The Jatakas form a part of Buddhist canonical
literature and as such are popularly believed to be pearls of wisdom
from the mouth of the Buddha himself.
India has always had a
rich tradition of oral story telling and preachers from various
religious sects have made extensive use of stories in their sermons.
Buddha was no exception. According to folklore, he often cited
examples from his past lives in order to explain the right conduct.
Since he told the stories according to the demand of a give
situation, he never gave a sequence to these stories. It is quite
uncertain when they were put together in a systematic form.
Today, a total of 547
Jatakas are in existence. But there are indications that the actual
number of Jatakas was more. The Petlieik Pagoda at Pagan has
representation of 550 Jatakas. There are some scholars who have
attributed the latter figure to the human tendency of rounding off
figures. But the predominant belief is that the actual number was
indeed 550 and the remaining three have been lost.
Many of the Jatakas are
folklores that have been provided with a Buddhist touch. Some of
these stories are told in the Suttas without any reference to the
Bodhisattva. Many of these stories find place in the Panchatantra
and Kathasaritsagara. The Jatakas also have a version of the
Ramayana called the Dasratha Jatakas, which portray Rama and Sita as
brother and sister. The Avadanas, which also form an
important part of Buddhist literature, are very closely connected to
the Jatakas. The fundamental difference between the two is that in
the Jataka Bodhisattva is always one of the characters while any
saint can play a part in the latter. This concept of Bodhisattva is
central to the Jatakas. A Bodhisattva is a being who seeks
Buddhahood through the systematic practice of the perfect virtues but
renounces complete entry into Nirvana until all beings are saved.
However there are many Avadanas, in which bodhisattva is the
hero. Another text in Buddhist literature that derives heavily from
the Jatakas is the Sanskrit work Jatakamala (garland of birth
stories) by Aryasura. A collection of 34 Jatakas, it is a work of
high literary standards.
The Jatakas tales embody
the ethical system of Buddhas insights into the natural laws
that govern all existence. They form a cosmos of wisdom. At the
heart of these stories lies the law of Karma by the virtue of which,
according to Buddhist philosophy, every being becomes what he makes
himself. Karma, here, is not just a synonym for action. It
encompasses the causal connections between actions and their
consequences. The Buddha revealed the inner complexities of karmas
workings, and pointed out that one can, by understanding the nature
of karma, change the course of ones life. He taught that karma
does not unfold in a simple manner with a single cause giving rise
directly to a specific effect. The good do not always immediately
prosper and the evil do not always immediately pay for their sins.
Yet, viewed from the prespective of many lifetimes, every one gets
what he deserves. The Bodhisattva achieved Buddhahood after he had
accumulated enough good karmas over a period of many births.
Another keys to Buddhism
are the four noble truths. These are that there is suffering, that
is has a cause, that it can be suppressed and that there is a way to
accomplish this. These truths also find their place in various
Jatakas like Apannaka Jataka and Matabhatta Jataka. The
Buddhist doctrine of impermanence is shown in Garhita Jataka,
Dasratha Jataka and the Bhuridatta Jataka among others.
That was a time when
Hindu rites routinely consisted of animal sacrifice. Buddha was a
Hindu by birth. Still he talked about compassion for all life forms.
According to him, humans and animals are partners in the legacy of
nature. The Bodhisattva appears as an animal in about one quarter of
the stories. In Jatakas like the Matakabhatta Jataka, the Maccha
Jataka and the Bhuridatta Jataka, respect for every form of life is
The popularity of the
Jatakas can be gauged form the fact that is has been represented in
almost all the significant Buddhist structures. The shrine at Barhut
in Satna District of Madhya Pradesh occupies an important place due
to its depictions of the Jataka. Sadly, it is now all but destroyed.
Fortunately, however, some of its carvings have been preserved at the
Indian Museum, Calcutta, Allahabad Museum and National Museum, New
Delhi. Nagarjunakonda at Guntur district in Andhra Pradesh is a
Buddhist site that is now submerged under the water of the
Nagarjunakonda dam. It also depicted the Jatakas very prominently.
Before the beginning of the dam project, a marathon excavation
operation was carried out over a period of size years of 120 sites.
The structures and carvings that were excavated have been recreated
nearby. Jatakas have also been gloriously depicted at the shrines at
Sanchi and Amravati. Other places with prominent representations of
Jatakas are Goli in Andhra Pradesh, Nalanda and Mathura.
With the spread of
Buddhism, the influence of the Jatakas also spread. The Chinese
pilgrim Fa-hien visited Sri Lanka in 412 AD. He saw representations
of five hundred bodily forms, which the Bodhisattva assumed during
his successive works. At Abhayagiri. The famous temple in
Boro-Budur in Java, and of Sukhodaya in Siam are decorated from
hundreds of bas-reliefs representing scenes from Jatakas. The stupas
at Pagan in Burma were excavated in 1906-07. They contained numerous
terra-cotta plaques, displaying scenes from Jataka.
The Jataka tales are a
veritable of wisdom. They have had a profound influence over mankind
since time immemorial and find reflection not just in Indian
literature, but the literature of the whole world. The advent of the
animal related stories as a significant genre in French literature
during the middle ages was apparently inspired by the Jatakas.
According to an Italian scholar, the origin of several of stories of
Ul-Sindbad and Arabian Nights could be traced from the Jataka tales.
Dantes immortal classic Divina Comedia has been said to be
based upon the Nimi Jataka. Rhys Davids, a Jataka expert, said that
Shakespeares Merchant of Venice and As you like It were
influenced by the Jatakas. Barlaam and Joasaph, by Saint John of
Damascus, which is a famous text of the Roman Catholics, is heavily
inspired by the Jatakas. The events in the life of their saints is
actually Bodhisattva. A version of judgement of Solomon is found in
Maha Ummagga Jataka. Many Jatakas find their parallels in
Aesops Fables, in La Fontaines Fables, in the Gesta
Romanorum, and in Chaucers Canterbury Tales.
After thousands of
years, The Jatakas are still as fresh as ever. They are an immortal
part of literature, still providing fresh insights, still opening
doors for new realizations and still changing lives.