Manas. Studies into Asia and Africa.

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Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”

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Manas 2 (2015), 1.

Published on 01.07.2015

ISSN: 2367-6256

Bratoeva, Milena. The motif of bodhisattva’s giving away the body in Haribhaṭṭajātakamālā from the perspective of the concept of upāyakauśalya (“skill in means”). – In: Manas: Tradition and Modernity in Indian Culture, Vol. 2, 1, 2015.

2015 / Volume 2 / Issue number 1 : Tradition and Modernity in Indian Culture

The motif of bodhisattva’s giving away the body in Haribhaṭṭajātakamālā from the perspective of the concept of upāyakauśalya (“skill in means”)

Milena Bratoeva



The concept of upayakausalya or the “skill in means”, belongs to the most important and profound doctrines in Mahayana Buddhism. Together with the Bodhisattva ideal it occupies a key position in the philosophy and in the educational system of the school and in the propagation of Buddha’s teachings, especially among non-Buddhists. It has been introduced already in the Pali canon and is considered as initiated and developed by the Buddha himself, but in Mahayana upayakausalya grew to exclusively important doctrine, regarded as an immanent part of the bodhisattvayana, the “path of bodhisattva”. According to the understanding of Mahayana upayakausalya is a spiritual and moral quality not unique only to a Buddha, it is considered as an obligatory aspect of the nature of every one, aiming at bodhisattva career.  

The basic source of upaya is karuja – bodhisattva’s boundless compassion, which “is not selective or tainted with attachment but goes out equally to all who suffer.”[1] Karuja, combined with wisdom (prajka), enables the bodhisattva to employ the skillful methods to help the ignorant sentient beings to attain the final emancipation from the boundaries of samsara. But the only way for bodhisattva to fulfill his main goal is to cultivate the Perfections (paramitas) of giving (dana), morality (sila), patience (kcanti), exertion (virya), meditation (dhyana) and wisdom (prajka ), considered in Mahayana as the main instrument, leading to full realization of the capacity of the wisdom and compassion.  

Upaya  in this sense is a kind of transformative strategy, by which the bodhisattva – the ethically and spiritually transformed being get the potential to transform radically other beings.

The experts in the field of Buddhism interpret the doctrine of upayakausalya as a basic precondition for the development of an in-depth philosophy of education in Buddhism, especially in Mahayana. The goal of education in Buddhist context is not limited to acquiring a simple skill, or to transferring of some information from the teacher to the disciple. “To educate” in Buddhism implies the intellectual and “spiritual” transformation of the individual. When individuals are “educated”, they are expected to exhibit traits that bear little or no resemblance with their pre-educated existence. In other words educated individuals are considered to have achieved intellectual and spiritual maturity and responsibility of his own present and future existence. This understanding of the fundamental objectives of education leads to the development of specific educational methodology. The Buddhist teacher and Buddha himself “do not prescribe the Truth or condemn those who fail to discern the Truth but rather speaks in a language of his listeners, offers stories illuminating the subject, employs similes. The similes and narratives he employs are designed to make the listeners realize themselves some important reflection on the Teaching.”[2]

In other words, as transformative strategy upayakausalya goes beyond the language, it is a deeper strategy than verbal devices. But it manifests itself primarily as language of a particular type, as a specific verbal technique by help of which the truths of Buddhist teachings are communicated.           

Considering this, we could interpret and evaluate every one Buddhist narrative – jataka or avadana, as structured in such a way that enables its function as upaya.

I have chosen to illustrate the function of religious Buddhist narrative as upaya with some examples from the Jatakamala of the Buddhist poet and preceptor Haribhatta, in particular through jatakas whose plot is based on the motif of bodhisattva’s giving away the body, revealing the potential of dana paramita – the perfection of generosity. This choice of mine is motivated by two basic reasons: in the first place, Haribhatta is regarded as the most gifted composer of jatakas in Sanskrit in the succession of Aryasura and his Jatakamala  - as one of the most brilliant poetic achievements of Buddhist narrative literature, composed in Sanskrit during the classical period in the history of Sanskrit literature[3]; secondly,  the motif of self-sacrifice of bodhisattva accumulates enormous transformative capacity and has the power to draw the listeners into alternative world of the story and to reflect the deep values which structure the story’s world. When the listener returns to his conventional world after living in the story-world, he brings with him exactly this idea of self-sacrifice of the story’s alternative vision.

First of all, who is Haribhatta?

For a very long period this Buddhist author has been known only from the Tibetan translation of his work, included in the Tibetan canonical text, the Tanjur. The very few scholars in Indology, who study the genre of jatakamala were of the opinion, that Haribhattajatakamala, consisting of 35 legends, no longer existed in Sanskrit, but only in Tibetan translation. But in 1974 the German professor Michael Hahn discovered two almost identical sets of Haribhatta’s legends in their Sanskrit original in two collections of Buddhist birth-stories from Nepal – Avadanasarasamucaya and Jatakamalavadanasutra.[4] On the basis of detailed philological analyses of Haribhatta’s jatakas in Sanskrit original and of some Buddhist textual sources in Tibetan and Chinese Hahn dates his life and work in the 5 century AD.[5]

Haribhatta’s Jatakamala begins, as every one representative peace of this genre, with narratives, illustrating and propagating dana paramita, “the perfection of generosity”. The basic reason for this is of course the fact, that “the career” of bodhisattva starts obligatory with the accumulation exactly of this paramita. Dana paramita functions as a kind of initiation for every one who expresses the clear will to follow the path of bodhisattva. The voluntary and conscious renunciation of material wealth, of home, family, but especially of the own body symbolize “the dying” of the uninitiated in Buddhist Dharma and the “birth” of the initiated one. Dana paramitatogether with sila and  kcanti paramita opens the “door of merits” as it is postulated in Mahayana works.

This paramita is usually the first item in the lists of perfections in the most texts of early Buddhism too. Answering the question “Why”, Findly states:

Soteriologically, the Buddhist understanding of the source of human suffering is attachment, attachment to a world experienced thoroughly as impermanent. Since nothing can be done about the impermanent nature of experience, the focus of the spiritual discipline that hopes to relive suffering has to be done on the abandonment of attachment. This being so, the practice of dana as the initial state for the householder, is the first step in reorienting the self vis-à-vis desirables in the world: by giving over some of what one has for the benefit of others, one acts out later more complex modes of renunciation and nonattachment. At the very beginning then, a householder is doing what will not come to completion until the very end of the Buddhist career, giving up attachment to things of the self.[6]

It is noteworthy that in the most Mahayana works “dana is described not merely as an act of generosity, it functions as a symbol of one of the highest Mahayana religious values – the self-sacrifice.”[7]

Dana paramita, according to the most Mahayana preceptors and philosophers, is twofold: amicadana – giving of material objects, and dharmadana– giving of teaching. In addition to this standard division, some texts add a third type of giving – abhayadanagiving of fearlessness.

Amicadana is also of twofold division: external and internal giving; the last one is understood as giving of the own body and is considered as a form of superior giving.

From the perspective of the idea of upayakausalya it could be said that exactly this motif of bodhisattva’s giving away the body or a limb to others functions as one of the most effective narrative techniques in Buddhist religious parables. In her remarkable book Bodily Self – Sacrifice in Indian Buddhist Literature Ohnuma defines the “gift-of -the body stories” as special genre in the Buddhist literature of India. She writes:

Thus, gift-of -the body stories are not only jatakas in a strictly technical sense. In addition, they are jatakas in the further sense of illustrating the cultivation of moral perfection in a Buddha-less world, focusing in particular upon highly favored “perfection of generosity”, and illustrating this perfection in an extreme and especially paradigmatic way. Gift-of-the-body tales are very special jatakas – “super-jatakas” that occupy the highest rungs in an implicit jataka-hierarchy.[8] 

The act of giving away the body “points to the willingness of bodhisattva to make a “sacrifice” of himself in a spiritual sense. On the most general ethical level, giving away the body means that bodhisattva places the welfare of others before his own, that altruism and self-sacrifice are the guiding principles of his social behavior.”[9] Giving away the body is an effective metaphor of the so called tyagcitta, “thinking about sacrifice” of bodhisattva. The bodhisattva renounces mentally not only his body but the very idea that he has given something away. He even do not percept himself as a giver.

Haribhatta uses the whole expressive and presentational potential of classical Sanskrit language and of the aesthetic model established in classical Sanskrit literature to visualize exactly this aspect of dana for his recipients in such a way that they could experience it as their own presence. Composing a series of “paradoxical” situations, he “extents” the awareness of his listeners – for example the Beauty Rupyavati cuts her breast to nourish a hungered woman who has just given birth to a child; the mighty king Candraprabha gives his head to a beggar, because he has promised to do so, if some beggar expresses such a wish; the Hare bodhisattva jumps in the flames of the fire, becoming a food for his friend – the ascetic who wants to leave the forest, suffering of hunger and so on.

These stories are not to be taken literally. As Nathan Katz observes analyzing the function of religious language in the famous Lotus Sutra:

Now if one were to follow the referential model of language, one might conclude that what the Buddha is teaching is a pedagogically useful lie. In a sense this is true, but Buddha is making as even stronger statement about the nature of our language. What he is saying is that language is an imperative, not a proposition, and that the religious language is an invitation, not a truth claim.[10] 

Of course, we have to keep in mind, that these stories and heroes aren’t original creation of Haribhatta. Due to the canon, they are taken from the Buddhist tradition – the Pali jatakas and the anonymous collections of avadanas, such as Divyavadana and Avadanasataka

The significant thing here is that following the example of the Buddha, the poet conforms in a unique way the style, the poetic techniques and even the metrics of his narratives with the aesthetic expectations and the aesthetic taste of his audience, which is the main target of his religious propaganda. And we have good reason to conclude, that the audience of Haribhatta must have been mainly the so called nagarikas – the aristocracy in the ancient cities, distinguished by its sophisticated aesthetic taste.  In order to answer to their high aesthetic criteria, the Buddhist preceptor presents a new and original adaptation of the known subject. His aim is obviously to achieve, as far as possible, a convincing characterization of the figures involved as well as a consistent development of the plot. Analyzing  Haribhatta’s legends in the perspective of the aesthetic canon of classical kavya style in Sanskrit I could conclude that he purposefully explores the whole capacity of the traditional Indian theories of aesthetic experience (rasa) and of the dramatic plot (itivrtta), postulated in the dramaturgical treatise of Bharata – Natyasastra,  in order to make possible the radical transformation of the ethical values and of the worldview of the recipients. In this way only the text of the jataka itself could be able to play the role of Acarya, spiritual preceptor, for the listeners and readers, most of them non Buddhists, highly educated connoisseurs of Sanskrit kavya literature. As Iser[11] points out the most important thing for the reading of every one literary work is the interaction between its structure and its recipient, and “the transcendental model”, functioning as a fundament of this interaction, is the “implied reader”. In other words, the author’s idea about his recipient is the main factor, determining his basic strategies in the process of composition of the literary text. Thus, the jataka of Haribhatta employs techniques, enabling it to function as an instrument for attaining the religious truth trough aesthetic experience and delight. Aiming at the maximal development of the communicative and transformative capacity of the motif of bodhisattva’s gift of the body in such a way, that the traditional story becomes an effective upaya, the Buddhist poet and preceptor conforms his “pedagogically useful lies” with the specific cultural context and the dominating aesthetic values. Because of this the traditional Buddhist motif of giving away the own body or limb of the body has been integrated by Haribhatta in a plot, structured on the bases of the classical dramatic principals of rasa and itivrtta. The main reason underlying the authors’ strategy is the fact, that the drama was the most representative for the kavya style during his time of life. It could be said this is the most important and valuable innovation of the gifted Buddhist poet. The dramatization of the traditional Buddhist tale contributes to the elevation of the consciousness of the recipient to the level of the perfection of dana paramita. The dramatized structure of the plot has been blended in each segment with respective aesthetic emotion (rasa). In this way the poet constitutes an integral aesthetic body of immense transformative potential that impacts on the mind, the intellect and the feelings of the recipient in order to lead him to higher self-identification, to communicate the Buddhist ethical and religious values and to motivate him to act in accordance to them. Following the principles of itivrtta theory, introduced in Natyasastra, the Buddhist poet constructs constantly the plot of his legends as symmetrical combination of the three intervals (samdhi) – mukha, pratimukha and nirvahaja, obligatory for the main plot of the classical Sanskrit drama, according to the dramaturgical treatise. Specific for his individual style of reordering of the traditional narrative material is the careful depiction and development of the central character (of the bodhisattva) in the plot, who acts as “determinant” (vibhava) of the main aesthetic emotion in his jatakas – the heroism (vira rasa). This important feature of Haribhatta’s narrative technique have been noticed by the comparative analyze of his legends and of their older versions in different anonym collections like Avadanasataka, Mahavastu, etc. It could be said that development of the heroic emotion as a dominant aesthetic overtone of the legends also belongs to the most important innovations of Haribhatta. It has always been combined by the author with the aesthetic emotion of astonishment (adbuta rasa). Trough this constant emotional correlation the poet aims at inducing a particular aesthetic response in the mind of the recipient. It is interesting to notice that the causal relationship between these two aesthetic emotions has been postulated in the dramaturgical treatise of Bharata.

Constructing the plot of his legends in accordance with the principles of rasa and itivrtta, postulated in the dramaturgical treatise of Bharatamuni – Natyasastra, Haribhatta uses purposefully the whole aesthetic potential of the literary text to “open” the perception and the intellect and to enlarge the awareness of his recipients.   



[1] This is a statement of John Snelling, cited in the paper of Jones. (Jones 2003, p. 89)

[2] Santucci 2003, p. 58.

[3] For detailed analyze of this topic s. Hahn 1992.

[4] Ibid.

[5] For detailed analyze of this topic s. Hahn 1981.

[6] Findly 2003, p. 186.

[7] Meadows 1986, p.70.

[8] Ohnuma 2009, p. 46.

[9] Meadows 1986, p.72.

[10] Cited in the paper of Jones. Jones 2003, pp. 90-91.

[11] Iser 1987.



Findly 2003: Findly, Ellison Banks. Dana. Giving and Getting in Pali Buddhism. Motilal banarsidass Publishers. Delhi 2003.

Hahn 1981: Hahn, Michael. Das Datum des Haribhatta, in: Studien zum Jainismus und  zur Buddhismuskunde. Gedenksschrift foer Ludwig Alsdorf.  Wiesbaden (= Alt und Neu-Indische Studien. 23.), S. 107-20.       

Hanh 1992: Hahn, Michael. Haribhatta and Gopadatta. Two authors in succession of Aryasura. On the Rediscovery of Parts of their Jatakamalas. Second edition. Thoroughly revised and enlarged. Studia Philologica Buddhistica Occasional Paper Series I. Tokyo 1992.

Iser 1987: Iser, Wolfgang. The Act of Reading: A Theory of aesthetic response. Baltimore 1987.

Jones 2003: Jones, John R. Flaming Fountain, Burning House: Education as Upaya. In: His Lai Journal of Humanistic Buddhism. International Academy of Buddhism, His Lai University. Vol. 4, Rosemead, CA, 203, p. 87-94.

Meadows 1986: Meadows, Carol. Aryasura’s Compendium pf the Perfections: Text, translation and analysis of the Paramitasamasa. Indica et Tibetica Verlag. Bonn 1996.

Ohnuma 2009: Ohnuma, Reiko. Bodilly Self – Sacrifice in Indian Buddhist Literature. Motilal Banarsidass Publishers. Delhi 2009.

Pasadika 2003: Bhikkhu Pasadika. The Concept of Education in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. In: His Lai Journal of Humanistic Buddhism. International Academy of Buddhism, His Lai University. Vol. 4, Rosemead, CA, 2003, p. 65-78.

Santucci 2003: Santucci, James, A. Educational Concepts and Practices in Early Southern Buddhism. In: His Lai Journal of Humanistic Buddhism. International Academy of Buddhism, His Lai University. Vol. 4, Rosemead, CA, 2003, p. 54-64.


About the author

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Publications in MANAS magazine:

Bratoeva, Milena. Daśakuśala: on the psychology of the moral conduct in Mahāyāna Buddhism (according to Āryaśūra’s Pāramitāsamāsa). – In: Manas: South Asia: Identity and Cultural Diversity, Vol. 1, 1, 2014.

Bratoeva, Milena. The Linguistic Model of the Universe in Māṇḍukya Upaniṣad. – In: Manas: Senses and Sensitivity, Vol. 2, 2, 2015.