The Jataka Tales

Stories of the Lives of the Buddha

wooden carving of Jataka Tales

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So did you hear the one about the monkey and the crocodile? What about the story of the contended quail? Or the rabbit in the moon? Or the hungry tigress?

These stories are from the Jataka Tales, a large body of stories about the earlier lives of the Buddha. Many are in the form of animal fables that teach something about morality, not unlike Aesop's fables. Many of the stories are charming and light-hearted, and some of these have been published in sweetly illustrated children's books. However, not all of the stories are suitable for children; some are dark and even violent.

Where did the Jatakas originate? The stories come from multiple sources and have a multitude of authors. Like other Buddhist literature, the many stories can be divided into "Theravada" and "Mahayana" canons.

The Theravada Jataka Tales

The oldest and largest collection of Jataka Tales is in the Pali Canon. They are found in the Sutta-pitaka ("basket of sutras") part of the canon, in a section called the Khuddaka Nikaya, and they are presented there as the record of the Buddha's past lives. Some alternative versions of the same stories are scattered about in other parts of the Pali Canon.

The Khuddaka Nikaya contains 547 verses arranged in order of length, shortest to longest. The stories are found in commentaries to the verses. The "final" collection as we know it today was compiled about 500 CE, somewhere in southeast Asia, by unknown editors.

The overall purpose of the Pali Jatakas is to show how the Buddha lived many lives with the goal of realizing enlightenment. The Buddha was born and reborn in the forms of humans, animals, and superhuman beings, but always he made a great effort to reach his goal.

Many of these poems and stories come from much older sources. Some of the stories are adapted from a Hindu text, Panchatantra Tales, written by Pandit Vishu Sharma around 200 BCE. And it is probable many of the other stories are based on folk tales and other oral traditions that have otherwise been lost.

Storyteller Rafe Martin, who has published several books of Jataka Tales, wrote, "Formed of fragments of epics and hero tales arising from deep in the collective Indian past, this already ancient material was taken over and revised, reworked, and reused by later Buddhist storytellers for their own purposes" (Martin, The Hungry Tigress: Buddhist Myths, Legends, and Jataka Tales, p. xvii).

The Mahayana Jataka Tales

What some call the Mahayana Jataka stories are also called the "apocryphal" Jatakas, indicating they come from unknown origins outside the standard collection (the Pali Canon). These stories, usually in Sanskrit, were written over the centuries by many authors.

One of the best-known collections of these "apocryphal" works does have a known origin. The Jatakamala ("garland of Jatakas"; also called the Bodhisattvavadanamala) probably was composed in the 3rd or 4th century CE. The Jatakamala contains 34 Jatakas written by Arya Sura (sometimes spelled Aryasura). The stories in the Jatakamala focus on the perfections, especially those of generosity, morality, and patience.

Although he is remembered as a skillful and elegant writer, little is known about Arya Sura. One old text preserved at the University of Tokyo says he was the son of a king who renounced his inheritance to become a monk, but whether that is true or a fanciful invention no one can say.

The Jataka Tales in Practice and Literature

Through the centuries these stories have been much more than fairy tales. They were, and are, taken very seriously for their moral and spiritual teachings. Like all great myths, the stories are as much about ourselves as they are about the Buddha. As Joseph Campbell said, "Shakespeare said that art is a mirror held up to nature. And that's what it is. The nature is your nature, and all of these wonderful poetic images of mythology are referring to something in you." ("Joseph Campbell: The Power of Myth, with Bill Moyers," PBS)

The Jataka Tales are portrayed in dramas and dance. The Ajanta Cave paintings of Maharashtra, India (ca. 6th century CE) portray Jataka Tales in narrative order so that people walking through the caves would learn the stories.

Jatakas in World Literature

Many of the Jatakas bear a striking resemblance to stories long familiar in the West. For example, the story of Chicken Little—the frightened chicken who thought the sky was falling—is essentially the same story as one of the Pali Jatakas (Jataka 322), in which a frightened monkey thought the sky was falling. As the forest animals scatter in terror, a wise lion discerns the truth and restores order.

The famous fable about the goose that laid golden eggs is eerily similar to Pali Jataka 136, in which a deceased man was reborn as a goose with gold feathers. He went to his former home to find his wife and children from his past life. The goose told the family they could pluck one gold feather a day, and the gold provided well for the family. But the wife became greedy and plucked all the feathers out. When the feathers grew back, they were ordinary goose feathers, and the goose flew away.

It is unlikely Aesop and other early storytellers had copies of the Jatakas handy. And it's unlikely that the monks and scholars who compiled the Pali Canon more than 2,000 years ago ever heard of Aesop. Perhaps the stories were spread by ancient travelers. Perhaps they were built from fragments of the first human stories, told by our paleolithic ancestors.

Three Jataka Tales

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Your Citation
O'Brien, Barbara. "The Jataka Tales." Learn Religions, Aug. 28, 2020, O'Brien, Barbara. (2020, August 28). The Jataka Tales. Retrieved from O'Brien, Barbara. "The Jataka Tales." Learn Religions. (accessed June 5, 2023).