These fourteen paintings of the Vessantara Jataka were donated to Rhodes College as part of the Jessie L. Clough Art Memorial for Teaching in 1953.
The Vessantara Jataka is one of the most well-known tales in mainland Southeast Asia, home to a majority population of Theravada Buddhists. This is the earliest kind of Buddhism, which derives from the India and Nepal in the 5th century BCE and takes as its main scriptures the Pali Canon. Pali is the sacred language used for Theravada Buddhism.
Perhaps only second to Siddhartha Gotama Buddha’s life story, the Vessantara Jataka is well-known as the penultimate life of the Buddha. Jatakas are tales of Gotama Buddha’s life before he reached nibbana (enlightenment) and taught others, thus becoming a Buddha. The Pali tradition records 547 of these tales, when the future Buddha is called a bodhisatta, or one who vows to become a Buddha.
Before becoming a Buddha, a person must achieve Ten Perfections: (1) generosity (dāna), (2) morality (sīla), (3) renunciation (nekhamma), (4) insight (pañña), (5) energy (viriya), (6) patience (khanti), (7) truthfulness (sacca), (8) resolution (adhiṭṭhāna), (9) loving-kindness (metta), and (10) equanimity (upekkhā). The final ten Jataka tales express how Gotama Buddha completed all ten of these perfections. The Vessantara Jataka, the last of these tales, focuses on the Perfection of Generosity.
Being the last of the ten perfections, generosity is both the most important and most complicated. Although all religious value generosity, Buddhism has a unique focus on perfecting generosity, in extreme ways, as seen in the Vessantara Jataka, for those on the path to Buddhahood. Ordinary people are not expected to be able to or even strive towards completing this perfection. However, those in the final stages of bodhisatta-hood, are expected to bear any and all difficulties.
Not everyone within Theravada Buddhism accepts Vessantara’s actions as positive and good. There is plenty of criticism placed on Vessantara for his actions. The story is not meant to be a clear-cut morality lesson. It is meant to be a challenging story, for people to think about and engage with.
The paintings, either as prints, banners, or scrolls, help the story to come alive for Buddhist laity. Most commonly seen today in mural paintings throughout Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar, these pictures literally illuminate the perfection of generosity for practitioners.