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Svasti - Essays in Honour of Prof. Hampa Nagarajaiah: Jaina Jaṭāyus or the Story of King Daṇḍaka 

Published: 28.12.2010
Updated: 02.07.2015


Jaina Jaṭāyus or the Story of King Daṇḍaka

The character of Jaṭāyus (also: Jaṭāyu), the vulture-king who joins Rāma, Sītā and Lakṣmaṇa's on their travels to Pañcavaṭī  in Vālmīki's Rāmāyaṇa (3.13ff), is well-known for having made the ultimate sacrifice, while trying to save Sītā from her abductor Rāvaṇa. In a passage considered to be a later interpolation to the main narrative, it is described how, though Rāma initially fears him to be a Rākṣasa, the aged bird soon wins his trust by introducing himself as a friend of Daśaratha, and son of Aruṇa and Śyenī in the line of Kaśyapa.[1] He offers to protect Sītā, which Rāma accepts on account of Jaṭāyus' friendship with his father, Daśaratha.

The vulture also occurs in some of the Jaina versions of the Rāma story. This paper explores the ways in which Jaina authors, in this case Vimalasūri's (Paümacariyaṃ 41), Raviṣeṇa, (Padmapurāṇa 41) and Svayambhūdeva (Paümacariu 34-35), reworked and transformed epic material, exploiting the possibilities which a character suc[2]h as Jaṭāyus has to offer to a far greater extent, and adapting it to a specific Jaina setting of greater coherence.

Setting: two munis

In the Jaina texts, Rāma, Sītā and Lakṣmaṇa arrive in the Daṇḍaka forest, near the river Karṇaravā, where they decide to take rest.[3] One day two munis approach, whom Rāma and Sītā duly honour. Sītā provides them with a meal.[4] As a consequence of the noble deed of giving food to ascetics, divine phenomena take place.[5] Simultaneously, a sick vulture notices the munis and remembers his previous existence.[6] In a mournful state, he decides to take refuge with the munis, falls into the water of their footbath and throws himself at their feet. Thereupon, the colour of the bird changes to the color of gems.[7] Seeing this, Rāma asks why this bird has suddenly become so beautiful.[8] One of the munis, Sugupti, then starts to narrate his previous birth.

This passage highlights some important differences between the epic and Jaina setting. In the Rāmāyaṇa, the vulture is a noble king, who has the ability to speak and is moreover a friend of Daśaratha.[9] Jainas, however, considered the vulture (giddha, gr̥dhra) to be an animal of a lower order, particularly for its scavenging habits, as is illustrated by the words of Rāma, "of ugly hue, impure and foul-smelling" and "the vulture, impure, eating all kinds of flesh and evilminded".[10] The introduction of the Jaina munis triggers the bird to remember his previous existence, and generates the opportunity of his previous birth to be revealed. He mourns his current state, since being born a vulture can only be the result of past evil actions. Another striking difference with Vālmīki's text is that here, Jaṭāyus does not come in aid and protection of Sītā, but seeks refuge. As exemplary Jaina lay people, Rāma and Sītā feel nothing but compassion for him and his pitiful state, as is emphasized in Raviṣeṇa's account, where Sītā helps the fallen bird and gives him some of the water from the munis footbath (41.41-43), and in Svayambhūdeva's account, where Rāma brings the unconscious bird back to consciousness with the water and Sītā declares she will care for him as for a son (35.2.2-7).


On Rāma's request, Sugupti reveals the vulture's previous life. In the area where they were residing, there once was a city, Karṇakuṇḍala, ruled by a king Daṇḍaka.[11] One day, as the king went out of the city, he saw a muni in meditation. He grabbed a dead snake and tied it around the neck of the muni.[12] The muni did not remove the snake, in order not to disturb his yoga. The king later returned and saw that the muni had not shifted. He removed the snake, fell to his feet and from then on became a protector of munis. When a mean begging mendicant (parivvāo, parivrāja) came to know of this, he entered the queen's chambers and made advances to the queen. Hearing this, Daṇḍaka angrily ordered all munis to be captured and crushed to death. One muni, who had left the city, upon his return saw the crushed bodies of his colleagues. He became so enraged that he burnt the entire city, including all its citizens, to ashes.[13] The forest is named after Daṇḍaka, but is now inhabited by trees and animals. After a long time, king Daṇḍaka was reborn as a vulture.[14]

Svayambhūdeva's account is more elaborate and contains some interesting deviations from Raviṣeṇa and Vimalasūri, the most significant being that Daṇḍaka is a Buddhist. While out on a hunting expedition, he became frightened of the sight of the muni, which he considered a bad omen. Therefore he killed a snake and tied it around the muni's neck, thinking it would disturb his meditation. When he returned some days later, the muni was still there, the dead snake still around his neck. At this point Svayambhūdeva inserts a discussion, in which the Buddhist king and the Jaina muni reciprocate some well-known criticisms of each other's beliefs. Daṇḍaka starts by ridiculing the muni's severe ascetic practice (tapas), which, according to him, is useless since everything is "momentary" (khaṇiu, kṣaṇika) (35.5.2-4). The muni refutes his statement "according to the Doctrine of Standpoints" (ṇayavāeü, nayavāda) as follows:

If one were to utter this exact argument again, then one would not be able to pronounce the word "moment" (khaṇa, kṣaṇa), because the syllables kha and ṇa would also be momentary, and pronouncing the word khaṇa would be impossible. The Buddhist teaching says thus: because of the momentary, there is nothing that has been produced, that is being produced or that produces [something]. [All] is momentary and only lasts for a moment. Because of Emptiness (śūnya), words are empty and spaces are empty. Everthing is in vain.[15]

These words silence Daṇḍaka for a moment. Then he retorts from a different angle, again attacking the muni's ascetic practice: "What one sees is all that exists. Then why would one practice asceticism?"[16] The muni replies:

We do not say that, for which the Naiyāyikas ridicule us, king. We accept both, the existence (asti) and non-existence (nāsti). We are not contested because of the Doctrine of Momentariness, like you.[17]

These words convince Daṇḍaka and he takes on the Jaina faith, becoming a protector of five hundred ascetics.

Another deviation in Svayambhūdeva's account, is an elaboration in the intrigue leading to Daṇḍaka killing all the munis in his city. Here, Daṇḍaka's evil queen Durnayasvāminī  ("mistress of bad conduct") with her son Madavardhana ("he who promotes lust") concocts a plan to accuse the munis of stealing from the treasury. The king does not believe the munis would ever steal, whereupon the queen sets up a scene in front of the king, in which a man disguised as a muni makes advances to her, after which the story evolves more or less parallel to the accounts of Vimalasūri and Raviṣeṇa (35.7.5-9.6).

The story of Daṇḍaka is further interesting, as it echoes another famous episode from the epics, namely that of king Parikṣit, son of Abhimanyu, grandson of Arjuna and father of Janamejaya, in the Mahābhārata (1.36-40). One day Parikṣit went out hunting and followed a deer deep into the forest. Tired and thirsty he came to a place where the muni Śāmīka (here a Brahmin) was sitting and asked him if he had seen the deer running by. As Śāmīka, who had taken a vow of silence, did not answer, Parikṣit, like Daṇḍaka, angrily picked up a dead snake with the end of his bow and draped it around the muni's neck. Śāmīkadid not react and the king went back to his city. When Śāmīka's son heard of this insult, he cursed Parikṣit to be killed by the great snake Takṣaka in seven days time. Hearing of his son's anger and the curse he had put on Parikṣit, Śāmīka reprimanded him and urged him to give up his anger, since an ascetic's anger destroys all the merit that he has so painstakingly gathered. The reaction of Śāmīka, the Brahmin muni, and of the Jaina muni in Daṇḍaka's story is almost identical. Both remain undisturbed in their ascetic practice and, devoid of any anger, forgive the king for his insult. The behavior of Śāmīka's son, who is also described as very austere, and that of the muni who reduced Daṇḍaka's city to ashes, are both illustrations of the destructive powers that are released by enraged ascetics, a popular theme in Indian narrative literature. Despite sending a messenger to Parikṣit to warn him of the curse, after seven days, the king is killed by Takṣaka. The motif of the king putting a snake around the neck of a muni is crucial to the narrative frame of the Mahābhārata. Parikṣit's son and heir, Janamejaya, bore a grudge against all snakes after hearing how his father died. In order to wipe out all snakes, he arranged for a grand snake-sacrifice (sarpa-sattra) to be held, and it is on the occasion of this very snake-sacrifice that the story of the Mahābhārata is told to Janamejaya by the sage Vaiśampāyana, as he himself had heard it from his teacher Vyāsa.

The authors of the Jaina Rāma story utilize the arrival of Jaṭāyus to narrate the origin of the Daṇḍaka forest. In the Araṇyakāṇḍa of Vālmīki's Rāmāyaṇa no information is provided about why the forest was named Daṇḍaka. It is only much later, in the Uttarakāṇḍa (70-72), when Rāma after his return from Laṅkā visits the sage Agastya, that he hears from him the origin of the name. There once was a king, Daṇḍa, the youngest of Ikṣvāku's one hundred sons. His father gave him an area between the Vindhya and Śaivala mountains to rule. Daṇḍa lusted after Arajā, the daughter of his family priest (purohita), and raped her. Her father cursed the king and his kingdom, that within seven days, the entire area including all its creatures be reduced to ashes, and later became a forest named Daṇḍaka, after king Daṇḍa. Some parallels between the Daṇḍaka story of the Jaina Rāma tellings and that of the Rāmāyaṇa are evident: king Daṇḍa(ka) infuriates a man who, through his austere practices, possesses superhuman destructive powers, in the Rāmāyaṇa the purohita, in the Jaina story a muni, as a result of which he and his kingdom are burned to ashes. The Rāmāyaṇa story of Daṇḍa is considered to be a later addition, possibly dating from between the first and third century AD.[18] This means that, depending on the date one accepts for Vimalasūri's Paümacariyaṃ, either the first, third or fifth century, the Rāmāyaṇa account may postdate that of the Jaina tellings. However, the narratives are too distinct to suggest any borrowing of the Jaina version, on the part of the later interpolators of the Rāmāyaṇa.

After the narration of the vulture's previous birth, the munis give an account of how they themselves came to renounce the material world, instruct the bird on how to live a good life and ask Sītā to protect him.[19] Then they leave. Lakṣmaṇa soon returns to the place where Rāma and Sītā had been and he is informed of what has happened. The bird is named Jaṭāyin (jaḍāī ) and stays with them, in Sītā's care.[20]

Jaṭāyus' death

According to Vālmīki's Rāmāyaṇa, Rāvaṇa, lusting after Sītā, asks his uncle Mārīca to take on the form of a golden deer (3.40). As the deer passes by the threesome's forest-home, Rāma, though wary of possible trickery, goes after it to fetch it for Sītā, instructing Lakṣmaṇa to stay and protect Sītā (3.41). At a distance, Mārīca imitates Rāma's voice calling Sītā and Lakṣmaṇa for help and Lakṣmaṇa reluctantly heads into the forest to help Rāma, leaving Sītā alone and vulnerable to her kidnapper (3.42-43). Disguised as a mendicant, Rāvaṇa wins Sītā's trust, but when he reveals his true identity and offers Sītā to come away with him, she rejects him and Rāvaṇa grabs her (3.44-47). While Rāvaṇa tries to carry her off, Sītā calls for Jaṭāyus, who was asleep nearby. Jaṭāyus immediately rushes towards them and rebukes Rāvaṇa for his base intentions (3.48). Enraged, Rāvaṇa attacks him and after a struggle, cuts off his wings, feet and flanks and proceeds with Sītā to Laṅkā (3.49-50). When Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa return to their home, they find Jaṭāyus barely alive and in his last breath he reveals that Rāvaṇa abducted Sītā (3.63). The brothers perform funeral rites for Jaṭāyus as if he were a relative (3.64).

In the parallel Jaina accounts (Paümacariyaṃ 44.29-55, Padmapurāṇa 44.59-111, Paümacariu 38.1-39.2) Rāvaṇa arrives at the Daṇḍaka forest to reinforce the Rākṣasas, who are struggling in battle with Lakṣmaṇa. As he hovers nearby, he notices Rāma and Sītā and becomes infatuated with Sītā. With the help of his vidyā, he imitates Lakṣmaṇa's voice, calling for Rāma. After reassuring Sītā and explicitely instructing Jaṭāyin to protect her, Rāma heads towards the battle-field and Rāvaṇa takes his chance to abduct her, striking down Jaṭāyin. When Rāma returns, he finds Sītā missing and Jaṭāyin dying and recites the namaskāra-mantra for the bird.

To counter the awkward situation of Vālmīki's account, where Lakṣmaṇa remains with Sītā, while Rāma hunts the deer, in the Jaina texts Rāma stays alone with Sītā, thus completely avoiding Sītā's harsh, insulting speech towards her brother-in-law in the Rāmāyaṇa, where she accuses him of plotting against Rāma and lusting after her (3.44). The motif of the golden deer has been abandoned, since Rāma killing a deer for the pleasure of his wife, would not conform to his so often stressed characterization as an ideal Jaina layman. Like in the Rāmāyaṇa, Jaṭāyin sacrifices his life attempting to protect Sītā, but since in the Jaina texts he is a simple bird, he cannot reveal to Rāma the identity of her abductor.[21]

Later events

Unique to the Jaina tellings, the character of Jaṭāyus returns at the very end of the narrative (Paümacariyaṃ 113.1-67; Padmapurāṇa 118.1-122; Paümacariu 88.1-9). After Lakṣmaṇa has died, Rāma, in denial, takes his corpse on his shoulder and treats him as if he were alive, washing and feeding him. Hearing of Lakṣmaṇa's death and Rāma's unstable condition, some enemies prepare to attack Ayodhyā. Jaṭāyus, who had been reborn as a god in the Māhendra heaven, together with another god comes to Ayodhyā to defeat the enemies and bring Rāma back to his senses. The two gods make Rāma realize that Lakṣmaṇa is dead and his actions are pointless, and Rāma returns firmly to the teachings of the Jinas. Rāma asks the two gods of their identity and their motivation for their noble efforts. Jaṭāyus reveals himself and describes his deed as an act of gratitude for the fact that through Rāma's intervention, by accepting him in his home and reciting the namaskāra-mantra while he was dying, he attained Māhendra heaven. 

Concluding remarks

In their appropriation of the popular story of Rāma, Jaina authors could have transformed, or rather, underlined the identity of Jaṭāyus as a tribal ruler of a "Vulture" tribe, already hinted at in Vālmīki's story.[22] After all, they chose to depict the Vānaras, whom Vālmīki also portrays ambiguously both as humans and as simple monkeys, indicating that they were originally a tribal people, as a clan of humans belonging to the Vidyādhara dynasty, thereby, and perhaps unwittingly, doing justice to a pre-Vālmīkian telling of the story.[23] Instead the Jainas resolved the ambivalence surrounding the characterization of Jaṭāyus by portraying him unequivocally as a repulsive and pitiable vulture, devoid of human traits, thereby sacrificing his primary function in Vālmīki's narrative, as the one who identifies Sītā's abductor. The Jaina poets chose to add to the coherence of the narrative by linking the bird to the place where they were at that time residing, the Daṇḍaka forest, thereby providing a didactically coloured interlude at a critical point in the main narrative, just prior to their encounter with Śūrpaṇakhā (here named Candranakhā), leading up to Sītā's abduction. Like all previous birth stories in the Jaina Rāma tellings, Jaṭāyus' past is revealed by a muni. Apart from illustrating the munis' supernatural powers, such as the clairvoyance obtained through their ascetic practice, the episode glorifies the benefits of being in their presence and duly honouring them, especially by offering food (āhāra-dāna). The stories of their own current and previous lives in Vimalasūri's and Raviṣeṇa's texts, describing their path to becoming ascetics, are meant to inspire their audience, especially Jaṭāyus, to live an austere life according to the Jaina precepts, even envisioning the possibility of world renunciation in the future. The story is moreover a tale of compassion. Instead of eschewing the sickly, vile scavenging creature, Rāma and Sītā take pity on Jaṭāyus and accept him into their home. In accordance with karmic logic, the souls of Jaṭāyus and Rāma remain connected, as Jaṭāyus later returns to rescue Rāma from his deplorable mental state and to reaffirm his faith in the Jaina path. Immediately after Jaṭāyus' intervention, Rāma renounces his kingdom and possessions, to live an ascetic life and ultimately attain omniscience (kevala).


Primary sources

  • Bhatt, G.H. (ed.).1960-1975. The Vālmīki-Rāmāyaṇa (7 vols.). Baroda: Oriental Institute.
  • Bhayani, H.C. (ed.).1953-1960. Paumacariu of Kavirāja Svayambhūdeva (3 vols.) (Singhi Jain Series, nr. 34-36). Bombay: Singhi Jain Shastra Shikshapith - Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.
  • Jacobi, H. & M.S. Punyavijayaji (eds.).1962-1968. Ācārya Vimalasūri's Paumacariyaṃ with Hindi translation (2 vols.) (P.T.S. Nos. 6 & 12). Varanasi, Ahmedabad: Prakrit Text Society.
  • Jain, P. (ed.).1958-1959. Padmapurāṇa of Raviṣeṇācārya - with Hindi translation (3 vols.) (Jñānapīṭha Mūrtidevī Jaina Granthamālā - Nos. 20, 24, 26). Kāshī: Bhāratīya Jñānapīṭha.
  • Sukthankar, V.S. (ed.).1933-1966. The Mahābhārata (19 vols.). Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Institute.

Secondary sources

  • Brockington, J. L. 1984. Righteous Rāma - The Evolution of an Epic. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
  • Buitenen, J.B. van. 1973. The Mahābhārata: The Book of the Beginning. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.
  • Chandra, K.R.1970. A Critical Study of Paumacariyaṃ. Muzaffarpur: Research Institute of Prakrit, Jainology and Ahimsa Vaishali.
  • Goldman, R. (ed.).1984-1996. The Rāmāyaṇa of Vālmīki (5 vols.). Princeton University Press.
  • Kulkarni, V.M.1990. The story of Rāma in Jain literature. Ahmedabad: Saraswati Pustak Bhandar.

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SVASTI - Essays in Honour of

Prof. Hampa Nagarajaiah
for his 75th birthday 7.10.2010

Editor: Prof. Dr. Nalini Balbir.

Publisher: Dr. M. Byregowda
K.S. Muddappa Smaraka Trust
Krishnapuradoddi #119, 3rd Cross,
8th Main, Hampinagara
Bangalore - 560 104 Karnataka
Ph: 080-23409512

Edition: 2010

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