Once a Peacock, Once an Actress

Twenty-Four Lives of the Bodhisattva from Haribhatta's 'Jatakamala'

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Peter Khoroche
  • Chicago, IL: 
    University of Chicago Press
    , August
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This volume presents for the first time in English translation roughly three-quarters of the full text of Haribhaṭṭa’s Jātakamālā, an anthology (or more literally, a “garland,” Sanskrit: mālā) of thirty-four edifying and inspiring tales about the Buddha’s previous lives as a bodhisattva (Sanskrit: jātaka) when he wasborn as a human (chapters 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 14, 20, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 29, 34), as an animal (chapters 4, 11, 12, 19, 22, 32), and even once as the lord of the gods himself, Indra/Śakra( chapter 33). Haribhaṭṭa, who is believed to have lived in or near Kashmir in the early 5th century CE, recasts these well-known stories in high poetic Sanskrit (kāvya)—a style characterized by the liberal use of impressively long, descriptive, compound words and of various types of wordplay. 

Translator Peter Khoroche is no stranger to either the jātaka ([previous] birth-story) genre or to the challenges of translating kāvya. With his 1989 Once the Buddha Was a Monkey (University of Chicago Press), he offered to general and scholarly audiences alike the first new translation in nearly a century of a Jātakamālā attributed to the poet Ārya Śūra (early 4th century CE?), one of Haribhaṭṭa’s predecessors and primary inspirations. With 2017’s Once a Peacock, Once an Actress, he has once again—notwithstanding the significant challenges presented by the source language—delivered a delightful English rendering of a work hitherto available only to a relative few. 

Khoroche explains in the preface and introduction that the twenty-four tales translated here (of the total of thirty-four in the full work) are those for which more than 50 percent is preserved in available Sanskrit manuscripts; also included is a list of all thirty-four chapters of the full work, complete with a key to which chapters are completely lost, more than 50 percent lost, or less than 50 percent lost (2). For those stories included in this volume despite the fact that they are missing some portions (chapters 9, 14, 25, 29, 33), Khoroche relies on the Tibetan translation to fill in the gaps. Readers wishing to refer to the Sanskrit should note that the exact edition of the tales on which Khoroche’s translation is based has not yet been published. This forthcoming edition (being prepared by Khoroche’s colleague Martin Straube) will revise and expand an edition of seventeen of the thirty-four tales painstakingly produced over the course of several decades by the late Professor Michael Hahn (published most recently as Poetical Vision of the Buddha’s Former Lives: Seventeen Legends from Haribhaṭṭa’s Jātakamālā, Aditya Prakashan, 2011). I was only able to consult the Sanskrit for the seventeen tales found in Hahn’s 2011 publication (chapters 1–8, 11, 12, 14, 19, 20, 22, 24, 26, and 32). Readers seeking more detailed information about the dating of extant manuscripts, the relationships between them, or about Haribhaṭṭa’s use of poetic meters and devices should also refer to Hahn’s work.

In the remainder of the rather brief but effective introduction, Khoroche recapitulates what little is known of the author Haribhaṭṭa himself, before turning to comment on the work’s genre, purpose, and character (2–8). Readers unfamiliar with Buddhist practice and thought will find indispensable his discussion of both the general notion of pāramitā—the “extreme or exceptional practice (of a virtue)” (5-6)—and of the six individual pāramitās demonstrated (if at times only superficially) in succession over the course of the stories: generosity (chapters 1–9, 11), moral integrity (chapters 12 and 14), forbearance (chapters 19 and 20), valor (chapters 22–25), meditation (chapter 26), and understanding (chapters 27, 29, 32–34). 

Of interest to specialists will be Khoroche’s assertion that since the Jātakamālāat hand belongs to the campū genre, characterized by the rather free mixing of prose and verse, it is “wrongheaded, when translating, to distinguish the verse portions from the prose by printing them as though they were blank verse,” and furthermore that “it arouses expectations which, because of the peculiar function of verse in the original Sanskrit, are inappropriate” (4­­–5). Though Khoroche justifies this choice reasonably well, he unfortunately does not explicitly state (for the sake of anyone unfamiliar with the convention) that the verses are still distinguished from surrounding prose by virtue of being numbered in brackets. All readers should thus take note of this minimal distinction in order to fully recognize the point, made by Khoroche himself, that the verse and prose “diversify and complement each other, together forming a poetic whole” (emphasis added) (4).

Khoroche’s appreciation for Haribhaṭṭa’s style seeps through the closing pages of the introduction, during which he orients readers toward the types of scenes—sometimes verdant, sometimes gruesome, but always extraordinarily detailed—that they are about to encounter. In the chapters that follow, Khoroche succeeds in transforming both the prose and verse of Haribhaṭṭa’s text into idiomatic yet elegant English, even if many of the more subtle tricks of kāvya are inevitably lost along the way. 

For the benefit of students and teachers of Buddhist literature in Sanskrit, Pali, and Tibetan, Khoroche provides in the endnotes many (though as he notes on 227, inexhaustive) parallel versions of each of the stories. The vast majority of his remaining notes focus on the South Asian traditions and worldviews that permeate the natural, courtly, and celestial circumstances in which the bodhisattva finds himself. These notes are generally well-selected and not overly technical, and will prove particularly helpful to non-specialists. At times, however, they are given inconsistently or a bit too sparingly (e.g., for locations, significant meanings of untranslated Sanskrit names, and chosen terms for certain non-human beings such as “fairy,” “mountain sprite,” “aerial spirit,” “heavenly nymph,” etc.).

While Peter Khoroche’s Once a Peacock, Once an Actress will certainly be of use to some researchers, perhaps its greatest strength—as others have noted—is its accessibility. Teachers of South Asian religious history and literature may find it an excellent addition to undergraduate- or early graduate-level course readings.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Grace Ramswick is a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at Stanford University.

Date of Review: 
August 16, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Peter Khoroche is an independent scholar and translator as well as the author of monographs on the British artists Ivon Hitchens and Ben Nicholson. He lives in Suffolk.



Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.