What is a jātaka and how many are there?

My brother is a high school librarian, and he sometimes sets his pupils a library quiz, to test their ability to find certain books and information within them. Recently, presumably out of a desire to entertain his younger sister, he included a task about jātaka stories:

(a) What is a jataka story?

(b) How many jataka stories are there?

The pupils did pretty well, but I couldn’t resist pointing out that these apparently simple questions were actually more complicated than at first glance.

The first question is still open to debate. The most basic and widespread definition is ‘a story of a past life of the Buddha,’ and this is the general definition I tend to work with. This definition, however, forces us to consider certain stories that are not ever labelled this way as jātakas, such as the stories of the Buddha’s past lives in the Avadānaśataka.  Should we instead limit our category to those stories that explicitly refer to themselves as “jātakas? If so, we not only lose many potential narratives that have clear parallels with more established jātaka texts, but must also include a couple of stories in the Mahāvastu that – despite their “jātaka” label – are stories of the past-lives of other people and do not feature the Buddha-to-be.

And what about stories of the Buddha’s past-life encounters with past buddhas? These tend not to be called jātakas within their textual contexts, but are commonly called such by scholars, who happily refer to, for example, the “Dīpaṅkara Jātaka”. Here I am more hesitant: although I tend towards inclusivity, it is clear that such stories were considered at least a separate sub-genre, since they are collected into different texts (eg a separate chapter of the Avadānaśataka, or the Buddhavaṃsa as opposed to the Cariyāpiṭaka) and used differently in art (for example at Ajanta, where the Dipankara story is the only “jātaka”, as far as I am aware, to be depicted in stone relief rather than painting).

Deciding how to define a jātaka has been an important part of setting out the parameters for the jātaka database project that is – thanks to the hard work of Dr Chris Clark and the technical support of the Digital Innovations team – now underway here in Edinburgh. Since I am clear about my own interests, which extend to all stories of the Buddha’s past lives regardless of what emic label they have, defining jātaka in the most inclusive manner is clearly the way ahead for this project, but I remain aware of the issues it creates.

As for part b of the quiz, that one made me laugh even more, since nobody really knows the answer. There are commonly said to be 547 jātaka stories, but this is just the number in the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā, the largest and most well-known collection. Even for this one text, 547 is an approximation, since some of the 547 titles have no actual story, and some stories are repeated under multiple titles. Once you add in other jātaka collections the picture gets even more complicated, and then there are all the jātakas in the form of images, often without clear textual parallels.

Even after our database is complete, it will only – for the first phase at least – cover jātaka stories found in early Indian texts and art. And even then, there will be no definitive answer even for this limited range of texts and artistic contexts. That is largely because of the tricky question of how to decide when a story is a distinctive story, and when it is the same as another story in another text or image. What about when the story is identical except for a single verse? Or what about when two stories relate to the same characters but their actions are slightly different? And when does a visual jātaka need to be seen as a separate story rather than a depiction of a textual jātaka?

We are trying to tackle this through a “linking table” in our relational database. For each story (either textual or visual) that appears to have parallels in other texts and visual contexts, we will create an entry for the story cluster, and every instance will link to it. This will allow users to see any parallels. However, while the technical side is now sorted, the task remains of deciding what constitutes a parallel!

And so, inspired by my brother’s quiz, perhaps my next conference paper will be entitled: “What is a jātaka and how many are there?”

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Lifelong Learning

One of the “graduate attributes” that we are supposed to be developing in our students is a commitment to lifelong learning. I have always appreciated this one, as a lifelong fan of learning (also known as a professional nerd) myself. Let us do what we can to inspire students to continue discovering and researching and developing throughout their lives. As well as helping their careers, it will give them joy.

In recent months I have been reminded once again of the excitement I feel when I learn something completely new. This time it was not a research discovery, but a task related to my jataka database project, which is finally getting underway. Indeed, I must blog about it properly in the new year. But meanwhile, this is what I loved learning: how to structure relational databases.

No really.

Ooh it is so much fun! A whole different way of thinking about structuring information. And another language for relating to the tables, namely MySQL. I didn’t anticipate how interesting it would be to dip my toe into this new world. And, contrary to what you find on Indian religion, if you look for information about, say, entity relationship diagrams online, you find sensible and helpful resources. (And yes, I do now know what those are as well!)

And even as I shut down my office computer any moment now and declare it the holidays, I will be continuing to learn. I may banish the emails and even the work books for the next two weeks, but only so I can attend to my other projects: learning a new piece on the piano, learning to sew a dress, learning to knit slippers, learning what happens in the three novels currently sitting on my bedside table, learning how many chocolate oranges it takes to make me feel sick.

So allow me to wish you all a happy and learning-filled holiday season!

NOTE: I gather that WordPress adds advertisements to my posts. Please note that they are nothing to do with me, and that clicking on the links is at your own risk! I have been advised that one recent ad was fraudulent, so do watch out.

 

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Silver Athena SWAN award

Last week we at the School of Divinity heard that we had been successful in getting a Silver Athena SWAN award, in recognition of efforts we have been making towards creating an inclusive and supportive environment for staff and students of all genders. We previously held a Bronze award (since 2014), and we have been the pioneering department of Divinity/Theology/Religion – the first in the UK to get Bronze, and now the first in the UK to get Silver.

The award makes me personally very proud, because for four years (2014-2018) I was the School’s Equality and Diversity Director, and had the responsibility of overseeing our Athena SWAN and related work. I spent many many many hours of my life filling in the long and complex application form for the Silver award. The result makes all that work feel worthwhile, but more importantly it also recognises what I already knew from my own observations: the School’s culture has been changing, and for the better. We still have more to do, but we are going in the right direction.

As I reflect back on the process, here are my top tips for what is needed for Athena SWAN success:

  1. The broadest possible support. Ideally, include other areas of the E&D agenda too, and make sure the emphasis is on gender equality and not advancing women. You officially need an “Athena SWAN self-assessment team” but it doesn’t need to be called that, and in my view it’s better if it is called an E&D committee (as ours is), or People+ (as in the School of Social and Political Science) or something like that, to ensure everyone knows that everyone will benefit from the process. Transformations cannot happen without lots of people contributing.
  2. The highest possible support. Support from the people in power, and the people with access to resources, is essential. Here at Edinburgh there has been a big push towards Athena SWAN applications from the highest levels of management, and this filters down to communicate a clear priority area for work. This has helped greatly.
  3. Specialist support. I am in no way qualified to perform the statistical gathering or analysis necessary for the application, nor did I know what a SMART action plan is until I had to write one. Thankfully, the School had access to a specialist support person from HR, who guided me through everything a did a lot of data work herself. This was completely essential to our success.
  4. Time. Quite apart from the time spent overseeing committees and initiatives and changes to processes and so on, the time needed for filling in the application form was substantial. It took more time than I could possibly have imagined, and I think of myself as someone quite good at filling in forms! I honestly think I could have researched and written at least half a book in the time it took just to navigate the form itself. If you are overseeing an application, make sure you get sufficient time.
  5. Perspective. I found it really helpful to separate out – in my head – the application process itself from the changes to culture and processes underpinning the application. Clearly the latter is the real priority, and the real cause for celebration. Whenever the form was driving me mad (especially when trying to compress the word count!) I kept reminding myself of all the good things brought about by the external leverage of the Athena SWAN process. In a professional environment now dominated by market forces and commercialisation, it is so valuable to have a lever for change that makes us create a more inclusive and supportive environment for all.
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Yasodhara

I love reading novels as well as academic books, but usually these two categories are firmly separate. Recently this separation broke down as I read Vanessa Sasson’s novel about the Buddha’s long-suffering wife, called Yasodhara and available from Speaking Tiger Books.

I first heard about Vanessa’s creative efforts at last summer’s IABS Congress, when she was persuaded to do a little reading from the opening of the novel during the Q&A session that followed her paper. I was really impressed by the skilful way in which she switched gears, drawing us all into the emotional torment of Yasodhara as she contemplates her young son’s departure. I was almost in tears by the end.

Photo on 17-09-2018 at 13.40I was therefore really excited to hear about the book’s publication, and couldn’t wait to get my order. It was well worth it: a very imaginative and engrossing tale, interweaving a range of narrative sources and references (including the Vessantara Jataka and the Ramayana) to create something both engaging and thought provoking.

It is not often that a scholar is able to also write good fiction. In the field of Indology the notable exception is Lee Siegel, whose novel Love in a Dead Language captivated me as a graduate student, combining as it does the academic conventions of translation and commentary with fiction. Vanessa Sasson’s book is also not exactly full blown fiction: it is based in part on biographical (or hagiographical) sources about the Buddha’s lifestory, and Notes at the end of the novel helpfully indicate what bits of the story come from where. However, she has not been held back by any concerns over “fact” or “history”, instead letting her imagination take her on a journey of exploration in the company of Yasodhara. We get a totally different – and hugely enriched – perspective on the Buddha’s lifestory as a result.

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Tax avoidance in the Avadānaśataka

One of the things that always delights me about studying ancient Indian narrative is the way in which it so often resonates with contemporary concerns. The Avadānaśataka, a Sanskrit Buddhist compendium of tales that I have been working on in recent years, is a particular favourite in this regard. I have written before about the Buddha’s teachings on the merits of housework in this text, and love the gardening imagery that often features. Last week I found myself chuckling at story number 4.

The tale concerns a merchant who just can’t seem to make any money. After several failed voyages, he decides to try an ingenious solution: he promises to offer half of the wealth of his next trip to the Buddha. It works! But when he gets home from his voyage with all his immense riches, he is overwhelmed with greed, and regrets his previous promise.

It is what he does next that made me laugh, in our age of tax avoidance and dodgy dealing:

He sells the immense stock of valuable goods that he has brought home to his wife for two small coins. Then he uses these coins to buy incense, which he then offers to the Buddha.

Of course, the story doesn’t end there. The Buddha’s power leads to a miraculous display, which humbles the merchant and prompts him to make a proper offering, and even an aspiration to achieve future buddhahood himself. His sneaky tactics can’t outwit the all-knowing Buddha. If only HMRC had such power.

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How reliable are student evaluations of teaching?

Last week I got my results back on semester 2’s teaching, and much hilarity ensued!

As many universities, Edinburgh now uses an online system to collect numerical scores on each course, along with some free text comments. The comments are sometimes very helpful, though I found the old system of distributing paper forms in class much more successful in this regard, both in terms of response rates and usefulness of comments.

The numerical scores offer some satisfaction too, since (humblebrag alert) I do tend to do pretty well. Individual lecturers are rated on four areas: X “was organised and well prepared”, “was good at explaining the subject”, “was approachable and willing to help”, and “stimulated my interest in the subject”.

Now we can certainly debate whether or not these are the best factors to rate, and certainly we can query the decision to use a numerical grading system given widespread evidence of unconscious bias affecting results, with gender bias well documented and other forms of bias also likely.

However, this year’s results offered further evidence of the unreliability of such scores. As I looked through the different ratings for the different courses I contributed to, I was disappointed to see that, yet again, my contribution to a particular team-taught course in another school was pulling down my averages. This has happened before, due – I suspect – not to my weaker teaching, but to a general lower satisfaction with the course overall.

Then a penny dropped. This year I did not actually deliver my lecture on this course, as it was during the industrial action. Suddenly an 85% student satisfaction rate didn’t look so bad, given that I had achieved it without having any contact with any of the students! Indeed, looking back at last year’s responses, I only managed 86% satisfaction WITH the lecture!

So how had students found themselves so satisfied with my preparation, explanation, approachability and stimulation of interest, given my total absence from their learning experience? Presumably they had no idea who I was, and gave a general response based on their overall impression of the course.

This year the results will be removed from my record, but in future, when I do do the lecture, will the feedback be any more reliable? I think I will continue to take such scores with a very large pinch of salt.

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Digital scroll of the Vessantara Jataka

Following my post yesterday, about a digitised scroll of the Mahābhārata, Leedom Lefferts got in touch to share a link to a digitised scroll of the Vessantara Jātaka! It is a rather different – even more magical – experience, since you get to walk virtually around an exhibition and view the hanging illustrated scroll within, as well as the other artefacts included. You can also zoom in to appreciate the detail.

DevotionThe exhibition was called “DEVOTION – Image, Recitation, and Celebration of the Vessantara Epic in Northeast Thailand” and was curated by Thomas Kaiser at the University of Zurich’s ethnographic museum this past year. Sadly I could not make it to the exhibition itself, though I have enjoyed perusing the catalogue, which is really a substantial scholarly book, with the same title as the exhibition. Now I can also transport myself into the room and investigate all the treasures on display!

Do take a tour! Enjoy!

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