Category Archives: character

Revisiting the notion of orality

by Naomi

At the Work-In-Progress seminar of the Asian Religions Network last Friday I talked through some of my conclusions from the book, and Joachim Gentz very astutely put his finger on an important area that I was not giving due consideration, namely the oral culture in which many of my stories and characters were circulating.

The trouble with pondering orality is that we don’t really know when texts that were composed orally were written down, and it seems likely that many texts (including narrative ones) continued to be transmitted in written and oral forms simultaneously. Written compositions also sometimes deliberately emulate features of an oral composition. As a result, I have tended towards the position that the distinction between oral text and written text is not so relevant to my work. And when I talk about texts, I do not mean to imply that they are necessarily written.

However, as well as talking about texts, I have been talking about narratives, and about the characters that feature in those narratives. In particular, I have been exploring how (and when and why) characters have ended up in multiple narrative traditions. As such, an oral storytelling context, in which tales exist in a reasonably fluid form, composed of events and characters and motifs but varying with each retelling, is very relevant to my research.

The process by which oral story traditions became crystallised into what we might call “literature” or perhaps more simply “texts”, is elusive from this historical distance, but nonetheless rather crucial to my project. A. K. Ramanujan’s oft-quoted comment on the Rāma traditions springs to mind:

These various texts not only relate to prior texts directly, to borrow or refute, but they relate to each other through this common code or common pool. Every author … dips into it and brings out a new crystallization, a new text with a unique texture and a fresh context. (“Three Hundred Rāmāyaṇas,” in Paula Richman, ed. Many Rāmāyaṇas, 46. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991.)

This process of crystallisation, when stories about common characters were fixed in texts or works of literature (oral or written), marks an important watershed in the development of distinct bodies of religious narrative during the period I am researching. And a representation of a character that comes from the common story pot will be of a different kind to one that deliberately responds to a rival literary tradition.

An example may help to illustrate what I mean. My research suggests that at the time the earliest jātakas were composed, the Mahābhārata did not exist as a work of literature, though some of its characters and events – for example Draupadī and her five husbands, Kṛṣṇa and his brother(s), and Vyāsa the noted sage – were widely known. Although it includes these familiar characters, jātaka literature does not try to present a rival version of the epic, and neither does early Jain narrative, though this too contains stories about, for example, Draupadī. In contrast, the later Jain Universal History narratives do present fully formed rival narratives of the epics, whch clearly respond to an existing literary tradition.

So it seems to me that although the distinction between oral text and written text is not so important to my work, the distinction between fluid oral story traditions and works of literature or texts is vital. I will need to give this area a lot more thought.

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Conclusion(s)

by Naomi

I have finished a first draft of all the book chapters for my project monograph, and so it is time to revisit some of the bigger questions and context, review my material, and make a start on a conclusion. In an excellent piece of good timing, I have spent the week in Cardiff meeting with James and discussing our project themes and questions at length.

I must say, it is gratifying to see that exploring this narrative material really has helped us to better understand the early history of Indian religions, and the ways in which they interacted during their formative periods. Here are a few snippets of what I am able to conclude after my study of shared characters:

There is evidence of borrowing and responding in all directions, and also of all three traditions responding to earlier Vedic narrative. It is not simply a case of Buddhist and Jain traditions responding to prior “Hindu” traditions, as scholarship has tended to assume. As such, it has become important for me to review my terminology, as I have not always been very clear in my use of ‘Brahmanism’, often implying unintentionally that Brahmanism is chronologically prior to Buddhism and Jainism. In the redraft I am going to be careful to distinguish between Vedic traditions, which of course pre-date Jain and Buddhist traditions and emerge from a different region, and Brahmanical compositions such as the Epics and dharma texts, which were composed after the advent of Jain and Buddhist traditions, and in awareness of rival ideas, narratives and groups.

We can see evidence of specific historical moments of interaction that resulted in narrative sharing. For example the god Brahmā, as Greg Bailey pointed out long ago, is preserved in the earliest Buddhist texts in a manner that suggests he was a significant deity in and around the early heartland of Buddhism. This is supported by archaeological evidence, as well as by textual evidence of an early enthusiasm for Brahmā that was later eclipsed by devotion to Viṣṇu and Śiva. The absence of Brahmā(s) in later Buddhist narrative, as well as in Jain narrative, reinforces this argument. In contrast, Viṣṇu and Kṛṣṇa hardly found a home in early Buddhist narrative traditions, though they were thoroughly incorporated into Jain stories, hinting at another node of close interaction between two of the three traditions. There are several other examples in the book too.

Jain and Buddhist traditions cannot be grouped together in terms of their responses to rival traditions or to Vedic cultures. Although they share much in common, these two north-eastern traditions also have very distinct histories, with Jain tradition prior to Buddhist tradition, but early Buddhist scriptures appearing to be earlier than early Jain scriptures, as well as from a different region. As such they speak to different social conditions and different moments of inter-religious interaction. With different ideological positions on key areas such as karma, they also respond in varied ways to rival ideologies. There is ample evidence of this in their narrative materials.

Textual chronologies can be assisted by studying narrative interactions. Although contributing to textual history was not a major aim of my work, it is interesting to see that, for example, several specific examples of narrative sharing suggest that the Rāmāyaṇa is prior to certain early Buddhist texts, and prior to the Mahābhārata. My contribution to the large debate over textual chronologies will be modest, but hopefully helpful nonetheless.

There are lots of different types of narrative sharing! This is rather obvious really, but I am starting to try to tease out all the different types, such as the inclusion of characters that belong to a common narrative heritage, the absorption of a new character who offers no challenge to orthodoxy, or who offers some challenge that can be neutralised through adjustments, or the use of a character or motif from a rival tradition as a means of polemic or satire or parody.

There are significant key themes that cut across all three traditions. Again, this is no surprise, but nonetheless important to explore. In particular, shared characters speak to that central tension between worldly responsibility and the need to renounce, and narrative motifs such as familial attachment and the grief of separation are used to interesting (and varied) effect in all three traditions, reflecting different attitudes to the tension. In addition, the use of divine characters allows each tradition to explore what we might call rival theologies, or rival understandings of cosmology and cosmo-history.

This is just a little taster of some of the areas that are going to feature in my conclusion, and that are going to inform my redrafting process. The final book is a still a little way off, but the process of tying together the research I have done over the past few years is proving very enjoyable!

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!

A Buddhist tale of Draupadi

by Naomi

So, in actual fact Draupadī is not one of the shared characters that features in my research. (More on what is going in my project monograph shortly.) But while looking at some jātaka mentions of Kṛṣṇa, Rāma, et al, I came across the reference to Draupadī (there called Kaṇhā) in the Kuṇāla Jātaka. The verse, which is fairly well known, holds up Draupadī as an example of the wickedness of women, since despite having five husbands (listed with their names familiar from the epic) she still lusted after a sixth, a hunchback dwarf no less. What seems to be less known is that, hidden in the word commentary to the verses, and thus not included in the translation of Cowell et al, is a fuller prose narrative of Draupadī’s misdemeanours. Although not strictly speaking of relevance to my current research, I couldn’t resist bashing out a draft translation of this story, and share it with you here in case it is of interest, or entertainment value!

I translate the version as it appears in the CSCD edition on http://www.tipitaka.org.

Draupadi in the Kunāla Jātaka (536)

“I have seen, friend Puṇṇamukha, Kaṇhā of double-parentage and five husbands, set her mind on a sixth man, one who was barrel-like/headless (kabandha) and crippled.”

And here too there is a further saying:

Kings A(tha)jjuna, Nakula, Bhīmasena, Yudhiṭṭhila and Sahadeva:

These were her five husbands. Yet the wife wished for more and got up to no good with a hunchbacked dwarf.

… [ some intervening verses ] …

[Commentary to the verses:] “I have seen” means: It is said that in the past Brahmadatta the king of Kāsi, with his army, seized the kingdom of Kosala and had the king of Kosala killed. He seized his chief wife, who was pregnant, and went to Vārāṇasī. There he took the chief wife as his own, and in due course she gave birth to a daughter. Now the king had no natural daughter or son, so he was pleased and said, “My dear, take a boon.” She accepted it and set it aside.

Now that princess was given the name “Kaṇhā”, and when she was of age her mother said to her, “My dear, your father gave me a boon, and I took it and set it aside. You should do as you please with it.” She said to her mother, having no shame or remorse for her great lust, “Mama, there is nothing else lacking for me: hold a svayamvara (‘self-choice’) for the purpose of getting me a husband.” She addressed the king. The king, having said, “She should take a husband according to her liking,” had the svayamvara proclaimed. A great many men assembled in the royal courtyard, all adorned with ornaments. Kaṇhā took a basket of flowers and stood at the highest window, looking out, but she did not like anyone.

At that time Ajjuna of the family of King Paṇḍu, and Nakula, Bhīmasena, Yudhiṭḥila and Sahadeva, these five sons of King Paṇḍu, having learnt the crafts in the presence of a world-famous teacher in Takkasilā, were wandering around [thinking] “We will understand the conduct in the country.” They entered Vārāṇasī and heard the hullabaloo inside the city. Enquiring, they found out what was happening. “We too will go there!” Looking like golden statues they went there and stood in a line. Seeing them, Kaṇhā became enamoured with all five of them, and having thrown garlands over all five of their heads she said, “Mama, I desire these five men.” She again went to speak to the king. The king, though he was not pleased, because he had given the boon did not say “I will not have this!” He asked, “Of which family are you the sons?” and learning that they were the sons of King Paṇḍu he paid them honour and gave them their wife.

She, in a seven-storey palace, was filled by the power of lust. And she had one servant who was humpbacked and crippled. Having associated, because of her lust, with the five princes, after they had gone she seized the opportunity and, thoroughly inflamed, she sinned with the hunchback. Speaking with him she said, “There is nobody as dear to me as you. Having had the princes killed, I will have your feet annointed with the blood from their throats!” But to the others, when it was time for intercourse with the older brother she said, “You are dearer to me than these four. I would even abandon my life for you. I will have the kingdom given to you alone after my father’s death.” And when it was time for intercourse with the others it was the same plan. They were very pleased with her: “She is devoted to me, and the rulership is near.”

One day she became ill, and they attended upon her, one sitting stroking her head, the others each taking a hand or foot, and the hunchback sat at her feet. While Prince Ajjuna, the oldest brother, was stroking her head, [in order to say]: “There is nobody dearer to me than you. While I live, I will live for you/as yours. When my father passes away I will have the kingdom given to you!” she favoured him by giving a sign with her head, while to the others she gave a sign with her hands or feet. And to the hunchback she gave a sign with her tongue: “You are so dear to me, I live for you!” And so they all understood the matter from her signs and what she had said to them before. The rest of them each understood only the sign given to himself, but Prince Ajjuna saw the movement in her hands, feet and tongue and thought, “Just as for me, she has given a sign to these others as well, and there is even intimacy between her and the hunchback.” He took his brothers outside and asked, “Did you see the one with five husbands display a movement of the head for me?” “Yes, we saw.” “Do you know the reason for this?” “No, we do not know.” “This here is the reason. But do you understand the reason for the signs she gave to you with her hands and feet?” “Yes, we know that.” “It is the same reason for me too. And do you understand the sign given with a movement of her tongue, to the hunchback?” “No, we do not understand that.” Having explained this to them he said, “She has sinned with him.” And though they did not trust him they summoned the hunchback and questioned him, and he explained the whole matter.

Having heard his words they had no more desire for her: “Oh women are evil and devoid of virtue! Having forsaken men like us, handsome and of good birth, she has done bad deeds with a hunchback of this bodily form and of contemptible family! What wise person would take pleasure in a woman, shameless and evil?” They reproached womenfolk in many ways, then, saying “Enough for us of the household life!” the five men entered the Himalayas, renounced, and set to work on kaṣina [meditations]. When their lives were over they went according to their kamma. And Kuṇāla, king of the birds, was at that time Prince Ajjuna.

Project Roundtable in Edinburgh

by Naomi

Last Friday, shortly before the start of the Spalding Symposium on Indian Religions, James and I hosted a roundtable discussion on the themes of our project. Jonathan Geen (Western University, Ontario) and Brian Black (Lancaster University) were our invited speakers, and we were also joined by Spalding Symposium keynote speakers Stephen Berkwitz (Missouri State University) and Uma Chakravarti (Delhi), as well as Anja Pogacnik (Edinburgh), Sarah Shaw (Oxford), Elizabeth Harris (Liverpool Hope), Anna King (Winchester), Jessie Pons (Bochum), Margo Guagni (Venice), Hephzibah Israel (Edinburgh) and Dermot Killingley (Newcastle). The discussion was very lively and thought-provoking, and helped us to reflect upon the aims and themes of our project as we move towards its final stages.

After a brief introduction to the project from James and myself, including an overview of the shape of our proposed project monograph, Brian got us started with some reflections on questions we had circulated in advance, which can be read here: Spalding Roundtable 2015

Brian began by commenting on the question of what we mean by a literary character, drawing attention to the article he and Jonathan wrote on this very subject (for a Journal of the American Academy of Religion special issue, 79/1, 2011). He reinforced the importance of studying characters not as means to access historical people, but as literary characters that may obey some sort of narrative logic, who perhaps carry certain consistent associations in different contexts, or demonstrate particular teachings through their lifestory. At the same time, he highlighted the limitations of a solely literary approach, and underscored the value of character-analysis as a tool for doing comparative work across religious traditions.

On the subject of role, Brian noted his own interest in the ways in which a character’s gender, caste, religion, etc, tends to result in the character having a generic role that shapes what they talk about or do. For example, some of his work on the Mahābhārata has suggested that when a woman and a man have a conversation in that text, they tend to talk about gender. In other words, role informs content.

Moving onto genre, Brian noted the pros and cons of both emic and etic genre labels, and highlighted the importance of taking smaller-scale genres – which might be better labelled ‘forms’ – into account, for example, the dialogic form. He helpfully noted that the key criteria for using a label should be whether or not it opens up our study, rather than shutting it off. In conclusion, Brian noted the problems of trying to access the history of a given narrative, and the need to move away from questions of textual chronology onto more fruitful study.

Jonathan Geen then spoke about his perspective on comparing narrative elements across traditions, which results from many years studying the Jain and Hindu versions of the Mahābhārata story, albeit largely with a focus on a later period than our own project (which, as he pointed out, misses out some of the best Jain narrative literature!). He spoke of the lightbulb moments that occurred when he began to unpick the mysteries of the Purāṇas by reading Jain literature, and of how this led him to see the value in comparing the two sets of mythology. He highlighted the basic principle of comparative work, namely that the many similarities mean that where there are differences these are very revealing. Thus the literature of one tradition can be better understood by comparing it with another.

Moving onto a specific example, Jonathan talked about his own work on medieval Jain Pāṇḍava stories, which exhibit a lot of connections with the better-known Hindu versions. As a result, they have to be read with the Hindu epic in mind, as they are both products of the same literary milieu. Although a literary comparison is itself useful, Jonathan highlighted the occasional possibilities of seeing historical context through the patterns of the literature. For example, he suggested that the sudden rise in Jain interest in Pāṇḍava stories in the 13th and 14th centuries should probably be linked to contemporary historical events, particularly the restoration projects at the important Jain pilgrimage site of Shatrunjaya.

Discussion was then opened up to all those present, with a number of recurrent themes coming up, including: the extent to which it is possible to infer history from story; the possibility of stories carrying more than one meaning, and the need therefore for sophisticated scholarly analysis; the similar sorts of tensions, for example between king and renouncer, that tend to be found across all three traditions; the different types of interactions, from polemical to inclusive, that can be found in the narratives and in the ways traditions engage with each other; the difficulties in accessing Jain resources, which are largely understudied; the need for collaborative work in order to study all three traditions in proper depth; the problematic tendency to see Buddhism and Jainism through Brahmanical lenses; and questions of hermeneutics.

I would like to thank all those present, but especially Jonathan and Brian, for giving us such a stimulating discussion. We will be continuing to reflect on the comments for some time to come.

Mothers of famous sons

by Naomi

Last week I presented a paper at Edinburgh’s Centre for South Asian Studies on my latest avenue of research for this project, into the mothers of heroic sons.

Why explore mothers? One practical reason is that all our other case studies are focused on men, who are, after all, much more commonly found in Indian religious narrative! We wanted to bring some female characters into the conversation, even if we do so largely with reference to their male relations. The mother-son relationship is also a really helpful access point into broader debates about duty and love, the tension between family ties and religious or dharmic quests, and concerns of lineage.

In the paper I used three pairs of mothers to start to sketch out the characterisation of heroic motherhood in early Indian religious narrative: (1) Kausalyā (mother of Rāma) and Kuntī (mother of the Pāṇḍavas), along with other mothers that provide a helpful comparison within the epics, namely Kaikeyī, Mādrī and Gāndhārī; (2) Māyā (biological mother of the Buddha) and Mahāprajāpatī (foster mother of the Buddha); (3) Marudevī (mother of Rṣabha Jina) and Triśalā (mother of Mahāvīra Jina).

Although my research is still very much in progress, some key themes have already emerged very clearly. The least surprising of these is the idea that the conception, pregnancy and birth are generally accompanied by auspicious signs or miracles; these, of course, indicate the quality of the son as much as they do the mother (if not more so). Motifs such as positive pregnancy cravings, miraculous and pain-free births, a rain of flowers from the sky, or the arrival of gods to pay honour, reinforce the significance of the arrival of the child into the world.

Another, more interesting, theme is the contrast drawn up between two different mothers, one pure and associated with simple divinity, and the other more complex and human yet also stronger and more successful. Reiko Ohnuma has outlined this contrast well in relation to the Buddha’s two mothers (in her Ties That Bind, OUP 2012), but it is present also in the Mahābhārata‘s characterisation of the mothers of the Pāṇḍavas. Mādrī, mother of the two younger brothers, insists on joining Pāṇḍu in heaven after the latter dies, leaving Kuntī with the messy job of raising five sons alone, helping them remain safe from the attacks of their cousins, advising them, arranging their marriages, and so on. Mādrī, meanwhile, is frozen in heaven, just as Māyā is in the Buddha’s lifestory, while the Buddha’s human mother Mahāprajāpatī becomes a nun and achieves nirvana.

There is another reason to compare Kuntī with Mahāprajāpatī, since both raise the children of their co-wives with a powerful affection that erases the distinction between biological child and adopted child. Indeed, the motif of multiple mothers and multiple sons is a strong one, with the child also expected to treat each of his mothers equally. This evening out of relationships is of course in tension with the competition of co-wives, especially when it comes to producing a son in the first place.

A different parallel links Mahāprajāpatī with the mother of the Jina Rṣabha, Marudevī, namely their role as pioneers in the religious realms of their sons. Marudevī, in Svetāmbara accounts, is understood to be the first entrant into the realm of liberated souls, after she sees her omniscient son, the first Jina of the current time-cycle, in all his glory. Likewise, some Buddhist accounts declare that Mahāprajāpatī entered complete nirvana (ie nirvana at death) before the Buddha. There is much more to be said about both of these stories, but the parallel is a provoking one.

Meanwhile the mother of the Jina Mahāvīra, Triśalā, can be helpfully compared with the mothers of the Buddha. Like Māyā, Triśalā’s primary function is as birth-giver, mother in the biological sense. However, like Mahāprajāpatī, she also raises her son, and forms a powerful bond with him. He feels an obligation towards her, which leads, in Svetāmbara accounts, to his decision not to renounce until after her death, since it would cause her too much pain. This account contrasts strongly with tales of the Buddha’s renunciation, which is said to cause immense grief to Mahāprajāpatī.

The motif of separation and of maternal grief is present in the epics too, though here the separation is due to exile (or the higher calling of dharma) rather than a voluntary renunciation. It is in this motif that we most clearly see the tension between family obligations or bonds and the other calls on a young man’s attention.

I still have a long way to go with my survey and analysis, but already these key themes are calling out to be explored, and reinforcing the value of this project’s consideration of sources across the three traditions. The mothers of heroes do warrant some more attention, and I will endeavour to give it to them.

What makes a story a ‘version’ of another story?

by Naomi

In this project we are mostly looking at shared narrative elements, such as characters and genres, rather than shared narratives themselves. However, the latter do feature as well, and in recent weeks I have been pondering what exactly makes a story a ‘version’ of another story, rather than a completely separate story in its own right.

Two things have prompted this musing. Firstly, I read the new Penguin Classics translation of Barlaam and Josaphat, which its subtitle declares to be ‘A Christian Tale of the Buddha’. I got a bit cross about this, as you can see in my posting on my personal blog, as it seems to me that while the Buddha’s lifestory and the hagiography of Saint Josaphat share a few narrative motifs, they are not at all versions of the same story. The Christians did not accidentally sanctify the Buddha, they simply made use of some interesting story elements found in his biography.

Why is the story of Josaphat not a ‘version’ of the Buddha’s lifestory? In my view, the main reason is that the narrative divergence is too high – there is far more original material than shared material, and the original material sends the story in a totally different direction to the Buddha’s lifestory. However, counter arguments might be formed using evidence that the composers were trying to create a version of an existing story, evidence including a shared name (Josaphat is traced back to Bodhisattva) as well as shared narrative elements.

The second prompt for this musing was the task of proof-reading some jātaka stories, for a translation, with Sarah Shaw, of the final ten jātakas of the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā, that will be published by Silkworm Press later in the year. When reading through the Vidhura-jātaka I was reminded again of a recent article that compares this story with Vidura’s role in the Mahābhārata (Klara Gönc Moačanin, ‘Epic vs. Buddhist Literature: The case of Vidhurapaṇḍitajātaka’, in Petteri Koskikallio (ed.) Parallels and Comparisons: Proceedings of the Fourth Dubrovnoik International Conference on the Sanskrit Epics and Purāṇas: 373- 98. Zagreb: Croation Academy of Sciences and Arts, 2009.). Moačanin suggests that the Vidhura-jātaka and the Mahābhārata dicing episode have a common source, since they share several features but also have their own variations. I find this argument unconvincing, in part because it assumes that poets and storytellers did not feel free to innovate, and thus that any original content must be drawn from some prior source that includes it. It is more likely, in my view, that the composers of the Vidhura-jātaka made free use of existing motifs and characters that they were aware of from the Mahābhārata (including a gambling king and his loyal honest steward), and added to this whatever innovations they wished (including mixing around with names and statuses, and adding a magical jewel that reflects the whole universe, a horse that can walk on water, and a demon who abducts the steward as a way of gaining his nāga bride).

If we accept my analysis, that the Vidhura-jātaka draws on existing motifs but is not limited by them, then does the Vidhura-jātaka contain a ‘version’ of the Mahābhārata dicing episode? Again, the narrative divergence suggests not, but the existence of common motifs and names suggests yes.

Perhaps, in the end, all we have here is an issue of terminology. We need a clear idea of what a ‘version’ of an existing story is, and how it differs from the creative use of common motifs and characters, and other forms of intertextuality. The oft-quoted words of the great A. K. Ramanujan are worth mentioning here, for although he wrote them of the Rāmāyaṇa we might usefully apply them more widely. He speaks of ‘a common pool of signifiers’:

‘These various texts not only relate to prior texts directly, to borrow or refute, but they relate to each other through this common code or common pool. Every author, if one may hazard a metaphor, dips into it and brings out a unique crystallization, a new text with a unique texture and a fresh context.’ (A.K. Ramanujan, ‘Three Hundred Rāmāyaṇas’, in Paula Richman, ed., Many Rāmāyaṇas (University of California Press 1991), p.46)

However, while Ramanujan’s explanation of how ‘versions’ of a story emerge is very pertinent, we must not lose sight of the innovation possible in telling stories more generally. Not all stories with common elements are versions of one another. Some may dip into several pools and combine the results; others may borrow from one text and invent new embellishments; yet others are completely new. The gambling king and his loyal steward Vidhura come from another text, but we need not seek a similar explanation for the origins of other aspects of the Vidhura-jātaka. Likewise, while the childhood experiences of an Indian prince who becomes a religious teacher may have their origins in a pool of Buddha-biography signifiers, the Barlaam and Josaphat story is an innovation far more than it is a ‘version’ of anything else.

My musings seem to have concluded that it is usually far more fruitful to talk about shared narrative elements than it is to talk about versions. And such shared elements, as this project is demonstrating, come in many different forms, with different explanations and contexts and lessons for the scholar.