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!


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