This week I have been in Austin Texas, hanging out with lovely colleagues at the South Asia Institute and making a contribution to their Fall Seminar Series, which this year is themed on “Religious Boundary-Making in South Asia.”
This is, of course, a theme that relates closely to some of my research: one of my key interests is the ways in which narrative is used to explore and create boundaries between different religious groups. This is particularly intriguing when the different groups adopt common characters, motifs, or even whole stories in order to make their own case for who they are, in opposition to the “others” around them.
What I particularly enjoyed about this invitation, however, was that it came at a time when I was not working on that research area at all. Instead, I am knee-deep in jātakas, thinking through some of the different ways in which the genre is used and framed and understood across different Indian texts and visual depictions.
Rather than digging out some old research from my Shared Characters volume, I decided it would be interesting to think through how the theme of boundary-making – and my approach to shared narrative elements as part of this boundary-making – would apply to material I am working on now. In the end, much to my own surprise, I ended up talking about the famous jātaka story of Vessantara, who gives away his children and wife in the peak of his perfection, and how this story features in Buddhist articulations of how their values and aspirations differ from others around them.
Some of this happens through shared Indian narrative material: a narrative structure and occasional wording shared with the Rāmāyaṇa (as studied by Gombrich, Collins and Meiland, amongst others) allows for a particularly Buddhist presentation of a tragic hero, so dedicated to his supreme goal that he causes harm to those around him; and a shared motif of Śakra disguised as a brahmin allows us to appreciate that Vessantara gives regardless of the recipient.
On a more thematic level, the notion of generosity – with its intersections with the ideal of renunciation – offers a Buddhist revisioning of a common sacrificial cosmos, with Vessantara’s giving linked to bodily gift-giving stories as well, and hence framed as part of a self-sacrificial path to buddhahood. Meanwhile the physical sites of stūpas, which are often decorated with jātakas and celebrated as potent fields of merit in the related narrative genre of avadānas, place gift-giving at the heart of Buddhist visual and material identity from the earliest period.
In addition, the priority given to Vessantara over and above stories of bodily sacrifice in the Pāli tradition suggests that he may also be used to mark boundaries between Buddhist schools or bodies of literature. Although stories of Vessantara (or Viśvantara or Sudāna) are told across Buddhist languages and schools, and images of the story are prominent at early Indian stupa sites, stories of gifts of literal flesh-and-blood are far more common in Sanskrit jātaka literature than in Pāli (with the intriguing exception of the “extra-canonical” or “non-classical” Paññāsa Jātaka, as explored by Arthid Sheravanichkul). Why were Pāli scholastic compilers a bit squeamish about bodily sacrifice stories, despite acknowledging the necessity of flesh-gifts on the bodhisatta path in principle? I am still puzzling about that one, though perhaps the better question to ask is why northern Sanskritic traditions enjoyed a proliferation and increased celebration of bodily sacrifice stories. The answer to that question, if indeed it is the right question to ask (which it may not be!) may be to do with the emergence of Mahāyāna ideas of the bodhisattva path, as per Natalie Gummer’s fantastic work about sacrificial and performative frameworks in Mahāyāna sūtras.
So the theme of boundary-making has helped me to think a bit differently about the Vessantara story, especially in the light of some attempts to suggest that Vessantara (or his extraordinary – and for most of us offensive – giving) is not properly Buddhist. For me, the Vessantara story is not only Buddhist, but a key part of explorations and assertions of what it means to be Buddhist.
And I will try to keep these questions about identity formation and shared narrative heritage in my mind as I continue to explore how jātakas “work” in a variety of Indian textual and visual contexts. Being immersed exclusively in Buddhist narrative should not make me forget the wider landscape in which such narrative developed.