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Sacred Biography in Buddhism and Jainism


Admission requirements

This course is open to all interested in the field of Indian or Buddhist Studies, or the study of religious biographies in general. Successful completion of Introduction to Buddhism or Buddhism through Stories or Chinese Buddhism or Tibetan Buddhism is preferred, but not strictly required.


Buddhism and Jainism emerged roughly at the same time (5th century BCE) from the same geographical milieu of northeastern India. They share a common view of world-renunciation, and show remarkable similarities in beliefs and customs. Both religions preserve a rich body of written literature that may be classified as “sacred biography” in the sense that it was written by followers to recount the lives and deeds of their religious founders, as well as the lives of other exemplary individuals including famous monks, nuns and lay patrons (particularly kings). This body of literature has played and is still playing a key role in the construction and communication of religious ideas and ideals, inspiring imagination, belief and practice among Buddhists and Jainas from the past to the present day.

This course provides a comparative overview of sacred biographies in Buddhism and Jainism. While there are potentially many ways of studying religious biographies, our approach is to explore them as narrative artefacts (not as historical records), and to investigate their religious and cultural significance within Buddhist and Jaina traditions. In doing so, our focus will be on the biographies themselves, and on the Buddhists and Jainas who composed and transmitted those biographies. We will begin by looking at Buddhist stories of the past and final lives of the Buddha, alongside Jaina stories of the lives of Jinas (founders of Jainism), and will discuss what these stories can reveal about Buddhist and Jaina attitudes towards their founding figures. We will then proceed to look at Buddhist and Jaina biographies of some eminent monks and nuns, and will consider how their stories demonstrate monastic ideals, and what could have prompted the composition of their biographies. In the cases of nuns, we will also look into what their stories can reveal about Buddhist and Jaina attitudes towards women. After this, we will turn to biographies of famous Buddhist and Jaina kings, and will explore Buddhist and Jaina ideologies of kingship reflected therein. While the course is primarily concerned with Buddhist and Jaina sacred biographies preserved in literary sources, brief introductions will also be made to narrative illustrations in Buddhist and Jaina art.

Course objectives

Students who successfully complete this course will:

  • gain an appreciation of the significance of sacred biographies for the study of the history of religions

  • have developed a comparative approach in dealing with religious narrative literature

  • have a concrete understanding of the diversity and dynamics of sacred biographies in Buddhist and Jaina traditions

  • have better knowledge, insights and writing skills with regard to the studied subjects


Tuesdays, 17:15-18:45, room LIPSIUS / 030

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar

Attendance and participation are obligatory. Classes missed for a good reason (to the discretion of the conveners and to be discussed BEFORE the class takes place) will have to be made up with an extra assignment. Being absent without notification can result in a lower grade or exclusion from the term end exams and a failing grade for the course.

Course load

  • Total course load for the course: 5 EC = 140 hours

  • Hours spent on attending lectures: 2 hours per week x 13 weeks = 26 hours

  • Preparation for weekly lectures: 4 hours per week x 12 weeks = 48 hours

  • Paper assignment: 66 hours

Assessment method

  • In-class participation: 20%

  • Mid-term essay: 30%

  • Final paper: 50%

In order to pass the course, students must obtain an overall mark of 5.50 (=6) or higher. Students who receive an overall mark for the course of 5.49 (=5) or lower will be allowed to write a new final paper (50%) on a different subject. Deadline to be determined by the convener of the course.



Reading list

*Granoff, Phyllis and Koichi Shinohara (eds.), Monks and Magicians: Religious Biographies in Asia. Oakville, Ontario: Mosaic Press, 1988.

  • Schober, Juliane (ed.), Sacred Biographies in the Buddhist Traditions of South and Southeast Asia. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1997.

An extended reading list will be made available to students at the first meeting.


Students are required to register through uSis. To avoid mistakes and problems, students are strongly advised to register in uSis through the activity number which can be found in the timetable in the column under the heading “Act.nbr.”.
Not being registered, means no permission to attend this course. See also the ‘Registration procedures for classes and examinations’ for registration deadlines and more information on how to register.

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

(Studeren à la carte is not possible for this course.)


Dr Wu Juan


Other Buddhism related courses

At BA-level
Fall Semester
Anthropology and Buddhism in Asia
Buddhism through Stories
Buddhist Art
Culture of Tibet
Japanse religies en boeddhisme
Virtue, Vice and Depravity: Buddhist and Contemporary Accounts
Iconography of South and Southeast Asia
Elementary Pali
Tibetan 1

Spring Semester
Architecture: The Temple and the Stupa
Chinese Buddhism
Tibetan Buddhism
Tibet: State and Society
Indian Philosophy
Tibetan 2

At MA-level
Buddhism and Social Justice
Reading Buddhist Scriptures
Virtue, Vice and Depravity: Buddhist and Contemporary Accounts

Students with disabilities

The university is committed to supporting and accommodating students with disabilities as stated in the university protocol (especially pages 3-5). Students should contact Fenestra Disability Centre at least four weeks before the start of their courses to ensure that all necessary academic accommodations can be made in time conform the abovementioned protocol.

Academic integrity

Students are expected to be familiar with Leiden University policies on plagiarism and academic integrity. Plagiarism will not be tolerated. If you submit any work with your name affixed to it, it is assumed to be your own work with all sources used properly indicated and documented in the text (with quotations and/or citations).