Life Lessons From the Jataka Tales

Bhutanese painted thangka of the Jātakas, 18th-19th Century, Phajoding Gonpa, Thimphu, Bhutan
The ancient Buddhists proved to be excellent storytellers, as the millennia-old Jataka tales remain popular even today.

The beauty of reincarnation is that it offers endless scope for sequels and prequels of the lives of great personalities. One of India’s oldest collection of stories is one such example.

The Jataka Tales deal with the many lives of the Buddha before he was born as prince Siddhartha. Composed between 400 and 200 B.C., it’s a series of fables that reflect the Buddhist “Middle Way.” Stories, more than discourse, can communicate grander themes in a lasting and effective manner. So it is that the Jataka Tales have survived thousands of years – preserved as inscriptions, folk stories and now, comics books.

The characters are the archetypes of everyday life in ancient India – animals, kings, priests and so on. The protagonist is invariably an incarnation of the Buddha prior to his enlightenment. Each life is, in its own way, a message. The themes are moral, and sometimes rather dark.

In “The Feast of the Dead“, a priest is called upon to sacrifice a goat. He orders his pupils to bathe the goat, prior to its slaughter. The goat, knowing of its looming death, rejoices and then weeps. It is taken to the priest to explain its behaviour.

The goat explains; it had once been a priest, many many births ago. And then, he too had sacrificed a goat. The principles of karma were ruthless, and he spent 499 lives being reborn as a goat only to be sacrificed. He laughed because this life, the 500th, would be his last in the chain of punishment.

But he also wept, for the priest who would kill him would suffer the same fate.

The priest decides not to kill the goat, dodging a karmic bullet. But the goat is beheaded by Nature anyway – as nothing gets in the way of karma. This is a common theme in many stories.

The Buddha proves a versatile actor. He is a righteous king, a vengeful untouchable, a goat, a snake and a forlorn lover. But throughout, he manages to preserve a message. The scholar David C. Pierce suggests that this way was the “Middle Way” – where Vedic rituals, caste hierarchy and everyday greeds and concerns are insufficient in the face of a larger justice; a karmic eventuality. Death and reincarnation are the true concerns of life, and every life is a test of one’s ability to circumvent the cycle of life and death.

Jataka means ‘birth’ in Pali and Sanskrit. Many of the stories begin by stating where and what the Buddha was born as, often in areas around Benares.

When morals are explained in non-prose, they read quite heavy. But folktales are an ideal mechanism for conveying what is part of a larger body of Buddhist work. Many of the Jataka tales are included in the Khuddaka Nikāya; the fifth in a basket of five scriptures considered as canonical Pali scripture. In total, there are 550 stories, scattered across the Buddhist texts, first compiled by a Sinhalese scholar named Buddhaghosa in the fifth century A.D.

The stories are not unique to Buddha. These tales are retold across the world; a common heritage of mankind’s imagination. From fables around King Arthur to Chaucer’s own tales, these stories are archetypical in many cultures. Like memes, they served as templates to be retold and reused across cultures – often, the moral message would change with the language.

Unlike the Buddha’s final form, these reincarnations are closer to the average person than you’d think. In one, the Buddha falls in love with a married woman – but decides not to act. The story begins with the Buddha as a virtuous king, who hears of a woman so beautiful that all who see her are consumed by desire. So much, that she was known as “she who drives men mad.”


Desiring a match, he sends his priests to seek her out. But they decide that she is too beautiful, even for him, and would corrupt him with desire. So they tell him that the match would be inauspicious. Years later, she is married to an official in the king’s court. While riding past her house, the king glimpses her – and falls in love. His equanimity is broken, and he is visibly stressed at his loss. But he returns home alone.

The husband notices his sorrow and offers his wife to the king. But the king refuses, stating that even though it cost him pain, he could not commit the sin of taking another’s wife. The husband is insistent, and the two debate the merits of whether the king could marry her in privacy – without anyone knowing. But the Buddha insists that a wrong is a wrong, and the consequences would carry on into the next life.

The tales are many. In “The Penny-Wise Monkey,” the Buddha demonstrates why one should not sacrifice a bird in hand for many in the bush. In “The Story of the Great Ape,” the message is: don’t hurt those who help you, or they will no longer be able to help you.

The Jataka tales survived millennia to this day. They are a highly storified and visual legacy of Buddhism; with inscriptions ranging from Ajanta Caves to retellings in Mongolia. Retold through Amar Chitra Katha, they reach a mass audience of many children today – who would scarcely distinguish modern fables from ancient ones when presented in the form of a comic.

One can distinguish the absence of a woman’s voice in the tales, (notwithstanding stories like that of Rupavati, where the Buddha was reborn as a woman). And, written in a period where the caste system was rigid, there is no condemnation of caste as Pierce points out – only a sort of relative acceptance that it had become a part of life.

The tales are worth revisiting with modern day insight – but approaching them with an understanding of Buddhism helps to separate otherwise frightening situations from inescapable truths about life and death.


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