Shoes, Ships, Self

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Of Shoes and Ships and Girdle-of-Gems

Salvation Through Virtue

On the occasion of a donation of footwear to the sangha, the Buddha is said to have related the Shankha Jataka [or, Samkha] (It is numbered 442:)  

When Brahmadatta was king of Benares, that city was called Molini.  At that time, a wealthy brahmin named Shankha lived there.  He was so rich that he founded six charities, one at each of the city gates, one at its centre and another at his own door.  He gave away lakhs (hundreds of thousands) on every day of the year. 

He soon realized, however, that if he continued on in that fashion his wealth would eventually run out, so he determined to sail to Suvarnabhumi, the Land of Gold, to replenish his store of riches. 

He had a ship built and outfitted, loaded it with all kinds of merchandise, and then told his family, "Keep on giving alms without interruption until the day I return." Then with his slaves and whole entourage, he took his umbrella, put on his shoes and, round about noon, he left for the port.

Now a pratyekabuddha high on Gandhamardan took notice of him and wondered, "Will this merchant suffer any hardship on the sea, or not? '' He meditated and discovered that Shankha would indeed have difficulties. "If he sees me," he thought, "he'll give me his umbrella and shoes, and for that gift of shoes he will find a floating plank so that he can save himself after his shipwreck. Therefore I will do him that favour." 

He came through the air, descending to land on the scorching noonday sand just a short distance from the merchant.  Shankha saw him and rejoiced: "That's a field of merit coming towards me, and today I will sow a seed there!" 

He hurried towards the daka, bowed and said: "Peace to you.  Please grant me the favour of leaving the way for a moment and coming under the tree." Shankha proceeded to the foot of the tree where he spread out his own shawl for the pratyekabuddha.  He washed the being's feet with filtered, scented water; massaged them with perfumed oil and then taking off his own shoes, cleaned them, perfumed them and passed them over. "Peace be unto you. Put this parasol over your head and go as you please." 

The daka accepted them as a gift, and flew away before his very eyes in order to amplify the man's faith. The bodhisattva merchant, his faith now increased,  continued on to the port and finally, the ship set sail.

Seven days into the journey, the ship took on water and could not be saved. All aboard her trembled in fear of death, and the cries as each one called on his own deity created a great noise.  Samkha, taking a servant with him, rubbed his whole body with oil, ate as much sugar with melted butter as he could and made his servant do the same.  Then  they both climbed the mast to observe the horizon, and the merchant figured out which way the city lay.  Alert to any dangers posed by sharks or tortoises, he and his companion jumped as far away from the boat as they could.  All the rest of the passengers perished.

The saintly merchant and his servant spent seven days afloat on the sea and even after all that time, he still purified his mouth with salt water in preparation for the fast day [of the full moon.] 

Now at that time, the gods who protected the earth had charged Manimekhala (Girdled with Gems) to keep watch over the sea: "If there is a shipwreck and anyone who has taken the Three Refuges, who observes the vow of holiness, or who piously worships their parents is in danger, you are the one who's to protect them." 

However, the goddess was so delighted at her new appointment that she neglected her duty that first week.  Finally,  on the seventh day while she was surveying her domain, she discovered Shankha, the pious and virtuous brahmin.  

"He's been afloat all this time!  If he had perished would I ever have been reprimanded!" she gasped.  So, taken aback, she took a golden bowl, filled it with heavenly delicacies, and appeared in the sky before the man saying, "It is a whole week since you have eaten anything, take this heavenly food." 

But he looked up and replied, "Take your food away; I am observing the fast." 

Now the servant who was behind him did not see the goddess, but only heard his master. "This brahmin has a delicate constitution," he said to himself.  " It is seven days since he's eaten anything and it has surely gotten to him.  Now the fear of death must be making him rave.  I'd better go and console him." 

The servant then recited this first stanza:

You may know a lot about dharma, Shankha, and all that good monks and brahmins do,  
But you've chosen a really weird time for talking, since there's nobody here but me and you.

Shankha heard him and realized that he didn't know there was a goddess there. He said, "My friend, I have no fear of death; I really am talking to someone else."  Then he recited this second stanza:

A charming beauty bedecked in shells says, 'Take this and eat,' as she extends her heaping bowl of golden hue.  
But since I'm observant, I had to decline, politely refusing with, 'No, thank you.' 

The servant then addressed him in this third stanza: 

Anyone in his right mind who thinks there's a deva would bow, inquiring with palms firmly pressed, 
Are you a mere flesh and blood woman, or one of those beings that we should call 'goddess?' 

"You're absolutely right," said the bodhisattva, and he recited this fourth verse:

Your concern for my welfare demonstrates that I'm blessed.
May I ask of you, Madam, if you are a woman or could it be you're a true blue goddess?"

In reply, the goddess recited these next two verses:

Shankha, I am your guardian of true high estate 
Drawn here by your plight and not from deceit.
Whatever you lack, be it comfort or transport, 
I'll fulfill any wish, you need merely report. 

Hearing that, he thought,  "In all the vastness of the ocean a goddess has appeared right at this spot to grant my wishes.  Is she doing this due to my merit or due to her ambition? I think I'll just ask her." 

So he questioned her as in this seventh stanza:

Are you the dealer of consequence thus come to reward what I dispense? 
Beautiful lady, full of grace, what have I done to see your face?

The goddess thought to herself, "If this brahmin is asking about his good deed, it's because he thinks I don't know about it. Well then, I'll just have to show  him," and she uttered this eighth verse:

Feet a-fire walked a beggar with panting throat all parched and dry.
You kindly passed him your umbrella and your shoes, so that is why. 

When Shankha heard that, he was overjoyed.  "What! on this great ocean with no respite, the gift of my sandals can bring me whatever I desire!  Oh! I really did well in being charitable to a pratyekabuddha!" He uttered this ninth stanza:

Then give me a swift-sailing, seaworthy ship and not just any old ordinary scow.
Please let me return to my own home and family -- back to Molini. Directly.  Right now!

The goddess was pleased to hear that, and she instantly fashioned a ship out of the seven gems. It was 840 cubits long, 404 cubits in the beam, with a draught of 20 poles [140 cubits.]  It had three ruby masts and rigging all of gold.  The sails were made of silver, and even the rudder and oars were gold. 

When Manimekhala had filled the boat with the seven kinds of precious stones, she kissed the brahmin and placed him on the fully equipped boat but she took no notice of his servant.  However, Shankha gave him the (marvelous) bowl as a reward for his good deeds, and so the man was delighted. Thereupon the goddess kissed him also, and set him aboard.  She herself navigated to the city of Molini, and after stowing all the wealth in the brahmin's house, she returned to her own domain.

"That goddess is to-day the nun Uppalavanna, the man is Ananda, and the brahmin, Samkha, is myself," said the Buddha.


Salvation through a complex of Karma, Effort, Wisdom and Devotion

There is a more developed story (Jataka 539) that includes an almost identical episode about Manimekhala, goddess of the sea.  This time the hero is King Janaka of Videha in Mithila who is well known from the Upanishads and other Hindu literature as a prime example of accomplished wisdom:

One day, when the monks were praising the Master for having left his royal estate in order to go on his quest and then preach the dharma, the Buddha intervened: "That was not the first time I left a palace,'' he said, and he began telling them the story of Mahajanaka.

Long ago, in Videha, there was a king called Janaka who had two sons.  The elder who was the crown prince and heir to the throne, was called Artha Janaka.  The younger  was called Pola Janaka, and his duty was as military leader. When their father died, they each took their rightful place but after a while, one of Pola's servants became envious and stirred up trouble for his master by slandering him.  He went to the king and told him that his brother was plotting to overthrow him.

The king believed the servant, arrested his own brother and threw him into prison.  Eventually Pola succeeded in escaping, but furious with his brother for having doubted his loyalty and innocence, he led an armed insurrection in which his brother, the king, was killed.

At the time, the queen was about to have a child so the late king's brahmin teacher helped her escape the uprising, and gave her refuge at his home at Champa.  There, in exile, she gave birth to a son named Mahajanaka. 

When he came of age, his mother told him about the jewels which she had managed to save, and Janaka decided he would use half that wealth to outfit a ship and sail to the Land of Gold.  "I will return with much more wealth and then be able to recover my throne," said he.  [His enterprise did not fare any better than that of Shankha's, for]

Seven hundred merchants had embarked on the boat; in seven days the ship had done seven hundred leagues, but on account of her high speed she could not hold out.  The planks cracked, water poured in everywhere and the vessel foundered in the deep ocean. 

The men wept and cried and invoked all kinds of divinities. But the great sage did neither weep nor cry, nor did he call on any deity.  When he saw that the boat was foundering, he mixed sugar with clarified butter, filled his stomach with it, soaked two of his robes which were very [closely woven in oil and wrapped tightly in them he clung closely to the mast.]  When the boat foundered, the mast floated, the men were eaten up by fishes and tortoises, and the water around was full of blood.

The great sage clinging to the top of the mast observed: "It is towards this direction that Mithila lies." He then jumped from the top of the mast over the fishes and tortoises and fell into the sea at a distance of one hundred and forty cubits. ... , and from this very moment he began to cross the ocean by force of his arms like [" a golden needle sewing a green mantle."] 

He swam for a full day and [then on and on and even] further on till the seventh day when he observed that it was [Full Moon Day. Then he rinsed his mouth with salt water] and observed the fast. Thereupon the four gods, the protectors of the earth, said: "If there are any beings that [merely demonstrate righteousness only by doing] honour [to] their mother and who are in danger of perishing in the ocean, a danger which they did not merit, you ought to save them." 

This is what they said to Manimekhala, the daughter of a god, appointed to watch [over] the ocean. But during seven days she did not cast her glance at the sea as the fortune she was enjoying had distracted her ... .  It is also said that th[is] daughter of a god had gone to an assembly of the gods. "It is now seven days," she said to herself, "that I have not thought of the sea. Let me see what passes there." She then perceived Mahajanaka. 

"If Mahajanaka had perished I would not any longer have been  admitted into the assembly of the gods." At that thought she went near the great sage, [and] standing in the sky with the ornaments on her body and addressing the great sage she pronounced the first stanza:

"Who is there that toils in the high sea without even sighting the shores? Thou shouldst know why thou makest such an effort."

The great sage told her: 

"Now it is seven days that I have been traversing the ocean and I have not seen any living being except myself. Who is there that speaks to me?"

He looked up into the sky and pronounced the second stanza: 

"I know what the world is and what the price of effort is. This is why I am striving in the ocean even without sighting the shores."

The goddess interested to hear him talking on religion told him in a verse: 

"In the endless abyss, thou seest not the shores. Thy effort is useless and thou runnest towards death." 

But the great sage said:

"Who tells you that? If after making all my efforts I must die, I will be blameless."

He who acts bravely does not repent. He [has] discharged [his obligations] with regard to all -- gods, parents, and ancestors.

As much as I can, I will exert myself. I will act bravely striving towards the shores."

On hearing this the goddess praised him in a stanza:

"On the vast ocean and without the shores in sight, thou makest a long effort without losing thy courage. Thou shalt reach the place which your heart longs for."

And she asked him still, "Oh, Sage of great energy, where shall I lead you?"--"To the city of Mithila" was the reply. 

 Thereupon she took him in her arms raising him up like a bunch of garlands, and pressing him [to] her bosom like a cherished child she shot forth through the sky. He had had his whole body burnt while remaining in sea water for seven days, and so he fell deeply asleep through the touch of the goddess. Thus she carried him to Mithila.

The tale concludes with the same words of the Buddha's as found at the end of the Samkha Jataka, that the goddess of the sea has taken birth as Uppalavanna, and so on.


See the illustration from a series of 10 cards on the 10 Perfections (S. Dhumphakdi & Sons Publisher, Bangkok, Thailand.)

Maha Janaka saved by Manimekhala because he persevered.

The Perfections

In the longer jataka, the hero's salvation  is due not only to his personal merit -- his practice of the Perfection of Generosity -- but rather it concerns the wisdom of Perfection of Effort (Energy and Perseverance) and "toiling in the sea without sighting the shore" as emphasized by the goddess' remarks. It is interesting, too, that here Manimekhala may have neglected her duty feeling giddy with pride, just as in the shorter story, but she may have "gone to an assembly of the gods.''

A variation is also told in a short form as an avadana or teaching tale on the paramita or "perfection" of viriya -- energetic pursuit of that which is ultimately worthwhile: 

"When the King of Mithila died, he was succeeded by his eldest son, while his
younger son became viceroy. The younger son was found guilty of mal-administration and was imprisoned. 

He escaped, raised an army and killed his brother in order to usurp the throne. The rightful queen, pregnant, managed to escape to a foreign country where she was adopted by a wealthy Brahmin.  She gave birth to a son, called Mahajanaka after his grandfather. When he turned sixteen, he set sail on a ship for Suvannabhumi. A terrible storm arose and his ship sank. 

After swimming alone for seven days, he was saved by Manimekhala, the goddess of the sea.  She flew through the air with him and left him in a mango grove in Mithila.  

In the meantime, the usurping prince had died and his daughter was to be given to the man who accomplished as  series of trials.   Since not a single person was  successful, the royal chariot was allowed to wander throughout the kingdom as a way of finding a possible king. It happened to stop before the sleeping Mahajanaka. 

The usurper's daughter married Mahajanaka, and after a long and peaceful reign, they both retired to the forest and became ascetics."

~ Thai version illustrated in temple frescoe.


The Manimekhalai: The True Story of Manimekhala and the Magic Bowl 

The sea goddess is also the subject of a classical Tamil poem of South India.  In the poem by that title, Manimekhala is the name of a human being but it is also the name of her protector deity or guardian angel. 

The heroine is the young daughter of a dancer who had had a tragic love affair with a merchant.  She is a paragon of chastity, charity and faith who lives in the port city of Puhar

In the Tamil poem, Prince Udaya pursues the beautiful girl and intends to abduct her during the celebrations of the Feast of Indra.  Her tutelary deity, Manimekhala, descends from the heavens to protect her and transports her far across the seas to a sacred island called Manipallavam where there is a marvelous seat (Skt. pitha) on which the Buddha had once sat. 

The place has the power to awaken people to their past existences.  In front of the seat is a tank where every year on the day of the anniversary of Buddha's birth -- full moon day in the month of Vaisakha, there appears a miraculous bowl which is never exhausted.  This is the very bowl which Saraswati, goddess of knowledge, had given Aputra (son of cow) who was one of her favourites and who used its never-empty qualities to feed the starving. 

Learning from foreign merchants that there was a famine on the Island of Java (Savakam) caused by drought, he boarded a ship with his marvelous bowl and set off for what is today, Indonesia.   Due to a sudden squall, the boat had to put in at the island of Manipallavam for the day. 

Aputra disembarked but then was unable to rejoin the boat in time, and got left behind on that deserted island.  Disheartened, he threw the bowl which was now of no earthly good as far as he could see, into the famous tank.  As he did, he made a wish: that it might come back once a year on that very day, if only a charitable person were to happen by.  Then the bowl-of-plenty would spontaneously manifest in those kind hands. 

Now it so happened that it was Buddha Purnima, and right at the propitious time the girl Manimekhala was being taken there by her guardian angel.  She received the blessed bowl and then her protector led her back through the sky so that she could bring it back home to Puhar.  There, holding the marvelous golden bowl, she made her way through the town feeding all the poor, the widows, and the orphans.

Meanwhile, the prince who had been pursuing her is killed by a supernatural being, but rumour has it that the girl is responsible.  Once again she has to flee and this time she travels through the air to Java where Aputra has been miraculously reborn of a cow, then adopted by the King of Java and finally, succeeds him on the throne. 

One of the king's ministers recognized the girl for he had been in Puhar before to sign  a treaty between the Javanese and the Chola dynasty, and so he takes her to the new king.  She induces King Aputra to make the pilgrimage by boat to the island of Manipallavam, and then flies there in advance to receive him and (once more) lead him to the sacred seat. 

The goddess of the island then approaches her to inform her that, just after her departure a catastrophe had destroyed Puhar, her home town. The goddess Manimekhalai had submerged the capital of the Chola king as a punishment for his having neglected the celebration of the Feast of Indra even though it was because of his son's death.  

''If you feel pain at hearing that Manimekhala, Guardian of the Sea, has cursed the city of Puhar this way," said the island deity, "You should know, by way of consolation, that the very same goddess years ago saved one of your ancestors from drowning, and that he subsequently became the most charitable man of his time."

Manimekhala then goes to Vanji (today known as Karur, west of Trichinopoly,) and then on to that great seat of Buddhism, Kanchi (Conjeeveram, southeast of Madras) where another famine was devastating the people.  There, she visits the magnificent temple in the centre of the city where there was a golden Bodhi Tree with emerald leaves, and she asks the ruler to construct there at Kanchi a replica of the sacred seat of Manipallavam, and also a temple to the sea goddess Manimekhala, and requests that he institute periodical festivities in honor of that deity. 

Those objectives accomplished, she goes on to attend the teachings of a famous saint called Aravana Adigal who explains the fundamental principles of Buddhism to her  and also gives her complete instruction in the logical arguments against heretics. 

He confirms the story of the events which she had been told at Manipallavam: "The King of Puhar had neglected the festival of Indra, so he ordered the goddess Manimekhala to sink the town."

"Your father's ancestor many generations ago was indeed shipwrecked.  He was lost in the sea like "a golden needle sewing a green mantle."

For seven days he desperately fought to save his own life.  Finally, he was attracted by what appeared to be a quivering white cushion as Indra ordered the goddess to save this future Buddha endangered in the sea.  She plucked him to her out of the ocean so that the Perfections might be accomplished and the Wheel of the Law set in motion.  

Your father had heard from the Charanas who were always very well-informed that such was the usual function of the goddess, Manimekhala, and that is how you got her name!"


SourceSylvain Levi's article "Manimekhala, a Divinity of the Sea" in The Indian Historical Quarterly, vol. VI, no. 4, 1930. (597-614) 


The name of the deity/title of the classical poem has also been transliterated as Manimegalei or Manimekhalai to respect the Tamil form.  Mani means gem, mekhala is a woman's brief lower garment, variously translated girdle, apron or skirt.  The name also might be a reference to the island chain called the Maldives.  (See Graham Hancock's  Underworld: The Mysterious Origins of Civilization.  Toronto:  Doubleday, 2002.)

pratyekabuddha: An awakened being who does not normally intervene in the affairs of the world, unlike a buddha.

Gandhamardan: "Perfumer of Man" a Himalayan hill in the Indian state of Orissa that is famous today for its iron deposits.

In his 1930 article, Levy demonstrated that Manimekhala, goddess of the sea, is associated with a definite locality in South India by drawing the connection between the Jatakas and the Tamil (Telugu language?) classic poem. (There is a Tamil sister/prologue poem known as the Silappadigaram [or, Chilapathikaram] ie.  The Anklet.) "Her original residence was at Puhar, ... , where the great river of the South, the Kaveri empties itself and which was one of the great centres of traffic between India and the islands of the Archipelago.  She had her temple, her cult and her festivities at Kanchi (not far from Madras,) the holy city of Buddhism in the south of India." 

She is only one of numerous deities known as "the guardians of the sea," but her  domain is "that region of the ocean which extends from Cape Comorin to the marvelous El Dorado of the Far East.  Beyond this zone of the earth and water she is unknown."  He adds that Manimekhala is still known by that name in the repertoire of Cambodian [Khmer] traditional theatre.

Land of Gold:  the Chryse Chersonesos that Ptolemy and the earlier Greek geographers described.

Mithila:  southern Nepal/northern Bihar -- the region between the Ganges and the Himalayas.  There is another tale concerning King Mahajanaka of Mithila that has to do with two mango trees, one barren and the other not.  In the Thai tradition, the two stories are told together.

Poompuhar, or Puhar is also known as Kaveripattanam (the port of Kaveri,) the town situated at the mouth of the Kaveri River on the Bay of Bengal.  It was the centre for trade between India and the Far East until it was ruined in the 15th century by the silting up of its harbour.  Now it is a mere fishing village though still a place of pilgrimage. 

In the 1920's according to Levy, the poetic work about Manimekhala was the focus of a scholarly controversy. The Nyayapravesa by Buddhist master of Indian logic, Dinnaga, was known only in its Chinese and Tibetan translations until a Sanskrit original was found.  Since the second to last canto (the 29th) of Manimekhalai, contains an exposition of syllogisms and sophisms with the same examples as The Nyayapravesa, there began a controversy over which came first.  If the Tamil poet copied from the logician, then he would have to have lived after the 6th century CE, but South Indian scholars claim a 3rd century date for the poem.

Also, Krishnaswami Aiyengar of the University of Madras published in 1928 a series of articles on "The Mammekhalai in its historical setting" that included a complete translation in which, Levy says, we can readily see that the poem is obviously an ancient Buddhist work that was written with the intention of instructing and enlightening its audience. 

A 1989 translation by Alain Danielou is entitled Manimekhalai (The Dancer With the Magic Bowl) by Merchant-Prince Shattan. NY: New Directions. [En francais: Manimekhalai ou le scandale de la vertu, Flammarion.]

tank: a  fairly large (usually) rectangular pool before a shrine or temple that is used for ritual immersion and other sorts of purification.

Feast of Indra: Indrajatra is an autumn festival dedicated to the king of the Vedic gods that lasts through four evenings while rituals are performed in his honour.   In Nepal, that is the time that the Kumari (Princess,) the Living Goddess, is taken in procession through the streets of Kathmandu to bestow her blessing on the country's ruler.

catastrophe:  There is evidence that between 200 and 300 CE, the city of Puhar including a large U-shaped structure which may be a temple, was swallowed by the sea.  Some think that this event occurred much earlier -- at the time of the melting of the last Ice Age.


Samkha Jataka: Some liberties have been taken with the nine stanzas in order to try and capture the flavour of the rhymed text. 

Mahajanaka Jataka:  Little has been altered from the text as it appears in Levy.

Image is from a postcard by S. Dhumphakdi & Sons. Bangkok, Thailand.  According to John Listopad, who wrote a monograph on Thai frescoes on the theme of the lives of the Buddha, illustrations of this tale appear on the walls of at least two temples or Wats.  An overview is at Wat Nai Rong, Thonburi, Vihan (4th Reign,) and "The ocean goddess Manimekhala rescues Mahajanaka from the shipwreck" is at Wat Suwannaram, Thonburi, (3rd Reign: 1830) on the North wall at the eastern end where it is near "Mahajanaka asleep in a mango grove on the outskirts of the city of Mithila."  

Aravana:  a famous Buddhist teacher whose name in the Tamil language is  Aravana-adikal. "The name may be translated into Sanskrit as Dharma-Swarupa. He is the hero of the epic as much as his disciple the Bhikshuni Manimekhalai is the heroine." ~


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