Lancaster University paper on the gods

by Naomi

Last week I visited Lancaster, to give a paper at the University in the School of Politics, Philosophy and Religion. I used the occasion as an opportunity to return to my work on the characterization of the gods in Buddhist and Jain narrative, which I had set aside at the end of last year. My paper, entitled ‘Indian Gods in Buddhist and Jain Narrative: Strategies of Subordination’, used the examples of Brahmā in Buddhism, Viṣṇu’s epic avatāras in Jainism, and Indra across Buddhist and Jain narrative, to explore the various strategies used to cleanse or subordinate Indian gods when including them in śramaṇic narratives. In particular I highlighted five discernable strategies: multiplication, making mortal, subordination to spiritually advanced humans, cleansing of problematic characteristics, and explanations for origins of worship.

The questions and conversations that followed my paper were immensely helpful, not to mention enjoyable. The areas that prompted discussion included:

Why is Indra always green in Southeast Asian depictions? Ian Harris suggested it might be the result of an association between Indra and his emerald palace, or with the emerald Buddha. I will have to look into this further.

Is it right to talk about these characters as “gods”? I insist on calling them gods as part of my agenda of rebalancing a scholarly and general perception that Buddhism and Jainism have no gods. Perhaps using the term “divinity” would soften the implications, and make it clear that we are not talking about god(s) in the same sense as in theistic traditions. Since the term deva comes from the same root as deity and divinity, this is certainly an option. However, I feel it sounds a little weak, and also makes it difficult to differentiate within Buddhism, for example, between the gods of the higher heavens (eg Brahmā), or the sense-sphere heavens (eg Indra) or the very earthly deities, which I tend to refer to under the general heading of “spirit deities” following DeCaroli (in his book Haunting the Buddha, OUP 2004). As always, we are haunted by our terms!

Is it appropriate to use the term “subordination”, when in fact the gods are integrated and often complementary? I suppose my response here is that in relation to their position in what becomes Hindu tradition, the gods are indeed subordinated, shown as inferior to Buddhas and Jinas and other soteriologically advanced human beings. But I don’t mean to imply that gods cannot still have an important role alongside these humans.

Does the exchange work both ways? Might “Hindu” texts be responding to Buddhist characterisations of the gods as well as the reverse? This really set me thinking, and my immediate response is yes, in all likelihood, and especially in the Epics, which suggest, for example, influence from / awareness of Buddhist Jātaka literature. But I will be giving this question a lot more thought. Thanks Brian!

What are the political implications of these narratives? This was a tricky one, especially given the paucity of evidence for the political climate during the formative period of Buddhism and Jainism. Perhaps in a sense Indra, as king of the gods, does have a role as some sort of ideal king, and his characterization in each of the traditions may therefore tell us something about political ideals. Again, I will have to give this some more thought.

Does this research suggest that the boundaries between “Buddhism” “Jainism” and “Hinduism” are actually problematic? Can we simply follow the character or the story, without reference to the –ism? A similar question came up in January, when James and I gave a paper here in Edinburgh. The answer, I suppose, is that while our research explicitly aims to cross between traditions, we are in the process re-enforcing the boundaries between the –isms by exploring how narrative elements are used in specifically Buddhist or Jain or Hindu ways. In particular, one of our key questions is about how narrative is used to explore notions of self and other, and certainly my work on the gods suggests that these characters were played with by Buddhist and Jain authors and storytellers in order to establish what is different about their own tradition. So while it is important to look across the traditions, the boundaries do not in fact disappear – far from it.

I am very grateful for the excellent hospitality of the Lancaster folk, and I look forward to working more on the gods with all these comments and questions in mind.


One thought on “Lancaster University paper on the gods

  1. Chris

    Sorry I couldn’t stay for your paper Naomi. I had a train to Oxford just before 5 so had to dash. Glad it went well! Chris


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