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date: 30 May 2020

Summary and Keywords

A jātaka story narrates an episode in a past life of the Buddha. Such tales are found in a variety of Buddhist texts, the largest and best known of which is the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā, a collection of almost 550 stories in the Pāli language preserved by the Theravāda school. Jātaka stories emphasize the Buddha’s great abilities as visionary and storyteller, and illustrate moral lessons, the workings of karma, or the perfections required for the attainment of buddhahood. A focus of a large number of stories is the ideal of generosity, which, for an aspiring buddha, includes being prepared to give away one’s own children, or the flesh and blood from one’s own body. In addition to their widespread presence in texts, jātaka stories have been depicted at Buddhist stūpa and temple sites since before the beginning of the Common Era, and continue to be a popular form of Buddhist visual art to this day. They also play an important role in the cultural life of some Buddhist countries, inspiring literature, theater, opera, and other art forms. Their place in the Buddha’s sacred biography gives them a special symbolic value, which is behind some uses of the stories in art and ritual. The Vessantara-jātaka, understood in Theravāda tradition as narrating the Buddha’s penultimate human birth and his acquisition of the perfection of generosity, takes on a particularly important role in artistic, ritual, and festive contexts. In addition, there is evidence to suggest that the jātaka genre as a whole had an important role in the formation and communication of ideas about buddhahood, karma and merit, and the place of the Buddha in relation to other buddhas and bodhisattvas.

Keywords: jātaka, narrative, art, Buddhism, Buddha, bodhisattva, perfections, biography

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