Katherine Bowie’s new book, Of Beggars and Buddhas: The Politics of Humor in the “Vessantara Jataka” in Thailand has just been published by the University of Wisconsin Press, 2017). The Vessantara Jataka is the most famous of the hundreds of morality tales (jatakas) about the Buddha’s previous lives. Once better known than the historical life of the Buddha, this story is painted on temple walls, performed by theater troupes, and preached by monks. In this birth–his penultimate incarnation–the Buddha perfects the virtue of generosity as Prince Vessantara. Although his gifts include his magical elephant and even his devoted wife, the jataka highlights the agony of Vessantara’s decision to give his children to the beggar Jujaka.
Taking an anthropological approach to this two-thousand-year-old story, Katherine A. Bowie highlights significant variations in the Vessantara Jataka’s interpretations across three regions of Thailand over the past 150 years. The jataka has long served both monastic and royal interests, but characterizations of the beggar Jujaka also enabled covert antiroyalism and ribald trickster humor. Faced with peasant millenarian revolts, the Bangkok court sought to suppress these comedic recitations, with varying degrees of success. Today, as Thailand develops from a feudal into a capitalist society, the jataka’s former emphasis on generosity is undergoing further changes. Jujaka is mutating from a comic trickster mocking greed into a revered deity celebrating prosperity. Focusing on Jujaka rather than Vessantara, Bowie provides a new understanding of the dynamic political history of this famous story.