Jātakas, Greek Tragedy, and the priority of brothers

Last weekend I went to see Antigone as part of the Edinburgh festival. Actually, to be honest, I was underwhelmed, both by Juliette Binoche’s performance and by the staging and production. I enjoyed the translation though, and some of the supporting performances were excellent.

Unexpectedly, it made me think of jātakas!

So, for those of you who are not up to speed with your Greek tragedies, Antigone is in trouble because she insists on burying her dead brother despite a decree from her uncle the king that such a burial is forbidden. She is caught and sentenced to death by burial alive. At one point in the play she famously declares that she would not have risked death for a husband or a son, but only for a brother. As she points out, a husband or son could be replaced, while a brother – once one’s parents are dead – is irreplaceable.

This declaration is also found in the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā, in number 67, the Ucchaṅga Jātaka. Here a woman’s husband, brother and son are all imprisoned after they are (wrongly) accused of theft. The woman pleads to the king, who offers her one of them back. She chooses her brother, arguing that both a husband and a son can be replaced. The king is so impressed with this answer that he releases all three.

Now, I am not suggesting that Sophocles was reading jātakas, nor that jātaka composers were aware of Antigone – the motif doubtless has many other incarnations in early narrative sources. I do think it is interesting, though, that the declaration makes less sense in Antigone, since her action is for her dead brother, and does not bring him back to life (though it does allow him to proceed to the underworld). Thus he is already gone, already irreplaceable. In addition to which, she is unmarried and has no children. So, presumably, the declaration was a motif already known to Sophocles and inserted here to highlight the strength of affection for a brother.

Or perhaps all this only tells me something about myself – that I see jātaka stories everywhere!


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.
This entry was posted in Buddhism, Buddhist texts, Jataka and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Jātakas, Greek Tragedy, and the priority of brothers

  1. jayarava says:

    I’ve noticed other little connections between some Buddhist ideas and stories from Europe. Trial by ordeal involving a heated axe-head for example. There’s probably an article in it.

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