prabhAvatI in puruShapura and nAstika myth-making

The nAstika teacher paramArtha who operated in midst of the chIna-s ~525-569 CE, wrote a hagiography of the famous dharmAcharya vasubandhu of puruShapura (modern Peshawar in the Islamic terrorist state). In this hagiography he gives a sthalapaurANika account for puruShapura which is not found in any Astika source. We do not see this as an old “para-paurANika” myth but a neo-myth created by the nAstika-s by using preexisting sthala-paurANika material along with mutation and recombination. As we have noted before, this tendency possibly goes back to the tathAgata himself.

The tale goes thus:
The deva viShNu the lord of svarga, was the younger brother of the deva indra the supreme lord. The latter sent viShNu to be born in jambudvIpa as a prince, son of the king vasudeva, in order to subdue an asura named indradamana who was for ever locked in combat with indra with the aim of subduing him. The vyAkaraNa shAstra explains that the word asura means one without pleasure in virtue. While all deva-s regard virtue as their enjoyment, all asura-s take evil acts as their enjoyment. Hence, they are named so. The asura had a younger sister named prabhAvatI. The word prabhA means luster while vatI means lady. The asurI was possessed of great beauty. The asura seeking to kill the deva viShNu sought his sister’s help to seduce him. Through his mAyA the asura brought darkness over a part of jambudvIpa (i.e. the eastern part opposite to where puruShapura is located) so that nobody could see him. He asked his sister to remain in the part that was still lit. He further instructed her that if someone wished to marry her, she should state that her elder brother would object. And he told her that she should tell her prospective mate that she would assent to marrying him only if he could fight her brother. The deva viShNu saw the lady in the lit part of jambudvIpa and was exceedingly taken in by her charms. He asked regarding her background. She said: “I am a maiden asurI.” viShNu said: “asurI-s frequently marry deva-s. I myself have no wife and you have no husband. I wish to be with you and so seek to marry you. Will you agree?” She responded exactly as her brother had instructed her. viShNu said: “You think well of me so you are interested, and it is clear you love me, so I will not leave you alone. Since I have great strength I will fight your brother.” The asura went into the lit part and asked viShNu how he had dared to take his sister as his wife. To that the deva responded that he could object if viShNu had not been a hero. Since he was a hero and the two were unmarried there was no reason why they could marry. The asura responded: “On what basis you claim to be a hero. If you can win against me in battle then I would give my sister to you in marriage.” viShNu answered: “If you do not believe it, let us put it to test.” Then they seized their weapons and attacked each other. This one is an incarnation of nArAyaNa and no weapon can wound his body. The deva cut off the head of the asura but it joined back to his body. Similarly when viShNu cut off his hands, legs and other parts of the body they kept joining back. Thus, the battle raged from morning to evening. With his efforts viShNu was becoming tired while with the growing night the asura’s strength was increasing. Fearing that viShNu might not be able to succeed, prabhAvatI took a blue lotus flower and tore into two piece. Then she cast the pieces in opposite directions and walked in between them and came back again. The deva understood what she meant and seizing the asura tore him into two pieces and threw them in opposite directions. Then he walked in between the pieces and came back again. The asura died there after. Formerly, a R^iShi had given the asura a boon that he would be immune to being sliced. But the R^iShi himself desirous that he should be killed by the deva-s did not grant him immunity from being torn into two halfs and thrown in opposite directions. Hence, he died. A viShNu had showed his manliness (puruShatva) in this place came to be known as puruShapura.

It is likely that indeed the city of puruShapura was associated with an old sthalapurANa related to the above. However, the bauddha retelling presented above from vasubandhu’s hagiography appears to have been purposefully distorted by the narrator. There is evidence that this narrative was part of a “mobile” sthalapurANa system that also asssociated itself with other places in jambudvIpa. The cognate myth from an Astika source is obtained in the pradyumna-vijaya-khaNDa of the vAgvatI mAhAtmya, which is a sthalapurANa attached to the Bagmati river in Nepal from the Northeast of jambudvIpa on the opposite side of puruShapura. This mAhAtmya is supposed to be part of a much larger pashupati-purANa, which to our knowledge is only extant as fragments. The same narrative appears to have been transferred in this local milieu to other related texts, the nepAla mAhAtyma, which has its own pradyumna-vijaya, and the pradyumnottara of the himavat-khaNDa. Colloquial versions of the narrative found in these texts also exist in Hindi nATak-s which were enacted all over Northeastern jambudvIpa. A comparable Sanskrit nATaka name the prabhAvatI-haraNa was composed in Mithila by bhAnunAtha. In the Astika form of the narrative found in these texts we have an account of how the asurI prabhAvatI, the sister of indradamana, is married to pradyumna the son of kR^iShNa, along with the killing of indradamana. In the account of vAgvatI, the Nepali river is also described as being imprisoned by the asura and being allowed to flow upon his killing by pradyumna. These narratives, in turn, derive from the older version seen in the harivaMsha, where prabhAvatI is the daughter of the asura vajranAbha, and there is no indradamana.In south Indian popular literature the narrative of prabhAvatI follows the harivaMsha version in specifying vajranAbha as the asura. An Andhran scholar from the iShTaka-kShetra felt that an Telugu kAvya known as prabhAvatI-pradyumnamu composed by pi~NgaLi sUrana was inspired by the Hindi prabhAvatI nATak-s seen by his brother during his visit to Gaya. While he may have had his learned reasons for this proposal, we suspect this is unlikely for the poem of sUrana is structurally comparable to a play by the noted chera king saMgrAma-dhIra ravivarman (1200s of CE). This king is eulogized in the Sanskrit verse of the poet from the chera country, samudrabandha, and in Tamil/maNipravAla verse in inscriptions from Kanchi, Thiruvadi and Shrirangam. These two, along with the version of the same story rendered in poetry by the south Indian jaina samayasundara, all have vajranAbha as the name of the asura suggesting that they are unlikely to have derived from the northern versions mentioning indradamana as his name.

What paramArtha’s Chinese version suggests is that a version of the narrative with indradamana was already extant in the Northern sthalapurANa literature by the 500s of CE. He appears to have merged it with the jarAsandha mytheme in which jarAsandha had to torn asunder sagittally and his two half thrown in opposite directions. He incorporates it in order to slightly downgrade the Astika deity viShNu by needing help of prabhAvatI, the asurI to win the battle against the asura. He also tries to simplify the the avatAra side of the story by removing pradyumna and only vaguely alluding to kR^iShNa and retaining viShNu for most of the narrative.

In conclusion, these prabhavatI narratives should be seen as a mirror image of the mAyAvatI narratives. In those pradyumna marries the asura shambara’s wife mAyAvatI after killing him. There mAyAvatI helps pradyumna by providing him with mAyA tactics with which he could counter those of shaMbara. It is quite possible that this mytheme also inspired the nAstika paramArtha to incorporate a corresponding element of help from prabhAvatI into his narrative. The role of mAyAvatI and prabhAvatI, identified with ratI, and the appropriation of shaMbara’s killing (from indra) for pradyumna are aspects of early sAttvata pA~ncharAtra mythology that need more careful consideration.

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