Jataka Tales

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The Jātaka Tales (Sanskrit जातक, and Pali) refer to a voluminous body of folklore-like literature concerning the previous births (jāti) of the Buddha. The word most specifically refers to a text division of the Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism, included in the Khuddaka Nikaya of the Sutta Pitaka. Jataka also refers to the traditional commentary on this book.

The canonical book itself comprises 547 poems, arranged roughly by increasing number of verses. According to Professor von Hinüber,[1] 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 found in the Jataka have been found in numerous other languages and media — many of them being translations from the Pali but others are instead derived from vernacular traditions prior to the Pali compositions. Sanskrit (see for example the Jatakamala) and Tibetan Jataka 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.

Apocrypha

Within the Pali tradition, there are also many apocryphal Jatakas of later composition (some dated even to the 19th century) but these are treated as a separate category of literature from the "Official" Jataka 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. Some of the apocryphal Jatakas (in Pali) show direct appropriations from Hindu sources, with amendments to the plots to better reflect Buddhist morals.

Buddhism

A comprehensive review of the Pali tales and their relation to monastic Buddhism can be found in Tales and Teachings of the Buddha by Garrett Jones. These tales have been among the more popular and influential segments of Buddhist literature, irrespective of their noncanonical status.

In Theravada countries, several of the longer Jataka tales are still performed in dance, theatre, and formal (quasi-ritual) recitation to this day, and several are associated with particular holidays on the Lunar Calendar used by Cambodia, Thailand and Lao.

Translations

The standard Pali collection of jatakas, 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[2], Lancaster. There are also numerous translations of selections and individual stories from various languages.

References

Further reading

Concordance of Buddhist Birth Stories, Pali Text Society, Lancaster, tabulates correspondences between various jataka collections.

See also

Citations

1. ^ Handbook of Pali Literature, Walter de Gruyter, Berlin, 1996
2. ^ [1]

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