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Jataka tales and Ajanta murals : ‘sacred beauty’ in Buddhist words and images



Long, J. Bruce










The question as to the proper and most acceptable view of the relationship between Religion and the Arts is as old as humankind itself. Prior to the beginning of the Renaissance in the West in the mid-15th century, however, it was well-nigh universally recognized that Religion and the Arts were all but inseparable, and not only that but that they actively worked together to form a single, but complex mode of human expression. The pre-modern view of Religion and the Arts as intermingled strands of a single cord, provides the hermeneutical frame for this paper.

The specific focus of this paper will be the story of the Great Renunciation of King Mahajanaka, ruler over Mithila, and a previous incarnation of The Buddha, as that story is recounted through two different, but interrelated modes of human communication -- the prose narrative in the Jataka Stories and the wall-paintings pertinent to that story located in Cave I at Ajanta, a Buddhist temple site in North Central India.

Following a brief account of the author’s personal visit to the caves during a research year in India, the paper covers ad seriatum, the following topics: (1) The Loss and Rediscovery of the Caves in the 19th century, (2) The Design and Execution of the Caves and the Murals, (3) An Account of the Mahajana Jataka story, (4) A Description of the Paintings Illustrative of the Jataka Story, (5) A Thematic Analysis of the Mahajanaka Jataka Story, (6) Thematic Contrasts between the Jataka Story and the Ajanta Murals, and (7) Social and Cultural Values in the “Mahajanaka” Cycle.

The conclusion of this study of a single Jataka story and the paintings that purportedly illustrate it, is that, while there are numerous thematic parallels between the story and the murals, in the end, it is difficult to determine whether these two accounts of the story of Mahajanaka’s renunciation are, essentially, two versions of the same story or two different stories, with numerous common themes. We are left with this troublesome question, partly, by virtue of the fact that we do not know with any degree of certainty whether the story-tellers and the artists were working from the same literary source or different ones. If either one or both of the versions of the story were oral, in nature, we may never be in a position to formulate a conclusive position regarding this question.

Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
John Keats (1795-1821), ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’

Whenever anyone reaches up to the Release, /i.e,Truth/
called the Beautiful, then he knows, indeed, what Beauty is.
Digha Nikaya iii, 34

As Sumeru is the chief of the mountains,
as Garuda is the chief of those born from eggs,
as the King is the chief of men, even so in this world
is the practice of painting the chief of all the arts.
Vishnudharmottara-purana, 3rd khanda, xliii, 39

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