Part of Summer 2003’s Special Section on Dana: The Practice of Giving.
The Jataka Tales comprise a collection of 550 stories recounting the previous incarnations of the Buddha. Together, the tales illustrate the perfection of virtues on the path to enlightenment.
This painting depicts a portion of the story of the Buddha’s final incarnation. In this tale the Buddha is born as Prince Vessantara, renowned for his generosity. On the day of his birth, an auspicious white elephant is also born, and is given to the newborn as a childhood companion. Years later, a delegation of Brahmins arrives from a neighboring kingdom and explains that their citizens are suffering from famine and drought. They beseech the eminently generous prince to donate his white elephant, believing it will help allay their suffering. Vessantara gladly assents, and pours water over his guests’ hands to signify that he does not expect repayment.
Vessantara performs acts of ever-greater generosity, eventually relinquishing even his children. His generosity is ultimately tested, however, when a god descends and asks Vessantara for his wife as a servant [depicted in the painting]. When Vessantara complies, the gods bestow blessings upon the prince, and he is reunited with his wife and children.