Tag Archives: Jainism

Dialogue in Early South Asian Religions

by Naomi

I have just finished reading Brian Black and Laurie Patton’s edited volume, Dialogue in Early South Asian Religions: Hindu, Buddhist and Jain Traditions (Ashgate, 2015). I had read parts of it before (including my own chapter of course!), but to sit and digest it cover to cover was a real delight. Here are eleven essays, ranging broadly in terms of sources, but all speaking directly to the theme of dialogue, and all fascinating in their approach to exploring that theme.

The essays are divided broadly into three sections. Part 1, ‘Dialogues Inside and Outside the Texts’, looks at how dialogue within texts can suggest audiences and means of transmission, and contains four chapters on different textual traditions: Vedas (Patton), Epics (Hiltebeitel), Jain scriptural and narrative traditions (Esposito) and Buddhist jātakas (Appleton). Part 2, ‘Texts in Dialogue’, explores how texts are in dialogue with other texts within a tradition, such as how Mahāyāna texts use dialogic settings familiar from earlier Buddhist texts (Osto), or Purāṇic texts use dialogue to establish their ‘theological heritage’ (Rohlman) or how dialogically framed texts such as Gītās, polemics and doxographies challenge scholarly definitions of philosophy (Nicholson).

It is Part 3, ‘Moving Between Traditions’, that has most resonance for our current project, however, since the four essays it contains use dialogues as a means of understanding the relationships between different religious traditions. Michael Nichols kicks off with an exploration of dialogues in the Nikāyas that feature the Buddha and either brahmins, Jains or gods. He shows that the subject of discussion differs for each category of dialogue partner, and reveals something important about the Buddhist attitude to the different social groups. Jonathan Geen follows this with a look at how Jain dialogues in which a son persuades his parents of his need to renounce immediately despite his young age compare with some Hindu counterparts. Lisa Wessman Crothers then reads the often non-verbal dialogical exchanges between king and minister in the Mahā-Ummagga Jātaka alongside the Ārthaśāstra, in a discussion of deception and trust in royal relationships. Brian Black ends the volume with an exploration of three dialogues in Buddhist and Hindu texts that demonstrate dialogue’s ability to negotiate, transcend, and accommodate difference.

These essays resonate with our current project for a few different reasons. For a start, dialogue is clearly a shared generic form, used by all three traditions in a variety of intersecting ways, often in narrative contexts. In addition, literary dialogues are often used to explore encounters with various “others”, including members of rival religious groups, and so they can reveal something of mutual perceptions and inter-religious relationships.

The shared use of the dialogic form is something that James has become very interested in, as some of his posts here have suggested. For myself, it is dialogue more broadly conceived, such as the dialogue that occurs between and within the religious traditions of early India, that interests me. Sometimes this inter-religious encounter is explored using literary dialogues, but other times other shared narrative features, such as common characters or character roles, are made use of for a similar purpose. It is characters (including character roles and lineages) that have become my focus during the course of this project.

The edited volume is published in Brian Black and Laurie Patton’s series Dialogues in South Asian Traditions: Religion, Philosophy, Literature and History, in which we hope to place our own project monographs. The series is testament to the rising interest both in the dialogic form, and in the dialogues that exist between the various worldviews of South Asia. It is one to watch!


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.

Some musings on genre

by Naomi

One of the shared elements that we are exploring in this project is genre, both in terms of emic categories (eg jātaka, purāṇa) and etic ones (eg epic, biography). However, thus far, this element has tended to remain in the background of our studies of shared characters and roles. Recent presentations at Edinburgh’s Religious Studies research seminar have got me thinking again about how important the notion of genre is in our studies of religious narrative.

Brian Black’s paper last month, ‘Subverting Dharma? Dialogues with Women in the Mahābhārata‘, highlighted some important features of the dialogic form in the Mahābhārata; dialogue as a micro-genre is one area that James has been exploring in his study of the conversations of kings and sages. More recently, Hephzibah Israel’s paper ‘Translating the Sacred in Colonial South India’ explored the role of genre in the translation choices of missionaries in South India. Specifically, she discussed how the Tamil poetic form, associated in South India with religion, truth and beauty, was rejected by Protestants, who believed that plain prose was more conducive to the Truth. The Tamil prose Bible was the result, though there were also various other Christian attempts to translate the Gospel into Tamil verse epic remeniscent of, for example, Kampan’s Rāmāyaṇa.

The Protestant association of prose with rationality and truth, and poetry or literature with fiction, has affected my own area of scholarship too. As I argued in my 2010 book, early scholars were too affected by their own generic assumptions when assessing the value of jātaka stories. Identified as “folklore”, “fable” and “fairy tale”, jātakas were dismissed as fictitious stories of little religious value, quite the reverse of how Buddhist communities themselves perceived the genre.

Such considerations are relevant when looking at attitudes towards “other people’s stories” within early India too. One area that I am increasingly interested in is the relationship between the great Pāli jātaka book and the Mahābhārata. Scholars have already noted many parallel stories, characters and motifs. But what about genre? A jātaka has a particular generic form, distinctive to Buddhism (with even the closely related tradition of Jainism rejecting the genre). And yet I wonder, might it help to see the jātaka collection as in some way a parallel tradition to the Mahābhārata itself, an epic of impressive proportions and with a similar tendency towards including all stories? I have not yet looked into this enough to know if such an analysis is really possible or fruitful, but I do think that we open up new windows on the narrative traditions of early India by asking how genre is defined, understood, moulded, translated, transformed and rejected.

Talking deities in Bristol

by Naomi

My work on gods as characters that are shared between Brahmanical Hindu, Jain and Buddhist narrative sources had another outing this week at Bristol University’s Religious Studies research seminar. I talked about five strategies that Buddhist and Jain traditions use when incorporating gods from wider Indian mythology, namely multiplication, making mortal, subordination, cleansing of problematic characteristics, and explanations for the origins of worship. Using Buddhist portrayals of Brahmā(s), Jain portrayals of Kṛṣṇa, and Buddhist and Jain approaches to Indra as examples, I argued that these five strategies are used by both traditions, though to different extents in different cases, in order to make the gods more understandable within a karmic paradigm, and to underscore the superiority of liberated teachers over divine beings. I further argued that such narrative strategies demonstrate that the gods were sufficiently important to early Jain and Buddhist communities that they had to be included, albeit in a modified way, and that the characterisation of gods in these “atheist” traditions therefore deserves to be properly studied.

As always, the discussion following my paper was very helpful, and I am grateful to the audience for their thoughts and questions. I am particularly grateful to those members of the audience who were not very convinced by my argument that multiplying the gods was a way to reduce their importance, and who therefore forced me to clarify my position. Other – more predictable – enquiries about the society of the time and the likely audiences for the texts and stories reminded me that such questions – however difficult they are to answer – need to be addressed in the work I am doing. During meetings this week, James and I have been getting to grips with the general introduction for our project monograph, so the question of what we can and cannot know about the early Indian context is very much at the forefront of my mind.

The post-paper conversation also touched on the difficult question of how we understand humour in early narrative sources. While trying to ascertain what would have been considered funny in a culture so far removed from our own is a tricky endeavour, it seems clear to me that some of the Buddhist and Jain stories about the gods only really work if the audience is aware of the gods’ associations and characters within Vedic and Brahmanical narrative, and that the storytellers are playing with these associations. And yes, I think some of the ways in which the Jain and Buddhist storytellers did this is very funny, and that is one of the reasons why I am finding this research so stimulating!

Conference paper on Indra – BASR/EASR Sept 2013, Liverpool

by Naomi

I would like to share a short conference paper that I presented in Liverpool last week, at the British Association for the Study of Religions / European Association for the Study of Religions conference. The conference theme was migration and mutation, so I spoke about the evolution of Indra as he moved into Buddhist and Jain contexts. As always, comments are welcome.

The Evolution of Indra in Indian Religions

Paper for the EASR conference, 3rd-6th September 2013, Liverpool Hope University

Dr Naomi Appleton, University of Edinburgh, naomi.appleton@ed.ac.uk

[DRAFT: Please do not cite without permission]


This paper explores the characterization of the god Indra (also known as Śakra) in Indian religious narratives from the early centuries before and after the advent of the Common Era. In particular it assesses the transformations undergone by the king of the Vedic gods as he is taken up by Buddhist and Jain authors and incorporated into their cosmological, ethical and soteriological worlds. Well-known for his vicious battles and womanizing, Indra might seem an unlikely character for inclusion in Buddhist and Jain texts, but he nonetheless plays an integral role in the narratives of these two “atheist” religions. In this paper I will present some of the key aspects of his transformation and ask what these tell us about the strategies used by the new religious movements when incorporating an existing deity.



Indra, king of the gods, is quite a character in Brahmanical narrative. He seduces the wives of sages, wages war on demons, and is constantly trying to protect his sovereignty, often through somewhat dubious means. Given that he is a warrior god and a womanizer, one might not expect him to have much of a role within the two strongly pacifist and non-passionate religious traditions that emerged in fifth century BCE north India, namely Buddhism and Jainism. However, Indra, also called Śakra (or Sakka in Pāli and Prākrit) features in the narratives of both of these traditions too. In the Jain sources he appears as king of the Saudharma Heaven, the lowest of the heaven realms. Other heavens have their own Indra, so for Jains Śakra is the personal name of one particular Indra. He has little individuality though some of the motifs associated with him are preserved in Jain stories, as we will see. In Buddhism he plays a larger and more independent role, and there is evidence that aspects of his character were deliberately adjusted or even inverted in order to make him a more respectable Buddhist god.

That Śakra loses his martial associations and womanizing tendencies when he is absorbed into Buddhist texts has led many scholars of Buddhism to suggest that the Buddhist Śakra is an entirely different character to the Vedic and Epic Indra, albeit one with historical and conceptual links (eg Malalasekera’s Dictionary of Pali Proper Names; Anderson 1978: 24). One problem with this attempt to separate Buddhist Śakra from Hindu Indra is that, as Brockington (2001: 68-9) has shown, the epithet Śakra is used more often than Indra in the Hindu Epics as well as in śramanic sources. A more serious objection is that there are clearly enough continuities in his character to warrant consideration as a single individual undergoing change both within Hindu traditions and as he moves into new religious contexts. I would suggest that rather than demonstrating that Hindu Indra and śramanic Indra are separate figures, the sometimes-dramatic reversals in his portrayal demonstrate an awareness on the part of śramanic authors of precisely the sort of character they were dealing with. I would like to argue in this paper that the transformation of the king of the gods by Buddhist and Jain authors was deliberate, and at times humorous and even a little bit cheeky. The inversion of key aspects of his character is in itself a form of continuity, and even attempts to downplay his individual importance themselves acknowledge the status he holds elsewhere.

In this paper I will briefly examine two key strategies that I have identified in Buddhist and Jain incorporations of the king of the gods, namely reversal and diminishment. I will begin by looking at three ways in which aspects of Indra’s character are inverted in Buddhist texts, before looking at the alternative strategy of diminishing his significance. This latter strategy appears to have been favoured by the Jains, while the Buddhists combined it with more explicit rewritings of his character.


The first strategy that I would like to examine is the ‘reversal’ of certain key characteristics. I will briefly mention three examples of this – how Indra the warrior becomes spokesperson for pacifism, how Indra the Soma-drunk becomes an advocate of sobriety, and how Indra the womanizer becomes the god that guards women’s virtue.

A key source for Buddhist portrayals of Śakra is the Sakkasaṃyutta of the Saṃyutta Nikāya of the Pāli scriptures (SN11). Here we see Śakra (or Sakka in Pāli) speaking in praise of being energetic and determined (passages 1 and 2), but also patient and forbearing (4, 8) and free from anger towards friends (24, 25). While some mention is made of physical battle – with Śakra tying up his adversary in his hall, for example – we also see the leaders of the gods and demons settling their differences with a verbal battle (5). In this battle the demon king Veppacitti speaks of the merit of violence and punishment, while Sakka praises patience and non-violence, and thus wins the battle of wits! Clearly this text is an attempt to present the warrior king of the gods as a peaceable character who only fights when absolutely necessary, and who would much rather settle any disputes with a good conversation. In the same text, as well as in the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā (31) and Jātakamālā (11), we find the story of how Śakra, while fleeing in his divine chariot from the demon army, insisted on turning around rather than damage the trees in which garuḍa birds were nesting. Because he inexplicably turned to face the demons once again, the latter were alarmed and fled. Thus Śakra won the battle precisely through his commitment to non-harm. The warrior god has not simply lost his martial associations; rather these have been transformed to allow him to demonstrate the correct – peaceful – approach to conflict.

In addition to his martial exploits and subduing of demons, another key association with Indra in the Vedic materials is soma, the mysterious plant which, when pressed, produces juice that has intoxicating effects and is said to lead to immortality. Early Hindu depictions of Indra (dating perhaps as far back as the 2nd century BCE) often show him carrying a pot of ambrosia, and this iconography is also present in early Indian Buddhist art, for example at Sāñcī (Anderson 1978: ch.1&2). It is worth bearing this iconography in mind as I tell you the following story found in the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā (512) and the Jātakamālā (17), two collections of stories of the past lives of the Buddha.

Once in the past the Bodhisattva (the Buddha-to-be) was born as Śakra, and he wondered how he might be of use to humanity. Looking down from his heavenly abode he spotted a king who was neglecting his duties due to intoxication from drink. Disguised as a liquor-seller, with a pot of alcoholic drink, Śakra approached the king, and gave a rather unusual sales-patter, including, in Khoroche’s rather lovely translation of the Jātakamālā version (1989: 112):

Thanks to this stuff you will no longer be in control of your own thoughts. You will shamble around mindlessly, like a dumb beast, and make your enemies weak with laughter. Under its influence you will get up and dance in the middle of an assembly, providing your own vocal accompaniment in place of a drum. … Those who drink from [this jar] will be able to lie asleep and unconscious on a main road, while dogs calmly lick their faces spattered with the food brought up by vomiting. This is the desirable drink that has been poured into this jar.

It is no surprise that with such explanations of the evil effects of drink the king is persuaded of his error. And it is not only the intoxication of alcohol that must be resisted: as the Jātakamālā version takes pains to point out, Śakra could have been too busy being intoxicated by the bliss of the heaven realms to care about helping humans, but instead – because of being the Bodhisattva – he felt great compassion.

It is possible that the use of Śakra in this story is nothing more than an extension of his role – common in jātakas – as teacher of virtue, a role he very often occupies when he is the Bodhisattva. However, it is a suspicious coincidence that Śakra should here be advocating sobriety when he is strongly associated in the Vedic literature with being intoxicated, whether by soma or simply by his role as warrior king and lover extraordinaire. The artistic representations of Indra with a jar of liquid mentioned a moment ago suggest that Śakra’s continued association with drink is not mere coincidence. I would like to suggest that it instead demonstrates another Buddhist attempt to deliberately invert an aspect of Indra’s existing characterization.

A third example of Buddhist inversion of Indra’s character relates to his interaction with women. Indra is often portrayed as a bit of a ladies’ man, a seducer or violator of women’s virtue. His identification as a seducer is largely – though not entirely – based on the story of his seduction of Ahalyā, the wife of the sage Gautama, which is told in the Rāmāyaṇa and several Purāṇas. The extent of Ahalyā’s willingness in the liason is debated – in some versions there is an implication that she knew who he was and was curious about what it would be like, in others it is clear that she believed him to be her husband, since he was so convincingly disguised as such. Thus whether we label Indra seducer, illusionist or rapist depends on which version of the story we are reading.

As Renate Söhnen-Thieme (1991) has pointed out, Indra is also associated with fertility and the granting of sons to virtuous women, and even their protection. She is keen to argue that he has been misrepresented by scholars obsessed by a single narrative, who have tended to misread certain Ṛg Vedic passages. To further support her argument she turns to a Buddhist source, the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā, as evidence for a non-brahmanic and thus more positive attitude to the king of the gods. My own survey of the jātakas identified seven stories in which Śakra is summoned by the virtue of a woman, which makes his throne tremble or heat up (JA 194, 485, 489, 519, 531, 538, 542). The assistance he provides to these women is invariably related to the preservation or furtherance of their family: in three of the stories Śakra restores the woman’s husband to her or saves his life (JA 194, 485, 542), and in three more he grants the woman a son by persuading the Bodhisattva – at the time resident in the heavens – to take birth in the human realm (489, 531, 538). Śakra’s concern for the virtue of women is highlighted by a further story, the Mahājanaka-jātaka (JA 539), in which Śakra helps an exiled and widowed queen, the pregnant mother of the Bodhisattva, escape to a safe place. The poignancy of his assistance is highlighted by the fact that she, disguised as a poor beggar woman, is completely helpless, as she has never before left the palace alone and has no idea where she is going. Her fear and vulnerability are relieved by his appearance and his respectful address of her as “mother”. Far from being a potential seducer, he takes disguise as an elderly man and saves her from the potential dangers of other men.

It is very likely that Indra’s characterization as a serial womanizer is, as Söhnen-Thieme has argued, somewhat unfair even in a Hindu context. However, it is still notable that although the Ahalyā story would appear to be known within at least some Buddhist circles, his seduction of women plays no role in Buddhist narratives, where he is instead associated with guarding the virtue and domestic success of women. Rather than see the jātaka portrayal of Śakra’s interaction with women as supporting a milder view of him in the Hindu heritage, it may be more appropriate to view his Buddhist portrayal as a means of cleansing him of sexual associations that were already becoming prominent in Brahmanical – especially later Epic and Purāṇic texts. This may be more subtle than the reversal that takes place when Indra the soma-drunk is transformed into an advocate for sobriety, or when Indra the warrior becomes a diplomat and pacifist, but Indra’s loss of seducer associations is nonetheless another example of how aspects of his characterization were cleaned up by Buddhist authors.


Another major tactic used to sanitize Indra as he is incorporated into new religious contexts (including within the Brahmanical Hindu fold) is to diminish his power in various ways. This is done by showing him as subordinate to higher beings, or as threatened with the loss of his position, or by multiplying the numbers of Indras in time or space. So for example Buddhist and Jain texts often show Indra in the service of key religious figures and showing great respect for the religious teachings. He is involved in a supporting role in the lifestories of both Buddhas and Jinas, for example assisting in their renunciation, and praising them after their attainment of liberation. However, whereas Buddhist texts use a combination of reversal and diminishment, Jain texts place far more emphasis on the latter strategy, moving Indra to the sidelines and playing down his significance as an individual. This is particularly clear in relation to two key motifs that are shared by all three traditions, but in the Jain case removed from direct association with Indra.

One key role that Indra has in Vedic and Brahmanical sources is as bringer of rain. This role is acknowledged also in Buddhist narratives, which show Indra causing rain, often at the command of the Buddha (showing once again how the Buddha is superior to the king of the gods). Curiously the Jain sources deliberately play down his rain-bringing associations, thus for example in the Bhagavatī Sūtra (14.2) we find the declaration that if Śakra wants it to rain he tells some other god to sort it out, as any god can make rain. This idea crops up in the narratives too: In a story of the Jñātādharmakathāḥ Sūtra (1) we hear of a human performing asceticism in order to attract the attention of a god who can bring rain. Whereas in a Buddhist or Brahmanical text we might expect this god to be Indra (for example as in the stories of Ṛṣyaśṛṅga or several narratives of the Avadānaśataka), here it is simply an un-named god from the Saudharma heaven (the heaven realm of which Śakra is said to be king). Since Śakra the king of the gods appears by name elsewhere in the story it would seem that his rain-bringing role has been deliberately detached from him as an individual.

A similar move of Indra to the sidelines is found in another motif, that of Indra as tester of a human’s virtue. The general outline is that a human is practising severe austerities (in the Epics) or extreme generosity (in the Buddhist jātakas) or a similar act of virtue, and this prompts Indra to approach the human, usually in disguise, to test the extent of the human’s resolve. (Think, for example, of the story of Indra in disguise as a brahmin approaching Karṇa in the Mahābhārata and asking for his armour, or in similar disguise approaching the Bodhisattva and asking for a bodily gift. On the latter motif see Ohnuma 2007: 64ff) This is often because he is concerned about the possibility of the human challenging his position in some way, and the human’s response is usually to demonstrate his resolve through some great act of charity or sacrifice. The motif of the test is common in the Epics and Buddhist jātakas, and it is also found in Jain sources but here there is a slight twist.

To give an example, in the story of Mallī in the Jñātādharmakathāḥ (chapter 8) a ferocious demon scares a boatful of merchants witless, all except for one Jain layman who sits calmly praising the omniscient ones. Unable to disrupt the layman’s calm the demon reveals himself to be a god who had been testing the extent of his resolve having heard Śakra praising his virtue. Similarly in the Upāsakadaśāḥ (2) a god tries really hard to disrupt the religious observances of a devoted Jain layman, but fails despite the most atrocious threats and bodily violence. In the end the god reveals himself and says he was testing him after hearing Śakra praise his virtue. In these stories, and others (for example in the Jain version of the story of King Śibi’s gift of flesh to ransom a dove), we find the familiar motif of the test. However, the god doing the testing and thus inflicting the pain is not Śakra but an un-named god who had heard Śakra praising the human in question. In this way Śakra retains his association with the motif but without having to be muddied by any implication that he caused harm to a virtuous human. This curious move on the part of Jain narrative redactors suggests that their main strategy for dealing with the all-too-human god was to move him to the sidelines and reduce his importance while showing him supporting Jain practitioners and practices. Buddhist authors, on the other hand, preferred to keep him in the foreground and play around with his characteristics in order to present a new version of the king of the gods, one that is more consistent with Buddhist beliefs.


To conclude, Indra – as a character common to Buddhist, Jain and Hindu narratives – is just one example of ways in which commonalities between religious traditions can be used to explore their differences, and changes in individual characters or motifs or ideas can be used to explore transitions between belief systems or cultural settings. Identifying the strategies used by the narrative composers and redactors as they sought to cleanse Indra of his violent and sexual associations or play down his significance in general reveals their preoccupations and priorities, including the pressure on them to include a well-established and – one assumes – popular character in their rich narrative traditions. However much the stories try to diminish Indra’s importance – by inverting him, multiplying him, replacing him, or subordinating him – he always fights back. After all, he is a warrior god.


Anderson, Leona. 1978. Śakra in early Buddhist Art. MA Dissertation, McMaster University. Open Access Dissertations and Theses. Paper 5624.

Brockington, John. 2001. ‘Indra in the Epics’, in Klaus Karttunen and Petteri Koskikallio (eds) Vidyarnavavandanam: Essays in Honour of Asko Parpola: 67-82. Finnish Oriental Society, 2001; = Studia Orientalia vol. 94.

Khoroche, Peter (trans.) 1989. Once the Buddha was a Monkey: Ārya Śūra’s Jātakamālā. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Ohnuma, Reiko. 2007. Head, Eyes, Flesh, and Blood: Giving Away the Body in Indian Buddhist Literature. New York: Columbia University Press.

Söhnen, Renate. 1991. ‘Indra and Women’, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 54: 68-74.

Söhnen-Thieme, Renate. 1996. ‘The Ahalya Story through the Ages’, in Julia Leslie (ed.) Myth and Mythmaking: Continuous Evolution in Indian Tradition: 39-62. Curzon.

Śakra/Indra in Jain narrative

by Naomi

I have been getting stuck in with the early Śvetāmbara Jain sources, and Śakra is proving to be an interesting character, as always. Although I still have some way to go with my survey I have already encountered several motifs familiar from the Mahābhārata and Buddhist sources, for example:

1. The battle between Sakra and the asuras is mentioned in several texts. In the (Bhagavatī) Vyākhyā-prajñapti Sūtra the chief of the asuras runs away and hides behind Mahāvīra, and Sakra has to withdraw his thunderbolt in order to avoid harming the Jina.

2. As bringer of rain: I have not yet found this explicitly associated with Śakra, though there is an episode in the Jñātādharmakathāḥ in which “a god of the Saudharma heaven” (the heaven of which Śakra is said to be the Indra) brings unseasonable rain to ease the pregnancy craving of a queen. His control over the rain as well as his summoning by a man undertaking asceticism suggest this is the same motif as is usually associated specifically with Śakra. In the (Bhagavatī) Vyākhyā-prajñapti Sūtra it is said that when Śakra wants it to rain he usually asks other gods to sort it out, since all gods are able to make rain. So the texts appear to be downplaying Śakra’s significance as an individual.

3. Testing the virtue of a human being: The familiar motif of Śakra taking on the appearance of a brahmin and visiting a human to test his resolve is found in the Uttarādhyayana, when Śakra visits King Nami (who later becomes a Jina). Curiously, a couple of other stories show a different god carrying out a similar test, motivated by hearing Śakra praise the great virtue of the human. Rather than being another example of the texts seeking to minimize Śakra’s significance as an individual, this looks like an attempt to prevent Śakra being associated with dubious behaviour.

4. Supporting and praising awakened/liberated teachers: Just as Śakra supports and praises the Buddhas, he also supports and praises the Jinas, celebrating and assisting with the various stages of their pursuit of liberation.

The stability of Śakra’s character across all three traditions is therefore quite impressive, though there is also significant flexibility and variation. I look forward to drawing together some more detailed analysis in due course.

Divinity in Jainism

My attention has turned to the characterization of the gods in Jainism. Alongside working my way through the key primary sources, I have been trying to locate any secondary works that deal with the nature of the gods in Jain traditions, but this search has merely served to highlight a general reluctance to acknowledge the existence of the gods at all. On a recent trip to Oxford I ordered up two books –  Harisatya Bhattacharyya’s Divinity in Jainism (Madras 1925) and P. Ajay Kothari’s The Concept of Divinity in Jainism (Jaipur 2000) – and on my return to Edinburgh I tracked down Robert J. Zydenbos’ pamphlet The Concept of Divinity in Jainism (the 1992 Roop Lal Jain Lecture, published by the University of Toronto Centre for South Asian Studies in 1993). So what did I learn from these three works with almost identical titles?

Bhattacharyya’s work is one of comparative theology, trying to read a notion of divinity into the Jain concept of a perfected soul. It is clearly an attempt to find a notion of God comparable to the Christian one. The book contains nothing at all about the gods (devas).

Kothari’s book also spends a lot of time on the idea of the perfected soul as a god, and thus the potential of all humans to become gods, an idea he also finds in Buddhism. Thus while Chapter 2 ‘The Concept of Divinity in Hinduism’ is about Vedic and Upanishadic gods, Chapter 3 ‘The Concept of Divinity in Buddhism’ is about buddhahood and nirvana as a form of divinity and the Buddha’s rejection of the notion of an all-powerful creator god. There is a very short discussion of the devas in a section entitled ‘Celestial beings (non-divine beings)’. The Buddha is lauded as the supreme deity. In Chapters 4 and 5, on the Jain concept of divinity, Kothari does give some attention to the different types of deity, but once again the focus is on moksha as the supreme divinity and the role of karma in impeding divinity.

Zydenbos’ lecture immediately acknowledges this bias towards finding a notion of divinity in Jainism that allows it to make comparisons with (and even claims to superiority over) Christian notions of God. He also acknowledges the fact that many Westerners assume there are no gods in Jainism, yet in India Jains are commonly found worshipping gods as much as (and often the same gods as) their Hindu neighbours. Against this backdrop Zydenbos makes a number of useful observations about the role of various deities, including the yakṣas and yakṣīs that become the attendant deities of the jinas (several of which are shared with the Hindu pantheon).

There is obviously more to be done to explore the role of the deities in general – and of specific named deities – in the Jain traditions. My next stop will be J.P. Sharma’s Jaina Yakshas (Meerut 1989), which I hope will help shed a little more light on these important deities. Meanwhile onwards with the Bhagavatī Sūtra, which is revealing some interesting material on Indra (Sakka)…