Righteous Sufferes: Job and Harishchandra

My earlier post on the similarity in the stories of Orpheus and Adi Shankara inspired me to look for more, and naturally, I found many. I might, perhaps, write them all down some day. For now, here’s another one. This time it is between the Book of Job (from the Hebrew Bible) and the Markandeya Purana (a Hindu text).

The book of Job is about Job’s trials at the hands of Satan. Here is a paraphrased version of the story: Job is a pious man. Satan approaches God and says that Job is so pious mostly because God has kept him fairly well off. If God were to take away all of Job’s possessions, then Job would fail is his duties as a pious man. God accepts this challenge and takes all possessions away from Job. Despite this, Job remains pious. As his misfortunes pile up, Job finally caves in and questions God about this ‘injustice’. In response, God emphasizes his sovereignty in creating and maintaining the world. Finally, humbled by God’s chastising, Job turns speechless, giving up and repenting his previous requests of justice. To this, Job is restored to health, gaining double the riches he possessed before and having new children.

This is a typical story of a righteous sufferer. As you have probably guessed, there is a remarkably similar story in Markandeya Purana: the story of King Harishchandra. Similar to Job, King Harishchandra is an extremely righteous king who never goes back on his word and never lies. For various reasons (the reasons change with every retelling of the story) sage Vishwamitra, once approached Harishchandra and informed him of a promise made by the king to donate his entire kingdom. True to his word, Harishchandra did so. The sage, proclaimed that for an act of donation to be completed, an additional amount as Dakshina (honorarium) had to be paid. Harishchandra, with no money in his hands, had to sell his wife and son. Eventually, he had to sell himself to a guard at a cremation ground.

The king, his wife, and son endured tremendous hardships. Thanks to an unfortunate sequence of events, the son dies, and his wife brings the son’s body to the cremation ground for the last rites. She is so poor that she could not even pay the taxes needed to cremate him. Even though Harishchandra realizes that his son is dead, his wife is begging him to help perform the last rites, and he is overcome is grief, he does not waver from his dharma (duty). He asks for the sacred wedding necklace around his wife’s neck as payment of the tax. She willingly rests her head on a stone slab and asks Harishchandra to chop her head off for the necklace (the only way a woman may take her wedding necklace off while her husband is alive is in death). As he gets ready to chop her head the Gods appear and inform him that his righteousness was being tested. His son, wife, and kingdom is restored to him.

Theological import and motivations for these two myths aside, I am interested in how they came to be so similar. Like with the case of Orpheus and Adi Shankara, there are too many similar elements (riches to rags, death of progeny, survival of the spouse, and so on). So I wager that this is no coincidence.

Let us take a closer look at the earliest known dates for these myths. The earliest textual origins for the Book of Job is placed in 4th century BCE. Whereas, the origins of Markandeya Purana is unknown, the earliest known written form is placed in 3rd century CE. Naturally, it is entirely possible that the puranas were an established oral tradition prior to this date. Besides, this still doesn’t provide us with a connection between the two myths.

Disclaimer: what follows next is entirely my hypothesis without scholarly research. Feel free to debase and/or ignore my speculations.

Looking at the geography between the Middle East and India, we see that the Persian empire occupied most of the space. Interestingly, there is a long history of Judaism in Persia. The 4th century BCE (the period attributed to the written origins of the Book of Job) saw huge political turmoil in Persia thanks to Alexander the Great. His empire reached into the greater India region. Given that some anthropologists hypothesize that Alexander’s troops learned kissing from India and too it back to Greece. It is not at all inconceivable that the story of a righteous sufferer traveled between the Jews in Persia and the Vedic/proto-Hindu people in India.

The question that still remains is which way did it travel? From India to Persia, or the other way around? If anyone has any hypothesis, clues, arguments, I would love to hear them. As of now, my speculation stops here.

UPDATE: The Book of Job seems to have been pre-dated by an ancient Sumerian text “A man and his god“. This gives us a good idea of the direction in which the story may have travelled, but that doesn’t explain the how the exegeses travelled. I have a hard time believing that the Jews came up with it all on their own simply because there aren’t many philosophical treatises written by the ancient Jewish people. The Greek and Indians, on the other hand, were a whole another story. My bet is that the exposition and exegeses associated with the Book of Job either came from Greece with Alexander the Great, or the story first travelled to India, and the philosophers in India gave it the philosophical mortar and this travelled back the Persia via Alexander’s army and made it back to the Jewish people.

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