Jatakas – The Buddhist Tales

The Jatakas are Buddhist parables and tales – loose parallels of the Panchtantra actually. They tell the tales of Buddha in his previous lives (when he was called Bodhisattva or Buddha-to-be), which included incarnations in the form of a snake and an elephant. These stories reflect the travails and experiences that the he had to go through to attain the wisdom of the Buddha.

The Stories Depicting Moral Values

In format the stories are similar to the Panchtantra and lead up to a moral. Here again the morals are bigger than the stories. Being Buddhist, the stories are less matter-of-fact than the Panchatantra and sometimes deal with quite intricate esoteric messages.

For example there is a story in the Jatakas called the Kisa Gotami. The story revolves around a woman who loses her only son. She goes to the Boddhisattva to tearfully ask him to resurrect her son. He asks her to get a bowl of wheat from a house where no one has ever died. As the woman goes from house to house, searching in vain for a house in which no death has occurred, she comes to the realization that death is a part of life and has to be accepted as such.
So while the message of the Panchtantra is relatively commonsensical, that of the Jatakas can be surprisingly profound.
References to sea voyages in the Jatakas are quite frequent, which reveals Buddhism to be much more dynamic religion than Aryanism (which forbade travel over sea). There are also certain interesting references to navigation in the stories. In one of the stories a crow is used as a pilot for a ship; the reason for which is that crows are known to fly in the direction of land.

The Jatakas have been used as important and reliable source material for ancient Indian history. This is despite the fact their anti-brahminical bias for which historians tend to leave room (this was because Buddhism was a reform movement against the heavily ritual-based Aryan religion).

Jataka Tales

Composed around 300 B.C, the Jataka tales are an interesting collection of short stories that have been very popular among folklores and legends. These stories are an interesting way to teach the values and morals of life and good living. Each and every Jataka story has a moral to learn and these stories have been passed from generation to generation and are still popular in the contemporary world as they serve as bedtime tales for children. These tales were written in Pali language and are often called as Jataka Buddhist tales, since Pali is the language of ancient Buddhist scriptures.

These tales are said to have inspired further fables and tales like the Arabian Nights, Aesop’s Fables and Adventures of Sindbad. These stories talk of the incarnations of Lord Buddha in different forms like human, animals and teach some of the most important lessons of life. They talk about perseverance, self-respect, respect for others, wisdom, honesty, morality, etc. and many other important goals of life that can be easily realized through hard work and determination.

The Jataka tales have much educational value and were used to teach youngsters the important morals and goals of life. These fables are around 547 in number and are very interesting to read. Most of the tales have an Indian backdrop and are said to have the backdrop of the northern parts of India, near the holy city of Varanasi near the river Ganges.

Morals written around 300 B.C in a language called PALI, which were later translated and distributed to people across the world. These stories are mainly about past incarnations of Buddha, and are meant to teach the values of self-sacrifice, honesty, morality and other didactic values to a common person. They are a total of 547 in number. They really make interesting reading just like the counterparts in Panchatantra.

What are the Jātaka Tales?

The Jātaka tales (Sanskrit: जातक कथाएँ), or simply the Jakata(s), are a genre of Buddhist literature. The genre contains a vast collection of Buddha stories that detail the previous lives of the Buddha, also known as Gautama Buddha (c. 563–483 BCE), the founding figure of Buddhism.

The word Jātaka refers to birth in Sanskrit and the Buddhist literary language of Pāli. In Pāli, it refers primarily to the birth stories of the Buddha and not births in other contexts. These stories do not always tell the story of the past life of the Buddha from birth to death, as they may focus on a specific episode of the past life to illustrate a particular Buddhist ideal, such as honesty, generosity, or kindness.

Buddha in Jātakas

Throughout the Jātaka, Buddha is represented in his various former lives in different forms. Sometimes, he is even an animal, not a person. In these past lives, he is referred to as “Bodhisatta.” This term can refer to anyone on the path to Buddhist enlightenment, but in the context of the Jātaka tales, it means the Buddha himself.

Significance of the Jātaka Tales in Buddhism

The Jataka tales are often depicted in Buddhist carvings and are common in Buddhist stupas (domed structures).

A greenish stone carved in several panels showing different jataka tales.

Examples of the Buddhist Stories

Not all Buddhist stories about the Buddha are Jātaka tales, but the Jātaka tales are some of the more popular Buddhist stories. Each Jātaka story comes in five parts:

  1. The introduction, where the Buddha himself describes the background information necessary for the story to be understood
  2. The prose narrative containing the story of the Bodhisatta
  3. Stanzas (poetry) typically relay the story’s moral
  4. A commentary on the poetry (in prose)
  5. The conclusion connects the figures of the past (from the story) with the members of his audience in the present (reincarnations of those past figures)

Some of the most famous of the Jātaka tales include the following:

Lesson Summary

In Buddhism, the Jātaka tales (Sanskrit: जातक कथाएँ) describe stories from the Buddha’s past lives. They are typically written in the sacred Pāli language, a vernacular used in the period of Middle Indo-Aryan (c. 600 BCE to 1000 CE), especially for writing Buddhist texts. Each of these texts are written in five parts: (1) an introduction with background information, (2) the prose narrative, (3) stanzas of poetry containing the moral lesson, (4) a commentary on the poetry, and (5) the conclusion where the Buddha relates the past to the present. In these stories of the past, Buddha is called the Bodhisatta.

The morals presented are often one of the ten kinds of pāramitā (पारमिता) or pāramī (पारमी), meaning “perfection,” traits the Buddha needed to exhibit to be born into the life where he becomes the Buddha. Many are depicted as stone artworks in Buddhist domed structures known as stupas. The Jātaka stories are significant in Buddhism and other cultures. They are the inspiration for many stories, including Indian tales like the Mahābhārata and the Purāṇas, as well as the stories known as Aesop’s fables.

Who wrote the Jataka tales?

Followers of early Buddhism are the ones who wrote the Jātaka tales, allegedly based on the words of the Buddha himself. Specific potential authors are sometimes named, but none are confirmed.

How many Jataka tales are there?

There are at least 547 Jātaka tales in Pāli Buddhist canon. There are also more written in other languages and other Buddhist traditions.

Where are the Jataka tales from?

The Jātaka tales are from Buddhist tradition in ancient India, primarily. Some of them were written later, as Buddhism was outside of India.

Which language are the Jakatas written in?

The Buddhist Jātaka tales are written primarily in the Pāli language, sacred within Theravāda Buddhist tradition. Some have also been translated into Sanskrit, English, and other languages.

The Jataka Tales

Stories of the Lives of the Buddha

So did you hear the one about the monkey and the crocodile? What about the story of the contended quail? Or the rabbit in the moon? Or the hungry tigress?

These stories are from the Jataka Tales, a large body of stories about the earlier lives of the Buddha. Many are in the form of animal fables that teach something about morality, not unlike Aesop’s fables. Many of the stories are charming and light-hearted, and some of these have been published in sweetly illustrated children’s books. However, not all of the stories are suitable for children; some are dark and even violent.

Where did the Jatakas originate? The stories come from multiple sources and have a multitude of authors. Like other Buddhist literature, the many stories can be divided into “Theravada” and “Mahayana” canons.

The Theravada Jataka Tales
The oldest and largest collection of Jataka Tales is in the Pali Canon. They are found in the Sutta-pitaka (“basket of sutras”) part of the canon, in a section called the Khuddaka Nikaya, and they are presented there as the record of the Buddha’s past lives. Some alternative versions of the same stories are scattered about in other parts of the Pali Canon.

The Khuddaka Nikaya contains 547 verses arranged in order of length, shortest to longest. The stories are found in commentaries to the verses. The “final” collection as we know it today was compiled about 500 CE, somewhere in southeast Asia, by unknown editors.

The overall purpose of the Pali Jatakas is to show how the Buddha lived many lives with the goal of realizing enlightenment. The Buddha was born and reborn in the forms of humans, animals, and superhuman beings, but always he made a great effort to reach his goal.

Many of these poems and stories come from much older sources. Some of the stories are adapted from a Hindu text, Panchatantra Tales, written by Pandit Vishu Sharma around 200 BCE. And it is probable many of the other stories are based on folk tales and other oral traditions that have otherwise been lost.

Storyteller Rafe Martin, who has published several books of Jataka Tales, wrote, “Formed of fragments of epics and hero tales arising from deep in the collective Indian past, this already ancient material was taken over and revised, reworked, and reused by later Buddhist storytellers for their own purposes” (Martin, The Hungry Tigress: Buddhist Myths, Legends, and Jataka Tales, p. xvii).

The Mahayana Jataka Tales
What some call the Mahayana Jataka stories are also called the “apocryphal” Jatakas, indicating they come from unknown origins outside the standard collection (the Pali Canon). These stories, usually in Sanskrit, were written over the centuries by many authors.

One of the best-known collections of these “apocryphal” works does have a known origin. The Jatakamala (“garland of Jatakas”; also called the Bodhisattvavadanamala) probably was composed in the 3rd or 4th century CE. The Jatakamala contains 34 Jatakas written by Arya Sura (sometimes spelled Aryasura). The stories in the Jatakamala focus on the perfections, especially those of generosity, morality, and patience.

Although he is remembered as a skillful and elegant writer, little is known about Arya Sura. One old text preserved at the University of Tokyo says he was the son of a king who renounced his inheritance to become a monk, but whether that is true or a fanciful invention no one can say.

The Jataka Tales in Practice and Literature
Through the centuries these stories have been much more than fairy tales. They were, and are, taken very seriously for their moral and spiritual teachings. Like all great myths, the stories are as much about ourselves as they are about the Buddha. As Joseph Campbell said, “Shakespeare said that art is a mirror held up to nature. And that’s what it is. The nature is your nature, and all of these wonderful poetic images of mythology are referring to something in you.” (“Joseph Campbell: The Power of Myth, with Bill Moyers,” PBS)

The Jataka Tales are portrayed in dramas and dance. The Ajanta Cave paintings of Maharashtra, India (ca. 6th century CE) portray Jataka Tales in narrative order so that people walking through the caves would learn the stories.

Jatakas in World Literature
Many of the Jatakas bear a striking resemblance to stories long familiar in the West. For example, the story of Chicken Little—the frightened chicken who thought the sky was falling—is essentially the same story as one of the Pali Jatakas (Jataka 322), in which a frightened monkey thought the sky was falling. As the forest animals scatter in terror, a wise lion discerns the truth and restores order.

The famous fable about the goose that laid golden eggs is eerily similar to Pali Jataka 136, in which a deceased man was reborn as a goose with gold feathers. He went to his former home to find his wife and children from his past life. The goose told the family they could pluck one gold feather a day, and the gold provided well for the family. But the wife became greedy and plucked all the feathers out. When the feathers grew back, they were ordinary goose feathers, and the goose flew away.

It is unlikely Aesop and other early storytellers had copies of the Jatakas handy. And it’s unlikely that the monks and scholars who compiled the Pali Canon more than 2,000 years ago ever heard of Aesop. Perhaps the stories were spread by ancient travelers. Perhaps they were built from fragments of the first human stories, told by our paleolithic ancestors.

The Jataka Tales

The Jataka tales are stories that the Buddha told of his previous lifetimes as a Bodhisattva, before he attained final enlightenment. The Bodhisattva appears in each of these stories, in human or animal form, sometimes as the hero of the story, sometimes as one of the characters. The stories are concerned with everyday human concerns and questions and moral issues with which we struggle every day. In addition, they are witty and entertaining and filled with colourful characters: clever monkeys, greedy merchants, wise elephants, cruel kings, deceitful monks, and even an occasional tree spirit. Since the stories are believed to have been related by the Buddha himself, they are held in great veneration by Buddhists around the world. 

Jataka stories occur in Buddhist canonical literature from at least as early as 380 BCE if not earlier – which suggests that these stories were always a part of Buddhist literature. Jataka scenes are also found sculpted on the railings of the stupas as Sanchi, Amaravati and Bharhut, showing that the stories were widely known by the 3rd century BCE and considered an intrinsic part of the religion. The Chinese scholar and traveller Fa-Hsien, saw representations of these tales in Sri Lanka, in 400 CE.  These stories were also used by wandering Buddhist monks to explain and spread the word of the Buddha.

It is not certain when the Jataka stories were put together in the systematic form in which we have them today. At first, they were probably handed down orally, but given their importance and popularity, it is likely that they would have been recorded in a more permanent, written form sooner rather than later. The Pali work, called simply ‘The Jataka ‘, contains 550 stories arranged in 22 nipatas or books. These divisions are based roughly on the number of verses quoted in each story – so the first book contains 150 stories, each of which quotes only one verse, the second book contains 100 stories, each of which quote two verses, and so on till the 21st, which contains 5 stories that quote 80 verses each, and the 22nd, which contains 10 stories that quote 100 or more verses each. Each story begins with a preface, which gives the circumstances in which the Buddha relates that particular story and revealing some event in his previous lives on his path to becoming the Buddha.  At the end of each story is a short summary, in which the Buddha identifies the characters of his story in their present birth. Every story is also illustrated by a gatha – the lesson, teaching, or moral, in verse form –  which is uttered by the Buddha while still a Bodhisattva as part of the narrative. Sometimes these verses are said by the Buddha as himself. These verses are much more ancient than the stories, and perhaps the Jataka in its original form consisted only of these verses. Though these verses are almost impossible to understand without the accompanying stories and explanations, it is often the case that the commentary is passed on orally, in varying form, along with the core teaching or proverb.

The Sri Lankan tradition says that the original Jataka book consisted only of these gathas, and that a prose commentary on these, containing the stories, was written in very early times in Sinhalese. This was then translated into Pali in around 430 CE by Buddhaghosh, who translated many other Sinhalese commentaries into Pali as well. In any case, if the commentary was not composed by Buddhaghosh, it was composed soon after, and was only a redaction of materials handed down from very early times in the Buddhist community. Some of the Jataka stories are very clearly Buddhistic in origin, but many are folk tales which were found even earlier, and variations of which may be found in works as diverse as the 4th century Sanskrit text, Panchatantra, or used by Boccaccio in medieval Italy, or even as part of the Arthurian legend in Wales. 

The Jataka stories are interesting from two perspectives: as part of Buddhist literature, and as folklore that gives us a vivid glimpse into life in ancient India.

What are the Jatakas?
The Jatakas may be regarded as a body of literature that consists of various narratives of the life of Gautam Budhha taking birth in both human and animal forms. The narratives describe him as being born an elephant, a king, an outcast etc. but the motive behind each narrative is to highlight the moral values that he propagated in each of these characters. The narratives find huge popularity among children owing to the narration of the stories and the moral education that they have to impart.

The Buddhist literature, Theravad Buddhism refers to these Jatakas as a commentary to the famous Pali Kanon (a collection of Theravadan Buddhist literature). It makes a division of the texts mentioned in the Khuddaka Nikaya and Sutta Pitaka.

When did the Jatakas come into being?
The exact dates of the Jataka literature cannot be determined owing to several branches of the writing dating to different periods. A metrical analysis indicates that the contents were developed in around 4th century BCE. Some tales were composed much before the birth of Buddha while some were belonging to later dates. The question of dating the Jatakas has been made even more difficult with the various sects of Buddhism having different claims over the tales. The Caitaka sect from the Andhra region considers it the Jatakas developed by them as the original collection before the splitting of the Buddhist tradition into the various lineages. But the Theravadan sect has equal claims over the originality of their tales. The counter-claims indicate one thing i.e. the development of the tales in different periods of time. Thus, it would be unjustified to push forward a fixed date for these valuable tales from our past.

However, some attempts of determination can be made from the evidence of the past like the inscription of quotes from the Jataka Mala or Arya Sura on the walls of Ajanta caves which dates back to the 6th century. So, a mention at this period would indicate an even older evolution of these tales to give them such immense importance in the sixth century. Further, 434 BCE Chinese literature contains the translations from these tales.

What do the Jatakas contain?
The Jataka tales are a collection of stories and poems. But due to several translations and understandings, the exact number of such original contents is not known. There are around 34 stories which have all been depicted in Borobudur (a Mahayana Buddhist temple situated in Java, Indonesia, being the world’s largest temple and marked as a UNESCO World Heritage Site). As per the recordings of the Theravadas, their Jataka consists of 547 poems, out of which only last 50 could be read without any commentary on them. The remaining require understanding through commentaries which have mostly been written in forms of prose depicting the contents of the verses. It is these proses that have gained popularity among the folklorists and read widely rather than the original poems. But records show that in today’s date around 549 Jataka stories have been printed.

What influence did the Jatakas have on ancient literature?
Although there have been few attempts to read the Jatakas in their original form, their texts have nonetheless reached many due to a large number of translations and adoptions that they underwent. This is because the Jatakas cannot be merely regarded as stories of the previous birth of Budhha and moral values. They not only are valuable books for literature and art but also provide an important insight into the history of the civilization from the period of 3rd century BC. So, they contain a beautiful description of political, social and religious structure of society in the 2nd and 3rd century BC. But they have been often criticized as depicting very less of the biography of Gautam Buddha.

Their vast coverage of the period have influenced some of the famous Indian literary writings the Panchatantra of the Hindus, the niti-shastra written in Sanskrit etc. The stories have been adopted in the vernaculars of every region and passed on through oral tradition. Their easy adoption is facilitated by the narrations being simple stories like The Monkey and the Crocodile, The Turtle Who Couldn’t Stop Talking etc. While this seems to prove the greatness of the tales, there are certain disadvantages to such adoptions. Huge amount of exchange of hands leads to disruption of parts of the original story. So, although the Sanskrit and Tibetan Jataka stories have tried to maintain the original texts of the Pali tradition to the extent possible, several amendments are found in the Persian or other languages.

In the modern form, some English writers like EB Cowell translated them to English and were published in six volumes by the Cambridge University Press in around 1895 to 1907. Smaller books containing parts of the narratives are sold worldwide.

Are the Jataka stories reflected in other Structures?
The fact that the Jatakas have influenced most of the understanding of ancient India is not only reflected in literature, but equally evident in the artistic structures, celebrations, ceremonies etc. taken from that period. One of the most important ones that is the Borobudur temple has been discussed before. One important structure is the Mankiala stupa, now in Northern Pakistan. The Jatakas depict one of the incarnations of Buddha to sacrifice himself to feed a tiger in this location. There are stories of similar sacrifices made at the ascetic Ekasranga, Mangalura, Hadda Mountain and Sarvadattan. Most of these locations lie in Pakistan.

The Jatakas had also found popularity among theatre performers and dancers. Some famous tales which were comparatively long were adopted through several dance performances, plays and recitations. These include The Twelve Sisters, Vessantara Jataka etc. These are performed in celebrations till date and are associated even with holidays in some Buddhist dominant countries like Cambodia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Laos