This past weekend James and I attended the Spalding Symposium in Indian Religions in Manchester, and each presented a paper related to our project research. It was, as always, a lovely environment in which to present, with long sessions enabling real time for comments, questions and suggestions.
I presented a paper on the renouncing royals of Videha, as I have been researching the stories of Janaka and Nimi/Nami/Nemi as part of my interest in the way lineage is used in Buddhist, Jain and Hindu narratives. After outlining the different interconnected narratives and motifs that tie the lineage together, I concluded by arguing that the ability of a lineage to carry a particular association – such as solitary renunciation after ensuring the continuity of a royal patriline – is of great narrative benefit, as it provides both weight and flexibility. The weight comes from the long-standing association, accepted even by rival traditions, and the flexibility comes from the fact that it is a lineage, rather than an individual, who carries the association, and so a whole variety of stories can interlink without fear of contradiction. Janaka is at once the foolish king who thinks he has achieved moksa without renouncing, and a pratyekabuddha, and the future Buddha. Nimi renounces after seeing a grey hair, or bracelets jangling, or a mango tree stripped bare, or birds fighting over meat. These characters are one and the same but also independent, and so a cluster of inter-related motifs emerges, each one speaking back to the central concerns of the lineage, in this case royalty and renunciation.
I was really delighted with the comments and questions that followed my paper. They enabled me to think again about some of the issues I have been working on, for example what to make of the presence of Janakas who really do not renounce (such as in the Ramayana and the Upanisads), as well as how to understand the women in the various stories. These comments, now in the form of scribbles in the margins of my paper, will in due course enrich the written publication – a chapter of our project monograph – that results from this research.