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Jatakas - The Births of Buddha

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 Buddha’s 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 karma’s workings, and pointed out that one can, by understanding the nature of karma, change the course of one’s 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 taught.

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. Dante’s immortal classic Divina Comedia has been said to be based upon the Nimi Jataka. Rhys Davids, a Jataka expert, said that Shakespeare’s 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 Aesop’s Fables, in La Fontaine’s Fables, in the Gesta Romanorum, and in Chaucer’s 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.