Dr. R.  Banerjee (Chinese and Central Asian Scholar) Dr. R.  Banerjee


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M. C. Joshi & R. Banerjee


Syama or Samaka Jataka
Visvantara Jataka
Ruru (Deer) Jataka
Sibi Jataka

Visvantara Jataka

The most famous Jataka common to Buddhist art of India and China is Visvantara or Vessantara Jataka (in Pali) from early times. The tale emphasises the importance of dana or offering charity and gifts. According to the story in the kingdom of Sivi, there was a king named Sanjaya and he had a son Visvantara whose generosity became a household word in the country and everyone rushed to him to solicit something. Visvantara tried his utmost not to disappoint anyone. One day he even gave away the auspicious white elephant, the harbinger of rain which was a national treasure, to a neighbouring kingdom which had suffered the visitation of draught. People in his own kingdom were indignant at his excessive generosity had demanded his banishment. On the order of his royal father Visvantara left for the forest with his wife and two  children. During the course of the journey he first gave away his horse, then the chariot. He even parted with his two children to a Brahmin (Indra in the guise of an old Brahmin demanded them from him.) As if this was not enough, he even gave away his wife. The king of gods, Sakra (i.e. Indra) reunited him with his children, wife and father, and he returned to his kingdom welcomed by everyone.

Visvantara represents the last existence of Gautama Buddha as Bodhisattva. As a result of his meritorious deeds during the previous births Gautama attained enlightenment and became Buddha. The Bodhisattva embarks on his journey from supreme sacrifice to supreme knowledge as Buddha. He accepts all hardships of his banishment with joy. While Visvantara is in the jungle no beast or bird of the forest does  any harm to each other, and there is perfect harmony and friendship among all species till Visvantara bids goodbye to the forest to come back to his kingdom.

The Visvantara narrative is found sculpted in the art of Bharhut, Sanchi, Gandhara, Ajanta, Amaravati, Nagarjunakonda, Goli and Ajanta in India, and in Miran and Kizil in Chinese Turkistan and Dunhuang and many other places in China. In Sanchi, the depiction is to be found on the lower lintel of the northern gateway of the great stupa. The episodes runs from right to left on the central portion of the outer gateway of the lintel, beginning the right end. If we go through the Visvantara relief at Goli we are confronted with a completely sequential frieze, of which only the left and has been lost. The story is here presented in sequence from left to right. In the first scene that has survived, Visvantara, accompanied by a large retinue is riding at the city gate on the state elephant. The favourite presentations of Visvantara Jataka mainly highlight two places, viz, the forest scenes are in the lower register of the corridor wall of cave No. 17 of Ajanta. This combination has resulted in a powerful impact on the spectators, touching the inner chord of the hearts of the people.

The Visvantara Jataka seems to have been very popular in Central Asia as in India. A. von Le coq discovered a very eleborate depiction of this Jataka at Kizil. The greed of the black brahmin beggar and the trepidation of the sons before they were gifted away by the compassionate of Jataka in Miran is also elaborate. The manner of delineation of the Jataka in Miran shows beyond doubt the extension of Gandhran style to the eastern part of Xinjiang. Further it is interesting to note that there is a short Brahmi inscription on the thigh of Visvantara's elephant which has been interpreted as being equivalent to Roman Tita. It shows that there were itinerant Roman artists who had moved to Central Asia to execute Buddhist temple art. The Amaravati sculpture as in the Miran painting very vividly shows the agitation of the people for the banishment of Visvantara. In both the places the king is seated on a throne with hi right foot placed on a footstool and the hand is placed on the thigh.

On the left of the illustration at Miran it depicts the offering of the elephant by Visvantara and on the right his gifting away the cart and the bull. But one significant thing to note is that the Amaravati panel omits Visvantara's taking leave of his father - the scene which is the vital link in the Central Asian painting.

In the Ajanta painting we find Visvantara taking leave first of his mother, Phusati and then his father king Sanjaya. The queen mother is shown seated on a throne, and Visvantara, kneels down before her with his hands joined in adoration. There are three maids depicted  in three different poses below the queen and the prince. By the side of the queen there are a female chauri bearer and two more maids, holding ornaments probably for the prince to enable him to offer gifts according to his heart's desire. Visvantara is shown again near the feed of his father seated on the throne. The face of the king betrays anxiety. Here also Visvantara kneels down with folded hands. In both the places he is shown bedecked in jewellery and crown. The artist brings out very successfully the nobility of Visvantara's character, i.e. his respect for his parents and obedience to his father's wishes on the hand and the anxiety of his parents and an overspread gloom in the palace because of the impending banishment of Visvantara on the other.

When on compares the detail of the Ajanta painting with those of the Central Asian fragments one hardly fails to recognise the identity of their subject matter. It is interesting to note that though the other parts of the story are found depicted in many sculptures and paintings, this particular incident of Visvantara's taking leave of his father before going on exile survives now only in Ajanta but also in the Central Asian fragments.

The Visvantara Jataka occupies a pride of place in the Dunhuang Jataka paintings, albeit it is there assuming the identity of "Sadana Jataka" (named after the great river). The popularity of Sadana Jataka began probably with the founding of the Sui Dynasty by an emperor who was one of the most devout Buddhist rulers in Chinese history. Particular attention should be given to the painting of the "Sadana story" in cave No. 419of the Mogao Grottoes, Dunhuang. When the Director of the Dunhuang Academy, Prof. Duan Wenjie, visited us in 1991, he brought the life size copy of this painting executed by none other than himself, which was 111.5 cm in height and 359.5 cm in length. The original was painted during the Sui Dynasty at the turn of the 6th-7th century. The painting was almost a copy of the Ajanta "Visvantara Jataka" filled with the details about his gifting away the while elephant, his exile journey, his giving away the horse (hence he had to pull the chariot by hand like pulling a ricksha), then parting with the chariot, then the children, then the wife. The painting also showed God Sakra reinstating him to his Kingdom and his being welcomed back by the king and his people.

In comparison, while the Sudana story painted in cave No. 419 at Dunhuang did not highlight the restoration of the two sons to the prince, the Ajanta Cave No. 17 painting of Visvantara Jataka illustrated in the central portion the payment of a large sum of coins by king Sanjaya to the Brahman, Jujaka, for the return of the two grandsons.








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