Nov 7 2011
Question 5: The Jataka Tales “The Wishing Tree” and “The Noble Hare” with commentary from Rafe Martin. What is a Jataka tale, and what is its characteristic form? All religions incorporate stories about the lives of key religious figures, as for instance the Christian gospels or hadith concerning the Prophet Muhammad. Buddhist lore includes stories about the Buddha’s past lives. In what ways are these Jataka tales similar to the stories found in other religions? In what ways are they specifically Buddhist – that is, reinforcing key tenets of Buddhist belief, and depending on central premises of the Buddhist account of reality?
Story-telling and narrations are interactive ways that a society can engage with each other and has become a useful tool to not only entertain, but also to educate and encourage thought. Stories like fables imbue moral codes in their narration so that the people can apply the moral values in their own lives. In Buddhist tradition, such stories come in the form of the Jataka Tales, or “birth tales”, which is a collection of 547 poems and is part of the Sutta Pitaka. After attaining Enlightenment, the Buddha remembered all his past lives, and narrated them as the Jataka Tales to his disciples. The Buddha has been reborn as animals 123 times, as humans 357 times and as gods 66 times (Varma).
Among the characteristics of the Jataka Tale is that it features animal fables, heroic epics, animal-birth stories as well as moral stories (Martin). The stories are also told from the Buddha’s point of view which is recorded by his disciples as they heard the stories. Canonical verses are also included. The Jataka Tales put great emphasis on the moral value of compassion. Selfless and self-sacrificing characters occur throughout most of the stories, for example, the noble hare who willingly sacrificed himself so that he could provide meat to a poor lonely traveller and an ape king who sacrificed himself so that his subjects could save themselves from the king of Benares who wanted to kill the monkeys for their flesh (Fisher 96; Grether). The characters in the Jataka Tales also model righteous behaviours which the audience could also emulate. Similar to the Hindu literature of Bhagavad Gita, the Jataka Tales also outlines the moral blueprints as well as the duties of one to the society. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna, the reincarnate of Vishnu, taught Arjuna the importance of adhering to one’s duties, which indirectly also preaches the same lesson to the audience as they relate themselves to Arjuna, who is an ordinary human being who undergoes internal conflicts (Fisher 57). The same can be said to the Buddhist Jataka Tales, although Buddhism doesn’t advocate the caste system, but it uses the same method to relay the teachings to the audience, regardless of age or social standings.
As in other religions which also incorporate the stories about the lives of key religious figures, the stories not only model the ideal religious individual after the religious figure, but it also enforces the authority of the religious figure himself and enforces the identity of the individual based on a religious ideal (Patel). Both Jesus Christ and Muhammad were prophets, sent to human kind to relay God’s message of worshiping Him. This authority is further enforced with the stories about the prophets’ lives; their actions, their speeches, which show how they are the epitome of the ideal worshiper and must be emulated by their followers (Ernst). Although Buddha may not be a prophet, considering that Buddhism is a nontheistic religion, but he was the first human being to be enlightened. Like the prophets, he feels compelled to spread the message to other human beings so that they can achieve enlightenment as well. So, through the stories, the Buddha becomes the model for his followers of how to achieve enlightenment. The prescriptions for achieving enlightenment, such as the Noble Eight-Fold Path, are detailed in the stories, and it helps the followers to distinguish between what is right and what is wrong, and how to follow the paths methodically. Buddha himself is aware of the different levels of his audience. Storytelling seems to be the universal way he can reach out to the people. They layman can directly emulate the prescribed morals from the stories, whereas those with capacity of higher understanding can choose to ponder the greater or more abstract meaning behind the stories (Stoesz). However, unlike the prophets, the Buddha’s message was not to worship God or how to correctly worship God, but his message is the Four Noble Truths. It was simply about realizing the reality of life and being at peace with it. The Buddha does not call for any form of worship; he only prescribed ways in how one can be happy in life. In the Jataka Tales, the stories do not relate to any wrath of God if one displeases Him, nor does it say much about the awesome divinity of god, because they too are subjected to the cycle of rebirth (Lewis; Fisher 139).
In conclusion, stories are an engaging and an interactive way to teach religion to the masses. In Buddhism, the Jataka Tales become the model of a righteous society as it retells the birth stories of the Buddha and is characterized by its characters and canonical features. These stories also play the same role as other stories in other religions like Hinduism, Christianity, Islam and others. The only difference is that the Buddhist message is fundamentally different as it does not call for worship of God, but the attainment of enlightenment.
Ernst, Carl W. “Following Muhammad: Rethinking Islam in the Contemporary World”
Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. Print.
Fisher, Mary Pat. “Living Religions.” 8th Edition. United States: Pearson Learning Solutions, 2011. Print.
Grether, Herbert G. “Cross and The Bodhi Tree.” Theology Today. Issue 4 (January 1960): page 446-458. Print.
Lewis, Jack P. “Noah and The Flood in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Tradition.” The Biblical Archaeologist. The American Schools of Oriental Research. Vol. 47. No. 4 (Dec 1984.): page 224-239. Print.
Martin, Rafe. “Thoughts on The Jatakas.” MyReligionLab. Web. Oct 28th 2011.
Patel, Eboo et al. “Storytelling As A Key Methodology For Interfaith Groupwork.” Journal of Ecumenical Studies. Issue 43. No. 2 (Spring 2008): page 35-46. Print.
Stoesz, Willis. “The Buddha as Teacher”. Journal of the American Academy of Religion. Issue 46. No. 2: page 139-158. Print.
Varma, C. B. “The Illustrated Jataka & Other Stories of the Buddha - Introduction.” Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts - Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Kala Kendra - 1999. Web. 29 Oct. 2011.