62nd Meeting – Tuesday, November 14th 1989


Vessantara Jataka: Thunderbolt into Lotus.

The study of a Buddhist Birth Story

A talk by John Cadet


Present: Louis Gabaude, Guido Greis, Claire Saunal, Bruno and Soraya Stackler, Kitty Havenkamp, Klaus Bettenhausen, Nena and Reinhard Hohler, Garnet Hoyes, Sompratana Liwsuwan, Kanokwan Cadet, Geoffrey Walton, Ingrid Hundius, Bonnie Brereton, Thong-Samouth, Chrishan and Beatrice Topuz, Hans Bänziger, Pippa Curwen, Elvira Sprogis, Donald Gibson, Donald Swearer, Peter Hanson, John Hobday, Sorani Wongbasaj, Amphay Dore, John Connell, Horst Schneider, Laurie Maund, Nancy Nimett, Michael Etue, Nancy Swearer, Gabby Stoll. An audience of 31.


Synopsis of the work

This exhaustive study is based on the translation of a Thai version of the world’s longest extant religious epic, the Buddhist Jataka (Birth Story) of the above title. The 547 Jataka Tales - according to Rhys Davids comprising “the most reliable, the most complete, and the most ancient collection of folklore in any literature in the world,” - were translated from Pali into English 100 years ago. Since then they have been virtually neglected by scholarship, only one other translation into English having been made of the final and most popular of these stories, the Vessantara Jataka.

Yet there can be no question as to the importance of this text for a fuller understanding of Buddhism’s meaning for its followers. There is no other literary religious narrative that can compare with the Vessantara Jataka either for popularity throughout time, or for its area of dissemination. Leaving aside the theme’s period of earliest - that is to say, pre-Buddhist – existence, the Jataka itself has survived 2,300 years, and while in its arc of Northern (Mahayan) dispersal it can now be found only in archaic and fossil forms, in the countries of the Southern (Theravada) tradition - Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos - it continues to flourish both as a popular dramatic entertainment and preceptor, and - far less well known - as a text with a Tantric esoteric message. In this last capacity, the dramatised Jataka serves as both a life-extension ceremony for the city-state and its community, and as an anagogic medium by means of which the male initiate attains to a state of deathlessness by giving birth to himself.

And here we have a clue to the extraordinary popularity of this epos.

Throughout his work, the author seeks to demonstrate that Buddhism can be seen at least in part as an attempt to reassert the ideal of heroic excellence that since Rg Vedic times has been subverted by the Indian sub-continent’s fundamental religious chthonianism. This attempt, which failed completely in Buddhism’s place of origin, has paradoxically succeeded in Southeast Asia’s even less favourable environment for a variety of reasons, the most important being that the Jataka serves to mediate between the region’s natural female ascendancy and the acquired male dominance asserted mainly through Buddhist magico-ascetic monasticism. Immensely popular as it is, the Jataka acknowledges the male’s need to achieve identity and integrity through an initiatory process, while at the same time conceding the female’s natural superiority, demonstrating as it does that it is only by acquiring the female’s generative power that the hero of the Jataka, the Bodhisattva Vessantara, is able to give birth to a Self that is unconditioned. Nevertheless, at the same time that it shows the male following his path to heroic excellence, the Jataka helps win the female support without which Buddhism is unable to survive, even on the day-to-day basis of the monk’s alms round, by displaying the hero accompanied, nurtured and supported at every step of his physical/spiritual journey by his subtle companion and consort Madsi, who in terms of the tantric allegory in which the epic is couched, can be assimilated to the psycho-mental yogic element of buddhi - luminous intelligence.

To say this much though is to give only a hint as to the enormous interpretative range the Jataka offers the researcher. In addition to the effects it elicits in the East, the Buddhist text shows remarkable correspondences with Western Romance literature (and later hermetic practices) that can be explained only by taking into account certain cultural transmissions that until now have been largely overlooked. Analysed and interpreted, the Jataka also sheds useful light on the evolutionary process of gender re-adjustment in which the West now finds itself critically engaged.

It is the need to address this range of interpretation that has dictated the length to which this work has been carried as an illustrated text - 252,000 words in total.  


Introduction to the Vessantara Jataka

The story translated and examined here is a modern Thai version of the most important and widespread literary-religious work in Buddhist Asia, the Vessantara Jataka - in fact one of the world’s greatest and (in the West) least known epics.

First committed to writing in either Sri Lanka or South India in the 5th C. AD, the theme was popular in oral, sculptural and dramatic forms long before.

It provides an account of the last but one of the many lives of the being who was to become the Buddha, in this case a prince who divests himself of every possession, including wife and children, with the aim of achieving self-transcendence.

To the Western eye, at least at first, the extraordinary popularity of this story will be puzzling. Fossil and aberrant forms of it are to be found throughout the northward arc of Buddhist missionary dispersion, from Nepal and Tibet to China and Japan. Flourishing modern renderings, very close to the Pali original, are still recited, employed ritually and enacted wherever the Southern School of Buddhism has taken root, most notably in Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand. Brilliant in colouring, primitive in characterisation, extravagant in its emotional tone and studded throughout with the miraculous, the story clearly owes part of its appeal to the simplicity of its doctrinal message: that meritorious action brings immediate personal and social benefit. Its earthy, sometimes coarse, strand of humour will also not have lost it any of its following. But pathos is what this Jataka is chiefly noted for. For nearly two and a half millennia, while the faithful have been edified and amused by certain of  its episodes, it is tears that have been its most particular hallmark, falling from the eyes of the listeners almost as copiously as they have been shed by the principal characters. “If you want to weep,” runs a modern Mongolian saying, “read Ushandara (Vessantara).”

And here we have the first clue to the fact that beneath the simplicities of the surface, something more complex is being expressed.

Oddly enough, the dry eye of Western scholarship has failed to see this clue. In fact scholarship of whatever designation has had very little to say of the corpus to which the Vessantara Jataka belongs, the Buddhist Birth Stories. Since their translation from the Pali language into English one hundred years ago, the received wisdom has been that we find in them (to quote T.W. Rhys Davids), “the priceless record of the childhood of our race.” And while the great Orientalist conceded that the 547 tales (of which the Vessantara Jataka is the last and second longest) make up “the most reliable, the most complete and the most ancient collection of folk-lore in any literature in the world,” his somewhat dismissive verdict as to content is the one that has stood down to the present.

Now clearly the Birth Stories have about as much connection with “the childhood of our race” (whenever that may have been) as the Pharonic pyramids - which is to say, very little at all. What we see in the Jataka as a whole and most obviously of all in the Vessantara Jataka, is a highly sophisticated attempt to reconcile two antithetical traditions of religious expression: that of the male-dominant Buddhist doctrine of the Indo-Aryans with the older Dravidian and pre-Dravidian worship of the Great Goddess. This attempt at reconciliation failed on the Indian sub-continent. By the 12th C., the Hindu Renaissance, in conjunction with the Islamic invasion, had all but extirpated Buddhism from its places of origin and development. In the missionary diaspora, both north and south, on the other hand, the Vessantara Jataka played its role brilliantly, to this day acting in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia as the vital ligament between the archaic chthonianisms of the region and the ‘higher’, more developed teachings of the Buddha.

One of the aims of this work is to show that this is indeed the case. Having provided a sketch of one of the main cultural settings in which the Jataka plays its part, and outlined the historical processes by which it came to be there, it presents the translation of a modern Thai rendering (though comparison with the earliest written version shows how guarded we must be in attributing modernity, in the sense of originality, to it). Due concession having been made to the orthodoxy of the Buddhist views the Jataka expresses, the next section examines and evaluates the textual clue referred to above, along with a number of others, in the process a new picture of the work evincing itself - or, to be more accurate, an earlier, occluded picture emerging from beneath the later. It should then be possible, rereading the story, to recognise the doctrinally sound interpretation the Buddhist redactors intended the lay-person to find there, and at the same time discern the encoded message, apparently startlingly at odds with Buddhist orthodoxy, also being transmitted: that the continued well-being of the human community depends on the renewal of the natural round through human sacrifice.

It should also be possible to argue on the evidence of this Jataka that far from wishing to expunge the older message, some of the Buddhist establishment saw the advantage of its retention. Most of this religious establishment, no doubt, will have been satisfied that the older, pre-Buddhist beliefs and practices were safely absorbed by and neutralised within this quasi-canonical work. Few indeed have shown any sign of fearing that it would act as a literary Trojan horse, bringing about a reversal of that process. But it is clear that some Buddhists at different times have opted for the synthetic compromise between the old and newer religions that in the East goes under the name of Tantrism, and for them the Vessantara Jataka will have provided a text that illustrates and also subliminally propagates their esoteric leaning. Esoteric, let it be noted of that inclination, but not heretical. For while Christianity annexed the myth of the suffering and dying Son of the ancient Near East, but anathemised the worship of the Great Mother who bore and loved him, Buddhism draws no hard and fast line, and does not insist on the discontinuity, between the popular, rural respects paid to the mainly chthonian feminine and the elitist, urban-court doctrine of masculine endeavour that ends in heavenly apotheosis. Nevertheless, tensions arising between the two systems do require alleviation, and while it would be difficult to prove that the Vessantara Jataka was deliberately chosen and shaped as a mediatory instrument, there can be no doubt that that is one of the functions it now performs.

In this context it is interesting to observe that while in the Buddhist East the Vessantara Jataka has succeeded in this role and continues to play its part, in the Christian West the Grail Romance, to which it bears an intriguing family likeness, failed. That is to say, although the Grail Romance, along with the themes it shares with this Jataka - among them the heroic quest, the incapacitated king, the magic talisman, the Waste Land, the renewal of the Land’s fertility, and male initiation - continues to be of historic interest, the Romance flourished as a literary form for only a century, eventually succumbing to the relentless official hostility all attempts to reassert the primacy of the earth-locus of religious inspiration, however discreetly expressed, have faced in the West. An important part of the argument of the analytical section of this study is that the difference in reception and treatment between the two related works is to be attributed to the fact that the dominant cultural sign in Southeast Asia was and continues to be feminine, while that of the West has been and still is - for all the current changes in this respect - masculine.

A word is in order at this point to justify differentiation between cultures on a gender basis. Gender function - the division of humanity in accordance with procreative roles - is an indisputable reality. Gender characterisation, however, clearly has a more subjective basis. Strong, bold, aggressive, dynamic, logical, creative, innovative on the one hand: gentle, pliant, timid, passive, nurturative, conservative on the other - rash indeed is even the most self-assured of Western paternalists who assigns such adjectives on a gender basis nowadays. And if gender characterisation applied to the individual is suspect, how much more so its extension to communities and cultures.

Nevertheless, that marked differences do exist in the way societies evaluate the sexual roles, and that such differences are manifested both in the manner in which societies portray themselves, particularly through their religion, literature and mythology, and also in the ways they express themselves in action, is beyond dispute. At one end of the culture-gender scale, the continual irruption of such warlike and male-dominant peoples as the semi-nomadic stock-raising Semites and Indo-Europeans into the agricultural civilisations neighbouring them is part of the historical record, as also are the attempts by the conquerors to impose masculine pantheons upon the predominantly feminine religious systems of the populations they subdued. The argument in the final section of this work is that Southeast Asia as a whole, and the primary locus of this study, Northern Thailand in particular, its peoples tenaciously conservative of their agricultural and even pre-agricultural chthonian beliefs and practices, lie at the opposing end of this gender continuum - that they are, in other words, as much a locus of the feminine cultural mode as the areas of Indo-European and Semitic origination and settlement are of the masculine. If this can be demonstrated, it must be conceded that the continued vitality in Southeast Asia of Buddhism, a religion which reflects both a reassertion of Indo-European heroic individuality and a reaction against the cult of the sacrifice, is the more remarkable, and the integrative importance of the Vessantara Jataka the more emphatic.

It has to be admitted that no direct support for these interpretations is to be expected from a Southeast Asian - certainly not from a Thai - source. In general the Vessantara Jataka is valued by the people of the region as a religious narrative associated with an important annual ceremony, and as such is as popular there as the Christmas story and the festivities associated with it are in the West. Neither have the scholars paid much attention to the work’s pre-Buddhist substructure, and none appears to have commented on its Tantric significance. Furthermore, although the connection with the Buddhist life-extension ceremony known as the bangsukul is well attested to, this again appears not to have directed attention to what might be described as the text’s subliminal teaching. The only aspect that has aroused academic interest is the work’s supposed socio-political conservatism, the point being made that it appears to reinforce conventional views about parent-child, husband-wife and most particularly monarch-subject relationships, not the least of the factors contributing to the Jataka’s long survival and popularity having been its promotion by rulers wishing to attach to themselves the barami (charismatic virtue or power) of the hero of the story.

And yet this absence of analytical interest in the region’s most important literary-religious theme, entirely consistent with the low priority accorded intellectual enquiry in Thailand in particular, further indicates that we are dealing with a society at the feminine end of the culture-gender continuum. Wherever patriarchal forms are strongly developed, so the cultural psychologists inform us, human consciousness tends to be experienced (or at least most commonly expressed) as a masculine entity struggling to arise from the powerful feminine unconscious embracing and restraining it. As Western mythology and religion depict it, the cost of the successful prosecution of this struggle is great. An Odin, Heracles, Prometheus or Christ, however highly his attainments may be valued and the hero himself honoured, must pay for his achievement, perhaps with his life. Nevertheless, in this cultural sphere the need for intellectual and physical struggle is emphasised, and the heroic male serves as exemplar. Conversely, at the feminine end of the cultural continuum, it is to be expected that struggle in general, and heroic struggle in particular, will receive less honour and attention, and such is the case, the Goddess here - whether in her malign aspect as Sitala-Kali-Durga, or more auspiciously disposed as Parvati-Maya-Kwanyin-Prajnaparamita - accorded far greater respect. This being so, Southeast Asia might appear anomalous, since the Southern School of Buddhism imposes a markedly male-dominant ideology on its area of influence. Closer investigation reveals, however, that although the major image presented is that of the Buddhist conqueror-hero, the absence of a single correspondingly-powerful representation of the Goddess is more than compensated for by the fact that her images and emblems, if not her ceremonies, are to be found not only in the villages and fields outside the conqueror’s temple, where we would expect them, but also inside it. Indeed, one highly plausible reading of Buddhist temple iconography and structure in Southeast Asia suggests that the Hero has not only conducted his quest within the ambit of the protectively feminine, as the concentric walls and the images of Earth Goddess and Snake Guardian, in proximity to the World Tree, indicate: not only is he almost invariably represented as radiating his power from the quintessential symbol of feminine origination, the lotus corolla: even now, at the end of his career, his seed-relics rest within the central stupa (that development of the sthargarbha or ‘womb-house’), as if awaiting - like the defunct spirit of the yearly round - rebirth from the All-bountiful Mother.

Another factor to be taken into account in evaluating the complex picture Southeast Asia presents in this respect is that the gender scale can be applied not only between cultures - Indo-European/Semitic to Southeast Asian in this instance - but also within societies, measuring from the masculine-dynamic of the ruling elite at one extremity to the feminine-conservative of the subject at the other. Certainly this should be borne in mind of Thailand, where state-promoted Buddhist orthodoxy, unable to banish her entirely, represents the Goddess as protective of and subordinate to the Hero. The popular view, on the other hand, abundantly supported by legend, folk-lore, folk-religion and its rituals, the popular arts and social practice, is of an altogether less accommodating being, a fierce, unpredictable, often violent and sometimes vengeful daemon to whom the male aspirant may come as food and drink. Northern Thailand, in immediate proximity to the repository of primitive practices of the hill country stretching from the Burmese frontier across to Bengal, is a particularly favoured locus for this being, and the exceptional popularity of the Vessantara Jataka here is hardly to be wondered at, if we accept that its intermediary role is what makes it indispensable.

One further point: the early history of Southeast Asia, and of the area of Thai settlement within it, is only now beginning to present a clearer picture. Until recently, the region was seen as a cultural backwater, to which civilisation came late and by transmission from outside, a view no longer tenable. The first cultivation of rice, the manufacture of ceramics and the mastery of advanced metallurgical techniques in Southeast Asia are now being assigned startlingly early dates by the archaeologists, and the village civilisation that practiced them, far from being culturally laggard and derivative, must equally early have developed a powerful and unique identity.

In examining the Vessantara Jataka, then, replete as it is with reference to pre-Buddhist practice and sentiment, we are sure not only to learn more about the individuals to whom it is important in the present, but also to gain valuable information as to the links they maintain with and the debt they owe to that apparently remote and fascinating antiquity - in the process, perhaps, being surprised to discover the extent to which archaic patterns of thought and behaviour directly influence and inform a complex modern society.

And not only Southeast Asian society. What may also surprise us is the extent to which the primordial beliefs and practices that have given rise to this Jataka have influenced and continue to be of importance in the West.