Professor Naomi Appleton (SFHEA)

Professor of Buddhist Studies and Indian Religions


Naomi Appleton has been working at the University of Edinburgh since 2012 when she arrived as a Chancellor's Fellow. Before that she held a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship at Cardiff University. She works on the areas of early Indian religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism) and Buddhist Studies more broadly.


Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (2019; Fellow 2011-2019)

DPhil (University of Oxford, 2008)

MPhil (Cardiff University, 2004)

BA (Hons) (Cardiff University, 2003)

Responsibilities & affiliations

School of Divinity Director of Research

Board member, International Association of Buddhist Studies

Founding co-director of Edinburgh Buddhist Studies

Undergraduate teaching

I teach a range of courses on Buddhism and early Indian religion.

I have been a Fellow of the Higer Education Academy since 2011 and Senior Fellow since 2019.

Postgraduate teaching

I teach and offer supervision to students on the MSc Religious Studies and MSc Religion and Literature, and will be closely involved in the new MSc Buddhist Studies when it launches in 2025.


Open to PhD supervision enquiries?


Areas of interest for supervision

I welcome enquiries from students interested in researching aspects of early Indian religion or Buddhist Studies more broadly.

Research summary

My primary research interest is the role of narrative in the construction, communication and negotiation of ideas in Indian religions, including Buddhism, Jainism and early Hindu traditions. My work to date has addressed two inter-related areas: the role of the jātaka genre (stories of the Buddha’s past lives) in a variety of textual and cultural contexts; and the ways in which common narrative tropes, characters and techniques are used by competing religious groups (Buddhist, Jain and Brahmanical) in early India. This has included translation work (from Sanskrit and Pāli) as well as text-historical studies, and studies of visual and manuscript culture.

Current research interests

My current research is largely into the story of Vessantara, a famous Buddhist tale that is preserved in multiple versions, and which contains a particularly challenging ethical (or unethical) deed at its heart. I am also continuing my work overseeing the expansion of a database of jātaka stories (stories of the Buddha's past lives) in Indian literature and art that was launched in 2019 thanks to a Philip Leverhulme Prize, and relaunched in an expanded and enhanced format in 2024.

Past research interests

I have a long-standing interest in the jātaka genre, an important genre of stories relating the past lives of the Buddha. My doctoral work, which was published as Jātaka Stories in Theravāda Buddhism (Ashgate 2010), explored the role of this type of narrative in the development of Buddhist ideas about the nature of the Buddha and his multi-life path to buddhahood. Jātaka stories remain a key part of my research agenda, and I have published translations of selected stories from Pāli and Sanskrit narrative collections. As my British Academy post-doctoral research project I explored the role of multi-life stories in Buddhist and Jain traditions, asking how and why the two sister religions used stories of karma and rebirth. My main findings were published as Narrating Karma and Rebirth (CUP 2014). Moving on from this comparative project, I completed an AHRC-funded research project, jointly with James Hegarty of Cardiff University, on shared elements in the narrative traditions of early Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, resulting in my third monograph Shared Characters in Jain, Buddhist and Hindu Narrative (Routledge 2017). Since then, I have continued working on jātaka and related narrative literature in the Sanskrit Avadānaśataka, a collection of 100 stories of multi-life karmic consequences, culminating in a book exploring attitudes towards the uniqueness (or otherwise) of the Buddha in the first four chapters of the text. This was published as by Equinox in 2020 as Many Buddhas, One Buddha: A Study and Translation of Avadānaśataka 1-40. More recently I returned to jatakas for the creation of a database, as well as for a related volume exploring connections between visual and textual narrative: Narrative Visions and Visual Narrative in Indian Buddhism (Equinox 2022). From 2020 to 2023 I also collaborated with Dr Chris V. Jones (then of Cambridge University, now in Vienna) on an AHRC-funded project exploring notions of buddhahood in narrative literature (mainstream and Mahāyāna) from the first half of the first millennium, publications from which are in press.

Knowledge exchange

I have a longstanding interest in supporting the teaching of Buddhism in schools, and oversee a blog of resources as well as running CPD events for teachers. I am particularly passionate about the role of story in learning, and the ways in which stories can encourage exploration and questioning, rather than simply communicating a set teaching. I have also worked with professional storytellers in bringing Buddhist narrative to life. 

Affiliated research centres