Having recently submitted my own book to the publisher, I have been enjoying working through a backlog of reading other people’s! I particularly enjoyed devouring Steven Collins’ edited volume Readings of the Vessantara Jātaka, which came out with Columbia University Press earlier this year. It contains seven papers on varied localised forms of engagement with the story, along with an introduction by Collins.
The Vessantara Jātaka, the story of the Buddha-to-be giving away his children and his wife in the perfection of his generosity, is one of the most important narratives in Southeast Asian Buddhism, and it is this region that features most heavily in this book. The volume is designed to accompany a reading of the Pāli version of the story, which can be found in a translation by either Margaret Cone (The Perfect Generosity of Prince Vessantara) or Sarah Shaw (in our The Ten Great Birth Stories of the Buddha). It certainly complements a study of the text, bringing the story alive in its varied artistic and ethnographic contexts. As such it is ideal for use in teaching alongside the story, and will definitely be finding itself on the reading list for my course on Theravada Buddhism.
The contexts that are explored are richly varied, as well as being – in several cases – richly illustrated with colour images. Some discussions surround key characters, from comic portrayals of the brahmin who receives Vessantara’s children, to interpretations of Vessantara and Maddī as a model husband and wife. Others focus on practices, including the Bun Phra Wet festival and its accoutrements, and a Newari ritual context. The introductory essay by Steven Collins sets the scene nicely, outlining the story and the key debates that surround it, such as questions of genre, “excessive” giving, and “original” versions.
Collins’ introduction reminds us that there is still plenty of work to be done on this fascinating story, not only in its various contemporary manifestations, but also in its textual forms. I have an article in my drafts folder on some different aspects of the Indian literary context that I think shed light on the Pāli Vessantara Jātaka. It has been hanging around for a couple of years waiting for attention, and maybe its time has come…