By Darshanie Ratnawalli –
A picturesque Sinhalese belief, almost certainly sired by the Hela-havula movement has it that the term ‘Sihala’ has no relation to lion killing as that 10th century AD authority, Dampiya Atuva Gatapadaya claims[i], but is derived from the ‘Siv Hela’ or the quartet of Hela tribes; Yaksa, Deva, Naga and Raksa. It has no validity as a serious theory. A cursory examination into the antecedents of Yaksas, Nagas, Devas and Raksas would reveal them to be long-standing VIP citizens of the Indo-Aryan myth pool whose special clearance status; ‘fantasy-non human’ entitles them to unrestricted and simultaneous residence privileges in multiple States. However, the Siv-Hela theory works beautifully as allegory if it is bent to mean that the ancient Sinhalese, like all peoples in the morning of the civilized world, whose capacity for fantasy was yet un-dimmed, existed in an enriched plane of reality with the Yaksas, Nagas, Devas and Raksas; which quartet by reason of their habitation within the Hela life-world and their internalization by the Helas can be called Siv-Hela. Only, this bent version, emphasizing the Hela world’s orbit within the Indo-Aryan cultural universe won’t really assuage the indigenist yearnings of a Hela-havulist.
This cannot be helped Watson. There was a Yaksha called Chittaraja who was current among certain north Indian IA speaking peoples in the pre-Christian centuries. We know this because he makes a guest appearance in the Kuru Dhamma Jātaka[ii] (read). The king of Kurus bearing the name Dhananjaya, which is a well-known epithet of Arjuna, the third Pandava (p143, Vogel: 1926[iii]– full text), does something with the Yaksha Chittaraja at the Kattika Feast held every third year. Following the tradition of Kuru kings, he dresses up like a god and standing in the presence of Chittaraja, shoots multi colored arrows decked with flowers to the four points of the compass. Meanwhile, in another part of the Indo-Aryan myth pool made solid by Mahavansa narrative, king Pandukabhaya of Lanka and the Yaksha Chittaraja sit on seats of equal height and enjoy erotic sports on special festival days (Paranavitana: 1929[iv]– read). In the Lankan story, the Yaksha Chittaraja is cast with a Lankan pedigree. Before his Yaksha birth, he was human, a trusted servant of Pandukabhaya’s father. The other thing Dhananjaya and Pandukabhaya share apart from Chittaraja is the name Pandu. Dhananjaya/Arjuna is a Pandu prince whose father is Pandu Raja[v]. Pandukabhaya’s maternal grandfather is Panduvasudeva while his great grandfather is Pandu, a Sakya[vi].
Suppose Watson that you are doing a documentary on the habitats of various creatures of the IA myth pool for a pre-Christian Discovery channel. This week’s program is on horse faced Yakshas. Your voiceover would go; – “In a marvelous and delightful forest in the Himalayas overflowing with all manner of wildlife, dwells the Bodisattva born as a Kuṇāla bird, who is escorted, nay carried about, everywhere by three thousand and five hundred hen birds. This forest is haunted by horse faced Yakshas (Kuṇāla-Jātaka [vii]– read). A lone female of this species (equus yaksha) named Assamukhi lives in a vast forest in Benares at the foot of a mountain. The story of her food habits, love life and maternity is told in the Pāda-kusala-mānava jātaka (read). Assamukhi is immortalized in the early Buddhist sculptures of Bhaja, Sanci, Bodh Gaya and Pataliputra, wherein she appears sometimes in scenes depicting the Pāda-kusala-mānava jātaka, at times alone. In a later Hindu stele art from Rajastan, she appears among the peaks of the mythical hill Govardhana (Paranavitana:1929). In Pandukabhaya’s Lanka, Assamukhi is called Vadavamukhi (mare-faced). Lankan chronicles (Mahavansa based on the earlier Sihalattakatha mahavansa) inform us that Pandukabhaya has installed her within the royal precincts (ibid). Nice for her to have a bit of a court life.”
Now Watson, you know that in ancient Lanka, the Jaffna peninsula was called Naga-dipa[viii]. Consider an analogy, you wouldn’t think that cows were essential to a storyline about a cowboy would you? This was the case in those few Nagadipa featuring stories current in north India in the pre-Christian centuries. In these, namely Akkita jātaka (read), Sussondi jātaka (read) and Valahassa jātaka (read), no Nagas make an appearance, although the theatre of action is Nagadipa or its neighborhood. In the Sussondi jātaka, the only story actually set in Nagadipa, Suparnas or Garudas, the traditional enemies of the Nagas are the residents (see also p32, Vogel:1926 ). If you are a Naga aficionado you can come away from the Nagadipa based jātaka stories unfulfilled. It’s to the Lankan chronicles you have to turn to assuage your longing to see Nagas in Nagadipa.
“Why should I long for Nagas?” you demand indignantly Watson. If you were an ancient Buddhist, you would. The Nagas are an integral part of Buddhism. They are canonical. They were part of the Buddha’s world and discourse. The Nagasamyutta[ix] meaning “texts on Nagas grouped together” sits triumphantly in the Khandhavagga of the Samyutta Nikaya (p37, Oscar von Hinuber, “A Handbook of Pali Literature”– read page). In both the canonical schools of Buddhism, the Pali texts of the Theravadins and the Sanskrit texts of Northern Buddhists, the Nagas figure prominently in the Buddha’s life. When he was born in the Lumbini Sal garden, two Naga kings Nanda and Upananda bathed him. This is recounted in the Lalitavistaraya, a Sanskrit text of northern Buddhism, a version of which was available in China in 308 AD. Hiuen Tsiang (AD 629-45[x]), the Chinese pilgrim recounts how he saw on his visit to the Lumbini garden “a stupa built by King Asoka on the spot where the two dragons bathed the body of the prince” and “two fountains of pure water” where the two dragons appeared from the earth (p95, Vogel:1926).
It’s no use being impatient Watson, saying it’s not to Lumbini but to Nagadipa you want to go. We can’t go direct. We have to cut from Nairanjana to Nagadipa. Now we are near the river Nairanjana (the river of the Nagas, see p97, Vogel:1926 ). It’s the glorious day when the ascetic Siddhartha attains Buddhahood. Sujata, the daughter of the village headman of Senani, Uruvela has just offered Siddhartha milk rice in a golden bowl. Siddhartha goes to the river Nairanjana, washes himself and sits down to eat the milk rice on the sand bank. Then according to the Lalitavistara, the daughter of the Naga king of Nairanjana offers him a jeweled throne to sit on. After he has eaten the rice he casts the bowl into the river. According to the Theravada tradition given in the Nidanakatha (p187-188, read), the commentarial introduction to the Jātaka book, the bowl floats upstream, sinks into a whirlpool and goes to the palace of the Naga king Kala. It strikes against the bowls from which three previous Buddhas have eaten and makes a sound. The Naga Kala hearing this sound exclaims; “yesterday a Buddha arose, now today another has arisen” and stands praising the Buddha in many hundred stanzas. The northern Buddhist tradition has it that the bowl when it was cast into the river was seized by the Naga king Sagara of Nairanjana and there was a tussle between him and Indra for it (p97, Vogel: 1926). But we will leave that for the moment and go back to Siddhartha seated on this jeweled throne eating milk rice.
Fix on this jeweled throne as if you are making a film Watson, caress it with your camera because this jeweled throne enables you to go to Nagadipa. It’s a film technique Watson to use a common object to move from one scene to another. When you pull back from the jeweled throne, you are no longer in Nairanjana, India you are in Nagadipa, Lanka five years later. Even though the person seated on the throne is Siddhartha, he is a Buddha now. Mahodara’s ocean dwelling Nagas, Chulodara’s mountain dwelling Nagas and Maniakkhika, the Naga king of the Kalyani river are before Him in attitudes of devotion (p119, Vogel:1926). These are the Nagas you yearned for in Nagadipa Watson. Enjoy them.
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[iii] 1972, 1926, English, Book, Illustrated edition: “Indian serpent-lore; or, The nāgas in Hindu legend and art”-(full text) by Vogel, J. Philippe (Jean Philippe), 1871-1951
[v] The five sons of King Pandu, Yudhisthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva appear in the Buddhist Pali sources too. Here’s a story snippet from the Kuṇāla-Jātaka; “Then Ajjuna, Nakula, Bhīmasena, Yudhiṭṭhila, Sahadeva, of the family of king Pāṇḍu, these five sons of king Pāṇḍu, I say, after receiving instruction in arts at Takkasilā from a world-famed teacher, travelling about with the idea of mastering local customs, arrived at Benares, and hearing a commotion in the city and learning in answer to their inquiry what it was all about, they came and stood all five of them in a row, in appearance like so many golden statues. Kaṇhā on seeing them fell in love with all five, as they stood before her, and threw a wreathed coil of flowers on the head of all the five and said, “Dear mother, I choose these five men.” The queen told this to the king. The king, because he had given her the choice, did not say, “You cannot do this,” but was greatly vexed. On asking however what was their origin and whose sons they were, when he learned that they were sons of king Pāṇḍu, he paid them great honour and gave them his daughter to wife, and by the force of her passion she won the affection of these five princes in her seven-storied palace.” Arjuna, appears as Dhananjaya in the Vidura Jātaka (Read) too. From Vogel: 1926, p143: “In the hero of the story (who is the future Buddha) we recognize a personage from the Mahabharata: Vidura, the half-brother of Pandu and Dhritarāshtra and consequently an uncle of the Pāndavas and Dhārtarāshtras. In the Great Epic he figures as the wise man whose prudent councils, too often disregarded, cannot prevent the fall of the Kaurava race. In the Jātaka he is the minister of the Kauravya king Dhanaṉjaya (a well-known epithet of Arjuna, the third Pāndava) who resides at Indraprastha (Pāli Indapatta).”
[vi] In the Mahavamsa universe, Panduvasudeva’s mother is a princess of the Madra country (Pali Maddas) in the upper Indus valley. In the Mahabharata universe, king Pandu is married to Madri, a princess of the Madra country. In the Mahavamsa universe, Panduvasudeva marries the daughter of the Sakya Pandu, the son of the Sakya Amitodana, the brother of the Sakya Suddodana, the father of Gotama Buddha. Also see Asko Parpola, “Pandaih and Sita On the Historical Background on the Sanskrit Epics”- (Full text)
[viii] “Subsequent references to Nagadipa in the Mahavamsa and other Pali writings, coupled with certain archaeological and epigraphically discoveries, have conclusively established that Nagadipa of the Mahavamsa is the present Jaffna Peninsula.”-(p180, “The Arya Kingdom in North Ceylon”, S. Paranavitana, JRAS Ceylon- Vol. VII, Part 2- New Series, 1961–Full text)
[ix] Nagasamyutta (read in Pali or English) deal with the metaphysical aspects of the Nagas. There are four types of Nagas; egg -born [aõóaja], womb-born [jalàbuja], moisture-born [saüsedaja], and spontaneously-born [opapàtika]. How a human can be born as a Naga of either type, how a Naga of either type can give up his Naga body, etc. Adjacent Samyuttas (index) of the Khandhavagga; Supaõõa Saüyutta (texts on Suparnas), Gandhabbakàya Saüyutta (texts on musician gods) and Valàhaka Saüyutta (texts on cloud gods) deal with similar metaphysical aspects of those respective beings.
[x] For the contribution of Hiuen Tsiang to Naga lore read Vogel:1926 , p94, etc.