Some Observations on the Poetic Style of the Oldest Mahāvīra-Eulogy

Posted: 26.12.2010
Updated on: 24.01.2011


Some Observations on the Poetic Style of the Oldest Mahāvīra-Eulogy

(SūyagaBaNga Part 1, Chapter 6)

The so-called “Seniors of the Jain canon” are composed mainly in stanzas, and even the prose texts of the first part of Āyār’aṅga, the first and oldest of the four contain fragmentary metrical pieces, as Walther Schubring discovered and demonstrated in the text presentation of his critical edition.[1] Besides the predominant meters which were developed from Vedic anuṣṭubh and triṣṭubh/jagatī, the reader will find vaitālīya/aupacchandasaka as well as the older form of the āryā meter and - as secondary insertions in some chapters of the Uttarajjhāyā - the new āryā meter, too. [2] Nevertheless the aesthetic pretensions of the metrical and stylistic features mostly do not match the concern with substance which is conveyed by these works. So it is not surprising we get only little information about any artistic claim, let alone rhetorical or poetical training, of the respective authors or redactors.

In later times, however, Jaina Paṇḍits were able to utilize the vehicle of literary style for their task of teaching. Some of their techniques of using poetical devices Colette Caillat has demonstrated in her contribution to a congratulatory volume dedicated to Jan Gonda in 1972 presenting examples from Candavejjhaya Painna, a work composed in the modern form of the āryā meter and belonging to the latest stratum of the canon.[3] In her article, Mme Caillat referred to the important studies of Jan Gonda. Gonda, for his part, had documented and interpreted the occurrences of poetical features in the earliest sources of Indian literature, especially in the Ṛgveda, stressing the fact that Vedic texts were composed before rules of alaṃkāraśāstra-s controlled the modes of literary style.[4] Gonda elucidated that it was not the intention of any Vedic kavi to ‘make verses or poetry’, but to give adequate and solemn expression to the author’s inspiration (dhīḥ) and his knowledge of the divine. Vedic “stanzas owe their existence … only to ‘religious’ need”, not “to a desire to create something beautiful”.

Regarding the oldest group of Jaina scripture, Gonda’s statements mutatis mutandis seem to apply to some of the poems delivered in the Śvetāmbara canon also. Examinig that concept, let us have look at the sixth chapter of Sūyagaḍaṅga (Sūy. I, 6).

In so far as it is an eulogy of Mahāvīra, entitled Vīrastuti /-stava by tradition, the chapter is sui generis anomalous and to some extent an alien element within the content of the “seniors of the canon”, while in the younger Jainistic literature many examples of this kind (stotra), dedicated to single Jinas or to all of them, present rich and manifold varieties of its poetical genre. On the other hand, this special eulogistic feature suggests stylistic comparison of a text like Sūy. I 6 with Vedic hymns. The Vīrastuti is a metrical text, composed of 29 stanzas, triṣṭubh throughout.[5] Also the use of triṣṭubh metre, though tending to the specialized norm of upajāti in this poem, yet typical as well of the Ṛgvedic praises of god Indra’s deeds, prompts comparison of literary style likewise.

The author, a bhikkhu (Sūy. I 6,2c),[6] envisioned himself questioned by a great audience (Sūy. I 6, 1a.b), highly educated people, versed in refined discussions of religious themes (samaṇā māhaṇā ya), lay followers of his own (agāriṇo ya) and also of foreign creed, critics possibly (paratitthiyā ya). The object of the stuti, Mahāvīra, is named at the end of the sixth pāda, not directly, but by paraphrasing his identity, mentioning the qualities of jñāna, darśana, śīla (i.e. cāritra) meaning the mokṣamārga (cf. Tattvārthādhigamasūtra, Sūtra 1) of the ‘Jñātasuta’. The bhikkhu is not questioned to create a poem, but as a person who has knowledge (jāṇāsi ṇaṃ) to speak according to truth ( jaḥā-taheṇa) and to the holy tradition (ahā-suyaṃ), in accordance with his own perception (jahā ṇisaṃtaṃ; Sūy. I 6, 2c.d). [7]

pucchiṃsu ṇaṃ samaṇā māhaṇā ya agāriṇo yā paratitthiyā ya /
se ke imaṃ ṇiiyaṃ dhammam āhu aṇelisaṃ sāhu-samikkhayāe //1

kahaṃ va ṇāṇaṃ kaha<ṁ> daṃsaṇaṃ se sīlaṃ kahaṃ ṇāyasuyassa āsi /
jāṇāsi ṇaṃ bhikkhu jahā-taheṇaṃ ahā-suyaṃ būhi jahā ṇisaṃtaṃ //2

As can be seen by many Indian instances as well as from the Homeric Iliad (8th cent. B.C.),[8] and Odyssey, introductory stanzas like these correspond to ancient epic technique. The equivalent of this kind of proemium or prelude in later time’s rhetorical and poetical terminology is called prastāva or āmukham.

The poet begins his depiction of Mahāvīra’s excellence with an ‘enumeration’ of his qualities, setting the weighty adjective kheyaṇṇae (kṣetrajña)[9] at the beginning of a series of twenty predications (vv. 3a.b; 5a-d; 6a.b).[10] The device of assonance, treated by Gonda in a special chapter (ch. X; and see note 11) is characteristic of this enumeration of qualities as well as of the whole Vīrastuti. The series is interrupted by vv. 3c.d and 4a-d, where the statement “jāṇāsi ṇaṃ” (v. 2c) is answered, inviting the hearer to get knowledge of Mahāvīra’s teaching and to look at his constancy: “jāṇāhi dhammaṃ ca dhiiṃ ca peha” (v. 3d). By use of alliteration (anuprāsa) and chiasmus (yamaka) the request is “apt to create a certain tension, to arrest the hearer’s attention”.[11] 

Resembling a lamp (dīve va), Mahāvīra elucidates the dharma (v. 4d). This comparison is followed (beginning v. 6c.d ) by an accumulation of similes, describing the richness of Mahāvīra’s divine nature.

Most intensely, like the sun, Mahāvīra gives out heat - and (as is suggested by the verb tapati) practices austerity (aṇuttaraṃ tavai sūrie vā, v. 6c), he illuminates the darkness like Vairocana-Indra, who illuminates the top-most hell, named Ratnaprabhā (v. 6d). - Mahāvīra, the “muni Kāśyapa of quick discrimination” (āsupaṇṇe), who will lead to (or: is a leader concerning)[12] this highest dharma of the Jinas, is compared to Indra, the god “of great dignity” (mahāṇubhāva), “who has thousand eyes” (sahassa-ṇetā, v. 7d; or: “who is a leader of thousands”),[13] prominent in heaven. – “As to power of discrimination, he (Mahāvīra) is inexhaustible like the ocean or, let us say, like the sea, the further shore being far, far away” (v. 8a.b: se paṇṇayā akkhaĕ sāgare vā, mahodahī vā vi aṇaṃtapāre). - Without any impurity, without passions, free (aṇāile vā akasāĕ mukke, v. 8c), he shines forth radiating like Sakka, lord of the gods.[14] - As to his energy (vīrieṇaṃ), he is full of energy; like Sudassaṇa (i.e. Meru), which is the best of the mountains altogether, or rather (se, i.e. the Meru) is the dwelling of the gods, a mine of joy,[15] he gives radiance to all sides , endowed with many virtues (guṇa). 

se vīrieṇaṃ paḍipuṇṇa-vīrie sudaṃsaṇe vā ṇaga-savvaseṭṭhe/
surālae vā vi mud’āgare se virāyae ṇegaguṇovavee// 9

The comparison of Mahāvīra to Sudarśana (Meru) is heightened by a charming digression. The poet, seemingly forgetting the theme of his stuti, starts a beautiful description of the central mountain, glorifying its splendour in four stanzas (vv. 10-13).

This kind of digression represents a pattern of style, which at first had been observed by interpreters of classical Greek literature and has been called “ring composition”, where the heart of a poem or passage is framed by matching “bookends”. It was discussed in a broader frame with especially instructive examples by Hermann Fraenkel.[16] Gonda remarked, concerning examples of ‘ring composition’ from the Śatapathabrāhmaṇa, that “this structure which was doubtless borrowed from colloquial usage is a well-known feature in archaic literary composition.[17] 

The passage of vv. 11-13 appears as a climax of the poem. It deserves appreciation and further study as a simile not only in comparison with other descriptions of famous mountains in Indian literature, but also and especially as reflecting the picture, portrayed in the Aupapātikasūtra, of Mahāvīra himself, standing in the center of the samavasaraṇa and proclaiming salvation to the whole world.

In v. 14, a stanza lacking in poetic brilliancy, the author returns to his object:

Sudaṃsaṇass’ esa jaso girissa pavuccatī mahato pavvatassa/
etovame samaṇe ṇātaputte jāī-jaso-daṃsaṇa-ṇāṇa-sīle// 14

“Thus is described the glory of mount Sudarśana, the great mountain; similar to it is the Śramaṇa Nāyaputra, who is noble, glorious, full of faith, knowledge and virtue.” (Trs. Hermann Jacobi)[18]


V. 15 comparing Mahāvīra with Niṣaḍha and Rucaka, two mountain peaks of immense mass and proportions, both well-known from cosmographical texts and frequently mentioned together, has the appearance of a scholastic interpolation. It rather diminishes the effect of the magnificent simile that precedes it.

Then we come to stanzas 16 and 17, extolling by a threefold anaphora[19] Mahāvīra’s teaching of the best dharma (aṇuttaraṃ dhammaṃ), his dwelling in the stage of most profound meditation (aṇuttaraṃ jhāṇaṃ), which is the whitest of all stages of white (su-sukka-sukkaṃ) meditation, and his reaching the condition of perfection (agg’aṇuttaraṃ siddhiṃ gaiṃ). These stanzas may, in my view, be read as the quintessential point of the poem. It also could be assumed that the poet intended to conclude his text here, encircling the poem as a whole with the second ‘bookend’ of a framing ‘ring-composition’. The ring is closed in v. 17c.d, when the poet refocuses on v. 2a.b, answering the audience, who had asked (v. 2a.b, cf. supra, p. 4):

“Of which kind was his knowledge, of which kind his faith, of which kind the observances of the Nāyaputra?”

In response to the threefold question the poet responds with a single answer, supported by all three qualities into which the audience inquired (v. 17c.d):

“The condition of perfection, which has a beginning, but does not end, he has reached by knowledge, by observances, by faith”.

kahaṃ va ṇāṇaṃ kahaṁ daṃsaṇaṃ se sīlaṃ kahaṃ ṇāyasuyassa āsi / v.2a.b
siddhiṃ gaiṃ sāi-m-aṇaṃtaṁ patte ṇāṇeṇa sīleṇa ya daṃsaṇeṇa //17.ce

But the praise of Mahāvīra goes on – or better to say: it begins anew, guided by another idea and religious feeling. Formally connected to the foregoing by word-responsion (ṇāṇeṇa sīleṇa ya, v. 17d = 18d), the next stanza introduces a series of similes (vv. 18-24), characterized by a different pattern of poetic style. 

The seven stanzas, constructed in a way that is more or less homogeneous, but not always clear in respect of grammar, are reproduced here and translated, following Jacobi’s rendering (cf. supra note 19) as far as possible, but unapologetically laying bare their grammatical deficiency:

rukkhesu ṇāe jaha sāmalī vā jaṃsī raiṃ veyayantī suvaṇṇā/ 
vaṇesu yā ṇaṃdaṇam āhu seṭṭhaṃ, ṇāṇeṇa sīleṇa ya bhūipaṇṇe//18

„As among trees is famous (jñāta) the Śālmali, in which the Suparṇa gods take their delight, and among parks Nandana is called the best; by knowledge and observances he (sc. Mahāvīra), full of ascetic power and discrimination (bhūipaṇṇe).[20]

The second half of this stanza was translated by Jacobi: “As Nandana is among parks, so is the Omniscient most famous through his knowledge and virtue.” Probably that is what the poet had wanted to say, and Jacobi might have read the variant seṭṭhe for seṭṭhaṃ in his copy of the text and then interpreted ṇandaṇa-m (the –m- being inserted to avoid the hiatus) as a nominative; āhu then would have been inserted as a parenthesis “as they say” (the same construction in v. 21a hatthīsu erāvaṇa-m āhu ṇāe). Nevertheless seṭṭhe in v. 18c as the predicate in the first line belongs to ṇandaṇa, there is no Prakrit equivalent of Jacobi’s “so” (like taha) in v. 18d; and bhūipaṇṇe, the subject in v. 18d does not mean “omniscient”.

This is not the place for analyzing the grammatical style throughout the whole series of similes, butthese brief comments may suffice to show that v. 18 does not appropiately join to v. 17c.d. This hard transition may be further evidence of scholastic interpolation and possible loss of the poet’s original words, for which scholastic interpolation may have been substituted. - 

thaṇiyaṃ va saddāṇa aṇuttaraṃ u caṃde va tārāṇa mahāṇubhāve/
gandhesu vā candaṇam āhu seṭṭhaṃ, evaṃ muṇīṇam apaḍiṇṇam āhu // 19

“As thunder is the loudest of sounds, as the moon is of high dignity among the stars, (as) among perfumes sandal is called the best, so among monks (he) is called incomparable”. 

jahā sayaṃbhū udahīṇa seṭṭhe ṇāgesu vā dharaṇindam āhu seṭṭhaṃ /
kho'odae vā rasa-vejayante tahovahāṇe muṇi vejayante // 20

"As (the ocean on which sleeps) Svayambhū is the best of seas, or as among the nāgas Dharaṇendra is called the best, or (as) the Kṣododa-Ocean (is) the Indra-flag of juice, so by his practice of asceticism the monk (Mahāvīra) is an Indra-flag.”

hatthīsu erāvaṇa-m āhu ṇāe sīho migāṇaṃ salilāṇa gaṅgā /
pakkhīsu vā garule veṇudeve ṇivvāṇa-vādīṇ’ iha ṇāyaputte //21

“Among elephants Airāvaṇa, as they say, is the leader (and: “famous”, cf. v. 18a)[21], the lion (is the leader) of animals, of rivers (it is) the Gaṅgā, of birds (it is) Garuḍa, the Veṇudeva; of them, who teach the Nirvāṇa[22] (it is) this here, the Nāyaputra.” 

The compound “nirvāṇa-vādin” until now has not been verified in dictionaries of Sanskrit or Middle-Indian, as far as I know; the Āgama Śabdakoṣa mentions this stanza only. 

johesu ṇāe jaha vīsaseṇe pupphesu vā jaha aravinda-m āhu/
khattīṇa seṭṭhe jaha dantavakke isīṇa seṭṭhe taha Vaddhamāṇe// 22

“As among warriors Viṣvaksena is the famous leader, or among flowers the lotus, they say, as the best of kṣatriyas is Dantavakra, so Vardhamāna is the best of ṛṣis.”

dāṇāṇa seṭṭhaṃ abhaya-ppayāṇaṃ saccesu vā aṇavajjaṃ vayanti/
tavesu vā uttamaṁ bambhaceraṃ log'uttame samaṇe Nāyaputte// 23

“The best of gifts is providing security, or among true speech utterances, that one which does not hurt, they call (the best speech?); among religious austerities the highest is chastity, the highest in the world is the śramaṇa Nāyaputra.” 

ṭhiīṇa seṭṭhā lavasattamā vā sabhā suhammā va sabhāṇa seṭṭhā /
ṇivvāṇaṁ seṭṭhaṃ jaha savvadhammā ṇa ṇāyaputtā para-m atthi ṇāṇī // 24

“As the Lavasaptamas are the best of those gods who live very long, as the palace Saudharman is the best of heavenly abodes, as Nirvāṇa is the best in comparison with all principles,[23] so there is no wiser man than Nāyaputra.”

These seven stanzas, which present a plethora of strong poetic imagery, aggregated and serially concatenated, leave no doubt as to Mahāvīra’s pre-eminence in the relevant qualities, in each case praised in the fourth pāda of the respective triṣṭubh verse. It seems that here the author tried something new, as perhaps he experimented in a poetic structure to which he was until now unaccustomed. At first sight this structure gives the impression it could be the ‘priamel’, a form used in other literature through ages from Homer to baroque poetic art.

The name ‘priamèle’ (from latin praeambulum) had been given by F.-G. Bergmann, who was the first to collect occurrences and to define this kind of rhetoric and poetic device theoretically.[24] Bergmann discussed examples from didactic literature, including Indian sources, especially Bhartṛhari.

Since then, attention of philologists was focused on ‘priamel’, and further examples, also, for instance, from the Old Testament, were discovered and analyzed. In 1982 William H. Race, in his book entitled “The Classical Priamel Homer to Boethius”[25] examined ‘The Relationship of the Priamel to Other Rhetorical Forms’ (pp. 17-30)[26] and discussed numerous occurrences of this stylistic figure, commenting on his examples generally in chronological order.[27] At the beginning of his work (‘Preface’, p. 1), Race provides the reader with “a brief description”, a generally workable operational definition, of his object of research:

“A priamel is a poetic/rhetorical form which consists, basically, on two parts: ‘foil and ‘climax’. The function of the foil is to introduce and highlight the climatic term by enumerating or summarizing a number of ‘other’ examples, subjects, times, places or instances, which then yield (with varying degrees of contrast or analogy) to the particular point of interest or importance.”

Inspecting our stanzas (Sūy. I,6, 18-24) in the light of this description, we might call them a series of priamels,if we dispense with the claim that the meaning of “foil” is ‘enhancing a person or a thing by contrasting it against another’ in the first line. While it is a distinguishing mark from classical literature that over against the opinion of “others” the speaker of the poem sets his or her own view as a subjective proclamation, the comparisons of vv. 18-24 do not strictly follow this pattern. The poem compares many wonderful things which may be familiar to the audience as a foil to emphasize the great qualities of Mahāvīra.

Jan Gonda was unable to find the priamel structure in the Vedas, and indeed, if we recall that the Vedic hymns and Vedic prose are normative texts, we may well conclude there was no room for individual, subjective statements with a foil leading up to a climax. The same observation may be valid with regard to religious texts of later times, especially stotras or a poem like Sūy. I 6, the Vīrastava. Here also, the poet needs assurance and by forming his poem as he does, he assures himself of alignment with a view of the world as a system advancing a standard of values and a fixed order of priorities at the highest place of which resides a divine ideal: Mahāvīra (log'uttame samaṇe Nāyaputte, v. 23d). 

The author of these stanzas did not invent the figure of style that he uses as an ornament here. A model existed already in Buddhist literature that must have been well known in our poet’s time. 

Let me cite as a first example a prose text from the Majjhima Nikāya in archaizing festive language (the brahman Gaṇakamoggallāna thanks the Buddha for the instruction he has given him):

Seyyathā pi, bho Gotama,
ye keci mūlagandhā kāḷānusārikaṃ tesaṃ aggaṃ akkhāyati,
ye keci sāragandhā lohitacandanaṃ tesaṃ aggaṃ akkhāyati,
ye keci pupphagandhā vassikaṃ tesaṃ aggaṃ akkhāyati,
evam eva kho bhoto Gotamassa ovādaṃ param ajjadhammesu
. MN III, 6-7: Gaṇakamoggallāna Sutta (107).

That, Master Gotama, is as - 
Whatever root perfumes there are, black orris root is reckoned as the best (agram “pinnacle”) of them,
whatever wood perfumes there are, red sandalwood is reckoned as the best of them,
whatever flower perfumes there are, jasmine is reckoned as the best of them.
just so, yours, master Gotama’s speech is supreme among the teachings of today.

An artistically refined anuṣṭubh stanza, distinguished by the same stylistic figure is presented, for example, by the fragmentarily preserved Varṇārhavarṇastotra of the famous poet Mātṛceṭa:

tvad-rūpam iva rūpāṇāṃ tvac-cittam iva cetasām /
tvad-dharma iva dharmāṇām agryaḥ prāṇabhṛtām asi //v. 3,22 [28]

As your body among bodies, as your intellectual power among intellectual powers, as your teaching among teachings, so you are pinnacle-like (agryaḥ) among breathing beings.

This type of comparison was called “agraprajñapti” in Buddhist tradition.[29] In western dictionaries it was noted as a term at first from a passage in the Aṅguttara-Nikāya: [30]

Cattasso imā bhikkhave aggapaññattīo. Katamā catasso? 

The short sūtra, which may have been composed as a joke, is a priamel also, in so far as the Buddha here is contrasted with the ‘foil’ of Rāhu, Mandhātṛ and Māra.[31]

In the chapter on Sarvajñatā and Sarvākārajñatā of the chinese version of Nāgārjuna’s Mahāprajñāpāramitāśāstra is contained a list of eleven agraprajñaptis, beginning with images similar to those of our poem ­

“among all sources of light (prabhā) the sun (āditya) is the first, among all men the noble king cakravartin is the first, among all lotuses (padma) the blue lotus (nīlotpala) is the first, among all flowers that grow on earth (sthalajapuṣpa) the jasmine (sumanā) …, among all tree fragrances the gośīrṣa-sandalwood …” – and ending with the praise of Nirvāṇa: “among all dharmas, the nirvāṇa is the first.” (see above, stanza 24 with footnote 24).[32]

In form of conventionalized statements the agraprajñapti always refers to the Buddha himself or to the triratna (Buddha – dharma – saṅgha), a fact, which may have induced the author of Sūy. I, 6, 18-24, to apply this pattern of literary style for his purpose of praising Mahāvīra by a special feature of poetry.



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