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Of Foundational Texts And Exegesis


Arshia Sattar

JATAKAMALA
By Arya Shura . Translated from the Sanskrit by A.N.D. Haksar
Harper Collins, New Delhi, 2015, pp. 286, Rs. 399.00

RISHABHAYAN: THE STORY OF THE FIRST KING
By Acharya Mahapragya . Translated from the Sanskrit by Sudhamehi Reghunathan 
HarperCollins Publishers, India, 2015, pp. 318, Rs. 350.00

VOLUME XXXIX NUMBER 8 August 2015

A.N.D. Haksar, formidable, versatile and prolific translator of Sanskrit texts, gives us a gentle and very sweet version of Arya Shura’s Jatakamala from the fourth century, overflowing with the Buddhist virtues of generosity and compassion towards all living creatures. The translation is a reprint and we must be grateful to Harper Collins for rescuing it from wherever it had been abandoned. As we all know, the Jatakas are the stories of the Buddha’s previous births where, as a Boddhisattva, he defers his own enlightenment for a lifetime so that he can help other sentient beings break through the endless cycle of rebirth and redeath. There are stories that we know well, like the one about King Shibi, renowned in the three worlds for his unending capacity to give. Indra instigates a sightless brahmin to ask the king for one of his eyes and the Boddhisattva king immediately gives him both his eyes. What is interesting when we read the Jatakamala stories together is the fact that it is very often Indra, king of the gods, who challenges the Boddhisattva. He asks for the impossible, places obstacles in the Boddhisattva’s way, tries to persuade him away from the tenets and practice of his religion. A common trope in these stories (and definitely one of my favourites), is when a merchant prince or, a similarly rich man who simply cannot stop giving, is confronted either by Mara or an agent of Indra’s and told that such conscious and continuous charity is actually a bad thing as it betrays a nature addicted to giving. Of course, the rich man is steadfast, usually admitting that while excessive giving might well be a vice, it’s too late now for him to be ‘cured’. What we could be witnessing here is the competition between Hinduism and Buddhism, each creed fighting for the loyalty and commitment of a pluralistic and religiously fluid populace. Of course, since these are Buddhist stories, the (Hindu) gods are defeated by the wit and wisdom of the Boddhisattva and his followers. Stories that feature the Buddha and the Hindu gods remind us how close Hinduism and Buddhism were, existing in the same geographical and social places. Often, Jainism was there, too. Mostly, at the time when these texts were compiled, Buddhism was the dominant religion in the area. This historical fact should make us wary ...


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