Adventures with the Buddha

Naomi Appleton is creating an online database bringing together both text and visual versions of jatakas  – stories of the Buddha’s past lives –  before examining the stories in a broader Indian context.

My overall research interest is the role of stories in the construction, communication and challenge of religious ideas, with a focus on early India. I have a particular interest in multi-life stories, including stories of the Buddha’s past lives (jatakas), which form an important literary genre throughout the Buddhist world; they purport to illustrate the many adventures of the Buddha-to-be when he was born amongst animals, humans and gods, as well as outlining his progress towards Buddhahood over multiple lifetimes.

I have also worked on the ways in which narrative characters, motifs and themes reveal the shared historical context of Jain, Buddhist and Hindu traditions. My next project will combine these two research interests and examine jataka stories in their broader Indian – including non-Buddhist – context. My aim is to explore the different ways in which stories of the Buddha’s past lives were understood and used across different Indian Buddhist schools and contexts, as well as the extent to which they are shared with non-Buddhist narrative traditions, up to around the fifth century CE. 

The jataka of the monkey king, in which the Buddha-to-be, born as a monkey, saves his troop by making a bridge to safety out of his own body. Sanchi stupa complex, Madhya Pradesh, c. 1st century BCE. Photograph courtesy of James M. Hegarty

Jataka literature is difficult to navigate because of its scale and complexity. The largest textual collection contains around 550 stories, while the many other jataka texts both increase the total number of stories and repeat stories in multiple versions; versions of some stories are also found in non-Buddhist texts. Artistic depictions at Buddhist sites from the first century BCE to the present day add to the challenges of interpreting the genre, while textual scholars and art historians operate in largely separate fields without many opportunities to share their expertise.

For these reasons, research into these fascinating narratives would be greatly enhanced by the creation of an online database of jatakas in texts and art. A variety of search and browse functions, comprehensive bibliographic information, and links to artistic depictions and textual and epigraphic translations, will make the resource invaluable not only for my own research, but also for other scholars of Asian religion, including art historians, with whom I will collaborate on this project. The online database will also be a useful educational resource, within and outside the Buddhist world, and I hope to use it in my own teaching as well as in work I am doing with local schoolteachers.

Dr Naomi Appleton
University of Edinburgh
Philip Leverhulme Prize