaps somewhat predictable, question ‘why do you cling to your kingdom?’ (‘kiṃ rajjammi pasajjasi?’ Skt. upa+sañj). What follows (in crisp ślokas) is in marked contrast to the genealogical emphasis of Vasiṣṭha in the Rāmāyaṇa (which I took up in a previous blog entry). Indeed, we are offered a calculated rebuttal of genealogy:

dārāṇi ya suyā ceva, mittā ya taha bandhavā ⎥
jīvantam aṇujīvanti mayaṃ nāṇuvvayanti ya ⎥⎥ 14 ⎥⎥

Not wives, not sons, not friends, nor relations,
Though dependent now; at death, none will follow.

The sage goes on to describe the way in which one’s material possessions will be enjoyed by others after one’s death. In contrast the deceased is said to enjoy only the fruits of their karma in their next existence. After this short sharp reminder of the transience of our social bonds and the enduring nature of karmic consequences, king Sañjaya immediately becomes a Jain monk. After his conversion, he comes upon an unnamed Jain monk once more. This monk immediately begins to discourse on the superiority of the teachings of Mahāvīra. Here the locus of persuasion is not the inevitability of karmic consequences, but a combination of the demonstration of supranormal powers of perception and the criticism of rival views. King Sañjaya is told first of all of the past life of the sage. He tells Sañjaya that, in the life immediately before this one, he was a god in the highest heaven. He goes on to criticise those traditions that do not accept the idea of an enduring self, or transmigrating essence (i.e. the Buddhists) and those that accept only one view (ekāntavādī), which presumably includes a wide variety of religious opponents. What then follows is a long list of kings who have converted to Jainsim. The list reads like a who’s who of Brahminical and Jain mytho-history:

eyaṃ puṇṇapayaṃ soccā (Skt. śrū) atthadhammovasohiyaṃ ⎥
bharaho vi bhārahaṃ vāsaṃ ceccā (skt. tyaj) kāmāi pacce (Skt. parivraj)⎥⎥34⎥⎥

Hearing these words, which were fraught with virtue,
Leaving the world behind, Bharata went forth.

The list opens, then, with king Bharata (for whom modern India, or Bhārat, is named, of course); there follows: king Sagara, who looms large in epic and Purāṇic sources; and King Maghavā, who is known only in Jain narratives. The list then names a variety of kings , all of whom are described as accepting the central tenets of Jainism and becoming monks. Many of these kings are further described as achieving emancipation. The list proceeds and in it, as well as mythic kings of the distant past, we find regional monarchs (that are, by and large, no easier to historically locate); the list includes regions from all over South Asia: Daśārṇa, Videha, Pāṇcāla, Sauvīra, Kāśī to name only a few. We see in this list a high degree of ambition: the great kings of the past are claimed as fully-ordained followers of the Jinas. This sort of list has analogues in Brahminical literature. The Mahābhārata offers us some robust examples; in its second book, the Sabhāparvan, we find the following description of the conquests of king Yudhiṣṭhira (which were undertaken on his behalf by his brother, Sahadeva):

pāṇḍyāṃś ca dravidāṃś caiva sahitāṃś coḍakeralaiḥ ⎥
andhrāṃs talavanāṃś caiva kaliṅgān oṣṭra karṇikān ⎥⎥
antākhīṃ caiva romāṃ ca yavanānāṃ puraṃ tathā ⎥
dūtair eva vaśe cakre karaṃ cainān adāpayat ⎥⎥

Pāṇdyās, Draviḍās, Coḍas, Keralans;
Andhras, Talavanas, and Kaliṅgans;
Uṣṭrakarṇikas, the peoples dwelling
In Rome and in Antioch; and the Greeks:
All were subjugated; all gave tribute.

These conquests are more often than not undertaken by idealised kings, or their representatives, who have voluntarily subordinated themselves to Brahmins and that undertake their conquests as a constituent part of one of two major Vedic rituals of royal consecration: the Aśvamedha or the Rājasūya. The integration of royal prerogative and religious patronage was a key concern of these rituals, as can be seen in a culminatory moment in the Aśvamedhikaparvan of the Mahābhārata, which – as its name might suggest – takes up an aśvamedha:

tato yudhiṣṭhiraḥ prādāt sadasyebhyo yathāvidhi ⎥
koṭīsahasraṃ niṣkāṇāṃ vyāsāya tu vasuṃdharām ⎥⎥
pratigṛhya dharāṃ rājan vyāsaḥ satyavatīsutaḥ ⎥
abravīd bharataśreṣṭhaṃ dharmātmānaṃ yudhiṣṭhiram ⎥⎥
pṛthivī bhavatas tv eṣā saṃnyastā rājasattama ⎥
niṣkrayo dīyatāṃ mahyaṃ brāhmaṇā hi dhanārthinaḥ ⎥⎥

And King Yudhiṣṭhira, as decreed, gave
The Brahmins gathered there heaps of gold coin.
Vyāsa, accepting the earth entire, said
To that virtuous king, “O first amongst men,
take back this world; give me instead its weight
in gold; because Brahmins prefer riches.”

After some negotiation, Yudhiṣṭhira accepts the earth from the Brahmin sage, Vyāsa. Statements about the performance of such rituals were not restricted to literary sources: Vedic rituals of royal consecration are mentioned in South Asian epigraphy before the commencement of the Common Era. Consider, for example, the following inscription, which belongs to the Śuṅga dynasty (who ruled in North India from 185 to 78 BCE):

This memorial for his father Phalgudeva was caused to be made by the legitimate king Dhana (?deve?), overlord of Kosala…sixth from the general (senāpati) Puṣyamitra, who performed the Aśvamedha twice.

Publicly inscribed royal eulogies, which are known, in Sanskrit, as praśasti, offer more direct parallels to the sort of rhetoric we find in the Mahābhārata: the most famous of these inscriptions is that of the Guptan monarch, Samudragupta (c. 320-375 C.E.). In his Allahābād pillar inscription, which is undated, but must have been produced in the middle part of the C4th CE, the victories of Samudragupta are related in poetic Sanskrit. For example:

Of him [who] was skilful in engaging in hundreds of battles of various kinds…(lines 17-18)
Whose magnanimity blended with valour was caused by his first capturing, and thereafter showing the favour of releasing, all the kings of Dakśiṇapātha such as Mahendra of Kosala, Vyāgrarāja of Mahākāntāra, Maṇṭarāja of Kurāḷa… (lines 19-20)

The list goes on. It is perhaps worth noting that Samudragupta was a prominent sponsor of Brahmins (as his copper plate inscriptions attest). In the Brahminical examples, the business of rule and religious authority are harmonised. In the Jain example, however, the king must abdicate his rule in order to become a Jain monk. This contrast is an important one: the Jain source does not offer a model of – ritually maintained – temporal and religious reciprocity, in which spiritual capital can be exchanged for its equivalent in lands, trade goods and gold and vice versa (indeed this is a doctrinal – though not a practical – impossibility in Jain tradition). What we find, instead, in our Jain narrative, subsequent to an extended religious polemic, is the ‘conquest’ of the conquerors: Bharata himself, a cornerstone of the Brahmnical genealogical imagination, at least from the epic period onwards, and a host of other monarchs are presented as becoming Jain monks and rejecting the fruits of their conquests. In this way, rhetorical strategies that could not be more familiar from Brahminical literature and epigraphy are yoked to a quite different – indeed antithetical – ideological agenda. They are, indeed, neatly ‘trumped’ by our sutta.

Our source also suggests, perhaps, a form of propaganda that is not directly aimed at those in the business of rule, but a rather more mixed audience, which would have been impressed by the idea that great monarchs of the past gave up all that they had in order to devote themselves to the practice of Jain teachings (and would have been familiar with the Brahminical hyperbole that, I argue, the sutta presupposes).

It is worth noting, in closing, that, given the thoroughgoing asceticism of Jain tradition, the harmonization of rule and religion was a challenging task, as it was for the Buddhists (for different reasons). The Jain material that I have considered above does not address this issue. It is, amongst other things, the multivalent figure of the cakravartin that is of critical importance, if one wishes to explore the challenges of integrating religion and politics in the two traditions, but this is quite another topic and one that will have to wait for another blog entry!

Early Buddhist Transmission and Trade

by Naomi

Since we decided to narrow down our key time period to 5th c BCE – 5th c. CE (see James’ post in the summer) I have been attempting to educate myself further about this period of South Asian history in general. I know a fair amount about the texts already, but tying these to material evidence such as inscriptions and images has tended to be outside my area of expertise. As part of my mission to embrace the material evidence for early South Asian history, I have just read Jason Neelis’ book Early Buddhist Transmission and Trade Networks (Brill, 2011).

The book is seriously dense, drawing together a multitude of data from primary and secondary sources. The focus is upon trade routes that provide evidence for the presence and movement of Buddhism, and the author is particularly interested in the Northwestern borderlands surrounding Gandhara. However, the education provided by this book is far broader. In particular, chapter 2, ‘Historical Contexts for the Emergence and Transmission of Buddhism within South Asia’, provides a lengthy (116 pages) and detailed overview of South Asian history throughout our own period of interest and a little further on into the late first millennium.

Reading this book was an enriching experience, but with my poor memory for names and dates I can’t imagine I will remember very much more than the broadest overview. Its real value – at least for my purposes – is as a reference tool, bringing together the latest research and supplementing the written summaries with maps, tables and images. Unfortunately the prohibitive price of Brill books means this particular reference tool will not be able to live on my shelves, but will have to be taken back to the university library. Nonetheless I am sure I will be returning to it again and again.