Bodily Self-Sacrifice in Indian Buddhist Literature

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  • Book Name Bodily Self-Sacrifice in Indian Buddhist Literature
  • Author Reiko Ohnuma
  • Language, Pages English, 394 Pgs. (HB)
  • Last Updated 2022 / 08 / 01
  • ISBN 9788120833609, 8120833600

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Bodily Self-Sacrifice in Indian Buddhist Literature
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This is the first comprehensive study of a central narrative theme in premodern South Asian Buddhist literature: the Buddha's bodily self-sacrifice during his previous lives as a bodhisattva. Conducting close readings of stories from Sanskrit, Pali, Chinese, and Tibetan literature written between the third century B.c.e. and the late medieval period, Reiko Ohnuma argues that this theme has had a major impact on the development of Buddhist philosophy and culture.

Whether he takes the form of king, prince, ascetic, elephant, hare, serpent, or god, the bodhisattva repeatedly gives his body or parts of his flesh to others. He leaps into fires, drowns himself in the ocean, rips out his tusks, gouges out his eyes, and lets mosquitoes drink from his blood, always out of selflessness and compassion and to achieve this highest state of Buddhahood.

Ohnuma places these stories into a discrete subgenre of South Asian Buddhist literature and approaches them like case studies, analyzing their plots, characterizations, and rhetoric. She then relates the theme of the Buddha's bodily self-sacrifice to major conceptual discourses in the history of Buddhism and South Asian religions, such as the categories of the gift, the body (both ordinary and extraordinary), kingship, and sacrifice, ritual offering, and death. The work reveals a very sophisticated and influential perception of the body in South Asian Buddhist literature and highlights the way in which these stories have provided an important cultural resource for Buddhists. Combined with her rich and careful translations of classic texts, Ohnuma introduces a whole new understanding of a vital concept in Buddhist studies.

REIKO OHNUMA is an associate professor of religion at Dartmouth College. Her research focuses on premodern South Asian Buddhist literature, especially narrative literature. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and two children.

From Back of the Book

"...contains some insightful readings and erudite syntheses; readers with an interest in "the gift" and discourse about the body, in particular, will find the book thought-provoking. The book is perhaps best approached as a heuristic tool, the reader finds its central dialectic useful for understanding not only gift-of-the-body narratives but also "the Buddhist tradition".

-Natalie Gummer, Beloit College, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. No. 76. No.1 March-2008

"...a 'must read' volume not only for Buddhologists but for religionists as well. Buddhist views of 'the gift' and 'the body' have never been discussed with such clarity and balance. Ohnuma is tuned into the tensions, the dilemmas, and the richness of the tradition and literary genres that she explores, and she shows how the paradoxical attitudes expressed in these tales reinforce their significance not only for our understanding of Buddhist attitudes toward the body and the gift and their connections to gender issues, ethics, and soteriology but also toward the tradition as a whole."

-John Strong, Charles A. Dana. Professor of religion, Bates College, and author of Relics of the Buddha.

Conventions Used In This Book

1. Throughout this book, I refer repeatedly to many different gift-of-the-body jatakas (which collectively make up the corpus from which I draw my conclusions). Since it is cumbersome to cite all of the available editions, translations, and discussions of each jataka every time it is mentioned, and since it is confusing (for the reader) to cite such information only the first time each jataka is mentioned, I have collected all of this information together in the Appendix (where I hope it will be easier to locate) and left it out of the endnotes completely. The endnotes are thus reserved for direct citations and relevant discussions only. However, when citing a text or story that is not a part of my corpus (and therefore not covered in the Appendix), I try to give somewhat fuller information in the endnotes.

2. Passages translated by me from the original sources are cited according to the edition used (ed.); passages borrowed from other people’s translations are cited according to the translation used (Trans.). For passages translated by me, I have provided the original text in the endnotes in the case of shorter passages, but not in the case of longer passages.

3. Many of the stories I discuss exist in both Pali and Sanskrit versions. In order to avoid the confusion caused by variant names, I consistently use the Sanskrit form throughout (e.g., King Sibi rather than King Sivi), regardless of whether I am talking about a pali or a Sanskrit source. The same goes for technical terms I (e.g., anatman rather than anatta). The only exceptions are a few instances in which it made more sense to me (for various reasons) to use the Pali form rather than the Sanskrit (e.g., vessantara jataka rather than Visvamtara jataka). In such cases, I clearly indicate that the language is Pali.


In 399 C.E. a Chinese Buddhist monk by the name of Faxian set out from his home in Chang'an to undertake a fourteen-year pilgrimage to the Buddhist holy land of India. After following a path westward across the length of China, he eventually worked his way south via the Karakorum trail and entered the northwestern portion of the Indian subcontinent, in the regions of Uddiyana and Gandhara (in what is currently northern Pakistan).

At the time of Faxian's visit, Buddhism in this region (under the later katanas and Sakas) was flourishing, and in addition to the many large monasteries and thriving monastic communities Faxian encountered, there were a number of impressive Buddhist holy sites associated with the biography of the Buddha. But since the original homeland of the historical Buddha lay far away in the central Gangetic plain, this region of northwest India could not lay claim to the more standard and well-known episodes of the Buddha's life. Instead, the holy sites of northwest India were of two major types: Some commemorated the events that took place during a purely apocryphal and supernatural nighttime journey the Buddha is said to have taken to the company of the yaksa vajrapani, during which he tamed and converted many nonhuman beings by means of his magical powers. (Thus Faxian visited the famous cave in which the Buddha, after taming the naga-king Gopala, had left an imprint of his shadow as a continuing reminder of his presence.) Most of the northwestern sites, however, were associated with the Buddha's previous lifetimes (before his birth as Siddhartha Gautama) and commemorated the various heroic deeds he had performed while still a bodhisattva. Since northwest India could not be clearly associated with the Buddha's last life, it made sense to localize and acclimatize Buddhism within the region by identifying various northwestern sites as locales of some of his previous lives, as recorded in the Buddhist jatakas.

If we follow Faxian along his journey (by means of the detailed account he left behind), it is striking to observe that virtually all of these sites connected to the Buddha's previous lives commemorate deeds of bodily self-sacrifice. Though the bodhisattva of the jatakas performs different virtuous deeds, it is the act of bodily sacrifice, above all, that seems to have excited the imagination of those who erected the holy sites of the northwest. In a place called suvastu, for example, Faxian came across a large stupa "adorned…with gold and silver ornaments" and marking the spot where the Buddha, in his previous life as king Sibi, had "cut off a piece of his own flesh" and used it to ransom a dove from the clutches of a hungry hawk. Five days later, in Gandhara, Faxian encountered another large stupa, similarly adorned with gold and silver, where the same king Sibi "gave away his eyes as alms to others." Seven days later, while visiting a stupa in Taksasila, Faxian informs us that the name Taksasila means "decapitation" and refers to the Buddha's birth as king Candraprabha, who "gave away his head as alms at this place; hence the name." And from there, several days’ journey to the east, Faxian and his companions visited yet another stupa, which marked the place where the bodhisattva, born as prince Mahasattva, "gave his body to feel a starving tigress." These acts of bodily sacrifice seem to have inspired abundant worship and devotion, for Faxian further informs us that the people of the region referred to these sites as the "Four great stupas," where "kings, ministers, and people of different countries vied with one another in making offerings" and "the practices of scattering flowers and lighting lamps at the stupa never ceased." A virtual cult of the bodhisattva's bodily sacrifice appears to have been active throughout the region.

Approximately two hundred years later, in the seventh century C.E., another Chinese Buddhist monk by the name of Xuanzang also made the holy pilgrimage to India, visiting many of the same sites as his predecessor Faxian and writing an even more detailed account of his travels. By this time the situation in northwest India had changed considerably, however. Buddhism had suffered greatly under the ravages of the Ephthalites, or White Huns, and in many of the places where Faxian had described beautiful monasteries and thriving monastic communities, Xuanzang found only neglected and crumbing buildings inhabited by dwindling numbers of monks.

Nevertheless, white travelling through the northwest, Xuanzang once again paid his respects at the same four stupas, his account of them offering us several additional details. The sputa commemorating king sibi's sacrifice of his eyes, for example, is described by Xuanzang as having "wood carvings and stone sculptures that are quite different from work done by human artisans". Xuanzang dates this sputum to the era of King Asoka and further informs us that the bodhisattva gave his eyes away at this spot not just once, but in a thousand consecutive lifetimes. The same repetitive quality also characterizes King Chandraprabha's gift of his head, for Xuanzang tells us that this king, too, made such a gift "a thousand times in past lives." The potency of this repetitive self-decapitation was such that its effects were still apparent in the time of Xuanzang. "On fast days," he tells us, "(the stupa) sometimes emits a light amid divine flowers and heavenly music." And its powers had recently cured a devout woman suffering from leprosy. Supernatural occurrences also characterized the fourth stupa, commemorating Prince Mahasattva's gift of his body to the hungry tigress. Xuanzang tells us that because the prince had "pricked himself with a dry bamboo splinter so as to feed the tigress with his blood…the soil and plants of this place are dark reddish in colour as if they have been stained by the blood," and "when people come to this spot, they feel nervous and uneasy, as if they had prickles hurting their backs".

Unlike Faxian, Xuanzang does not single out these sites as the "Four great stupas" In fact; his account of his travels through the northwest suggests that many additional sites associated with the bodhisattva's bodily sacrifice also existed in this region. Thus the Mahavana ("Great forest") monastery marked the spot where the bodhisattva, as King Sarvadatta, had offered his own head to a wandering supplicant. In the Saniraja valley stood a monastery called Sarpausadhi ("serpent medicine") with an eighty-foot high stupa whose story Xuanzang relates as follows:

This was the place where a famine occurred with a pestilence when the Tathagata was (the deity) Indra in a former life. Medical treatment failed to cure the people, who died one after another on the road. With a mind of pity, Indra wished to save them, and an announcement echoed in the air. Those who heard about it were glad to rush to the spot to cut off pieces of flesh, which were at once replaced, to satisfy their hunger and cure their disease.

Strangely enough nearby was yet another stupa where a very similar deed had occurred: during a great famine, the bodhisattva (born once again as the deity Indra) "changed himself into a large suma (water) serpent, and all those who are its flesh were cured." And finally, the appropriately-named rohitaka (Red) stupa marked the spot where the bodhisattva, as king maitribala, "drew blood- from his body to feed five yaksas."

Head, eyes, flesh, and blood- the land of northwest India itself was a virtual map of the bodhisattva's gruesome gifts. Over and over again, throughout his long career-whether as king, prince, ascetic, elephant, hare, serpent, or god-the bodhisattva quite literally gave of himself, repeatedly jumping off cliffs or into fires, drowning himself in the ocean, slashing his throat, cutting the flesh from his thighs, ripping out his tusks, gouging out his eyes, or letting mosquitoes drink from his blood. He offered his body as food, as a drink, as medicine to cure all ills, as a raft to hang onto in pursuit of the other shore, as a ransom for the life of another- or for no good reason at all, but merely because someone had asked. And always with the same motivation to benefit others out of selflessness and compassion, to fulfil the "perfection of generosity" (dana-paramita), and ultimately, to win the highest estate of Buddhahood.




Illustrations ix
Tables xi
Conventions used in this book xiii
Acknowledgements xv
Introduction 1
I The gift-of-the-body genre 26
II Conventions of plot 52
III Conventions of Rhetoric 90
IV Dana: The Buddhist discourse on giving 140
V A flexible gift 167
VI Bodies ordinary and ideal 199
VII Kingship, Sacrifice, Offering, and Death:
Some other interpretive contexts 242
Conclusions 266
Appendix: A corpus of
Gift-of-the-body jatakas 273
Notes 285
Bibliography of works cited 337
Index 359

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