1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Jātaka
JĀTAKA, the technical name, in Buddhist literature, for a story of one or other of the previous births of the Buddha. The word is also used for the name of a collection of 547 of such stories included, by a most fortunate conjuncture of circumstances, in the Buddhist canon. This is the most ancient and the most complete collection of folk-lore now extant in any literature in the world. As it was made at latest in the 3rd century B.C., it can be trusted not to give any of that modern or European colouring which renders suspect much of the folk-lore collected by modern travellers.
Already in the oldest documents, drawn up by the disciples soon after the Buddha’s death, he is identified with certain ancient sages of renown. That a religious teacher should claim to be successor of the prophets of old is not uncommon in the history of religions. But the current belief in metempsychosis led, or enabled, the early Buddhists to make a much wider claim. It was not very long before they gradually identified their master with the hero of each of the popular fables and stories of which they were so fond. The process must have been complete by the middle of the 3rd century B.C.; for we find at that date illustrations of the Jātakas in the bas-reliefs on the railing round the Bharahat tope with the titles of the Jātaka stories inscribed above them in the characters of that period. The hero of each story is made into a Bodhisatta; that is, a being who is destined, after a number of subsequent births, to become a Buddha. This rapid development of the Bodhisatta theory is the distinguishing feature in the early history of Buddhism, and was both cause and effect of the simultaneous growth of the Jātaka book. In adopting the folk-lore and fables already current in India, the Buddhists did not change them very much. The stories as preserved to us, are for the most part Indian rather than Buddhist. The ethics they inculcate or suggest are milk for babes; very simple in character and referring almost exclusively to matters common to all schools of thought in India, and indeed elsewhere. Kindness, purity, honesty, generosity, worldly wisdom, perseverance, are the usual virtues praised; the higher ethics of the Path are scarcely mentioned. These stories, popular with all, were especially appreciated by that school of Buddhists that laid stress on the Bodhisatta theory—a school that obtained its chief support, and probably had its origin, in the extreme north-west of India and in the highlands of Asia. That school adopted, from the early centuries of our era, the use of Sanskrit, instead of Pali, as the means of literary expression. It is almost impossible, therefore, that they would have carried the canonical Pali book, voluminous as it is, into Central Asia. Shorter collections of the original stories, written in Sanskrit, were in vogue among them. One such collection, the Jātaka-mālā, by Ārya Sūra (6th century), is still extant. Of the existence of another collection, though the Sanskrit original has not yet been found, we have curious evidence. In the 6th century a book of Sanskrit fables was translated into Pahlavi, that is, old Persian (see Bidpai). In succeeding centuries this work was retranslated into Arabic and Hebrew, thence into Latin and Greek and all the modern languages of Europe. The book bears a close resemblance to the earlier chapters of a late Sanskrit fable book called, from its having five chapters, the Pancha tantra, or Pentateuch.
The introduction to the old Jātaka book gives the life of the historical Buddha. That introduction must also have reached Persia by the same route. For in the 8th century St John of Damascus put the story into Greek under the title of Barlaam and Josaphat. This story became very popular in the West. It was translated into Latin, into seven European languages, and even into Icelandic and the dialect of the Philippine Islands. Its hero, that is the Buddha, was canonized as a Christian saint; and the 27th of November was officially fixed as the date for his adoration as such.
The book popularly known in Europe as Aesop’s Fables was not written by Aesop. It was put together in the 14th century at Constantinople by a monk named Planudes, and he drew largely for his stories upon those in the Jātaka book that had reached Europe along various channels. The fables of Babrius and Phaedrus, written respectively in the 1st century before, and in the 1st century after, the Christian era, also contain Jātaka stories known in India in the 4th century B.C. A great deal has been written on this curious question of the migration of fables. But we are still very far from being able to trace the complete history of each story in the Jātaka book, or in any one of the later collections. For India itself the record is most incomplete. We have the original Jātaka book in text and translation. The history of the text of the Pancha tantra, about a thousand years later, has been fairly well traced out. But for the intervening centuries scarcely anything has been done. There are illustrations, in the bas-reliefs of the 3rd century B.C., of Jātakas not contained in the Jātaka book. Another collection, the Cariyâ piṭaka, of about the same date, has been edited, but not translated. Other collections both in Pali and Sanskrit are known to be extant in MS; and a large number of Jātaka stories, not included in any formal collection, are mentioned, or told in full, in other works.
Authorities.—V. Fausböll, The Jataka, Pali text (7 vols., London, 1877–1897), (Eng. trans., edited by E. B. Cowell, 6 vols., Cambridge, 1895–1907); Cariyâ piṭaka, edited by R. Morris for the Pali Text Society (London, 1882); H. Kern, Jātaka-mālā, Sanskrit text (Cambridge, Mass., 1891), (Eng. trans. by J. S. Speyer, Oxford, 1895); Rhys Davids, Buddhist Birth Stories (with full bibliographical tables) (London, 1880); Buddhist India (chap. xi. on the Jātaka Book) (London, 1903); E. Kuhn, Barlaam und Joasaph (Munich, 1893); A. Cunningham, The Stupa of Bharhut (London, 1879). (T. W. R. D.)
- A complete list of these inscriptions will be found in Rhys Davids’s Buddhist India, p. 209.
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