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Jatakas: A Tale-Tell Vision of Buddhism
Article of the Month - January 2008

Jatakas – the stories of the Buddha in his previous births, or those of the Being endeavouring for attaining Purna Buddhattva – absolute Buddhahood, comprise just a small but perhaps the most popular segment in the vast body of the early Buddhist literature – broadly the discourses of the Great Master, or whatever emanated from his mouth. These discourses – the basic body of the Buddhist literature, were recorded and arranged in three sections, in all probabilities in simultaneity, or at least during the Buddha’s lifetime, as Tipitaka, a term combining ‘ti’, that is, ‘three’ and ‘pitakas’ having a meaning corresponding to ‘basket’. Thus, Tipitaka meant something like Three Baskets. Like a basket, each of the Tipitaka – Suttapitaka, Vinayapitaka and Abhidhammapitaka, as are their names, contains one section of the discourses of the Buddha, Vinayapitaka, the rules for monks, Abhidhammapitaka, higher philosophy, and Suttapitaka, texts related to random events and incidents. The discourses under any section have been classified into different parts each comprising an independent text with an independent title. Accordingly, Vinayapitaka contains five texts, Abhidhammapitaka, seven, and Suttapitaka, five.

Further, most of the texts that the Vinayapitaka, Abhidhammapitaka and Suttapitaka contain are in themselves collections of various scriptures extending into several volumes. The Suttapitaka’s five organs are known as Nikayas, each comprising a number of independent texts. The Khuddakanikaya, one of these five Nikayas, alone has fifteen parts, the Jatakas being one of them. This enormousness of the early Buddhist literature defines its breadth and magnitude. The Tipitaka apart, this entire early literature was divided also into nine parts, perhaps by some other group of the Buddha’s disciples. This classification also has Jatakas as one of its nine parts. The Tipitaka, too, allude to this classification. Obviously, Tipitaka and this classification into nine organs were rendered during the Buddha’s lifetime and were alike early.

 

Tales as Emanated from the Buddha’s Mouth

BUDDHIST LEGENDS - 3 Vols. (Translated from the original Pali text of the Dhammapada Commentary)
BUDDHIST LEGENDS - 3 Vols. (Translated from the original Pali text of the Dhammapada Commentary)

 

Additions, elaborations or deletions apart, the Jatakas were thus the tales that emanated direct from the mouth of the Great Master. As the Buddhist scriptural tradition has it, on the night of his enlightenment the Buddha said, “When my concentrated mind was purified, bright, unblemished … I directed it to the knowledge of the recollection of past lives.” Obviously, the Jatakas – the stories of the ‘past lives’ that the Buddha, as the Being striving to attain Purna Buddhattva, lived, revealed as his own recollection when discoursing with his disciples. Soon after, story telling mode of the Jatakas emerged as the most effective mode of interpreting a ‘sutra’ – rule or aphorism, or an event, not in Buddhism alone but in all sects. Not only that a large section of Buddhist literature was re-interpreted in the terms of tales, Jatakas emerged as the most effective instrument of communicating Buddhist codes and philosophy through events. Sinhalese Atta Kathayen, claimed to be at least as early as the 3rd century B. C. reaching Sri Lanka with Mahendra, Ashoka’s son and emissary, are largely a transform of Buddhist canons and codes on Jatakas’ line.

 

Jatakas in World Literature

The Ocean of Story Being C.H. Tawney's Translation of Somadeva's Katha Sarit Sagara (or Ocean of Streams of Story): Now Edited with Introduction, Fresh Explanatory Notes and Terminal Essay (Ten Volumes)
The Ocean of Story Being C.H. Tawney's Translation of Somadeva's Katha Sarit Sagara (or Ocean of Streams of Story): Now Edited with Introduction, Fresh Explanatory Notes and Terminal Essay (Ten Volumes)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jatakas wielded immense influence over non-Buddhist literature, too. Not in existence now except what of it survives in its commentaries by later scholars like Bana, Dandi, Kshemendra or Somadeva, the Brahatkatha, a work by a 1st century A. D. Andhrite scholar, seems to have been largely based on Jatakas. Somadeva’s Katha Saritasagara includes many Jatakas.

 

 

 

 

 

Panchtantra or Gems of Indian Thought
Panchtantra or Gems of Indian Thought

 

 

 

 

 

Jatakas are the root source for a number of stories in the Pancha-tantra except that unlike the Jatakas which aimed at educating common masses the stories of the Pancha-tantra were composed for educating princes.

 

 

 

 

 

The Hitopadesa of Narayana (Edited with A Sanskrit Commentary “Marma-Prakasika” and Notes in English)
The Hitopadesa of Narayana (Edited with A Sanskrit Commentary “Marma-Prakasika” and Notes in English)

 

 

 

 

 

The Hitopadesha, another well known Sanskrit classic encompassing a wide range of ethical values and what helped in life, has used a number of Jataka stories for elaborating its canons, though it takes these tales from the Pancha-tantra.

 

 

 

 

 

 

VIKRAMADITYA-VEITAL TALES OR THE TALES RIDDLES
VIKRAMADITYA-VEITAL TALES OR THE TALES RIDDLES

 

 

 

 

 

 

All fiction books serializing moral tales, the Vaitala Panchavinshati, Sinhasana Dwatrishika, Shukasaptati …, are indebted to Jatakas for their material and tale-tell character.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Jain literature, too, has as strong a story part. This shares several features of the Jatakas. The broad scheme of the Jatakas – having a beginning in the present, recollecting the main body of the tale from the past, and deducing a rule for always, was adopted universally for many later texts, Brahmanical or Jain.

The Influence of The Jatakas on Art and Literature
The Influence of The Jatakas on Art and Literature

 

Jatakas were the primary, and perhaps the most energetic, instrument of the dissemination of Buddhism around the East. Jatakas are present, in some form or the other, in Burmese, Chinese, Khotanese, Sinhalese, Sogdian, Tibetan and Tocharian traditions – religious and literary. Though through the Pancha-tantra, Jataka stories infiltrated into literatures of medieval Iran, Syria, Germany, Iraq, Turkey, Greece, Rome, or rather entire Europe. In Europe, in the writings of Boccaccio Poggio, La Fontaine, Chaucer and Shakespeare many of the Jatakas are either re-told or are their variants. The most curious is the transformation of the Jatakas’ hero, the Bodhisatta, into ‘Josaphat of India’ and his absorption into Christian folklore and hierarchy. The seventh century Christian saint St. John of Damascus not only recounted the adventures of the Bodhisatta as Barlaam and Josaphat but in the course of time Josaphat was canonized also as a Christian saint.

 

 

 

 

Number of Births of the Bodhisatta

The Jatakas: Birth Stories of the Bodhisatta
The Jatakas: Birth Stories of the Bodhisatta

 

 

 

 

In Pali, or more correctly Magadhi, the actual language of early Buddhist literature, of which Pali is the formal nomenclature, Jataka meant ‘birth-related’. Quite like the theory of evolution, the Buddhism saw every entity as something evolved after a long chain of births, a flower taking millions of years before it evolved as a flower. A Buddha is born after many aeons. Obviously, the Being endeavouring to attain Buddhahood had to take millions of births before this goal was achieved.

 

 

 

 

The Jataka or Stories of the Buddha's Former Births (6 Volumes Bound in Three)
The Jataka or Stories of the Buddha's Former Births (6 Volumes Bound in Three)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jatakas, the stories of the births of the Buddha-to-be, or the Being destined to be Buddha, were required to reveal events of millions of his births.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Jatakas, however, record just 547 births of the Bodhisatta – the Being endeavouring to finally become the Buddha, or rather, this has been now long fixed as the final number of the events of his births, the Jatakas. These 547 Jatakas do not include the Mahagovinda Jataka, though it has a mention in several early texts, even in Nidana-katha, the prologue to Jatakatthakatha. Similarly some stories are repeated with the same name, or with another, under different Nipatas, chapters under which these 547 Jatakas have been arranged. Thus, the number of Jataka stories could also be more or a little less. The number of Nipatas is 22.

Classification of the Events of Buddha’s Various Births

Dipankara Buddha
Dipankara Buddha

 

In formal Buddhism, Jataka stories extend into three parts known as Nidanas – Dure Nidana, Avidure Nidana and Santike Nidana. All 547 Jatakas are placed under Dure Nidana. They cover the life of Bodhisatta from his birth as Sumedha, the ascetic, who submits himself at the feet of Dipankara, Gautama’s predecessor, with the vow to keep endeavouring till he attained absolute Buddhahood, to his birth and Mahanirvana – salvation, as prince Vessantara. As Vessantara the Bodhisatta takes the last birth before his attainment of Purna Buddhattva in his birth as Gautama. The event of this birth is covered in the last Jataka numbering 547. The story of Sumedha precedes all 547 Jatakas. It occurs in the beginning of the Dure Nidana. This part is something like a prologue to actual 547 Jataka stories. It also recounts the lives of 27 Buddhas who preceded Gautama, the present Buddha, as also the ten perfections which the Bodhisatta attained in the course of his 547 births, and which the various Jatakas illustrate. Avidure Nidana covers the story of the Bodhisatta from the time when deprived of the Tushita Loka, the highest heaven, he descends into the womb of Mahamaya Devi to his attainment of Buddhattva as Gautama. Details of various places where the Great Master sojourned and narrated any of the Jatakas comprise Santike Nidana.

 

Re-Birth Vs Non-Self and Non-Transmigration

Each Jataka has its own lead role hero, other characters, set of events, places where the drama is enacted and the perfection which it reveals but inherently in all Jatakas this lead role hero is the Bodhisatta, the Being endeavouring to attain Budhattva, or the One destined-to-be the Buddha in his final birth. This defines the structural as well as spiritual unity of the Jatakas, each of which appears to be otherwise independent and detached.

Karma and The Rebirth Of Consciousness
Karma and The Rebirth Of Consciousness

 

This also presents the unique enigma of the Buddhist thought, which rejects the theory of the permanence of self, or its transmigration, but asserts the doctrine of re-birth. Buddhism resolves the enigma by saying simply that one lights a lamp from another, but in the process the flame of the one does not transmigrate into the other and neither is permanent; or, a verse recited by one is learnt by the other, but in the process the verse does not leave the mouth of him who recites it and enter into the ears of the other who stores it into his memory. Selfhood, impermanent as it is, is defined by what one is and by what he does, and further that he has a free will to be what he is and to do what he prefers. In nut-shell, one is what his deeds make him; one is born as his deeds shape him; and he inherits only his deeds – good or bad. Desire leads to an act – deed, but after there is no desire there is no act, as also no birth or re-birth. Ignorance breeds desire, and enlightenment – true knowledge, brings its end. Extinction of desire is thus the end of the cycle of birth and death.

 

 

Structure of a Jataka: Vannupatha Jataka, An Example

Structurally, each Jataka has two parts, one the ‘Gatha’, and other, the ‘Katha’. Gatha is the ‘Sutta’, aphoristic pith, or end of what is seen, and Katha, its story part by which the Gatha is illustrated. For example, in Vannupatha Jataka, the Gatha part occurs towards the end. It concludes that effortful people obtained water by digging the sandy land of desert. Similarly, the skillful monks should attain peace of mind by putting untiring effort.

Two parallel stories illustrate this aphorism. One relates to a Shravasti nobleman, and other, to a Banjara, a trader moving from one place to other for trading. When Buddha was staying at Jetavana a noble young man from Shravasti came to him. For five years he was with the Buddha. After he had learnt all appropriate techniques of meditation he took leave and entered the forest to do penance and attain enlightenment. He passed three of the four months of his rainy sojourn but his mind was not at rest. He recalled that the Buddha classified all men into four types, the fourth being those who would attain enlightenment in next births, not now. Using it as an excuse he concluded that he belonged to the fourth type, and postponing all efforts for next births returned to Buddha to enjoy the glory of his company. He was brought to the Buddha, and after the Buddha knew that he had given up effort, Buddha asked him if he was not the same industrious man who in one of his previous births had saved by his effort the lives of men and bulls of five hundred carts by digging water from under the desert land. The curious monks prayed the Buddha to tell them how it took place. On this Buddha narrated the following story.

Long ago, when Kashi was ruled by king Brahmadatta, Bodhisatta was born to a Banjara. When grew to his age, he moved to trade with five hundred carts. One day his destination was across a long desert with impenetrable sand which burnt like fire during the day and revealed no pathway. Hence, one could travel only during night and with the help of a guide competent to tell right direction from the position of stars. One crucial night, when their stock of water was almost finished, the guide, who was on board of the pilot cart, slept. The bulls of his cart turned back and with them all others. When the day broke, they found that they were back on the same place from where they had started their journey last evening.

No water was left. All but the Bodhisatta were desperate. He persuaded them to dig for water. After the land was dug several feet deep a rock surfaced and with it all hopes ended and also their effort. The Bodhisatta, however, descended quietly into the well. Here he heard a faint murmuring sound from under the rock. He felt that a stream of water flowed under it. He asked his personal servant to break the rock, which he did and from under the rock burst a stream of clear cool water and thus with the great effort of an ordinary servant were saved lives of all men and bulls. The story concludes with the Gatha – its aphoristic pith. Some part of the Jataka is then devoted to interpreting the Gatha. At the end the Buddha reveals that this monk, who has given up effort now, was the servant, who broke the rock in that birth, others were those present here, and he himself was the Bodhisatta.

Jatakas: An Exclusively Human World

Prince Vessantara donating Jetuttara's auspicious elephant to the people of Kalinga represented in the panel by the figure of a Brahmin. Second century B.C., Bharhut.
Prince Vessantara donating Jetuttara's auspicious elephant to the people of Kalinga represented in the panel by the figure of a Brahmin. Second century B.C., Bharhut.

 

 

The Vannupatha Jataka has been named after its main subject – vannupatha, path through sand. Some Jatakas are named after the first word occurring in its Gatha, some after the name of the principal character, and some according to the birth which the Bodhisatta had – elephant, fish, monkey or whatever. Some of these names are found carved with the 2nd century BC sculptures from Bharhut and thus their authenticity might hardly be questioned.

 

 

 

 

In his most births Bodhisatta was ascetic, king, tree-god, Brahmin and the like. Sometimes he was born as elephant, lion, horse, jackal, dog etc., at least thrice, as Chandala –an outcaste; and once, as Gambler. In regard to stories – the Katha part, related to these births, most scholars assert that many of them were subsequently added during the 5th century BC and the 2nd century AD. Still, Jatakas are the oldest form of fiction in world literature. The world of the Jatakas is absolutely human. Whatever a being’s birth – man, bird, animal, serpent, god, Kinnara, Yaksha, Gandharva, ghost…, it behaves like a human being and speaks his language using his diction and idiom.

Jatakas’ Four Components: Mahajanak Jataka, An Example

Like the Vannupatha Jataka, all Jatakas have four components; one, the present story; second, the story from the past; third, interpretation of each Gatha, and Gathas; and fourth, Buddha’s revelation of who each character was and co-relation of each event with the present.

The story of the past begins invariably with words like ‘Long ago a king named … ruled …’. The foregoing parts have no fixed volume. In Apannaka Jataka – the first one, the present story is quite large but the story from the past is relatively brief, and the number of Gathas is just one.

On the contrary, in Mahajanaka Jataka, present story comprises a couple of sentences or so, while the story of the past and the number of Gathas are quite large. Addressing the monks the Buddha said: ‘Not only now, the Tathagata (Buddha) has renounced the world earlier too’; and so saying he began narrating the story of the birth of Bodhisatta as Mahajanaka.

Long ago, king Mahajanaka ruled Mithila. He had two sons, Aritthajanaka and Polajanaka. After his death his elder son Aritthajanaka became the king, and Polajanaka, his deputy. One day, one of king’s servants informed the king that his younger brother is conspiring to kill him. Polajanaka was consequently arrested, chained and put in a cellar away from the royal palace. Here in the name of his truthfulness he invoked divine powers and in effect chains broke and gate opened. He then moved to a village. Here many people gathered round him and he was now the chieftain of a province. With the intention to avenge his brother for the wrong he had done, he attacked Mithila and laid a siege around. Before he set out to face attackers, Aritthajanaka told his wife to take care of the child in her womb in case he was slain in the war. No sooner she heard of her husband’s death than disguised in rags like a poor woman she left the palace with invaluable belongings and reached Champanagar. Here a Brahmin saw her and knew by his spiritual powers that she had in her womb an exceptional being, no other than the Bodhisatta. He adopted her as his sister. When grown to adolescent, Bodhisatta insisted his mother to tell who he was, and when he knew that he was the prince of Mithila, he decided to take his kingdom back. The riches his mother had brought with her could help him raise a huge army and win back his state, but before that he wanted to multiply his wealth. He hence took a part of his mother’s money, bought huge quantities of merchandises and set out on a voyage.

After seven days and a long distance covered, in the mid-sea their boat broke. Effortless people wept, cried and drowned. The Bodhisatta, however, readied himself to swim. Without a drop of water to drink he swam for seven days. On the eighth day, goddess Mani-Mekhala, care-taker of the sea, saw him. She identified the Bodhisatta. However, to remove all doubts she decided to test him. Guised as a well adorned maiden she put to him several questions, each of which he aptly replied. He said that he was still swimming when others had drowned. This effort, not that it turned into success, was his errand. Pleased with his discourse she asked him where he wanted to reach, and as desired transported him to Mithila.

Mithila king Polajanaka had died without a successor. He had only a daughter Siwali Devi. Polajanaka had laid four conditions for anyone to be Mithila’s king, one being Siwali’s liking for him. All among king’s nobles were tried but no one was found suitable.

Finally, Bodhisatta Mahajanaka, resting in the garden outside Mithila, was spotted and found suitable. Siwali also liked him and married. They had two sons. Some seven thousand years he ruled.

One day, he visited royal garden. On its gate were two mango trees, one laden with sweet fruits, and other, fruitless but green and steady. He ate a mango and thought he would eat a few more when back. But, on his return the tree was almost barren. When asked, gardener explained that under convention anyone could take its fruits after the king had eaten its first. People not only plucked all fruits but also its leaves and twigs. He showed him the other tree without fruits, of which not a leaf was plucked. The Bodhisatta thought that possessions are destruction’s prey. Whatever without possessions would not be destroyed. He decided to renounce kingship and palace as they abounded in greater possessions.

This picture shows a scene from palace life, in which Mahajanaka watches a dance performance arranged by his wife Sivali to keep him tied to worldly life. She clearly has eyes only for him.
This picture shows a scene from palace life, in which Mahajanaka watches a dance performance arranged by his wife Sivali to keep him tied to worldly life. She clearly has eyes only for him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

One day he got his head shaved, wore ascetic’s cloths and left his palace. Hearing of his departure Siwali rushed to him, wept and entreated him not to leave them but nothing prevailed. She used many methods to stop him but all failed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now she decided to go after him. They underwent a series of discourses but Mahajanaka did not deviate from his determination. After Siwali realised that he would not return she fainted. However, the detached Bodhisatta left. His renunciation was already absolute. Hence, after seven days he returned to the town but not as its king but a teacher and monk. Discourses between the Bodhisatta and others, Mani-Mekhala, Siwali, gardener, Narada, Migajina, street girl, basket maker and his son Dirghayukuamara and others, are Gathas which have been simultaneously interpreted. In the end, Buddha reveals the co-relation of all characters with those of the present, he himself being Mahajanaka.

Ten Perfections: Their Applications in Jatakas:

The Jatakas embody in them ten ‘Parmitas’ or perfections – the principal cardinals of Buddhism, which alone lead to absolute Buddhahood. Of them, ‘Dana’ or generosity is the foremost. Other nine perfections are ‘Shila’ or virtue – moral restraint; ‘Nekkhamma’ or renunciation; ‘Panna’ or wisdom, though to be fully attained only after enlightenment; ‘Viriya’ or effort which also developed skills; ‘Khanti’ or forbearance – patience; ‘Sachcha’ or truthfulness; ‘Abhitthana’ or resolve – determination; ‘Metta’ or loving kindness, an attitude of mind leading one to so deal with others as if they are one’s own part; and, finally, ‘Upekkha’ or equanimity – imperturbability of mind in all conditions, pleasant or painful.

In Jataka-Nidana, a separate example has been used to define each of them; as a jar of water for defining the ‘Dana’. When poured, a jar does not retain any water. So when a generous hand gives, it would not hold back anything. All 547 Jatakas illustrate one or the other of these ten perfections. Not all, many of them have been accordingly grouped in Jataka-Nidana part. Both aforementioned Vannupatha and Mahajanaka Jatakas reveal Bodhisatta’s great effort.

Shaddanta Jataka. Hunter kneels in reverence while Bodhisattva Shaddanta removes his tusks. Ajanta, third-fourth century.
Shaddanta Jataka.
Hunter kneels in reverence while Bodhisattva Shaddanta removes his tusks. Ajanta, third-fourth century.

Generosity is the theme of many Jatakas in which the Bodhisatta is born as man and also as animal. The king Shiwi, in Shiwi Jataka, donates to the Brahmin his both eyes, though the Brahmin had asked just for one. Prince Vessantara donates his divine elephant to another state, though his own state suffers from famine as its result and he himself is deprived of his kingdom. In Shaddanta Jataka, the elephant king Shaddanta removes all his six tusks with his own trunk and gives them to the hunter to take them to the queen of Banarasa, his own jealous consort in the previous birth.

The Kapi – monkey, in Mahakapi Jataka, saves from dying the Brahmin who hit it with a stone and broke its head. Shankhapala Jataka reveals exceptional forbearance, Vidhura Pandita Jataka, exceptional wisdom and imperturbability, Hansa Jataka, loving kindness...


For Further Study:

  • Jataka (six volumes): trans. By Bhadanta Ananda Kausalyayana.
  • Jataka Tales: Cambridge.
  • The Jataka together with its Commentary being Tales of Anterior Births of Gotama Buddha (six volumes) : Oxford.
  • GChullabagga Vanshashatika Skandhaka : trans. By Rahul Sankratayana.
  • Patanjali’s Mahabhashya.
  • The Pancatantra : The Book of India’s Folk Wisdom : Oxford.
  • Hitopadesha : Hindi Sahitya Sammelana, Prayaga.
  • Bhandarkar, R. G. : Vishnavism Saivism etc.
  • Cone, M. and Gombrich, R. F. : The Perfect Generosity.
  • Wray, E., Rosenfield, C. and Bailey, D. : Ten Lives of The Buddha.
  • Behl, Benoy K. : The Ajanta Caves.
  • OKADA Amina : Ajanta.
  • Srivastava, A. L. : Life in Sanchi Sculpture.
  • Sharma, R. C. : Bharhut Sculptures
  • Ajanta Murals : ed. A Ghosh.

We hope you have enjoyed reading the article. Any comments or feedback that you may have will be greatly appreciated. Please send your feedback to feedback@exoticindiaart.com.


This Article by Prof. P. C. Jain and Dr. Daljeet


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Article Reviews

  • The well-rounded, very readable introductory information on Buddha's life and previous births is most welcome. Even the always-doubting (not questioning) western mind may get something out of this treasure trove. Thank you for this gift.

    May Gayatri mata shower her choicest wisdoms upon you.

    Maybe one day please write an article on the meaning and significance of Sadashiva.
    - Ravi Sadana
    18th Jan 2008
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