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The end of the project

by Naomi

We have both really enjoyed working on this project, and particularly welcomed the responses from our lovely blog audience. The project is now drawing to a close and we have two announcements to make:

Firstly, we will be holding a special event in Cardiff on 27th June, in which we are teaming up with storyteller Steve Killick to share some of our research with a wider audience. The event is called How to Live a Good Life: Tales of Kings and Sages in Ancient India. If you happen to be in South Wales at the end of June do please join us – the event is free to attend and you can book your place through eventbrite here.

Secondly, my research monograph is now with the press, and should be published late this year or early next. It is called Shared Characters in Jain, Buddhist and Hindu Narrative: Gods, Kings and Other Heroes and will be published by Routledge in the series Dialogues in South Asian Traditions: Religion, Philosophy, Literature and History edited by Brian Black and Laurie Patton.

We won’t be using this blog very often anymore, but will leave it here as a reference resource.

I will continue blogging on so if you are interested in hearing more about my research then please sign up to follow that site.

Is a picture worth a thousand words?

by Naomi

I am busy putting the final touches to my book, and one of the remaining tasks is selecting images to include. The publisher says I can have up to 21 images, black and white, inside the book, plus I would like something quite striking for the cover.

It is the first time I have included images in a monograph. I have so far learnt three important lessons that no doubt you all knew already:

  1. It is easily possible to lose a whole day searching for suitable images. There are endless options, and also many long and winding paths to dead-ends.
  2. Although open access and creative commons licensing is gaining traction online, using images in publications is still very expensive because they are considered commercial activities, even in the case of research monographs.
  3. Lots of images look really rubbish in black and white!

So, the questions arise: How important is this image? Is this picture really worth a thousand words? Or is it mere decoration, and thus an unnecessary waste of time and money?

Of course the answers are different in each case. Few aspects of my monograph speak directly to the artistic record, but in those few instances an image really would be good. In other cases it can be a helpful illustration of a narrative or related argument. Here are some examples:


Bimaran Reliquary. Image © Trustees of the British Museum. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

One of the themes of my research has been the role of gods as characters in early Indian narrative, in particular how key named gods are included in the stories preserved in early Buddhist and Jain texts. Indra and Brahmā have been particularly central to my research, and so one of the images I feel helps to illustrate my work is that of the Buddha flanked by these two gods. The Bimaran reliquary, from the Gandharan region and dating to around the first century, is a particularly impressive example. It is held in the British Museum and the image is © Trustees of the British Museum but available for non-commercial use under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.

Nami and Indra

Indra tests King Nami. British Library MS Or. 13362. Image copyright: CCO 1.0 (Creative Commons Public Domain)

The fantastic Jainpedia website ( has a wealth of Jain manuscript images, including several illustrating narratives key to my research. Keeping on the theme of Indra, I particularly enjoy this image of an important motif associated with this god: his tendency to test human resolve. This motif is present across all three traditions, as I have discussed in previous blog posts. Here he is testing King Nami, who is the Jain equivalent of King Janaka in the Buddhist tradition, and who has also featured prominently in my research for this project. The image comes from British Library MS Or. 13362 (folio 27v), which is a fifteenth-century copy of the Uttarādhyayana Sūtra.Unfortunately this does not look great in black and white, and in any case the library does not have a high resolution copy of the image.

These are just two examples of the many images I have been exploring. Others include: pictures of multiple buddhas and jinas and the avataras of Vishnu, to go alongside my research into repeated patterns of heroic figures in the mythological past; illustrations of the magical dreams experienced by the mothers of jinas and buddhas; images of the many stories of King Janaka, the famous renouncing royal of Videha.

Of course the easiest and most affordable way to include images is to get them not from libraries and museums, but from colleagues. James has already very kindly supplied me with his collection of photographs. If any of you reading this think to youself, “Oh, I have a great picture of King Janaka/Indra/other,” then I’d be delighted to hear from you! Meanwhile I’d better get on with the more important task of editing the Introduction…


Dialogue and “othering” – reflections on Claire Maes’ dissertation

by Naomi

This blog has gone a little quiet as we reach the end of the project and put together our monographs! A couple of weeks ago I finally found time to take a look at a dissertation that is of great interest to the broader frame of my research into inter-religious narrative interactions: “Dialogues With(in) the Pāli Vinaya” by Claire Maes (University of Ghent, 2015).

The dissertation uses the Pāli Vinaya to explore how one branch of the early Buddhist community formed a sense of identity in relation to other ascetic groups, particularly the Jains. The boundaries of the Buddhist ascetic community, Maes argues, were constructed in a dynamic process of encounter with ascetic “others”. Evidence in the Vinaya – as well as in related Jain texts – suggests that Buddhist and Jain ascetics interacted a great deal in daily life, sharing similar almsrounds, resthouses and other spaces. In such contexts the relative identities of the two groups became very important, so for example visible signs such as robes and bowls served to differentiate one type of ascetic from another.

A particularly neat feature of Maes’ dissertation is the way in which she uses Jonathan Z. Smith’s notion of the “proximate other” to explore how Buddhists found Jains – their close cousins – the most challenging in terms of identity-formation. In other words the nearness and relative sameness of these closely-related neighbours required a particularly strong process of “othering” in order to establish a clear identity separate from them.

Maes’ work is helpful for my own research in that it provides another practical example of the encounter between two different religious groups in early India, and explores that encounter as a productive dialogue that impacted upon both groups in important ways. In addition, it helps to highlight that even though Jains and Buddhists shared a lot (including spaces and practices and lay support) and indeed precisely because they shared so much, they also made efforts to differentiate themselves from one another. As such, while it can be helpful to talk about Jains and Buddhists together, it is also crucial to acknowledge their separate priorities and histories.

Although not the focus of Maes’ work, narrative is another way in which these two traditions – and indeed their other other, Brahmanical Hinduism – explored and expressed their sense of identity, in dialogue with the broader religious and narrative context of the time.



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

Talking Jātaka and Avadāna in Vienna

It has been a busy term. However, I have finally settled down to write about my experiences at the 17th Congress of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, which was in Vienna in August of this year. Naomi asked me to act as discussant on a panel entitled, ‘Buddhist Narrative Genres’, which took up, in particular, the form and content of Jātaka (stories of the previous lives of the Buddha) and Avadāna (stories of significant Buddhists – though we shall see the limitations of such characterisations). This was a very interesting experience and I thought I would share some of both what I discovered and what I thought as a consequence of those discoveries. The programme of the panel was as follows:


I took a particular approach to my role as discussant, which was based on a thought experiment, in which I imagined myself the editor of the collected papers of the panel. I asked myself, ‘How would I introduce them?’ and, ‘What were their points of analytic agreement and disagreement?’ I had the advantage of being able to do this in front of the author themselves.

All of the papers taken together substantiated a central hypothesis, which is: the definitions of Jātaka and Avadāna are fuzzy. I know this is hardly likely to cause a sharp intake of breath. However, as is quite normal in humanistic research, the journey is quite as important as the destination. In exploring the fuzziness of generic difference, the panellists had to come to terms, each in their own way, with a number of critical issues:

  • how scholars theorize Buddhist narrative
  • how Buddhists theorize Buddhist narratives (in different times and places)
  • how Buddhists with – or in spite of – their own, or scholarly, definitions and presuppositions USED Jātaka and Avadāna, or Jatakāvadāna (and the conjoined a is neatly representative of some ways of using these texts)

Now all of this happens – at least in the papers given during the panel – on the basis of textual evidence. This is the place where several things collide: hoary – and sometimes newly-minted – tradition; the historical contexts of authorship, transmission and adaptation; and scholarly and religious categories of analysis.

Naomi kicked off the panel with a rich demonstration of the inherent flexibility of the Jātaka form, as it is deployed in the Avadānaśataka. It appeared to me that she tacitly – and tactfully – suggested that the cart may have been placed before the horse in the study of Jātaka and Avadāna. By this I mean that the macro-analytic characterisations of the generic form of Jātaka and Avadāna, as involving either chronology or progression, perfection or devotion, may need to be re-tested against texts like the Avadānaśataka, which are typologically ‘resistant’. Put in another way, the scholarly recipe may not entirely match this particular Buddhist dish. Naomi’s emphasis on the particularities and peculiarities of the text before her suggested the need for groups of tales to be carefully contextualised, both doctrinally and practically, before we may draw distinctions between genres of Buddhist narrative text regardless of what we are told (by ‘insiders’ or  ‘outsiders’). Naomi’s paper left us with a distinct scholarly task: to progressively integrate narratives with inferentially recovered communities of reception. In the case of the Avadānaśataka, the communities so recovered were certainly not distinguishing between Jātaka and Avadāna in a hard and fast fashion.

Timothy Lenz – with the greatest of scholarly respect – was the fly in the ointment of the panel. His Gandhāran Avadānist was a level-headed and practical fellow, not much taken up with matters doctrinal. Tucked under his arm (forgive my exclusive language, it is for rhetorical purposes only) – and going under the rubric of Avadāna (and rubric is a rather appropriate term in that it means not just a heading, category or class, but also a custom or guideline) – is a collectania, a homiletic aidemémoire, which is intimately connected to the day to day demands of the religious professional, who is active in the public sphere. He has no time for the sprawling cosmographical vistas of the Avadānaśataka; his goals are exemplification and persuasion. Tim’s vision of Avadāna as collectania is challenging for the theorisation of generic form, if we seek to hang it on doctrinal features of Buddhism, such as karma theory. We cannot rest here, however, as Tim was well aware. To say that an Avadāna, or a Jātaka, is discourse-as-exemplification is to say too much, or not enough: as a definition it captures also the Hitopadeśa, for example, which surely shows that it will not entirely do (or might do, but only in the context of a larger enquiry). Yet we are in a tricky position; Naomi showed that the dominant characterisations of the Jātaka and Avadāna do not adequately capture what is going on in the Avadānaśataka, while Tim showed that Gandhāran context was one in which we could not even be guaranteed that an Avadāna would have anything at all to do with key Buddhist doctrines. What to do?

Karen Muldoon-Hules offered us two models of Jātaka-Avadāna transmission, which imply, perhaps, different classes of religious professional. Notwithstanding the pitfalls of historicism with limited data, Karen offered us a picture of the Virūpā Avadāna travelling as ‘Ur text’ and as ‘summary’. The former was subject to adaptation, as it moved from India to Tibet, while the latter was subject to ‘unpacking’, as it moved along the Silk Road from India to China.  These two modes suggest – at least to me – that Naomi and Tim might both be on to something: an ongoing process of literary adjustment and doctrinal engagement might be contrasted with a more missionary or pastoral context. We might dub these the scholastic and the pastoral (taking mission to be an expression of pastoral engagement and mildly regretting as I do the Christocentric, but expressive, terminology I am using). This means that, building on Karen’s contrasting modes of transmission, we have two possible states of affairs:

  1. The transmission of discourse according to institutionally-derived scholastic norms
  2. The application of discourse to the needs and concerns of a varied public

This is, of course, a spectrum rather than a hard and fast opposition. I have little doubt that these capture two rather significant modes of textual transmission and are more or less conducive to the two poles of narrative practice thus far established (of doctrinal or ritual engagement vs. socio-political ‘fit’).

Rachel Pang moved us to a consideration of a C19th Tibetan engagement with Jātaka materials, which reflected the ‘summary’ form that Karen identified in her paper. However, it was a summary form that was by no means lacking in the ‘karmic nod’ that Tim so missed in the Gandhāran materials. Rachel questioned the possibility of a formal definition of Jātaka, Avadāna or Jatakāvadāna. This followed from her wish to emphasise the religious concerns of her sources and the limits of western and Sanskrit criticism. She contrasted the simplicity of her source with the kāvyic excesses of Aśvaghoṣa to good effect, for example. What emerged was precisely a demonstration of the fact that we are looking at a spectrum of usage. Her source was a homiletic summary that was, nonetheless, with its heavy dependence on its auto-commentary, scholastically engaged, even if pastorally focussed.  The author of her source, Shakbar, is, then, a useful middle term in the ongoing enquiry.

Arthid Sharavanichkul explored Jātaka materials in a Thai Theravādin context. The fuzziness in the use of the term Jātaka that he uncovered recalled the blurring of the boundaries between Jātaka and Avadāna that Naomi found in the Avadānaśataka in her paper, notwithstanding the fact that the Thai sources do not know the term Avadāna. Arthid showed how, in a Thai context, the existing overarching definitions and descriptions of Jātaka and Avadāna, viz. those of Strong and Ohnuma, don’t entirely work (though they are instructive) because the Thai materials demonstrate a blended emphasis on both sacrifice and devotion. Naomi offered us a text that – at least in titular terms – is an Avadāna, but one that is replete with Jātakas. Arthid offered us the opposite. This is a neat demonstration of the fundamental fuzziness of the categories under investigation and the central hypothesis of my – currently – imaginary edited volume.

I put a number of questions to the panel in the discussion that followed. I asked them if they had brought us closer to a formal or an extended definition of Jātaka and Avadāna. I also asked them if they thought that they had, in fact, shown us that either sort of definition is an impossibility. I also asked more general questions such as, ‘Is fuzziness always fuzzy?’ by which I referred to the way in which any given instantiation of a genre might choose to subvert or adapt the conventions of that genre and thus depart from it while also confirming the existence of parameters of composition. Put in another way, I asked, ‘When is generic confusion, in fact, artistry/innovation?’ I also asked if scholarly fuzziness was defensible. I suggested that scholars of religion might (as J.Z. Smith concluded in his Reimagining Religion) simply change the way in which they go about defining some of the things they set out to explore, such as by means of extended or polythetic definitions. Other questions were more context-specific: for example, I asked if there was a Brahminical or a Jain elephant in the room. By which I referred to the difficulty of exploring issues of literary and expressive culture on the basis of distinct religions when they share a common cultural context (not true, of course, as Buddhist traditions moved beyond South Asia, but here the question would just concern other – for example, Chinese and Tibetan – elephants in the room). The answers to these questions broadly suggested that comparative studies would be desirable, that definitions were probably superfluous – though not all had given up hope – and that I asked too many questions!

I would like to offer my sincere thanks and congratulations to the panel convenors (Naomi and Karen) and contributors for a supremely stimulating afternoon. I would also like to think Steven Collins, who offered a range of insights as our discussions progressed. In thinking about the goals of the present project, the panel contributed much in terms of thinking through the range of uses of religious narrative both within and beyond our period of enquiry and also the real need – at least in an early Indian context – to move across the boundaries that exist between Hindu, Buddhist and Jain studies.