Chiastic Structure of the Vessantara Jataka: New Approach to Criticism & Hermeneutics of a Classic Buddhist Text
Nan Tien Temple - Library, 180 Berkeley Road, Berkeley (Wollongong), NSW, 2506
The Vessantara Jātaka (Skt: Viśvaṃtara) is not only perhaps the most popular of all the Buddhist Jātaka tales, but is an important Buddhist text in the tradition as a whole. While considered as displaying the epitome of the bodhisatta’s perfection of giving (dānapāramī) according to the Theravāda tradition, and has appeared in modified forms in other traditions, scholars have sometimes felt difficulty in explaining the popularity of the text and how its renunciant content has been popularly thought to convey worldly power and benefit.
Our study of the text shall employ the theory of chiasmus to shed new light on both the key teachings of the story and also its popularity. In terms of textual criticism, we shall first elucidate the clear chiastic structure of the text, and give comment on how this structure can provide insights on its possible composition. In terms of hermeneutics, we shall see how the structure clearly demarcates the raison d'être of the text and its scope, and see how this provides both a structural and narrative framework to highlight the central core message of the text.
With the chiastic structure and story narrative made explicit, with reference to Campbell’s “hero” meta-myth, we shall then be in a position to explain the popularity of the story. The bipartite tension that is apparent in chiastic structure can also help explain the simultaneous renunciant and worldly elements of the text as not necessarily contradictory. In terms of the key message, however, we shall argue that it is not in truth “giving” (dāna) that is the focal point, but “renunciation” (nekkhamma). The location of the Vessantara Jātaka within the life of the Buddha provides an indication of much larger macro-level chiastic structure as a possible meta-myth and meta-structure for Buddhist hagiography in general.