Readings of the Vessantara Jataka.

Author:McCombs, Jason
Position:Book review
 
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Readings of the Vessantara Jataka. Edited with an introduction by STEVEN COLLINS. Columbia Readings of Buddhist Literature. New York: COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2016. Pp. x + 216. $90 (cloth); $30 (paper); $29.99 (ebook).

In a series meant to address ongoing interpretations and productions--broadly conceived--of historically significant Buddhist texts, surely Readings of the Vessantara Jataka, the third volume of the series, has a rightful place. For the legend of Prince Vessantara, (1) the man destined to become the Buddha Sakyamuni in his next human rebirth, has for centuries been critically important in virtually the entire Buddhist world. Indeed, the Vessantara Jataka (hereafter abbreviated as VJ) has probably been the most popular Buddhist tale traditionally for Sri Lanka and much of Southeast Asia. Steven Collins, the editor of this volume, is therefore not unjustified in his opening claim that if "one approaches Buddhist textual traditions as civilizational-literary achievements... then the story of central historical and ethnographic importance will be that of Vessantara..." (p. 1).

This collection of essays on the VJ is very much in line with the welcome shift in Buddhist Studies, perhaps most notably marked by the 1995 publication of Buddhism in Practice (which could arguably be called Buddhist Texts in Practice), from examining texts only philologically and doctrinally to studying them as part and parcel of lived and living Buddhist cultures. Collins, borrowing from A. K. Ramanujan's work on the Ramayana, thus frames the VJ not as a single text preserved in Pali or Sanskrit, but rather as a set of related tellings. Any one telling of the VJ is not a variant of some static ur-text from which it and all other versions diverge. Instead, a single telling represents a reinterpretation of an inherited narrative tradition, composed according to a particular agenda and constrained by certain historical and cultural circumstances (pp. 4-6). Although the essayists of this volume do not all follow Collins's terminology by referring to such and such a telling of the VJ, they do adhere to his interpretive framework as a guiding principle: there is no fixed standard VJ, even if the Pali text, which introduces most Western students of Buddhism to Vessantara, is seen as authoritative in specific contexts.

Readers of this volume, and I would include among them specialists in Theravada Buddhism, will walk away with a thorough appreciation of the...

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