Buddhist Jataka Neymi juxtaposed with Dante’s Divine Comedy

By Dr Myint Zan


The Italian author and poet Dante Alighieri (cir­ca 1265-1321) passed away 701 years ago on 14 September 1321. Dante completed his master­piece a long, epic poem written in the Italian language The Divine Comedy (Divina Commedia) in 1320 a year before he died.


The Divine Comedy is an im­aginative narration of Dante’s visit to various circles of the Christian hell(s)(Inferno), purgatory (Pur­gatorio) and paradise (Paradiso).


About 460 years after Dante completed The Divine Comedy the Burmese Buddhist monk Sayadaw (‘royal monk-teach­er’) Minbu U Awbartha (circa 1759-1799) translated from the Pali language the Buddhist Ja­taka (stories or tales from the Buddhist texts) Neymi Zat Taw နေမိဇာတ်တော် around the year 1786. U Awbartha translated from the Pali into Burmese eight out of the ten lives of the Buddha from the Jatakas where in each life the embryo Buddha (ဘုရားလာင်း) perfected the ten virtues for en­lightenment prior to his last re­birth as Gautama Buddha.


It is stated that even though Dante completed The Divine Comedy in the year 1320 the first printed edition in the Italian lan­guage appeared over 150 years later in 1472.


One does not know when the first printed edition of the Bur­mese translation and adaptation of Neymi Jataka appeared - per­haps it was in the mid to late 19th century. The print version that this writer would refer to is from the compilation of all the ten Zat­taws ဇာတ်ေတာ် (Jatakas, dramas) titled Pann Shwe Pyi Zat Taw Gyi ် းရွှေ ပည် ဇာတ် တော်ကြီ းpublished in August 2008 (References below are to the page numbers from this book).


Why the Buddha Smiles

Neymi Zattaw of U Awbar­tha’s grand, translated work opened with the Buddha himself narrating one of his past lives as king Neymi. U Awbartha (here­after AWB) narrated that the Buddha on one occasion smiled which was ‘just discernible from his golden lips’. AWB elaborated on four pages (pages 310 to 314) on the type of smiles of the Bud­dha and their significance. On being enquired about his smile the Buddha discoursed about his previous birth as king Neymi. The Burmese translation by AWB is not written as the Buddha himself was narrating his previous life story. It is written in the third per­son in the formal, grand at times grandiose and flowery Burmese literary prose style of the late 18th century. Dante’s Divine Comedy narrated in verse Dante’s own (claimed) experience of visits to hell, purgatory and paradise.


Whether generosity or moral­ity is the superior virtue

King Neymi practised Dha­na ဒါနgenerosity (giving alms/ donations). He also practised Sila သီလ morality doing good, meri­torious deeds (Kusala ကုသလ in Pali, kuthow ကု သိ ုလ် in Burmese). Sila can be roughly translated as ‘morality’ but in the Buddhist con­text every Buddhist is expected, as part of the Buddhist precepts: (1) not to intentionally cause the death of any sentient being (2) not to take what is not given (3) not to tell untruths (4) not to engage in adultery/sexual misconduct (5) not to imbibe intoxicating drinks. In addition to these ‘compulsory’ precepts avoidance of solid food after mid-day, not singing, danc­ing, playing or listening to music, abstinence from all sexual activi­ties, not handling gold, money and not residing in luxurious places and sleeping on luxurious beds are additional or recommended moral precepts that Buddhists should practice.


Once it occurred to king Neymi whether giving alms/ do­nations or keeping the precepts, following Buddhist moral norms were the more beneficial Kusala and produce more beneficial kar­mic effects. AWB described the thought of the embryo Buddha Neymi as ‘wandering, wavering not leading to objective wisdom’ (page 319).


As a result of king Neymi’s high moral status thi gyar min သိကြားမင်း (Sakka in Pali, chief of the Devas; hereafter Sakka) who resided in the Buddhist higher physical Deva realms became aware of Neymi’s dilemma. Sak­ka took upon himself the task of dissolving and resolving the doubts of king Neymi (page 319). Descending from his abode (in the sky) shimmering, iridescent the Sakka appeared before Neymi in his palace on Earth much to the initial ‘shock and awe’ of Neymi. Sakka stated to Neymi thus:


Your majesty Neymi: the highest status of donations/giving alms cannot match the lowest sta­tus of practising morality/keeping the precepts; Sila (morality) is more than a thousand times, more than a hundred thousand times nobler than Dana giving alms/ donations. Your majesty should kindly take heed of that (page 322).


Tour of the circles of heavens and hells

After Sakka returned to his abode in the sky he narrated about king Neymi on earth in the as­sembly of Nats (Devas, heavenly beings where Sakka is the chief, hereafter referred to as Devas) the Devas expressed their de­sire to give their respects to the hitherto earth-bound king Neymi. Sakka then instructed a Deva by the name of Matali to bring king Neymi to the abode of Devas. Matali descended to earth with his chariot drawn by a thousand horses (page 329).


When Matali reached Ney­mi’s palace to send him to the assembly of the Devas Matali of­fered the king to tour the circles of hell as Neymi was a noble king who avoided misdeeds ဒုစရိုက် ‘as though the misdeeds were iron hot furnaces’ and embraced mer­itorious deeds သုစရိုက် as though they were ‘golden abodes’ (page 337). Apparently, the instruction from Sakka to Matali did not spe­cifically include that Neymi be shown the realms of hell.


In The Divine Comedy, Dante had three different guides to show him during his visit to the Christian hell, purgatory and paradise. In Neymi Jataka the Deva Matali was the only ‘guide’ to show the various Buddhist hells and Deva realms.


AWB translated, interspersed with exegeses on the 14 various ‘circles of hells’ which Mata­li showed king Neymi in a tour. (pages 338 to 364). In each of the 14 hell realms when king Neymi was shown how the denizens of hell (nga yei thu in Burmese) were being punished king Neymi felt ‘as though he himself were going through such severe punishments and his heart throbbed with great fear and shock’. The extremely severe punishments the deni­zens of hell had to go through for various types of evils they had committed in their previous hu­man lives are translated by AWB in excruciating detail. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, generically, the self-indulgent, the violent and the malicious are punished in various circles of hell. Generally, without carrying too far, in the Neymi Jataka those who are punished can be argued to have committed similar though not identical sins.


Of particular interest is what can be considered as the third worst or ‘lowest’ hell where both the denizens of hell and those who conducted the punishments were specifically mentioned as females (main ma). In that par­ticular circle of hell, wrote AWB, there was not a ‘single male’ who had to go through various punish­ments which included hot iron balls being rolled on their bodies from four directions. AWB stat­ed in a long sentence that these female denizens of hell had lust­fully, committed adultery in their sojourn on earth. As an exegesis, AWB added that ‘good women of high standing’ အမျိုးကောင် းသမီ းshould be aware that any mis­deeds မကောင်းမှု done covertly only gave temporary pleasure but soon thereafter they would dete­riorate, became putrid and had [extremely] negative outcomes’ (page 355).


The next hell (arguably worse than the preceding one) is rele­gated to those male adulterers who had to go through (among others) severe beatings by the punishers in hell ငရဲထိန်း and had their heads and bodies pushed down into the burning flames of hell fires. AWB warned all males to refrain from such misdeeds (page 356) lest they literally burn in that particular hell.


The 14th hell and the last and arguably the worst hell AWB described in nearly eight pages (pages 357 to 364) is (1) reserved for those who do not believe in the karmic consequences of bad acts and good acts in this life, and in past and future lives. Instead, they espoused that the trajecto­ry and fate (rather than Karma) of the lives of persons are solely determined by Hindu gods (page 357). Perhaps in a very stretched manner this concept that (Hindu) gods alone determine one’s fate can be juxtaposed (not necessar­ily analogized) with the predesti­nation theology.


(2) AWB stated that those who believed and espoused that giving alms, practising the Bud­dhist moral precepts, etc. are ‘use­less’ and did not bring any benefits will also be punished in this hell. Likewise, those who espoused that killing others, stealing etc. are not transgressions and they do not result in retribution and punishment of the wrongdoers are relegated to this hell.


Generically, those who ad­here to and espouse these doc­trines can be described as ‘nihil­ists’. They are nihilists because they believe or espouse that noth­ing good or bad can result from one’s good or bad deeds. Rest as­sured that AWB (in translation) stated these sorts of persons can also be punished in this 14th hell (page 348).


(3) those who adhere to the doctrine or concept that there are no moral causes or karmic effects or consequences of one’s own ac­tions also adhere to the wrong view. The doctrine that there are no moral causes or moral conse­quences, like the first two errone­ous views, is evil doctrine မိ စ္ဆ ာဒိ ဌိ .Hence the espousers of all these doctrines were punished in this hell, AWB stated. Perhaps this third view partly overlaps with the second view of nihilism with large dollops of ‘accidentalism’. This view is nihilistic as well as ‘acci­dentalist’ since ‘accident’ rather than morality or karmic causes and consequentialism explains the human condition. All those who espouse these three wrong doctrines were in this circle of hell which is last described in the Burmese translation of the Neymi Jataka (page 358).


In this regard across the re­ligious, theological and cultural divide in Circle 6 of Dante’s Infer­no the denizens of the Christian hell are those who are heretics, who contradicted the doctrines of Christ. (The Divine Comedy Carlyle Oakley Wicksteed Una­bridged Translation)


Sakka, while waiting for Ma­tali and Neymi to arrive at the assembly of Devas with his ‘ev­er-seeing eyes’ discovered that Matali was showing the various circles of hell to king Neymi. AWB stated those hells are situated inside or underneath the earth. Sakka instructed Matali to bring king Neymi to the assembly of the Devas, ‘post haste’. Consequently, Matali instead of visiting ‘one lay­er of hell after another’ as he had hitherto done let Neymi sees all the remaining hells ‘kaleidoscop­ically in one sitting’ (page 359).


After visiting 14 layers of hell, Matali took Neymi to ten circles of Deva ‘heaven’ where each cir­cle of heaven is grander, more luxurious and more magnificent than the preceding one (pages 364 to 388). As in the visits to the circles of hell, Neymi asked and Matali explained the reasons for the male and a few other instanc­es of female Devas enjoying the grand palaces and the pleasures of the Deva realms.


In gist, the good deeds of those residing in the circles of heavens include giving alms to the monks and persons of pure morality, and various other mer­itorious deeds. In resolving the doubts of king Neymi Sakka cate­gorically affirmed that giving alms or being generous in giving away one’s possessions (Dana) is much inferior to those of practising mo­rality Sila. It would seem to this writer though that in classifying the moral causes of the meritori­ous deeds of the male and female Devas there seems to be more emphasis on Dana than Sila in the latter part of the Neymi Jata­ka as translated by AWB.


Declining to be king of the De­vas and return to Earth

As instructed by Sakka Ma­tali brought Neymi to the Tav­atimsa Deva realm. Due to the immense adulation of the assem­bled Devas and himself, Sakka offered the throne of Tavatimsa heaven to Neymi (page 393). The embryo Buddha, king Neymi (‘as he then was’) pondered that ‘posi­tions and privileges conferred by others are not appropriate to be taken’ and with the Dhamma in mind, he refused the offer made to him (pages 393 to 394).

Matali sent king Neymi back to the human realm and to his palace. After reigning ‘for more than a hundred thousand years’ king Neymi abdicated and left for the woods to become a monk. On his demise, king Neymi was re­born in – the exact words used are ‘shifted his abode’- one of the Brahma realms (pages 400 to 401).


Reason for non-visit to the non-physical, formless Brah­ma realms

It can be briefly mentioned here that the Brahma realms are known as non-physical, formless realms အရူပဓါတု in Pali) and there are twenty such realms in Bud­dhist cosmology. Neither Matali nor Sakka took king Neymi to any of the Brahma realms. This might be so because they are non-phys­ical, formless realms and they cannot be observed physically. Arguably, at that point in time Sakka himself has not practised Bhavana Kusala (the merits ac­quired through Vipassana med­itation in Theravada Buddhism) adequately. Sakka and his subor­dinate Matali perhaps could not have travelled to those realms. Perhaps the future Buddha, king Neymi declined the offer of Sakka because he was setting his sight higher than those of Sakka which after all was in the ‘lower’ physical Deva realm. This statement is not specifically made by AWB but is an extrapolation by this writer.


Tribute to two literary geni­uses

As stated, Dante and the Bud­dhist monk U Awbartha (AWB) flourished in different centuries in very different cultural, religious, and theological traditions and milieus. Both are literary geni­uses with an intense belief in and determination to espouse their own religious doctrines. Sadly, U Awbartha passed away at the age of forty. In a period of about four years, roughly between 1783 and 1787 U Awbartha translated eight of the ten Buddhist Jataka tales into Burmese with exegeses and commentaries. His contributions to Burmese literature and in a sense the art of translation are significant. Perhaps Dante’s work especially but not necessarily only in the West is more well-known. This writer is not aware of the existence of a full or even a short, executive summary of Dante’s Divine Comedy in Burmese.


This article is obviously limit­ed in scope and at the same time took religious and other ‘liber­ties’. With that admission, I give tribute to these two great literati who flourished more than four centuries apart in different parts of the world.