Symbolism of Mongoose in Art

Gautama Vajracharya gvvajrac at FACSTAFF.WISC.EDU
Fri Apr 21 11:44:22 EDT 2000


There is an Indic god known as Jambhala, a name derived from a citrus
fruit.  He is a god of wealth. Buddhists believe that he is no other then
VaisravaNa Kubera, the YakSa king.  (Very likely the word Kubera means “a
bad, rotten fruit”.  Bera or bhera often denotes a fruit in South Asian
languages.)   Thus agrarian people worshipped him for the good harvest of
fruits, and grains and feared that if the god is not happy with them he may
ruin the harvest.  In Buddhist Iconography he is often shown holding the
citrus fruit in his right hand and a mongoose in his left.  When this
iconography reached to other side of the Himalaya, which has totally
different climate, the artists of Tibet and Mongolia misunderstood the
symbolism of the citrus fruit and its association with autumnal harvest of
South Asia and interpreted the round fruit as a lunar disc.  But in Nepal,
during autumn, when fruits and grains are ripe, Buddhist Newars of the
Kathmandu valley still worship him as the protector of citrus fruit and
other autumnal harvest.  Evidently he is a god of agrarian prosperity and
wealth.  Now the question is why this god of wealth is associated with the
mongoose. Art historians, depending upon folk interpretation, often explain
that the mongoose became the main attribute of Jambhala because the
serpents are the protectors of subterranean wealth and a mongoose controls
them.

Buddhist Sanskrit texts, however, refer to a different reason for the
mongoose’s association with wealth.  The authors of the divyAvadAna 124.2,
128.29; 133.23, and mUlasarvAstivAdavinayavastu 1.241.8, describe that
wealthy people in ancient India carried a purse made of Mongoose’s hide.
The authors also relate that when they gambled they often shook the purse.
Then the mongoose regurgitated gold coins and other precious things from
its mouth.  This seems to be reason why in Jambhala’s iconography the
mongoose is always shown vomiting jewels.  The mongoose that Jambhala holds
does not represent the creature alive but the purse made of the hide of the
creature.

Although this piece of information is more related to art and iconography
than etymology, I hope Indologists will find it interesting.

Gautama V. Vajracharya



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