The Ring of Truth

By Wendy Doniger

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The Ring of the Bodhisattva

The Buddhists told the story of Shakuntala (without mentioning her name) in two of the texts called Jatakas (stories of the Buddha’s previous births), sometime between the fourth century BCE and the fifth century CE. These stories are notoriously difficult to date precisely, so we cannot use them as steppingstones between the Mahabharata and the later text of Kalidasa. Rather, it is best to regard them simply as variants that develop certain aspects of the story, in particular introducing the theme of a ring. One of the Jatakas tells this story:

King Brahmadatta of Varanasi was wandering in his pleasure groves when he saw a woman and fell in love with her. He seduced her and she conceived a child who was the future Buddha, the Bodhisatta. He gave her the signet ring from his finger and dismissed her with these words: “If it is a girl, spend this ring on her nurture; but if it is a boy, bring ring and child to me.” She gave birth to a boy, and when he was growing up the children teased him, calling him “No- father.” He asked his mother about his father, and she told him. At his request, she took him to the palace and said, “This is your son, sire.” The king knew well enough that this was the truth, but shame before all his court made him reply, “He is no son of mine.” “But here is your signet- ring, sire; you will recognize that.” “Nor is this my signet ring.” Then said the woman, “Sire, I have now no witness to prove my words, except to appeal to truth. Wherefore, if you be the father of my child, I pray that he may stay in mid- air; but if not, may he fall to earth and be killed.” So saying, she seized the Bodhisatta by the foot and threw him up in the air. The child, suspended in the air, told the king he was his son. The king stretched out his hands and cried, “Come to me, my boy! None, none but me shall rear and nurture you!” A thou¬sand hands were stretched out to receive the Bodhisatta, but it was into the arms of the king and of no other that he descended, seating himself in the king’s lap. The king made him viceroy, and made his mother queen- consort. At the death of the king his father, he came to the throne, was called King Katthavahana, and after ruling his realm righteously, passed away to fare according to his deserts.

This text introduces a gender bias: if the child is a boy, you can use the ring to secure his patrimony, but if it’s a girl, you can use it for her dowry. Thus the ring serves both as a proof of identity and as a kind of child support; this version recognizes the hardheaded value of a ring, a very early instance of the argument that diamonds are a girl’s best friend. And when the king simply denies that the woman’s ring is his, he demonstrates the obvious fact that jew¬elry doesn’t actually prove anything at all unless other people acknowledge it.

These reasonable considerations lead back into irrational religion, an act of truth reminiscent of the voice from the sky in the Mahabharata tale of Shakuntala: a miracle, a suspension of the law of gravity, which proves the identity of the child and epitomizes, like the judgment of Solomon (1 Kings 3.16– 27), the liminality of the child torn between two parents. But whereas Solomon’s proposal to split the child, which would kill it, smoked out the true mother in protest, and the voice from the sky in the Mahabharata spoke of the mother herself being split in half, the father here quite blithely accepts the possibility that his son may crash and die. (The mother has faith that since the child really is the king’s, he will be safe). This text spells out, as the Mahabharata does not, the king’s total disregard for the child as well as the mother.
Another Buddhist version in another Jataka story reverts to the more conventional assumption that the ring is an incontrovertible proof: when the seducer, this time the king’s Brahmin chaplain, says to the child, “I gave your mother a token; where is it?” the boy hands him the ring, which the Brahmin recognizes and acknowledges. But he also goes on to test the boy on his knowledge of dharma, the same knowledge that Shakuntala used in vain, in the Epic, to prove to Dushyanta who she was. And after they have recited stanzas back and forth to one another, the chaplain accepts the boy not merely as his son (which he had already done on the basis of the ring) but as a Brahmin worthy to succeed him as royal chap¬lain (which he decides on the basis of the boy’s knowledge). The child must use his achievements as well as his ancestry to ensure his recog¬nition by his father. And although the woman in both versions of this story has no name, the son is named; indeed, each of the Buddhist texts is named after the child in that text. In the transition from the Mahabharata to these Buddhist texts, Shakuntala has lost both her name and her ability to discourse on dharma, both of which have been transferred to her son.

A Buddhist tale from the Tibetan tradition also makes the mother a silent player:
King Bimbisara, a notorious philanderer, had a liaison with the wife of a very rich merchant who was away on business, and she became pregnant. She informed the king, who sent her a signet ring (angulimudraka) and a brightly colored chiffon cloth, telling her that if the child was a girl it could remain with her, but if it was a boy she should dress him in the fabric, bind the seal ring around his neck and send the boy to him. After nine months had passed, she gave birth to a beautiful son. She fed him with ghee and honey, bound the seal ring around his neck, covered him with the cloth, and placed him in a chest. She gave the chest to her serving- maid, telling her to take it to the gate of the royal palace, light a circle of lamps around it, and stay off to one side until someone took the child. The maid did as she was told. The king saw the lamps, sent for the chest, had it opened, recognized the signet ring and the cloth, and took the child into the palace.

The text remarks, a propos of the mother’s successful plan, that “women, even without receiving instruction, are full of knowledge,” which is simul¬taneously a put- down, denying women the right to education and liter¬acy, and an acknowledgment that even illiterate women know how the story goes. Of course, the king knows the story too. But this woman, still unnamed, does the right thing: she sends the double proof, the ring now supplemented by a cloth, that will assure her son’s recognition at the pal¬ace, even though she herself never appears there (presumably never to be recognized as the child’s mother) and never says a word to the king (though she does speak to the servant girl). The ring says it all for her.

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