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The Jātakas (meaning "Birth Story", "related to a birth") are a voluminous body of literature native to South Asia which mainly concern the previous births of Gautama Buddha in both human and animal form. According to Peter Skilling, this genre is "one of the oldest classes of Buddhist literature." Some of these works are also considered great works of literature in their own right.
In these stories, the future Buddha may appear as a king, an outcast, a deva, an animal—but, in whatever form, he exhibits some virtue that the tale thereby inculcates. Often, Jātaka tales include an extensive cast of characters who interact and get into various kinds of trouble - whereupon the Buddha character intervenes to resolve all the problems and bring about a happy ending. The Jātaka genre is based on the idea that the Buddha was able to recollect all his past lives and thus could use these memories to tell a story and illustrate his teachings.
For the Buddhist traditions, the jātakas illustrate the many lives, acts and spiritual practices which are required on the long path to Buddhahood. They also illustrate the great qualities or perfections of the Buddha (such as generosity) and teach Buddhist moral lessons, particularly within the framework of karma and rebirth. Jātaka stories have also been illustrated in Buddhist architecture throughout the Buddhist world and they continue to be an important element in popular Buddhist art. Some of the earliest such illustrations can be found at Sanchi and Bharhut.
According to Naomi Appleton, Jātaka collections also may have played "an important role in the formation and communication of ideas about buddhahood, karma and merit, and the place of the Buddha in relation to other buddhas and bodhisattvas." According to the traditional view found in the Pali Jātakanidana, a prologue to the stories, Gautama made a vow to become a Buddha in the future, in front past Buddha Dipankara. He then spent many lifetimes on the path to Buddhahood, and the stories from these lives are recorded as Jātakas.
Jātakas are closely related to (and often overlap with) another genre of Buddhist narrative, the avadāna, which is a story of any karmically significant deed (whether by a bodhisattva or otherwise) and its result. According to Naomi Appleton, some tales (such as those found in the second and fourth decade of the Avadānaśataka) can be classified as both a jātaka and an avadāna.
Jātaka tales may be quite ancient. The term appears as part of a schema of Buddhist literary forms called the nine component genres of the Buddha's teaching (navaṅga-buddhasāsana), and depictions of them appear in early Indian art (as early as the second century B.C.E.). They are also widely represented in ancient Indian inscriptions. According to Straube, "the presumably oldest specimens of fully elaborated narratives are dispersed throughout the Vinayapiṭakas and Sūtrapiṭakas of the canonical collections of the different Buddhist schools. These texts are transmitted in various Indian dialects and stem from a prior oral tradition."
Furthermore, while these texts cannot be dated in a precise manner, "the fact that many narratives are passed on in almost identical form within the canons of the different schools shows that they date back to the time before the schisms between the schools took place." Sarah Shaw, writing on the Pali Jātakas, states that the earliest part of the Jātakas, the verse portions, are "considered amongst the very earliest part of the Pali tradition and date from the fifth century BCE" while "the later parts were incorporated during the period up to the third century CE."
According to A. K. Warder, jātakas are the precursors to the various legendary biographies of the Buddha, which were composed at later dates. Although many jātakas were written from an early period, which describe previous lives of the Buddha, very little biographical material about Gautama's own life has been recorded. Jātaka tales also assimilate many traditional Indian fables and folklore that are not specifically Buddhist. As the genre spread outside of India, it also drew on local folk tales.
The Mahayana author Asaṅga provides a working definition of jātaka in his Śrāvakabhūmi:
What is jātaka? That which relates the austere practices and bodhisattva practices of the Blessed One in various past births: this is called jātaka.
The idea that jātakas are taught in order to illustrate the bodhisattva path is an ancient one and is contained in sources like the Mahavastu, which states: "the supreme ones [Buddhas], who are skilled in jātakas and other doctrines, teach the course of practice of a bodhisattva."
Many jātakas are told with a common threefold plot schema which contains:
In the jātakas found in the Suttapitaka, which are almost always in prose, the Buddha is almost always depicted as a person of high rank in a past life (and not an animal). Some of these also include past lives of some of the Buddha's disciples. One famous example is the Pali Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra, which includes the story of Mahāsudarśana. Unlike Sutra collections, Vinaya sources like the Vinayavastu contain more varied jātakas, including ones in which the Buddha is depicted as an animal.
Many jātakas contain elements of both verse and prose. According to Martin Straube "the division into canonical verses and postcanonical prose points to the old Indian narrative form of ākhyāna, which has a fixed wording of the stanzas only, whereas the actual story is to be shaped anew during each oral performance." The plots of the jātakas range from simpler Aesopic style animal tales to longer more complex dramas which resemble epics or novels with intricate dialogue, characters and poetry. Despite the diversity of the plots and characters, they are all unified by the character of the heroic bodhisatta Gautama (whose identity is generally only revealed at the end of the story) and his struggles on the quest for awakening. In spite of this, Gautama is not always the central character of all these stories and sometimes only plays a minor role. Other recurring characters include important disciples of the Buddha, Devadatta (generally as an villain) and members of Gautama's family, like his wife Yasodharā and son Rāhula.
Another important element of the stories are the various Buddhist virtues, called perfections, that were cultivated by the bodhisattva Gautama throughout his previous lives, and which serve as the lessons taught by the jātakas. Other jātakas, such as those found in the Buddhavaṃsa (Chronicle of Buddhas), focus on Gautama's meeting, serving and venerating past Buddhas and serve to place his bodhisattva path in a chronology of past Buddhas. These stories generally focus on acts of devotion to past Buddhas and how this generates much merit which many positive outcomes in the future. A smaller number of jātakas illustrate various mistakes or bad actions that the bodhisattva committed in a past life (and the subsequent karmic retribution) and thus demonstrate the bodhisattva's past imperfections.
Regarding the intended audience of these texts, Martin Straube notes that even though there is a widespread view that jātakas arose due to monks "catering to the needs and tastes of the illiterate lay practitioners of Buddhism as propagandistic means of preaching or converting" there is no historical evidence for this. Instead, the opposite might be true, since "the prose portions of the Pali jātakas not infrequently have as their audience monks and nuns, who sometimes reach high levels of spiritual realization after listening to a jātaka story." Naomi Appleton, in her analysis of the second and fourth decade of the Avadānaśataka, notes that both sets of stories "assume a monastic audience." Likewise, Kate Crosby writes that "the format of the Jātaka in fact suggests that their original inclusion in the canonical collection was primarily for the benefit of monks." Crosby notes that many of these stories are connected with monastic behavior and decorum, some of them are also meant to illustrate specific rules in the Vinaya. In spite of this main intended audience, their simple format also made them easily adaptable for other uses. Thus, they were repackaged as artistic entertainment and teaching devices for laypersons, as parittas (protective chants) and as chronicle (vamsa) literature.
Straube also notes that the rock caves of Ajanta and Bagh were inhabited by monks and it was them who ordered and directed the jātaka murals found there. There is also evidence from inscriptions on old stūpas at various Indian sites (such as Sanchi and Bharhut) with jātaka motifs which indicate that they were build due to the patronage of monks and nuns, some of them of high rank such as bhāṇaka (reciter). Some scholars have also concluded that Jātaka reciters were part of their own division of reciters.
Jātakas were originally transmitted in prakrit languages and various forms of sanskrit (from classical to Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit). They were then translated into central asian languages (such as Khotanese, Tocharian, Uighur, and Sogdian). Various jātaka stories and source texts were also translated into Chinese and Tibetan for the Tibetan and Chinese Buddhist canons. They were some of the first texts to be translated into Chinese. Kāng Sēnghuì (who worked in Nanking c. 247) was one of the first Chinese translators of Jātakas. Perhaps his most influential translation is the Scripture of the Collection of the Six Perfections.
The various Indian Buddhist schools had different collections of jātakas. The largest known collection is the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā of the Theravada school. In Theravada Buddhism, the Jātakas are a textual division of the Pāli Canon, included in the Khuddaka Nikaya of the Sutta Pitaka. The term Jātaka may also refer to a traditional commentaries (Atthakatha) on this book. The tales are dated between 300 BCE and 400 CE.
The Mahāsāṃghika Caitika sects from the Āndhra region also had Jātakas as part of their canon and they are known to have rejected some of the Theravāda Jātakas which dated past the time of King Ashoka. The Caitikas claimed that their own Jātakas represented the original collection before the Buddhist tradition split into various lineages.
In the Northern Buddhist tradition, Jātakas eventually came to be composed in classical Sanskrit. Perhaps the most influential and important Sanskrit Jātaka text is the Jātakamālā (Garland of Jātakas) of Āryaśūra which includes 34 Jātaka stories. This work differs from earlier sources in that it is a highly sophisticated poem which makes use of various Sanskrit literary devices. The Jātakamālā was quite influential and was imitated by later authors who wrote their own jātakamālās, mainly Haribhaṭṭa and Gopadatta. These works are all written in a classical Sanskrit genre known as campū, which is a blend of prose and verse in various meters. The jātakamālās all also use the six perfections (pāramitā) as their main framework. The influence of the jātakamālās can be seen in the Ajanta Cave complex, where illustrations of Jātakas are inscribed with quotes from Āryaśūra, with script datable to the sixth century. The Jātakamālā was also translated into Chinese in 434 CE. Borobudur, a massive 9th century Buddhist site in Java, contains depictions of all 34 Jatakas from the Jātakamālā.
Two other sanskrit authors associated with the jātaka genre are Kumāralāta (2nd century CE), author of the Kalpanāmaṇḍitikā Dṛṣṭāntapaṅkti (Collection of Examples, Adorned with an Artistic Arrangement) and Saṅghasena's (date unknown) Pusa benyuan jing (菩薩本縁經; Sūtra of the Bodhisattva’s Avadānas). Both works exist only in Chinese translation (but there are sanskrit fragments). These texts are a kind of predecessor to the Jātakamālā and are less poetically sophisticated.
Later sanskrit authors continued to write in the genre. One such late text is Kṣemendra’s (c. 1036–1065) Bodhisattvāvadānakalpalatā (Wish-Fulfilling Creeper Consisting in Avadānas of the Bodhisattva), a unique jātaka text written completely in verse. This work was influential on the Tibetan tradition.
Jātaka are also important in Tibetan Buddhism. They were one of the main sources of teaching and study for the popular Kadam school and later Tibetan authors produced abridged collections such as Karmapa Rangjung Dorje's Hundred Births and Padma Chopel's summary of the Avadānakalpalatā.
There are numerous sources for classic or canonical Jātaka tales, including:
Within the Pali tradition, there are also many non-canonical Jātakas of later composition (some dated even to the 19th century) but these are treated as a separate category of literature from the "official" Jātaka stories that have been more or less formally canonized from at least the 5th century — as attested to in ample epigraphic and archaeological evidence, such as extant illustrations in bas relief from ancient temple walls. Apocryphal Jātakas of the Pali Buddhist canon, such as those belonging to the Paññāsa Jātaka collection, have been adapted to fit local culture in certain South East Asian countries and have been retold with amendments to the plots to better reflect Buddhist morals. According to Kate Crosby, "there is also a collection of Jātaka of ten future Buddhas, beginning with Metteyya, which though less well-known today clearly circulated widely in the Theravada world."
There are also late compositions based on classic Jātakas, such as the Kavsiḷumiṇa, a poem based on the Kusa Jātaka in archaic Sinhala written King Parākkamabāhu II (13th century) and the Mahachat kham luang, the ‘royal version' of the Vessantara jātaka, which was composed at the court of King Paramatrailokanātha (c. 1482). The art of putting classic Jātakas into Thai verse remains a living tradition to this day.
Main article: List of Jatakas
The Theravāda Jātakas comprise 547 poems, arranged roughly by an increasing number of verses. According to Professor von Hinüber, only the last 50 were intended to be intelligible by themselves, without commentary. The commentary gives stories in prose that it claims provide the context for the verses, and it is these stories that are of interest to folklorists. Alternative versions of some of the stories can be found in another book of the Pali Canon, the Cariyapitaka, and a number of individual stories can be found scattered around other books of the Canon. Many of the stories and motifs found in the Jātaka such as the Rabbit in the Moon of the Śaśajātaka (Jataka Tales: no.316), are found in numerous other languages and media.
For example, The Monkey and the Crocodile, The Turtle Who Couldn't Stop Talking and The Crab and the Crane that are listed below also famously featured in the Hindu Panchatantra, the Sanskrit niti-shastra that ubiquitously influenced world literature. Many of the stories and motifs are translations from the Pali but others are instead derived from vernacular oral traditions prior to the Pali compositions. At the Mahathupa in Sri Lanka all 550 Jataka tales were represented inside of the reliquary chamber. Reliquaries often depict the Jataka tales.
In Southeast Asia, the most important and widely known stories are the 10 stories of the Mahānipāta jātaka (Ten Great Birth Stories). These tales are considered to be the ten final lives of the bodisattva Gautama and are said to have been the completion of the 10 paramis or perfections. Of these, the Vessantara is the most popular. According to Peter Skilling, part of the reason for its popularity "was the pervasive belief, spread through the Māleyya-sutta and related literature, that by listening to this jātaka one could be assured of meeting the next Buddha, Metteya."
The following list includes some important jātakas of the Pali tradition:
Āryaśūra's Jātakamālā, a very influential Sanskrit work that was depicted throughout the Buddhist world, contains the following Jātakas (which teach various virtues):
Jātakas have been important as a way to spread Buddhist teachings and they were widely used as part of sermons, rituals, festivals, and various forms of art. Kate Crosby writes that they have been depicted in such varied forms as "apocryphal literature, vernacular retellings, performance, temple art, temporary street and festival art, films, comics, and cartoons." The sponsorship of Jātaka recitations, copyings and art eventually grew to be seen as an act which generated merit for lay Buddhists. These acts are more common around important festivals like Vesak.
The earliest archeological findings which depict Jātakas are the illustrations found in the on the Bharhut stupa railing as well as at Sanchi (c. late 2nd - 1st century BCE), which also include inscriptions. After this, Jātakas appear at many Buddhist sites, like at Ajanta. Similar Jātaka tales are found in murals of Silk Road sites of the pre-Tang period (ca. 421–640 C.E.), such as at Kucha. They are also found in early Southeast Asian sites, especially at Bagan sites. Burmese Buddhism has an extensive tradition of Jātaka illustration, one of the best examples being the illustrations found at Ananda Temple (which depicts 554 tales).
Jātaka tales are often associated with specific locations. Originally, this applied to specific places in India, which served as Buddhist pilgrimage sites. Later traditions expanded this to include other places throughout the Buddhist world. According to Naomi Appleton, the fact that Jātaka tales lack specific references to specific places allowed them to be easily transported and re-localized. This flexibility contributed to the lasting popularity of the Jātakas. This tradition of associating Jātaka tales with regions outside of India played an important part in the promotion and legitimisation of Buddhism in these regions.
Thus, many stupas in Nepal and northern India are said to mark locations from the Jātaka tales. Chinese pilgrims like Xuanzang and Faxian reported several of these and discussed the stories connected with them. Sites discussed by these figures include the "four great stupas" as well as stupas in Pushkalavati, Mangalura, Hadda Mountain, and Sarvadattaan.
According to Naomi Appleton, the "four great stupas" visited by Faxian (337–422 CE) are:
the first (in ‘So-ho-to’) was where the Buddha ransomed the life of a dove with his own flesh; the second (in Gandhāra) was where he gave away his eyes to a blind beggar; and the third and fourth (in Takshaśilā) were where he gave away his head to a man and his whole body to a starving tigress who was about to eat her own cubs, and where ‘kings, ministers, and peoples of all the kingdoms around vie with one another in making offerings’. A century later, Songyun writes of the same four sites and also mentions a whole area associated with the Vessantara-jātaka.
Numerous Indian Buddhist archeological sites contain illustrations of Jātakas, and thus they are important artistic sources for Jātakas. Some of the main sites include:
Other ancient sites outside of India which contain Jataka illustrations include Dunhuang (the Mogao caves), Polonnoruwa, Anuradhapura, Bagan city, Nakhon Pathom and at Borobudur. Jataka illustrations (especially of the last 10 stories of the canonical Pali collection) are widespread in the Theravada Buddhist world, adorning many temples, wats and key sites.
According to the Chinese pilgrim Yijing, who visited India in the 7th century, jātaka plays were performed ‘throughout the five countries of India’. This culture of performance spread to other regions as well.
In Tibet, the Viśvāntara-jātaka was transformed into a popular play called the Dri med kun ldan. Other popular jataka plays include Nor bzaṅ or Sudhana and the story of Prince Maṇicūḍa (Lokānanda).
In Theravada countries, several of the longer tales such as "The Twelve Sisters" and the Vessantara Jataka are still performed in dance, theatre, puppetry, and formal (quasi-ritual) recitation. Such celebrations are associated with particular holidays on the lunar calendar used by Thailand, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Laos. The recitation of the Vessantara Jataka remains an important ceremony remains an important ceremony in Theravada countries today.
The standard Pali collection of jātakas, with canonical text embedded, has been translated by E. B. Cowell and others, originally published in six volumes by Cambridge University Press (1895-1907) and reprinted in three volumes, by the Pali Text Society (Bristol). There are also numerous English translations of selections and individual stories from various sources.
Some of the main translations of jātakas available in English include:
Stories which are similar to the jātakas are also found in Jainism, which has stories focused on Mahavira's path to enlightenment in previous lives. The Jain stories include Mahavira's numerous forms of rebirth, such as animals as well as encounters with past liberated beings (jinas) which predict Mahavira's future enlightenment. However, a major difference here is that, while Mahavira gets a prediction of future enlightenment, he does not make a vow to become a jina in the future, unlike the bodhisattva Gautama. There is also no equivalent idea of a bodhisattva path in Jainism, in-spite of the existence of some narratives about Mahavira's past lives.
A similar collection of Indian animal fables is the Hindu Pañcatantra, which has been dated to around 200 BCE.
Some Buddhist jātakas were also adopted and retold by Islamic (and later Christian) authors, such as the 10th century Shia scholar Ibn Bābūya, who adapted a jātaka into a story titled Balawhar wa-Būdāsf, which became the Christian narrative of Barlaam and Joasaph.
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