Jataka Tales
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Jataka Tales
Bhutanese painted thangka of the J?takas, 18th-19th Century, Phajoding Gonpa, Thimphu, Bhutan
Translations of
J?taka tales
EnglishBirth history
Glossary of Buddhism
Jatakamala manuscript 8th-9th century
Thangka of Buddha with the One Hundred Jataka Tales in the background, Tibet, 13th-14th century.

The J?taka tales are a voluminous body of literature native to India concerning the previous births of Gautama Buddha in both human and animal form. The future Buddha may appear as a king, an outcast, a god, an elephant--but, in whatever form, he exhibits some virtue that the tale thereby inculcates.[1] Often, J?taka 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.

In Theravada Buddhism, the J?takas are a textual division of the P?li Canon, included in the Khuddaka Nikaya of the Sutta Pitaka. The term J?taka may also refer to a traditional commentary on this book. The tales are dated between 300 BC and 400 AD.[2]

History Mah?sghika Caitika sects from the ?ndhra region took the J?takas as canonical literature and are known to have rejected some of the Therav?da J?takas which dated past the time of King Ashoka .[3] The Caitikas claimed that their own J?takas represented the original collection before the Buddhist tradition split into various lineages.[4]

According to A. K. Warder, the J?takas are the precursors to the various legendary biographies of the Buddha, which were composed at later dates.[5] Although many J?takas 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.[5]

The J?taka-M?l? of Arya ?ura in Sanskrit gives 34 J?taka stories.[6] At the Ajanta Caves, J?taka scenes are inscribed with quotes from Arya Shura,[7] with script datable to the sixth century. It had already been translated into Chinese in 434 CE. Borobudur contains depictions of all 34 Jatakas from Jataka Mala.[8]

Khudda-bodhi-Jataka, Borobudur


The Therav?da J?takas comprise 547 poems, arranged roughly by an increasing number of verses. According to Professor von Hinüber,[9] 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 J?taka such as the Rabbit in the Moon of the ?a?aj?taka (Jataka Tales: no.316),[10] 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.[11] 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.[12]


Sanskrit (see for example the J?takam?l?) and Tibetan J?taka stories tend to maintain the Buddhist morality of their Pali equivalents, but re-tellings of the stories in Persian and other languages sometimes contain significant amendments to suit their respective cultures.[] At the Mahathupa in Sri Lanka all 550 Jataka tales were represented inside of the reliquary chamber.[13] Reliquaries often depict the Jataka tales.

J?taka stupas

The Mankiala stupa in northern Pakistan marks the spot where, according to the Jataka, an incarnation of Buddha sacrificed himself to feed tigers.[14]

Many stupas in northern India are said to mark locations from the J?taka tales; the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang reported several of these. A stupa in Pushkalavati, in northwestern Pakistan, marks where Syama fulfilled his filial duty to his blind parents. The Mankiala stupa near Gujar Khan commemorates the spot where Prince Sattva sacrificed himself to feed baby tigers.[14] Nearby the ascetic Ekasrnga was seduced by a beautiful woman. In Mangalura, Ksantivadin submitted to mutilation by a king. At Hadda Mountain a young Brahmin sacrificed himself to learn a half verse of the dharma. At Sarvadattaan an incarnation sold himself for ransom to make offerings to a Brahmin.[15]

Faxian describes the four great stupas as being adorned with precious substances. At one site king Sibi sacrifices his flesh to ransom a dove from a hawk. Another incarnation gave up his eyes when asked; a third incarnation sacrificed his body to feed a hungry tigress. As King Candraprabha he cut off his head as a gift to a Brahmin.[16] Some would sever their body parts in front of stupas that contained relics; or even end their own lives.


Within the Pali tradition, there are also many apocryphal J?takas of later composition (some dated even to the 19th century) but these are treated as a separate category of literature from the "Official" J?taka 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 J?takas of the Pali Buddhist canon, such as those belonging to the Paññ?sa J?taka 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.[17][18]

Celebrations and ceremonies

In Theravada countries several of the longer tales such as "The Twelve Sisters"[19] and the Vessantara Jataka[20] are still performed in dance,[21] theatre, and formal (quasi-ritual) recitation.[22] Such celebrations are associated with particular holidays on the lunar calendar used by Thailand, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Laos.


The standard Pali collection of j?takas, with canonical text embedded, has been translated by E. B. Cowell and others, originally published in six volumes by Cambridge University Press, 1895-1907; reprinted in three volumes, Pali Text Society,[23] Bristol. There are also numerous translations of selections and individual stories from various languages.

The J?taka-M?l? of Arya ?ura was critically edited in the original Sanskrit [Nâgarî letters] by Hendrik Kern of the University of Leiden in Netherlands, which was published as volume 1 of the Harvard Oriental Series in 1891. A second issue came in 1914.

List of J?takas

This list includes stories based on or related to the J?takas:

See also


  1. ^ "Jataka". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved .
  2. ^ https://web.archive.org/web/20191005233546/https://www.pitt.edu/~dash/jataka.html
  3. ^ Sujato, Bhante (2012), Sects & Sectarianism: The Origins of Buddhist Schools, Santipada, p. 51, ISBN 9781921842085
  4. ^ Warder, A.K. Indian Buddhism. 2000. pp. 286-287
  5. ^ a b Warder, A.K. Indian Buddhism. 2000. pp. 332-333
  6. ^ THE JATAKA-MALA Stories of Buddha's former Incarnations OTHERWISE ENTITLED BODHISATTVA-AVADANA-MALA By ARYA-?URA CRITICALLY EDITED IN THE ORIGINAL SANSKRITu7 BY DR. HENDRIK KERN, https://archive.org/details/jatakamala015656mbp
  7. ^ Literary History of Sanskrit Buddhism: From Winternitz, Sylvain Levi, Huber, By Gushtaspshah K. Nariman, Moriz Winternitz, Sylvain Lévi, Edouard Huber, Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1972 p. 44
  8. ^ Jataka/Avadana Stories -- Table of Contents "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2005-12-22. Retrieved .CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  9. ^ Handbook of Pali Literature, Walter de Gruyter, Berlin, 1996
  10. ^ Source: sacred-texts.com (accessed: Saturday January 23, 2010)
  11. ^ Jacobs 1888, Introduction, page lviii "What, the reader will exclaim, "the first literary link [1570] between India and England, between Buddhism and Christendom, written in racy Elizabethan with vivacious dialogue, and something distinctly resembling a plot. . . ."
  12. ^ "Indian Stories",The History of World Literature, Grant L. Voth, Chantilly, VA, 2007
  13. ^ (John Strong 2004, p. 51)
  14. ^ a b Bernstein, Richard (2001). Ultimate Journey: Retracing the Path of an Ancient Buddhist Monk who Crossed Asia in Search of Enlightenment. A.A. Knopf. ISBN 9780375400094. Retrieved 2017.
  15. ^ (John Strong 2004, p. 52)
  16. ^ (John Strong 2004, p. 53)
  17. ^ "The Tale of Prince Samuttakote: A Buddhist Epic from Thailand". Ohio University Center for International Studies. July 2, 1993 – via Google Books.
  18. ^ http://www.khamkoo.com/uploads/9/0/0/4/9004485/the_tham_vessantara_jataka_-_a_critical_study_of_the_vj_and_its_influence_on_kengtung_buddhism_eastern_shan_state.pdf
  19. ^ "Nang Sip Song Prarath Meri". Archived from the original on October 5, 2013.
  20. ^ "Dance Troupe Prepares for Smithsonian Performance". Archived from the original on 2011-01-26. Retrieved .
  21. ^ "Account Suspended". www.petchprauma.com.
  22. ^ Rev. Sengpan Pannyawamsa, Recital of the Tham Vessantara J?taka: a social-cultural phenomenon in Kengtung, Eastern Shan State, Myanmar, Institute of Pali and Buddhist Studies, (University of Kelaniya), Sri Lanka
  23. ^ "Pali Text Society Home Page". www.palitext.com.
  24. ^ Quintanilla, Sonya Rhie (2007). History of Early Stone Sculpture at Mathura, ca. 150 BCE - 100 CE. BRILL. p. 226. ISBN 978-90-474-1930-3.


Further reading

External links

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