Vessantara Jataka - A Buddhist boddhisatva
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Vessantara Jataka

stone carving of parents and two children
Vessantara and Maddi and
their two children (Sanchi
stupa, Northern Gateway, ca. 50 BC)

May 2016 - In this Buddhist story, a Jataka tale from about 400 BC, the Indian boddhisatva Vessantara wanted to give up everything for Buddhism. He gave up his kingdom and all his money and lived with his wife and children in the forest.

stone carving of a couple outside a hut
Jujaka and his young wife by the fire

But in a village not far away, there was trouble. A mean old Brahmin man, Jujaka, married a young pretty girl. At first she was a good wife, but then the other girls beat her up for being a goody-goody, so she nagged him to get slaves to fetch water from the village well for her. Jujaka set off to look for slaves, and he found Vessantara and his kids (Maddi was away picking fruit). He asked Vessantara for his two kids, to be his slaves, and Vessantara gave them up, too!

stone carving of man hitting kids with a stick, man with bow and arrow
Vessantara almost shoots Jukaka

Jujaka started to drag the kids away, hitting them with sticks and cursing them. The kids screamed for help. Vessantara got upset and almost shot Jujaka with his bow and arrow, but at the last minute he got control of himself and remembered that he was a Buddhist and didn't care about anything but the Way. So he let Jujaka drag his crying kids away.

Just then Maddi came home. You'd think she'd be upset that he sold the kids, but no, she was proud that he was such a good Buddhist. The god Indra came and tested Vessantara some more, to see if he would also give his wife away. Sure, Vessantara was totally willing to give away his wife too. But by now the gods had enough of this, and they gave everything back: the wife, the kids, the kingdom, and they all lived happily ever after.

stone carving of two men and a woman
Vessantara gives his wife away

Is this basically the Hindu story of the Ramayana rewritten for Buddhists? Is it related to the Bible story of Job? It might also be related to the earlier story of Gilgamesh, who also loses a friend and curses the gods, or to the story of Achilles and Patroclos. All of these stories are about loss and grief, but also about how hard it is to know when to act and when to let things happen: that's also at the root of Taoism.

More about Boddisatvas
Learn by Doing - Buddhism Projects

Bibliography and further reading about Buddhism:

Buddhism in China
Zen Buddhism
A project to make a gold Buddha statue
Indian religion
Ancient India
Chinese religion home

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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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  • Carr, K.E. . Study Guides, . Web. 27 April, 2017