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Towards an Adaptation History of the Viśvantara Jātaka in Tibet and Beyond


· Volker Caumanns University of Bern, Institute for the Science of Religion (Bern, Switzerland)


07/27 | 12:00-12:20 UTC+2/CEST


When Buddhism was introduced to Tibet, not only religious doctrines and practices found their way into the Land of Snows, but also South Asian narratives. In this corpus, the accounts of the Buddha’s life and the tales of his former existences, the jātakas, occupy a central position. Several of these jātakas gained wide dissemination in Tibet, among them the Viśvantara Jātaka. Translations of various Indian versions of this jātaka, in which the selfless generosity of Prince Viśvantara is extolled, can be found in the two collections of the Tibetan canon. These translations served as a basis for numerous autochthonous Tibetan adaptations of the tale, including the libretto of a popular Tibetan opera, extensive retellings by “treasure discoverers” (gter ston), an elaborate ornate poem, and, in recent times, a Bhutanese movie.

Focusing on the different Tibetan editions of the libretto and its various translations in Western languages, this paper addresses the following questions: What do we know about the Tibetan (and Western) communities for which the libretto was prepared? In which ways does the libretto — as an adaptation of the jātaka — responds to the religious, intellectual, and aesthetic concerns of these communities? How do paratexts, but also the choice of medium and genre, provide a framework for the reception process? And, in which ways are the Tibetan editions and Western translations presented to the recipient as adaptations? By asking these questions, I will explore some of the basic aspects of an (as yet unwritten) adaptation history of the Viśvantara Jātaka in Tibet and beyond.