Divine Stories

Divyāvadāna, Part 2

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Andy Rotman
  • Sommerville, MA: 
    Wisdom Publications
    , December
     2017.
     540 pages.
     $29.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781614294702.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Andy Rotman's second volume of translations of the Divyāvadāna (Divine Stories) is a treasure chest of lucid and entertaining stories that will be of great use and enjoyment to scholars, students, and general audiences alike. The stories in this Indian Buddhist collection were likely used to teach monks and laypeople for centuries, and artistic depictions of the narratives can be found as far afield as Kizil in China and Borobudur in Indonesia. While scholars have long known that these stories are important, Rotman is the first to make most of them available in a European language. 

Serving as the companion to the translations contained in Divine Stories: Part 1 (Wisdom Publications, 2008) and to Rotman's monograph analyzing these stories, Thus Have I Seen: Visualizing Faith in Early Indian Buddhism (Oxford University Press, 2008), this second volume of the Divine Stories contains stories 18-25, 31-32, and 34-37. Those stories that are not included are mostly stories for which English—or in one case, German—translations are available, and Rotman helpfully provides readers with these references. The text also contains a map of the various locations where the stories take place, summaries of the stories, a helpful glossary, a chart of Indian Buddhist cosmology, an index, and over 1,200 endnotes of critical apparatus, mostly noting alternate readings and translations of the Sanskrit. 

Given that this is the second volume of translations of the Divine Stories, it does not reproduce the introductory material of the first volume of translations. It does, however, make what Rotman terms a "more provocative claim" (ix) than that contained in the first volume. Citing Sara McClintock's article on ethical reading, Rotman argues that these stories are not only interesting and influential in historical terms, but also that they can be "life-changing" to those who engage in the ethical practice of reading them (Sara McClintock, "Ethical Reading and the Ethics of Forgetting and Remembering," in Jake H. Davis, ed. A Mirror Is For Reflection: Understanding Buddhist Ethics, Oxford University Press, 2017). In following the karmic connections outlined in these stories, which jump from lifetime to lifetime and point out particular moments where karmic seeds are planted and later find fruition, the reader learns to think differently about his or her own actions and their inevitable consequences. 

If reading these stories is an ethical practice, Rotman has done his readers a great service in making such clear and lively translations of these tales. Rotman has been working on these texts for over twenty years, and his deep facility with the material shines through on every page. 

One of the greatest strengths of the book is the opportunity for it to be used in the classroom. Doing so would allow classes to explore a variety of important themes, including the importance of generosity, karmic cause and effect, human failure to see the reality of karma, Buddhism and the state, and the role of women, in a way that is often not possible when assigning a standard textbook. 

"The Story of Dhamaruci" (3-45), for instance, demonstrates how actions and their karmic effects weave together a variety of lives, but does so in the context of a tale that is alternately swashbuckling—sailors have to fight a giant sea monster—and funny—said sea monster is later reborn as a human so insatiably hungry he eats food meant for five hundred monks, terrifying a lay person into thinking he is a demon. 

"The Story of a Lonesome Fool" (201-241) takes up the issue of what it really means to study the dharma by telling the story of two brothers, Panthaka and Mahāpanthaka, who become Buddhist monks. While Mahāpanthaka is clever, Panthaka, as the text repeats many times, is "a fool, an absolute fool, an idiot, a complete idiot" (i.e., 226), and cannot even memorize the word siddham, because "when he'd say si, he'd then forget ddham!" (204). Panthaka spends three months studying two lines of verse, "I remove filth, I remove impurity" (210), but could not memorize or understand even this brief snippet. The Buddha intervenes and assigns Panthaka to clean other monks' sandals, and eventually, all at once, Panthaka realizes the profundity of the little verse, understanding it more deeply than monks who have memorized hundreds of texts.

Along the way the reader meets various delightful characters, such as Mūṣikāhairaṇyaka, whose father has died,  who manages to rebuild a great fortune after starting only with a dead mouse for capital (220-27). They also meet characters whose selfless generosity is horrifying to the reader, such as Rūpāvatī, who encounters a starving mother and child and literally chops off her own breasts to feed them (180-86). Incidentally, these stories force readers to confront the pervasive misogyny of early Buddhism. Women are often depicted as scheming or evil, and even the sacrifice of an exemplary female character like Rūpāvatī is rewarded by ... being turned into a man. However, it is to Rotman's credit that he does not shy away from or soften these episodes, but rather presents them as they are for the reader to interpret. 

The reader also meets not-so-savory characters, including two evil ministers who trick a king into killing his arhat father, then try to relieve the king's guilt by convincing him there are no such things as arhats by training two kittens to pose as the reincarnations of recently deceased monks (326-28). Many characters, however, are not clearly good or evil, but simply human. For instance, the group of twelve nuns who (not entirely unfairly) take it as an insult to women's intelligence that the famed idiot Panthaka is being sent to teach the nuns, and indignantly build an exceedingly grand throne for him in hopes that he will be too ashamed to teach them (212-20). 

The effect of these stories is to portray a teeming world of human life and activity, and to explore the karmic links that tie beings together across lifetimes. As such, this volume is highly recommended for specialists in Buddhist Studies, undergraduates, and anyone who loves a good story.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kate Hartmann is a doctoral candidate in the Study of Religions at Harvard University.

Date of Review: 
January 7, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Andy Rotman is Professor in the Religion Department, the South Asia Concentration, and the Buddhist Studies Program at Smith College.

Keywords: 

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