ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Of Lions and Legacies

In the politics of symbolism, there is a choice between benevolent and fierce images.

Kumkum Roy writes:

We have had a lively and typically polarised debate about the pride of lions that will be sitting on top of the new Parliament building. The expressions on the faces of the lions have aroused, perhaps justifiably, a degree of anxiety, even as we have been assured that they are actually as benign as lions almost invariably are.

Are there other possibilities that we might consider? We know that the “original” was in Sarnath—the site where the Buddha preached his first sermon, the dhamma chakka pavattana, or the setting in motion of the wheel of dhamma—suggesting an obvious and significant context within which it would have been viewed. The message of the first sermon was profound—about the sorrowful nature of human existence, transience, and the interdependence of human beings. It included an elucidation of the eightfold path emphasising moderation, truthfulness, compassion, and perseverance among other things.

The message was represented visually, symbolically, and, more often than not, through depictions of the wheel. But there were other possibilities as well. The Buddha’s teachings were occasionally compared to the roar of the lion, the sihanada, and because his word spread in all directions, the representation in terms of four lions as found most famously at Sarnath acquired popularity.

Both the wheel and the lion were multivalent symbols—apart from signifying the teachings of the Buddha, they were associated with royalty. Some of these connections are expounded in a well-known early Buddhist text, the Chakkavatti Sihanada Sutta. While ostensibly addressed to bhikkhus, the text dwells at length on the relationship between kings and subjects/society at large, providing a message for the former. Working through a narrative of good and bad or ignorant kings, the text emphasises the need to earn the dhamma chakka through the practice of righteousness—it is not something that is automatically inherited.

Acquiring and preserving the dhamma chakka required, among other things, offering protection to all within the realm, extending to birds and beasts. It also meant ensuring the practice of the panchasila: not taking life, not taking what was not given, avoiding sexual misconduct, not telling lies, and avoiding intoxicating drinks. The text declares that these precepts were followed for seven generations, but then there came a king who refused to listen to the advice of his ministers and began to govern according to his own understanding. This resulted in increasing poverty and some, both poor and not so poor, resorted to theft. The king initially resolved matters by offering support to the poor, but then as some pretended to be poor and took to stealing, he responded by resorting to capital punishment. The description in the text is grim:

When poverty was widespread, theft became widespread. When theft was widespread, swords became widespread. When swords were wide­spread, killing living creatures became widespread. And for the sentient beings among whom killing was widespread, their  lifespan and beauty declined.

At the same time, the text offers a ray of hope—by restoring values and practices that were neglected, a return to a state of harmony is possible. Would seeing the lions at Sarnath have evoked such possibilities in the minds of those who viewed them in the past? Perhaps.

It is also worth remembering that the Sarnath lions were placed on top of a pillar that bore an Ashokan inscription addressed specifically to the members of the Buddhist sangha. The somewhat stern inscription warns against creating schism within the sangha. Were the lions and the other symbols deployed on the pillar meant to be a reminder of the ideals of the faith? This is likely.

What was the adoption and adaption of the Sarnath lions as the emblem of the new republic meant to signify? More than two millennia of rich and diverse histories separated it from Ashoka’s times. There was evidently hope that it would convey notions of the value of good governance, moderation, righteousness, compassion, and truth. The last was underscored by the adoption of that crucial sentence from the Mundaka UpanishadSatyameva Jayate. Whether or not these resonances have survived through the decades is worth reflecting on. This may be as important, if not more, than the length of the lions’ teeth.

Lions have been relatively rare in the subcontinent, even as environmental conditions in the past were probably very different from the degraded world in which we find ourselves today. It is this rarity that probably contributed to their symbolic value, evident in the use of the term simhasana, literally the lion seat, synonymous with the throne in several Indian languages.

And finally, it is worth remembering that there have been a variety of perceptions of lions, not always complimentary, that circulated through ancient traditions. Consider, for instance, the well-known stories of the Panchatantra, which depict, graphically and dramatically, the ways in which the lion king is outwitted by his wily fox minister. And perhaps even more dramatic is the story about the lowly hare—a tiny, apparently insignificant animal who plays on the lion’s ego and engineers his downfall by prodding him to leap into a well. These are reminders that if lions overstep their limits and are no longer benign, benevolent, or wise in the use of their strength, they may meet their end in unexpected ways.

 

 

 

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Updated On : 24th Jul, 2022
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