Neutralising Kṛṣṇa and the other gods in śramaṇic sources

by Naomi

Following on from my research into the role of Indra in Buddhist, Jain and Hindu narrative, and into the ways in which Brahmā is adopted by early Buddhists, I have turned my attention to another key Indian deity: Viṣṇu. In particular I have been exploring Jain interpretations of Viṣṇu’s two major avatāras – and Indian Epic’s two great heroes – Rāma and Kṛṣṇa. Both are included in Jain lists of śalākāpuruṣas – ‘illustrious men’, 63 of which are said to appear in each half time-cycle. However, as several scholars have noted, while Rāma is elevated to the status of Jain saint by his identification as a baladeva, Kṛṣṇa is given the more ambivalent status of vāsudeva. All nine of the vāsudevas that appear in each half time-cycle follow the same broad narrative pattern (most likely modeled on Kṛṣṇa), killing their adversaries the prativāsudevas (in Kṛṣṇa’s case Jarāsandha) and ending up in hell as a result. Although the role of these Epic heroes in Jain narrative is fascinating in its own right (and has received a decent amount of scholarly attention) my own interest is in comparing the strategies used to deal with these aspects of Viṣṇu with the strategies used when dealing with Brahmā or Indra. What I have found is that there are many similar strategies in all three cases, despite one key difference.

Both Rāma and Kṛṣṇa are absorbed into Jain narrative as humans, albeit still special humans with magical powers and a repeatable cosmic role. In this sense they are somewhat different to both Brahmā and Indra, who remain gods in Buddhist and Jain narrative. Humanising was a strategy that was possible with Kṛṣṇa and Rāma because of their already ambiguous status in Hindu sources.

Freda Matchett’s book Kṛṣṇa: Lord or Avatāra? (Curzon 2001) is one resource for understanding how the divine identity of the Epic heroes has fluctuated over time. In it she neatly traces the relationship between Viṣṇu and Kṛṣṇa in three key texts – the Harivaṃśa, Viṣṇu Purāṇa and Bhāgavata Purāṇa. As she argues, while the Harivaṃśa leaves Viṣṇu and Kṛṣṇa in a balance, the Viṣṇu Purāṇa comes down firmly in favour of Viṣṇu’s supremacy (with Kṛṣṇa just a minor aspect, albeit still very powerful) and the Bhāgavata raises Kṛṣṇa up to the status of divine lord. Thus the exact extent of Kṛṣṇa’s divinity is debated within Hindu sources, leaving Jain authors open to emphasising his humanity.

[My pleasure in reading Freda’s book was enhanced by my memory of her as a lovely lady that lived round the corner from us when I was a child and sang in the same choir as my mother. It is a sadness to me that she passed away before I knew how much my own interests collided with hers.]

Making human a character that others view as divine – as is done with Kṛṣṇa and Rāma – is therefore a strategy unique to the Jain treatment of Viṣṇu’s avatāras. However, while Brahmā and Indra remain gods in both Buddhist and Jain narrative, they are declared mortal and of inferior status to certain spiritually-advanced humans. Their achievements are compared unfavourably to those of the Buddha/Jina and key followers, and they are shown in service to humans. Worship of them is mocked, and their unsavoury characteristics are either denied, explained away or reversed. They are also multiplied in number, both in time and space. All these methods for adopting and adapting gods are used in the case of Rāma and Kṛṣṇa too, as I hope to show as I write up my findings. While they have ended up as very different characters, with varying significance in Buddhist and Jain sources, all three gods have been successfully neutralised by śramaṇic authors.


4 thoughts on “Neutralising Kṛṣṇa and the other gods in śramaṇic sources

  1. Vishal

    Interesting, thank you for posting this. I wonder if their treatment of Viṣṇu’s avataras have to do with the Jainas appropriating already popular narratives with their own sectarian twist. After all, there are multitudes of Jaina Harivamṣa Purāṇas and Pāṇḍava Purāṇas. Though some have argued in favour of an independent ur-Jaina Kṛṣṇa narrative that existed alongside the brahmanical version.

    Another interesting aspect worth exploration is Kṛṣṇa’s status as Neminatha’s cousin, and his inclusion in the Tirthankara system in some cases. To me, it seems to be not only a method of humanizing him, but also fitting him into the Jaina system in a way that recognizes his inferiority to the Tirthankaras.

    1. naomiappleton Post author

      Thank you for your comment. I think we can safely say that Jains were appropriating existing characters and motifs, if not whole stories, even if we are unsure as to the priority of different texts. So I would agree that their choices are to do with dealing with an already popular character and a set of associations that he already carries with him. As you say, fitting him into a Jain history which prioritises other sorts of heroes – the Jinas – also helps the Jain authors to neutralise Krsna’s power. By also predicting his future jinahood they are both acknowledging his important status and denigrating his life as Vāsudeva. It is a very intriguing interweaving of strategies. Naomi

  2. elisa freschi

    Naomi, I am no expert at all, but I was wondering if there are also cases of parallel versions of the same narrative in Jain/Buddhist and Brahmanic contexts and of which one cannot construe the one as the model of the other?

    1. naomiappleton Post author

      Thanks Elisa. Yes, absolutely. I think in many cases it is hard to make a strong case for borrowing – very often it looks more like there was a common pool of narratives/characters/motifs with no strong affiliation to a particular “-ism” and that these were then adjusted and preserved according to the desires of the various textual redactors and compilers. In other cases, however, there is evidence that one version of a given story is trying to undercut another, and this hypothesis can be supported by relative dating of texts (despite all the obvious problems that go along with that). In this project we are less interested in tracing genealogies of narrative elements, and more interested in how different communities presented these narrative elements in varied ways to suit their own context and agenda. All the best, Naomi


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