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Is there any convincing interpretation of Vessantara Jātaka that isn't in conflict with morality? Vessantara gave away his children to serve as slaves for no particular reason; it is not clear how not giving them away would hinder his own awakening.

I can see how one might argue from the Buddhist perspective that attachment to one's children and anger towards their oppressors is a bad thing. One can, however, protect one's children from oppressors in a completely detached way, without generating any attachment or hatred. Moreover, it's not that he just didn't resist; instead he actively looked for his children when they had run away, in order to give them away to Jūjaka.

All in all, Vessantara's behaviour caused a lot of suffering to his children for no reason whatsoever, and he not only didn't get condemned, but was even presented as the one who did the right thing. Is there any way to reconcile this story with morality?

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At that time of the society husband is the sole owner of wife and children and he can give them away to anyone at will. To become a Buddha one needs to cultivate Dana Parami to the highest level. That includes the ability to give away anything you own. King Vessantara did not give away the children to be tortured. It was Jūjaka who decided to hit the children. So the Karmic consequences fall on Jūjaka. Not king Vessantara .

It was extremely tormenting for king Vessantara as you can see in the following passage:

What follow are the verses of the Great Being's lamentation.

"O when at morning or at eve for food my children cry, Opprest by hunger or by thirst, who will their want supply? [552] How will their little trembling feet along the roadway go, Unshod? who'll take them by the hand and lead them gently so?

How could the brahmin feel no shame, while I was standing by, To strike my harmless innocents? a shameless man say I!

No man with any sense of shame would treat another so, Were it a servant of my slave, and I brought very low.

I cannot see him, but he scolds and beats my children dear, While like a fish caught in a trap I'm standing helpless here."

These thoughts came into the Great Being's mind, through his affection for the children; he could not away with the pain to think how the brahmin cruelly beat his children, and he resolved to go in chase of the man, and kill him, and to bring the children back. But no, he thought: that was a mistake; to give a gift, then to repent because the children's trouble would be very great, that was not the way of the righteous. And the two following stanzas contain the reflexions which throw light on that matter.

"He bound his sword upon his left, he armed him with his bow; I'll bring my children back again; to lose them is great woe. But even if my children die ’tis wicked to feel pain 1: Who knows the customs of the good, yet asks a gift again?........"

Also read the passage where the son defends his father's actions

But the boy hearing this, could not stomach his father's blame; but as though raising with his arm Mount Sineru smitten by the windblast 1, he recited this stanza:

"How, grandsire, can he give, when none in his possession are, Slaves male or female, elephants, a horse, a mule, a car?" The king said:

[576] "Children, I praise your father's gift: no word of blame I say. But then how was it with his heart when he gave you away?" The lad replied:

"All full of trouble was his heart, and it burned hot as well, His eyes were red like Rohinī, and down the teardrops fell."

So you can see that he gave them away not because he didn't care, but it was a bond that he had to overcome. What's ironic is that they say that the Mara could trouble the Buddha so much under the Bodhi tree because king Vessanatara lamented a lot for this great gift he gave. In comparison, when Maithree Bodhisatta becomes the Buddha, Mara can only watch from afar. He cannot come close enough to trouble the Buddha.

  • By analogy, in modern society we have ownership rights, and I can give my property to anyone at will. If I happen to be an owner of a nuclear weapon, and a terrorist asks me to give it away to him, should I do it? By your logic, this would be a great way to cultivate dāna pāramī and a step towards buddhahood. – michau Apr 20 '18 at 13:15
  • The key factor is the attachment towards what you own. A Bodhisatta on the level of king Vessantara would have zero interest in owning a nuclear weapon, much less being attached to it. So it cannot be compared to the bond between the father and children and wife and husband. – Sankha Kulathantille Apr 20 '18 at 13:21
  • Besides Jūjaka was asking the children to help out his wife. Not to commit genocide. – Sankha Kulathantille Apr 20 '18 at 13:26
  • Pretty much anyone who owns a nuclear weapon has a pretty strong attachment towards it and would feel strong aversion against giving it away to a terrorist. The problem I see with your explanation is that it's ad-hoc: if we act according to the logic of the explanation, we will end up doing clearly immoral things. – michau Apr 20 '18 at 13:26
  • Anyone who owns a nuclear weapon would not be a Bodhisatta like king Vessantara. There's a big difference between giving your children to help out an old woman and helping to commit genocide. – Sankha Kulathantille Apr 20 '18 at 13:29

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