Religion and sea travel

Yesterday’s Religious Studies Seminar here in New College was given by Henrietta Nyamnjoh, a PhD Candidate at the University of Leiden, on the role of religious advisors in Senegalese boat migration. It was a fascinating talk, exploring how the fear and danger of migrating by sea is mitigated by consultations with religious specialists who offer advice on the correct time to travel and the appropriate sacrifices to offer beforehand. Talismans are also popular, both for the person (to make them invisible to immigration officials, amongst other things!) and the vessel.

It got me thinking again about the motif of sea travel in Buddhist jātaka stories. One of the first stories I studied (for my M.Phil. in 2004) was the Aśvarāja Jātaka, a story about a bunch of merchants shipwrecked on an island, seduced by the demonesses living there, and rescued by a magical flying horse. The metaphor of the ocean of saṃsāra is clear in this story, as in many others – I particular enjoy Joel Tatelman’s description (in his Glorious Deeds of Purna, 2000: 114): ‘The ceaseless churning of the waves, the vastness, the danger, the sudden and unpredictable storms, the shoals and reefs – even, for traders, the attraction – are all, by analogy, properties of the endless cycle of birth-and-death.’

As well as the obvious metaphor of the ocean of saṃsāra, however, the story also has something to say about the role of protective deities in ensuring safe travel. Some versions highlight the benefits of praying to the compassionate bodhisatva Avalokiteśvara, long associated with protecting travellers on the ocean. Others place emphasis on the need for merchants to be self-reliant and take responsibility for resisting the temptations of jewels/demonesses/saṃsāra themselves. Another jātaka story, that of Mahājanaka (JA539), emphasises this rather nicely: Shipwrecked in the middle of the ocean, the hero refuses to give up and determinedly swims despite the impossibility of reaching the distant shore. The goddess of the ocean Maṇimekhalā sees him and asks why he is bothering. He replies that at least he is trying his best, and she is so impressed with his answer that she rescues him!

Of course, as yesterday’s seminar emphasised, the perils of ocean travel and the possibility of mitigating the danger through religious practices is a concern for many cultures across the globe. An Aesopic fable has interesting resonance with the Mahājanaka Jātaka – in Temple’s 1998 translation for Penguin Classics (no.53) it reads:

‘A rich Athenian was sailing with some other travellers. A violent tempest suddenly arose, and the boat capsized. Then, while the other passengers were trying to save themselves by swimming, the Athenian continually invoked the aid of the goddess Athena, and promised offering after offering if only she would save him. One of his shipwrecked companions, who swam beside him, said to him: ‘Appeal to Athena by all means, but also move your arms!”

Sarah Shaw has been looking at the motif of sea-travel in early Buddhism in more detail, and I look forward to reading her contribution on this theme in the forthcoming book Shipwreck in Art and Literature (ed. Carl Thompson, published Routledge 2013). Meanwhile I am grateful to Henrietta Nyamnjoh for such a stimulating talk.


About naomiappleton

I work in the Divinity School at the University of Edinburgh, where I research and teach subjects related to South and Southeast Asian religions.
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