Readings of the Vessantara Jataka
The Vessantara Jataka tells the story of Prince Vessantara, who attained the Perfection of Generosity by giving away his fortune, his children, and his wife. Prince Vessantara was the penultimate rebirth as a human of the future Gotama Buddha, and his extreme charity has been represented and reinterpreted in texts, sermons, rituals, and art throughout South and Southeast Asia, and beyond.
This anthology undertakes sophisticated literary, anthropological, and art historical analyses of the text and its ethics of giving, understanding of attachment and nonattachment, depiction of the trickster, and unique performative qualities. Contributors to the volume include well-respected anthropologists, textual scholars in religious and Buddhist studies, and art historians who unravel from multiple perspectives the story's moral and religious character and its place in contemporary academic debates. They show the Vessantara Jataka to be as brilliantly layered as a Homeric epic or Shakespearean play, with aspects of tragedy, comedy, melodrama, and utopian fantasy intertwined to problematize and scrutinize Buddhism's cherished virtues. Unusual for its disciplinary range, this collection helps recast Buddhism as a human tradition rich in ethical, political, and aesthetic complexity. It also features an introduction describing the work's main themes and styles, a character glossary, and a bibliography.