views updated


The story of Prince Viśvantara (Pāli, Vessantara) is perhaps the most popular and well-known jĀtaka (past-life story of the Buddha). It exists in many different versions and languages, and is a frequent subject of Buddhist art, ritual, and performance, particularly in TheravĀda countries of Southeast Asia.

In brief, the story involves a prince named Viśvantara who demonstrates the virtue of selfless generosity through a series of extraordinary gifts. First, he gives away his kingdom's most valuable elephant, an act that angers the citizenry and causes his father, King Saṃjaya, to reluctantly banish Viśvantara from the kingdom. After giving away all of his material possessions, Viśvantara embarks on a life of exile in the forest, accompanied by his wife and two children. When a cruel brahmin asks for the children as servants, Viśvantara willingly gives them away while his wife is off gathering food. Shortly thereafter, another brahmin supplicant asks for his wife, and Viśvantara again complies. This last supplicant reveals himself to be the god Śakra in disguise and immediately returns Viśvantara's wife to him. Meanwhile, full of remorse, King Saṃjaya ransoms Viśvantara's children from the cruel brahmin and then invites Viśvantara back from exile. In celebration, Śakra rains a shower of jewels from the sky.

Viśvantara never wavers from the harsh demands of universal generosity—giving children, wife, and material gifts to any and all who ask—yet everything is restored to him in the end. The story thus highlights the bodhisattva's "perfection of generosity," while also offering its listeners the promise of karmic rewards. Since Viśvantara loses his wife and children and becomes an ascetic in the forest (if only temporarily), the story also calls to mind the monk's renunciation of the world, as well as the life-story of the Buddha. Indeed, it has an especially close connection with the latter, for the birth as Viśvantara is understood to be the culmination of the Buddha's bodhisattva career and his last human rebirth before the final life as Siddhārtha Gautama. Moreover, when Siddhārtha battles against MĀra underneath the Tree of Enlightenment, it is the merit acquired during his life as Prince Viśvantara that he invokes in order to secure Māra's defeat and thus attain buddhahood.

In line with its importance, the story of Viśvantara has been a popular subject of sermons, rituals, folk operas, dramas, and other forms of performance in many Buddhist cultures. In Thailand, for example, the Pali Vessantara-jātaka is recited annually by monks during the Thet Mahachat festival, an act understood to produce abundant spiritual merit.

See also:Buddha, Life of the; Entertainment and Performance; Folk Religion: An Overview; Folk Religion, Southeast Asia; Pāramitā (Perfection)


Collins, Steven. "The Vessantara Jātaka." In Nirvāṇa and Other Buddhist Felicities: Utopias of the Pāli Imaginaire. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Cone, Margaret, and Gombrich, Richard, trans. The Perfect Generosity of Prince Vessantara: A Buddhist Epic. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977.

Reiko Ohnuma