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Ancient Jataka Tales

The immensely popular Jataka Tales, or "Birth-stories", are an important part of Buddhist literature. The Jataka stories have contributed to many civilizations, moral conduct and good behaviour, a rich and varied literature, and inspired painting, sculpture and architecture of great value.

There are depths of meaning in the enjoyable Buddhist Jataka Tales. In India these and similar other stories helped in socialising children, discouraging them from selfishness. Jataka stories hold out advice on how to correct our ways. They were thought up to impart values of sound morality, noble ways of living, honesty, kindness to animals, respect for elders, being grateful, ill of associating with bad people, generosity, and inculcate ideas, faith, and insights relating to wider aspects of life.

Sculptured scenes from the Jatakas have been identified on the carved railings around the relic shrines of Sanchi and Amaravati and of Bharhut. It suggests that "Birth-stories" were widely known in the third century B.C. Most of the Jatakas are found in a book by the Buddhist scholar Buddhagosa, who flourished in the 400s AD. His collection contains 547 Jataka stories. Some of them are quite brief while others are long as novelettes. Many of the tales are set in or near Benares, now called Varanasi. According to tradition, Buddha began his teaching task at Sarnath a short distance from this city.

Many Jatakas have parallels in the ancient Indian Mahabharata Epic, the Pancha-tantra (animal fables), Katha sarit sagara, Puranas (collections of legends), Hitopadesa, and the hoary Vedas. Jataka and similar other stories travelled far and wide by word of mouth along caravan routes. Many Jataka stories have appeared in many other languages and media. Retellings of the stories may contain significant amendments to suit different host cultures. Some of the Jatakas have been used by Boccaccio and Chaucer, for example. In some countries the longer Jataka tales are still performed in dance, theatre, and recitation. Sri Lanka in particular has been nourished by Jataka stories. Even later works of drama are based on Jataka stories.

Western scholars have discovered the Jatakas too. Dr. Felix Adler was "captivated by the charm of the Jataka Tales," he writes in the foreword of a little book of Jataka Tales by Ellen Babbitt. Also, a group of Cambridge scholars published the tales: A "Guild of Jataka Translators," under Professor E. B. Cowell, professor of Sanskrit in the University of Cambridge, brought out the complete edition of the Jataka between 1895 and 1907. It is the standard collection of Jatakas (birth tales) in English, originally published in six volumes. Professor Rhys Davids speaks of them as "a priceless record . . . tales first invented to please and instruct."

The original Jataka Tales consists of 547 poems, and perhaps only the last 50 of them were intended to be intelligible by themselves. The commentary gives stories in prose for the verses, and these stories are of interest to folklorists and storytellers alike. Alternative versions of some of the stories can be found in Buddhist works of old, and many of the stories appear in many other languages and media, in part changed to suit the cultures they appear in.

Within the Pali tradition there are also apocryphal Jatakas added to the old ones, that had been put down in writing in the 400s CE. Some of the apocryphal Jatakas have been imported from Hindu sources, with changes of plots to teach Buddhist morals.

Comparisons between Indian fables and fables of Aesop

In the preface to ◦Indian Fairytales, Joseph Jacobs estimates that about one-third of European fairytales derive from Indian sources, transferred into the west through the Gypsies, Jews, Crusades and travellers that criss-crossed the trade-routes.

There are strong similarities between Indian fables - including Jataka tales - and fables of Aesop, and some fables easily compare. In the Jataka collection there is the story of ◦The Lion and the Crane and in Aesop, The Wolf and the Crane. The theme is nearly identical, but the characters are not.

In the Lion and the Crane, the crane is more considerate than the crane in the fable of Aesop, who is lacking in forethought.

The dialogue between characters in the Indian version is extended, in part sophisticated and often poetic; but in the fable of Aesop the characters are just sketched, subordinate to the theme of the tale, and their dialogues are plain prose.

In the original fables of Aesop, the fables had no morals attached. The morals were added later by such as George Fyler Townsend. In the Jataka, by comparison, the morals are written into the stories.

Indian fables have a mixed cast of humans and animals with about equal participation. The dialogue is extended and often witty, and animals try to outwit one another through trickery and deceit.

In the Indian fables, the cast of animals have not been much stereotyped. The crane appears as circumspect and saintly and benevolent in The Lion and the Crane, but later appears later as cruel and grasping in trickery regarding the fish. In Aesop, by comparison, the animals are much stereotyped. The frog, an object of ridicule in ancient Greece, is ridiculous. The turtle or tortoise, being slow of movement, is slow of mind, and so on.

In Aesop, the animals do not learn their lessons and change, contrary to what animals in Indian fables are up to. In Indian fables, one major theme is that of learning lessons and change thereby.

In Indian fables, man is not presented as superior to the animals, but often quite inferior. The tales revolve around evils of this world, and are often comical.


Jataka tales, ancient Indian fables and tales, Buddhist tales, Literature  

Babbitt, Ellen C. Jataka Tales. Animal Stories Re-told. Illustrations by Ellsworth Young. New York: The Century Co, 1912 and New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1912, 1940.

Babbitt, Ellen C. More Jataka Tales Re-Told. School Ed. London: Appleton-Century, 1922.

Cowell, Edward Byles, ed. The Jataka: Stories of the Buddha's Former Births. Vols 1-6. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1895. London: Luzac and Company, 1895-1907.

Francis, Henry Thomas, and Edward Joseph Thomas, eds. Jataka Tales. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1916. ⍽▢⍽ A selection.

Uther, Hans-Jörg. The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography Based on the System of Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson. Vols 1-3. FF Communications No. 284-86, Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 2004.

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