By Darshanie Ratnawalli –
Gautama Buddha, the pride of the Sakyas, c. 460-380 BC according to the latest consensus[i], was no empiricist. He lived in a wondrous world populated by myriad fantastic beings of the Indo-Aryan myth pool. A passage in the Chullavagga, an early text in the Pali Cannon gives us the Buddha’s eye view of the deep sea. According to Him, the great ocean, awe inspiring, astonishing and curious is “the dwelling place of mighty beings, among which are the Timi, the Timingala, the Timitimingala, the Asuras, the Nagas and the Ghandharvas” with the whole lot so constituted as to “stretch from one to five hundred leagues”.-(p32, Jean Philippe Vogel:1926[ii] –full text)
Going to the beach would have been such an adventure in the Buddha’s time. How exciting then to have been a long distance trader from the north of India sailing to new, distant lands in the south. What marvelous travelers’ tales would have been brought back about what new creatures! Er… no. No new creatures. A northern trader sailing south would encounter the same old familiar creatures of the Indo Aryan myth-pool; the Yakshas, Nagas, Suparnas, etc. It’s very like that old science fiction plot device; when you are escaping the Earth, you are really flying back to it.
To come back to Earth Watson, don’t you see what happens? Northern traders sailing south are agents widening the geographical horizons of their known universe. After they have discovered the south, so to speak, the northern storytellers step in and start locating stories in the new southern settings, which they populate with creatures they have grown up with; Yakshas, Yakshanis, Nagas, Suparnas. Thus, they annex the south, make it part of their cultural universe where familiar creatures of their own myth-pool walk.
From what other myth-pool were they supposed to get creatures, from the myth-pools of the Celts or the Greeks? I can imagine you asking crossly. But what about from the myth-pools of the indigenous peoples of the southern lands? Why do the people sailing to Lanka in the ancient north Indian stories (i.e. the Jataka stories) always encounter Naga-dipas, Yakshas and Suparnas of northern Indo Aryan provenance? Why didn’t they ever encounter- let me invent some creature features for the hypothetical native myth pool- “Olubuwas” or “Korossas”? Why does the Lord Buddha with his encounter with the Yaksha Alawaka back home still fresh in his mind, have to go all the way to Lanka to tame the same old Yakshas? Why not tame the “Korossas” for variety’s sake?
Suppose yourself to be a northern storyteller from the Indo Aryan cultural milieu in the centuries BC Watson. Fantasy plays a big role in how you understand the world. You believe in more than one world and you believe with all your heart in the Yakshas, Nagas, Suparnas, Pisachas, etc. In your stories, northern characters also encounter these magical species in the south. You see nothing wrong with that. These are creatures sans borders. They exist all over the universe. Maybe the natives in the south have a different myth pool inhabited by a different set of mythical creatures. But what’s that to you? You believe what you believe and your northern audience believe what they believe. For you to write stories of northern characters having interludes with mythical creatures conceived in the native imaginations of the south, conditions of equality should exist between the north and the south. So not the case.
Today we have at least a few remnant words of ancient native tongues in the Sinhala language; “oluwa”, “kakula”, etc. There may be more in the Sinhala dialect of the Vaddas. But all the creature categories of the ancient native myth-pools have been annihilated by the Yakshas and Nagas of the IA myth pool. Even the Vaddas came to call their ancestor cult, the “kin-Yakshas” or “ne-yakku”. This was one way the Indo Aryan cultural universe expanded southwards Watson. What a pearl of wisdom Holmes! I don’t think anyone has ever put it quite like that. Anyone could have Watson by mining that rich lode of stories created by the northern Indo-Aryan speakers of the centuries BC.
Take the Buddhist Jataka stories. The majority of them unfold in north Indian surroundings. You can’t walk ten yards in these surroundings without falling over some Naga, Yaksha, Yakshi or Suparna, that is to say a Garuda, the traditional foe of the Naga[iii]. A few Jatakas have key scenes set in the southern regions. All these southern key scenes center in Tambapanni, a synonym for Lanka. South India rarely comes within the purview of the Jatakas– (p66, G.C. Mendis, 1996). This reflects one difference between Tamil Nadu and Lanka in the pre-Christian centuries. It was the Jain monkhood that played the significant role in Tamil Nadu while in Lanka Buddhism ruled from the first. The much smaller corpus of Tamil Nadu cave inscriptions (30 sites with 89 inscriptions as against tiny Sri Lanka’s 269 sites yielding 1276 inscriptions) seems to represent the Jain monkhood to the exclusion of the Buddhist monkhood. “There is a significant influence of Jain Ardhamagadhi – and not of Asokan Prakrit – in the language of Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions”- (Champakalakshmi:2003[iv]–full text) Also in Y. Subbarayalu’s view, the absence of the term “sangha” in TN caves contrasting with its almost compulsive mention in SL caves is a clinching evidence for excluding Buddhists from the TN corpus:-(Subbarayalu, “Early Historic Tamil Nadu”; 2009, p108[v])
Akitta-jataka (read[vi]), marks a rare appearance of south India on the Jataka horizon. Akitti, the Bodhisatva ascetic leaves worldly life in Benares, comes eventually to Kavirapattanam in the Damila Kingdom, gets much respect and gifts there, likes it not, takes off by air, lands at Karadipa near Nagadipa and finds a solitary haven by a Kara tree. At this time, the Jataka informs us, Karadipa was known as Ahidipa, which means the isle of snakes. The Sakra visits Akitti in Karadipa.
An ascetic lives on the bank of the Ganges in the Bakabrahma-jataka. He assumes the shape of a Suparna to rescue riders of a pleasure raft from the rage of the Naga king of Ganges-(p137, Vogel:1926). In the steamy Sussondi-jataka[vii] (read), the Bodhisatva is a young Suparna in Nagadipa, aka Seruma-dipa at that time and the abode of Suparnas. The Suparna travels to Benares in the guise of a beautiful young man to play dice with the King Tamba of Benares, whose queen is the beautiful Sussondi. The Suparna and Sussondi fall in love. He causes a storm in Benares and under its cover carries her off to Nagadipa. While taking his pleasures from her, the Bodhisatva continues his gambling trips to Benares. Meanwhile, the King’s minstrel under orders to trace the queen travels from Benares to Bharukaccha and boards a merchant ship headed for Suvannabhumi (Further India). He is shipwrecked, floats to Nagadipa and finds Sussondi wandering on the shore. She tends to him as tenderly as a mother and takes her pleasures from him and hides him whenever the Suparna returns. Sometime later another ship of Benares merchants lands in Nagadipa and the minstrel gets back to Benares. He sings about Sussondi in the presence of the King and the Suparna. The Suparna is appalled by the wickedness of this woman, brings her back and comes no more to Benares.
Meanwhile in the Pada-kusala-manava jataka[viii] (read), Brahmadatta, king of Benares has a queen who sins and swears false oaths, “if I have sinned against you, may I become a Yakshani with a face like a horse”. Posthumously she becomes exactly that. She dwells in a cave situated in a vast forest at the foot of a mountain and devours men who travel from the east to the western border. She gets a warrant from Vessavana[ix], the monarch of the Yakshas to eat people in a certain space. One day she catches a handsome and rich brahmin, carries him to her cave to eat, but ends up making him her captive husband. Does it occur to you Holmes that the Jataka stories are sexy? Irrelevant Watson, but yes they ooze sex.
Imagine Watson that you are a travelling man. Crossing that vast forest near Benares from the east to the western border, you run into this horse faced Yakshani. You escape by the skin of your teeth. You are traumatized. You have nightmares and grow thin. Your physician recommends a complete change of scene, a long sea voyage. You sail south. With the sea breeze, the bloom returns to your wan cheeks. Your ship develops technical problems, you land in Tambapanni. And there is a Yaksha town called Sirisavatthu, inhabited by Yakshanis. Whenever there is a new shipwreck, they hoodwink the survivors to become their husbands and eat the previous batch of husbands. If they find no shipwrecks near the hometown, they scour the coast as far as the river Kalyani on one side and Nagadipa on the other. Welcome to the Valāhassa-jātaka[x]-(read).
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[i] For a quick glimpse into dates, glance at p5 of Full text pdf of Witzel, Michael E. J. 2009. “Moving Targets? Texts, language, archaeology and history in the Late Vedic and early Buddhist periods”. Indo-Iranian Journal 52(2-3): 287-310.
[ii] 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
[iii] See Chapter III (The Nāgas in the Jātakas- p132-165) of Jean Philippe Vogel:1926-(full text).
[iv] “A magnum opus on Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions”, R. Champakalakshmi in Frontline, Volume 20 – Issue 13, June 21 – July 04, 2003- (Read)
[v] Y Subbarayalu, “Visākī and Kuviraṉ, Historical Implications of Names in the Tamil-Brahmi Inscriptions”– in Early Historic Tamil Nadu, c 300 BCE-300 CE, Essays commemorating Prof. K. Kailasapathy on the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death, Ed. K. Indrapala, 2009
[ix] Vessavana = Sanskrit Vaiśravana, Sinhala Wesamuni