The Bhiksuni Manimekhalai

The story of the bhikṣuṇī Maṇimēkhalai is one of the five great classics in Tamil literature, and a sequel to another story, the Silappatikāram, which tells the story of her parents. Both stories are very well known in Tamil-speaking lands to this day, but are relatively unknown outside of that provenance.

It seems to have been written before the 5th century when Buddhism was flourishing in the south of India, and besides telling a memorable story has a didactic purpose too: to assert the superiority of Buddhism over the rival religions of the time, both of the priests (brahmins) and ascetics (like the Jainas and Ājīvikas).

The first translation of this text in modern English was made S. Krishnaswami Aiyangar in 1928, who also provided a much needed introduction to its historical setting, and it is a transcription of this translation and study which I am publishing on Ancient Buddhist Texts now.

The story tells of the heroine, Maṇimēkhalai, who, coming form a dancing caste, is being pursued by a young prince. She herself wants none of it, as she has set her mind on higher things. Her namesake goddess Maṇimēkhalā takes her to an island (Maṇipallavam, or Nāgadīpa) where she worships the Buddha-seat found there and remembers her past lives.

She also receives a magical bowl from the goddess of the island, Tīvatilakai, and returns to the Cōḻa capital Puhār (Kāvēripaṭṭiṇam), where she is urged to feed the poor. She adopts the form of a bhikṣuṇī, and goes about supplying the needy with an endless supply of food from the magical bowl.

While doing her charitable works she also feeds the prisoners in the state prison, which is reported to the King, who is astounded with her miraculous powers. He asks what he can do for her, and she replies that he should destroy the prison, and build a monastery in its place, which he consents to.

Maṇimēkhalai assumes the form of the Vidyādhara Kāyaśaṇḍikai, which leads to Kāyaśaṇḍikai’s husband killing the prince. The King then jails Maṇimēkhalai for her own protection, but at the request of the Queen, who wishes her dead because of the killing of the prince, she is released into the court, where, however, she manages to convert the Queen.

There are many other sub-plots and legendary tales told in the poem, and it closes with Maṇimēkhalai seeking to understand the teachings of the other great religions of the time, and then hearing the Buddha-Dhamma from Aṟavaṇa Aḍigaḷ, a Buddhist monk of great learning.

He teaches her the central teaching of the Buddha concerning the four noble truths and the twelvefold conditional origination, and it is with this, and Maṇimēkhalai’s determination to follow the teaching, and assurance therefore of liberation, that the poem ends.

The main work of transcribing this work has been done by my good helper Donny Hacker again, who despite having three jobs and full-time study and a family to look after, still finds time for Dhamma work. I am very grateful to him indeed; the final proofing and corrections have been done by myself and I have made some changes which are listed on the index page.




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