Given the Indian craze for ‘lucky’ names and ‘numerology’, I would like to share the ‘Namasiddhi Jataka’ as a reference to file away quietly in our heads, just in case we need it someday to help us choose between sense and nonsense. In passing, I am abashed to think how I once wanted a more ‘stylish’ name in place of the old fashioned classical ‘Renuka’.
The original Renuka may have been a form of Devi but what a dreary story it once seemed to a ten-year-old: mother to an Avatar; beheaded for just looking at a passing hottie; Padai Veedu Amman (military camp goddess) in the old Pallava country; prayed to as a staring orange head at Mahur in Nanded, Maharashtra…oh, and a lake in Himachal Pradesh named after her and one Carnatic classical song. You don’t want to hear the rude things my father said to this pre-teen existential angst, so I’ll get on with the potted jataka.
This is believed to be a story told by Sakyamuni himself at Jetavana, about a young bhikku who thought good or bad luck happened by names. Called something like ‘Little’ or ‘Lowdown’, he begged his teachers to give him a better name, but they all insisted that luck didn’t depend on your name. He begged so hard that finally they relented and told him to travel the world and come back with a name he liked.
Heading out, ‘Little’ had the expected mind-changing encounters. First he saw a dead man whose name was ‘Life’ (Jivan), and when he asked how someone called ‘Life’ could be dead, the townsfolk snapped, “Whether you’re named Life or Death, you have to die. A name is only a marker. You seem to be a fool.
Next he saw a poor wretch of a slave-girl hired out as a labourer, beaten by her owners for not earning enough. Her name was ‘Lady Luck’ (Bhagyavati) and when he asked how someone called Bhagyavati could be so poor and wretched the townsfolk got quite cross and told him that names had nothing to do with luck, was he a fool.
He next met a lost man wandering about, called ‘Guide’ (Guru) and when he asked how a person so named could ever lose his way he upset the townsfolk yet again with his naivete. After that he was cured of his anxiety and lived cheerfully and in the best of health with his teachers and fellow-bhikkus.
Renuka Narayanan writes on religion and culture