This comprehensive study focuses on a key narrative theme in premodern South Asian Buddhist literature. It is the Buddha’s bodily sacrifice as a bodhisattva during his previous lives. Close readings of tales from Sanskrit and Pali, Chinese, and Tibetan literature between the third century B.C.E. Reiko Ohnuma claims that this theme had a significant impact on the development and culture of Buddhism philosophy and practice in the latter half of the medieval period. The bodhisattva can take on the role of a king, prince or ascetic, an elephant, hare or serpent, and he will often give his body or part of his flesh to others. To attain the highest level of Buddhahood, he leaps into fires and drowns in the ocean. He rips his tusks and lets mosquitoes drink his blood. These stories are placed in a subgenre of South Asian Buddhist literature by Ohnuma. She analyzes their plots, characters, rhetoric, and characterizations. The theme of the Buddha’s bodily sacrifice is then connected to the major conceptual discourses in South Asian religions and history of Buddhism, including the categories of the gift and the body (both ordinary, and extraordinary), kingship, sacrifice and ritual offering, and death. This work shows a sophisticated and influential view of the body in South Asian Buddhist literature. It also highlights how these stories have been an important cultural resource to Buddhists. Ohnuma’s rich and precise translations of classic texts provide a new understanding of an important concept in Buddhists Studies.
Bodily Self-Sacrifice in Indian Buddhist Literature
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