To celebrate Kumkum Roy’s contributions as a scholar and teacher of history, Primus Books, Delhi, has published Of Thieves and Therīs, Potters and Pativratās: Essays on Early Indian Social History for Kumkum Roy, edited by Uma Chakravarti, Naina Dayal, Bharati Jagannathan and Snigdha Singh.
Best known for her research on the history of early India, Kumkum Roy has worked on sources as diverse as the Vedic corpus, the Therīgāthā, the Rājataraṅgiṇī and the Mahābhārata. A crucial feature of her scholarship has been her emphasis on the significance of gender in the reconstruction of India’s pasts. She has enriched our understanding of social history through essays and edited volumes examining institutions and processes, including monarchy, urbanism, caste, the household and renunciatory traditions.
The essays in the volume in honour of Kumkum Roy draw attention to various aspects of early Indian social history. The following excerpt is from Naina Dayal’s essay, “When a Man Raises the Flag of Dhamma but Conceals his Sins: Notes on Fake Ascetics in the Jatakas”. In her Introduction to the volume, Uma Chakravarti writes that Dayal’s essay “examines an important theme in the textual sources of early India: that of the ‘fake’ ascetic, an important theme that surfaces even in contemporary times, even if it is not acknowledged as that. Ascetics as conmen may appear to be an anomaly, but their presence is a very real issue in narratives, and argumentative polemics as a theme has even made its way into sculpture, where the fake ascetic is a cat in the massive rock sculpture in Mahabalipuram/ Mamallapuram. In Naina’s essay, … one can discern the dynamics of a polemical tradition of who is fake, and who is not, in the argumentative history of early India as ascetics and others sought to capture the attention and support of the lay public who were ultimately the audience for the fake teachings and provided support through gifts of food and other basic necessities for those who were faking asceticism to acquire spiritual capital.”
While the Jātaka stories are potentially a very rich source for exploring the lives of a range of people, the corpus has not been adequately mined by historians. A reason for this is that the stories are multilayered, and include accretions inserted during the long period of transmission and codification. One of the several stories about fake ascetics may be used to illustrate this problem. In the Biḷāra (Cat) Jātaka (J No.128), we are told that the Bodhisatta was once born as a big, wise mouse who lived in the forest with hundreds of mouse followers. A wily jackal (sigāla) saw the troop of mice, and made a plan to deceive and eat them. He pretended to be an ascetic—he stood on one foot, face up to the sun, breathing in the wind. He managed to fool the mice into believing that he was very virtuous, and was visited by them every day. When they were paying him homage, the jackal would eat the last of the mice, wipe his mouth, and stand still. When the future Buddha noticed that the number of mice had reduced substantially, he grew suspicious about the jackal. He made sure he was the last to leave after his followers had paid their respects to the jackal. When the jackal pounced on him, the king of the mice uttered a verse about those who put up a flag of dhamma but secretly indulge in sin winning the trust of beings with ‘the practice of a cat’,8 in short, a verse about someone evil masquerading as holy. The mouse king then leapt at the jackal’s throat and killed him, after which the company of mice returned, and ate the jackal with a ‘munch munch’ sound. It is important to note that the Jātaka verse refers to a cat, as does the title of the Jātaka, but the villain of the prose story is a jackal. This is an example of the frequent inconsistency between the prose and verse portions of the Jātakas, an indication of how the stories changed over time, and the difficulty of using them as source material. To make matters more complicated for historians, as mentioned earlier, apart from the story of a previous existence, the Jātakas describe an occasion in the current life of the Buddha, and end with a conclusion, where the Buddha integrates the tales and equates the protagonists of the past and present. In the Biḷāra Jātaka, a discussion about a hypocritical monk (kuhakabhikkhu) provided the occasion for the story of the evil cat/jackal who pretended to be pious.
The incorporation of animal stories in the Jātaka corpus is the most obvious instance of the appropriation of folk narratives. Scholars such as Patrick Olivelle have pointed out that, in the Indian imagination, the boundaries between gods, humans and animals are fluid—humans can become animals, animals adopt human roles and human speech. Olivelle highlights the didactic function of the beastly tales of Indian literature, including the Jātaka corpus.9 One could argue that the Biḷāra Jātaka identifies the characteristics of someone who is not a true ascetic for its audience. Uma Chakravarti has shown how the animal kingdom mostly reflects the hierarchies characteristic of the human world—so, for example, the mixing of classes is considered unacceptable in both the human and animal realms, friendships cannot be forged with those of lower strata. Yet, the beastly tales sometimes show support for, and even the triumph of, the weaker party, as in the case of the Biḷāra Jātaka. Chakravarti interprets this as reflecting ordinary peoples’ support for the underdog.10 One can add that the Biḷāra Jātaka may indicate that uncritical reverence to figures of authority (religious or otherwise) renders one vulnerable.
In the Aggika Jātaka (J No. 129), too, we are told that the Bodhisatta was born as the king of mice in the forest. When a fire broke out in the forest, almost all of a jackal’s body hair was singed by it. Only a tuft of hair remained on his head. When the jackal saw his reflection in a pool, he realized he could pass off as a holy figure with a crest (cụ̄ḷā), the kind with a shaven head but for a lock of hair. The jackal then pretended to be a worshipper of the Fire God, he offered to guard the mice while plotting to devour them, and they agreed to have him watch over them. As in the previous story, he gobbled up the mice gradually, till his villainy was called out by the king of the mice. From the Dhammaddhaja Jātaka (J No. 384), we gather that the Bodhisatta was once born as a bird who lived amidst a large flock of birds on an island. A cunning crow who was shipwrecked on the island realized that, if he could deceive the birds into believing that he was a virtuous creature, he would be able to eat their eggs and their young. So, he adopted the usual mannerisms of a holy man (standing on one foot, consuming only the air, uttering pious platitudes), managed to fool the birds, and ate up their eggs and their young. In time, the Bodhisatta realized that the crow was a hypocrite who put up the flag of dhamma only to fool the gullible, alerted the other birds, and killed the sinner. Again, as in the case of the Biḷāra Jātaka, the reason for recounting these stories of the past in the Aggika and Dhammaddhaja Jātakas was the presence of a hypocritical monk (kuhakabhikkhu). The stories indicate that those who chose the Buddha’s path, too, could deviate from his dhamma. They suggest that it is difficult to follow the path of the true ascetic when opportunities for an easier life present themselves.
10. Uma Chakravarti, ‘Women, Men and Beasts: The Jataka as Popular Tradition’, in Everyday Lives, Everyday Histories: Beyond the Kings and Brahmanas of ‘Ancient’ India, New Delhi: Tulika Books, 2006, pp. 205–6.