A Hierarchy of Competing Causalities in the Jantūpākhyāna of the Mahābhārata (MBh 3.127f.)

Philipp Maas

The Jantūpākhyāna is a brief narrative that was incorporated into the main plot of the third book of India’s great epic, the Mahābhārata, possibly at some time in the first centuries of the common era. The story is told in connection with a long pilgrimage that four Pāṇḍava brothers undertake together with their common wife Draupadī and the sage Lomaśa to sanctuaries all over South Asia. When the travellers reach the hermitage (āśrama) of a king named Somaka, Lomaśa narrates the foundational myth of the sacred place to his companions. King Somaka has one hundred wives, but he does not manage to father a single son. After a long time, when Somaka and his wives are already advanced in age, he finally begets a son named Jantu. But Jantu is weak, and Somaka’s hundred wives pamper the son so ex­cessively that they completely deny the king all conjugal pleasures. One day, an ant bites the buttock of the boy, who starts to cry. His mothers join him in despair so that a terrible clamour fills the palace. The uproar forces king Somaka to interrupt his government business in order to comfort his son. Angry and depressed from being the father of only a single weak boy, he asks his house priest how he could become a father of one hundred sons, even at the risk of committing a crime. The priest knows a remedy. He sacrifices Jantu on Somka’s behalf. As was foreseen by the priest, the smell of Jantu’s burning greater omentum impregnates Somaka’s wives, and they give birth to one hundred sons, among which Jantu is reborn from his former mother. Soon afterwards, the king and his priest die. When Somaka arrives in the afterworld, he sees that his priest is roasted in hell, whereas he himself is about to enter heaven. Somaka enquires for the reason of his former priest’s miserable destiny and learns that it is the ritual killing of Jantu. For Somaka this retribution is unjust, and he complains about it to Dharma, the divine judge of the dead. In the course of the following dialogue between Somaka and Dharma, two conflicting theories about which factors determine the destiny of human beings in this world and in the afterlife clash. These theories are a) a theory of sacrifice, and b) a theory of karma.

a) Theories of sacrifice are the oldest recorded theories on how to influence one’s future destiny in South Asia. Their origin is the magic ritualism of the Vedic religion, the oldest stratum of which dates back to ca. 1750 B.C. The champions of theories of sacrifice maintain that virtually all goals in the present life as well as well-being in heaven after death can be secured by the correct performance of complicated rituals. Knowledge of how rituals have to be executed in order to achieve the desired results was the privilege of specialist, the Brahmin priests, who received payment for their service from their master of sacrifice. In return for their payment, the master of sacrifice experienced the result of the ritual action.

b) The theory of karma in its numerous varieties is younger than theories of sacrifice. The earliest full-fledged South Asian karma-theories developed around 500 B.C. in the milieu of the śramaṇa religions of Greater Magadha, of which Buddhism and Jainism are the most prominent representatives. From their time of origin, it took about 800 years before karma theories were more than sporadically accepted in Brahmanical circles. Although details among different schools and currents of thought differ, karma theories in general are based on the following four axioms: 1) The present life of all beings is a single instance in a beginningless and possibly endless succession of lives in different realms of being, such as the human world, heavens or hells. 2) Well-being and suffering in the present life result at least partially from previous actions. Well-being is the out­come of good actions in the present and in previous lives, whereas suffering results from bad actions. 3) Human beings (and, to some extent even non-humans) have freedom of will. Ethically relevant actions are based on the free choice of the agent. Accordingly, all beings are responsible for the well-being and suffering they experience. 4) The relevant actions in this life lead to future karmic results.

Karma theories and the theory of sacrifice reflect mutual contradictory conceptions of the relationship of human agency and its result in the form of a future destiny. According to karma theories, the actor causes a specific result for himself by means of his action. The quality of the result is exclusively determined by the quality of the action. In the theory of sacrifice, however, the human destiny is not influenced by ethically relevant actions in general, but only by one particular class of actions, i.e. by sacrificial works, for which ethics play no role at all. Only the correct performance of the sacrifice determines the quality of its result. Moreover, not the actor, i.e. the sacrificial priest, but his client, the master of sacrifice, experiences the result of action.

Are these competing theories mutually totally exclusive? If not, what is their respective scope, and how can they be integrated into a comprehensive world view? Are karma and sacrifice the only factors that determine one’s future destiny, or are there additional means? How do theories of causes for destiny meet the demand for a just and reliable world order? The Jantūpākhyāna as a whole, and especially the dialogue between king Somaka and the god Dharma, provide answers to these questions; not in the form of philosophically reflective teachings, but in the form of arguments that are based on implicit presuppo­sitions. By analyzing these arguments on the backdrop of selected passages from the Mahābhārata, the Dharmasūtras and early Mimāṃsā literature, I argue that support of an inclusivistic hierarchy of competing causalities is an important aspect of the Jantūpā­khyāna’s intention.