What is the Jataka?
The Jātaka, formally collected around the 4th century B.C.E., frames its hundreds of stories within the 550 prior incarnations of the Buddha. As in Hinduism, karma is carried over from one lifetime to the next; each life is made up of actions and remembered knowledge from previous lives. Each individual story in the Jātaka is set inside this framework.
In each story, the Buddha recalls a prior life in order to make a point about Buddhist doctrine or ethics. In each story, the main point is underscored with an epigram, and the Buddha makes clear what role he played in the story. The stories were written not in Sanskrit but in Pali, a dialect intended for popular consumption, and they make use of many older folktales, none of which—prior to their reworking—had any connection with Buddhism.
Some of the stories seem only tangential to Buddhist truths, and some—like the story about a hare who thinks that the sky is falling—carry within them suggestions of their older meanings and values. These lively stories have simply been adapted to Buddhism, teaching Buddhist values—such as not to destroy life, not to take what is not given, to keep from alcohol, to love selflessly, and to be useful—while keeping at least some of their original focus. The story of the self-sacrificing rabbit, for example, teaches the Buddhist value of selfless acts of charity while at the same time explaining how the shape of a rabbit gets onto the moon.
These stories were translated by the Greeks, Persians, Jews, and Arabs, and they traveled across the world. Aesop’s animal fables, for example, are likely primarily Indian in origin. Because the stories are largely optimistic and have happy endings, they also have been a rich source of fairy-tales for children. An estimated 50 percent of the tales eventually collected by the Brothers Grimm are Indian in origin; there is even an early version of Uncle Remus’s “Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby.”
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