China and Inner Asia
New York University Shanghai, China (People's Republic)
The Vessantara Jātaka (also called the Sudāna Jātaka in its Chinese versions) is one of the most renowned and widely circulated jātakas, or birth stories of the Buddha. During the fifth and sixth centuries, the story became frequently depicted in Chinese murals and reliefs. Several scenes showing prince Sudāna in exile appear to have been selected to crystallise the whole story. This phenomenon is remarkably intriguing as some exile scenes are absent in any surviving depictions of the story in the story’s South and Central Asian precedents. This study integrates the story’s textual sources to its visual tradition to explore the reason why Sudāna’s exile was selected. A key element absent in previous tradition is a sage whom Sudāna visits. The sage usually takes a head-cover-robe and sits in mountain landscape. I argue that the story’s textual translation in the third century has integrated indigenous Chinese writings of immortals, while its visual depiction since the fifth century borrowed the already established iconography of meditative monks to invent such a figure with no visual precedents. I further explicate the Chinese contexts to accommodate the two transitions, arguing for an underlying religious mentality that focused on the quest for transcendence, an idea that grew more popular during the flourishing of Buddhist meditation practice in the early sixth century.