Monthly Archives: September 2015

Book plans: Gods, Heroes and Kings as Shared Characters

by Naomi

Since I have just this morning signed a contract with Ashgate, for their Dialogues in South Asian Traditions series, I thought I would take a moment to tell you all about how my book is taking shape. Initially, we were planning to write a co-authored monograph for this project, but this became too unwieldy, and so we have settled on a monograph each. Between them, the two books will cover the major themes of this project, though of course there is still much to do in this area of research!

My book is provisionally entitled Gods, Heroes and Kings: Shared Characters across Hindu, Jain and Buddhist Narrative. As implied by the title, the focus will be on how a character (or character role or lineage of characters) that is shared between traditions reveals both a common narrative heritage and important differences in worldview and ideology that are developed in interaction with other worldviews and ideologies of the day.

The book is structured according to three types of character – gods, heroes, and kings – that are of particular importance to early South Asian narrative traditions, and uses these to explore key religious and social ideals, as well as points of contact, dialogue and contention between different worldviews. The role of deities, the qualities of a true hero, and the responsibilities of a king, are all points of difference between the various religious traditions, and yet – as wel have seen throughout this project – these traditions often used the same stories and characters as ways of exemplifying their own perspectives and challenging those of their religious competitors.

The book begins with a general Introduction (Chapter 1), which sets out the historical context for the study, outlines the sources used, and provides an overview of the book’s aims and structure. Two chapters on key Indian deities – Indra (Chapter 2) and Brahmā (Chapter 3) – then follow, starting to unpack the ways in which shared characters are played with in the different religious traditions, here with a focus on the changing role of deities and the different spiritual hierarchies that are developed. Chapter 4, on Viṣṇu, provides a transition from a discussion of gods to a discussion of heroes, since Viṣṇu comes to prominence through the Epics and their portrayals of Rāma and Kṛṣṇa, two characters who also find a home in Jain and Buddhist narratives. Keeping on the theme of heroes, Chapter 5 takes the role of the mother as an access point for a discussion of the tension between family duties and other duties and goals, by exploring the mother-son relationships of the Epic heroes, the Buddha and two jinas. Chapter 6 continues on the theme of relationships and detachment, with a discussion of the famous lineage of renouncing kings of Videha, who are praised in Buddhist and Jain tales and criticised in Brahminical Epic. The Conclusion (Chapter 7) ties together these explorations of shared characters, character roles and lineages, and asks what we have discovered about the concerns of early South Asian religious communities and the ways in which they interacted with one another during their formative periods.

I am making good progress on this book, with chapters 1, 2, 3 and 6 pretty much complete, and chapter 4 well on its way, so if all goes to plan I will have a full draft by Christmas. The book is due to be with the press in May next year. So, I’d better get back to it!

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On the use of public and semi-public in relation to early South Asia

I have become intrigued by terms such as public and semi-public in relation to early Indian societies. I like the idea of ‘public imagination’ and ‘public reason’, but what do I mean by this? What audiences are suggested by these terms and what sort of cultural institutions and practices? For political theorists, such as John Rawls, the use of the adjective public is quite precise (and in many cases dependent on the existence of institutions related to democratic forms of government). For philosophers and social theorists, such as Jürgen Habermas, it belongs to a specific sequence of historical developments in Europe (as in the idea of a ‘public sphere’). The lack of evidence limits what we can say about early India, but sometimes I suspect that our categories also inhibit us. ‘Religious’ sources tend to be read in terms of their contributions to religious matters while epigraphy tends to be read for its capacity to shed light on social and political developments. Even the debates on Aśoka have often centred on ‘how Buddhist’ he really was or –in a more historical mode- how influenced he was by the Achaemenids or others… The example I considered in my last post, from the Majjhima Nikāya, points to a context in which certain pressing questions of social infrastructure and public morality were matters of public debate (be it by political announcement or the telling of a story). However, we interpret public in these contexts, this is not quite the same thing as, ‘Buddhist or not?’ or ‘Brahmin dominated or not?’ In short, the use of the terms public and semi-public (not to mention private) in early India raise some important theoretical and practical questions about how precisely we imagine the organization of society in that –admittedly rather vague- period. These questions cut across the domains of the philologist, archaeologist, religionist and historian. My thoughts are, however, at an early stage in this matter. Any guidance (or instruction to cease and desist) would be much appreciated!

Kings, Thieves and Sages: The Buddha, Pasenadi, Aṅgulimāla and Aśoka

I have recently been considering the Majjhima Nikāya, the middle-length discourses of the Buddha, in connection to my exploration of the interactions between kings and sages across early Indian religious literature. The dialogues of the Majjhima Nikāya are overwhelmingly addressed to members of the saṅgha, which has led some commentators to conclude that, unlike the Dīgha Nikāya, or longer discourses of the Buddha, the text was intended largely for a monastic – Buddhist -audience. In this regard it is interesting then that the Majjhima Nikāya, while containing a range of dialogues between the Buddha, his disciples and both princes and kings, emphasizes one royal interlocutor in particular, King Pasenadi, who is involved in five of the nine suttas that feature royal discussants. I will restrict myself to comments on the first of his appearances today.

King Pasenadi’s first appearance in the Majjhima is a walk-on part in the celebrated story of the rehabilitation of the violent robber Aṅgulimāla (lit. ‘Garland of Fingers’). This story, which sees the Buddha, by means of a teaching underscored by a miracle, change a murderous dacoit into a monk is most often approached as a parable of the reformed sinner. Pasenadi’s role is minor, but significant, as it shifts the focus of the story from the individual to the community and expresses a certain ambivalence about the institution of kingship. The foundations for both this shift -and the ambivalence with regard to kingship- are laid early on in the tale: in the context of Aṅgulimāla’s conversion, kingship is implicitly equated with dacoitry by the Buddha by means of their common association with violence:

I, Añgulimāla, am standing still, having for all beings everywhere laid aside the stick, but you are unrestrained regarding creatures; therefore I am standing still, you are not standing still. [MJ 2.99]

The image of the Buddha, always ahead of Aṅgulimāla, but not moving in any fundamental sense, is a powerful one, but it is the association of the robber and the daṇḍa, or stick, that is significant from the perspective of royal prerogative: the daṇḍa is also the scepter in early Indian thought, and harm the currency of rule. This idea is reinforced when King Pasenadi arrives at the monastery of Anāthapiṇḍika, at which the Buddha is present, when he brings with him five hundred men on horseback. The Buddha’s first question to the king is consequently connected to foreign policy; he asks:

What is it sire? Is King Seniya Bimbisāra of Magadha angry with you, or the Licchavis of Vesālī, or some hostile king? [MJ 2.101]

That the Buddha asks this question suggests that he might be consulted on such matters. King Pasenadi states, however, that it is the domestic problem of the depredations of Aṅgulimāla that presently occupy him. The reformed bandit is presented to him and, after expressions of fear, amazement, he states:

Him, revered sir, that I was unable to tame with stick and sword, the Lord has tamed without stick or sword. Well, I am going now, revered sir. I am very busy. There is much to be done. [MJ 2.102]

The story of Aṅgulimāla thus emphasizes that the agency of the Buddha in the non-violent resolution of social problems and suggests that he is a logical and fit advisor to the king. It also associates the business of rule with the wielding of the daṇḍa, which was wielded also by the brigand, Aṅgulimāla. The king, like the dacoit, is ‘forever moving’. The concluding verse of the sutta, in which ‘Garland of Fingers’ reverts to his original name, ‘Harmless’ (Ahiṃsaka) reinforces this emphasis on the presence, or absence, of harm. There is, albeit germinal, a sense of dhamma as social policy here, which sits well with Aśokan policy, as it is reflected in his edicts:

King Devānāṁpriya Priyadarśin speaks thus.  (When I had been) anointed twelve years, the following was ordered by me:  everywhere in my dominions the Yuktas, the Rājūka, and the Prādeśika shall set out on a complete tour (throughout their charges) every five years for this very purpose; for the following instruction in morality (dhaṃmānusastiya) as well as for other business.  ‘Meritorious is obedience to mother and father. Liberality to friends, acquaintances, and relatives, to Brāhmaṇas and Śramaṇas is meritorious. Abstention from killing animals is meritorious. Moderation in expenditure (and) moderation in possessions are meritorious.’ The council (of Mahāmātras) also shall order the Yuktas to register (these rules) both with (the addition of) reasons and according to the letter.

Aśoka’s dhamma addresses the implicit critique by the Buddha of Pasenadi, at least in part: non-harm is valorized, if not made compulsory. Thus, although only a vestigial king-sage dialogue, the first appearance of king Pasenadi in the Majjhima Nikāya is a significant one. It establishes the role of the Buddha as an advisor, but crucially also as an intervener in social affairs. The reformation of Aṅgulimāla suggests that the Buddha’s teachings are good not just for the individual, but for society. It also implies that kingship is akin to banditry, at least in the sense that both are inalienably harmful. The robber finds peace in the monastery. For the king, in contrast, there is always ‘much to be done’. We also begin to see the possibility of quite close dialogue between public inscriptions – those of Aśoka- and semi-public teachings, as we find them in the Majjhima Nikāya