Of Animals in the Jataka Tales, Karma & Rebirth

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Buddha Shakyamuni with "Jataka" Tales. Image: Walters Art Museum / Gift of John and Berthe Ford
Can the animals in the Jataka tales teach humans about the nuances of co-existence and compassion?

If animals could talk, what would they tell us? It’s a question that many have wondered, and one that ancient Buddhist scholars tried to answer through the Jataka tales. The tales are stories, compiled between 200 and 400 BC, that are popular to this day amongst Buddhists and children alike.

One aspect of what makes the tales so timeless remains its animal characters. Animals – living beings with the same desire for survival and fear of death as humans – serve as mouthpieces for hard truths about both the world we live in and the way we live in it.

The narrative takes the reader through the past lives of the Buddha; moments in time when the Buddha is reincarnated; in forms ranging from that of a goat to that of a monkey, and sometimes, as human participants in exchanges concerning animals.

For Reiko Ohnuma, a Buddhist scholar and Professor of Religion at Dartmouth College, to be reincarnated as an animal is an “unfortunate destiny” in the Buddhist purview. This idea lends itself aptly to the title of her 2017 book “Unfortunate Destiny: Animals in the Indian Buddhist Imagination”.

In Buddhist belief, one can be reincarnated as a variety of animals – nonhuman and human alike. To be born as a human is a privilege, for being reincarnated as an animal is seen as a downgrade. Animals live in constant fear of their predators, worrying about their food. They are described by the Buddha, in the Balapandita Sutta, as ‘[having] no righteous conduct, no tranquil conduct, no wholesome action, no meritorious action… there is only mutual devouring and devouring of the weak.”

Humans, by contrast, have got life figured out. Or have they?

The reason animals make such effective storytellers, is that their perceived non-humanity reminds us of our own humanity. The Buddhist texts, according to Reiko, strive to stress the difference between human and non-human. But at the same time, they are capable of speaking Sanskrit, and when the Buddha reincarnates as one, they are capable of self-sacrifice.

In one tale, a hare (Buddha) jumps into a fire to be able to feed a hungry Brahmin priest. The hare is saved at the last second by the priest, who rewards it by imprinting its selfless image onto the moon.

While the eightfold path would suggest that eating an animal is to cause unnecessary suffering, the function of the story is just to illustrate moral value – in this case, that of the hare to sacrifice its life and that of the priest who spares it.

In contrast, the tale of the goat who saved the priest is one where the animal itself feels remorse for a human’s evil deed. In it, a reputed priest prepares to sacrifice a goat for his god. The doomed goat surprises the priest by laughing at its fate. The goat’s laughter suddenly turned to tears, however. When the priest inquires why, the goat explains that it too was once a priest – 499 life-cycles ago. As a priest, the goat had sacrificed an animal – and was doomed to 500 life-cycles of being beheaded as a result. It laughed because it knew this was the last cycle of its punishment. But it cried, knowing then that the priest who killed it would suffer the same fate.

At the same time, there are stories of the Buddha sacrificing himself to feed an animal, as in the tale of the starving tigress. Here, the Buddha is a scholar who encounters a tigress worn out by the act of giving birth. The tigress has many cubs, and is on the verge of eating one in order to survive. Moved by compassion, the Buddha offers his body to feed the tigress (in another version of the story, the Buddha throws his body off a cliff, to present it to the tigress).

Does this tale suggest that in some circumstances, a human life is worth sacrificing to save an animals life?

The Buddhist approach to life is one of balance. There are many nuances to capturing the intricate relationship between human and non-human. These relationships are particularly apt today, as modern man’s place in the world is directly detrimental to the lives of millions of animals.

Industrialization has come at the cost of nature in many nations where Buddhism was and is predominant. In some countries, like Thailand, monks embrace the life of a Thudong or ‘Forest Monk’ – wandering and sleeping in the forest, preserving a marginal footprint. Across the world, Buddhist monks have tried to bind environmentalism to existing Buddhist precepts.

The voice of animals, much like that of the subaltern, is almost always narrated from the perspective of the human. Even in the Jataka Tales, it is only rarely that we see animals assert their own animality in their own terms. In one tale, where a captive monkey leaves its abusive owner, we see a rare moment of the superiority of animal life to that of a cruel human vocation, as the monkey tells its captor:

You think of me as a “friend,”
And yet you beat me with a bamboo staff!
I’ll enjoy myself in this grove of ripe mangoes.
You can go home, if you wish.

It reminds one of this Douglas Adams excerpt from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons.

In dealing with living beings, we must realize that sentience comes with the same suffering that we feel and avoid. To cause this suffering to another is cruel. Should one believe in karma, it is a cruelty that can be repaid through a horrific series of after-lives and rebirth. But should one simply believe in compassion, the act of cruelty is almost always replaced by an act of self-sacrifice.

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