Oral tradition is part of many cultures around the world. It was through tales, legends, fables and stories that information was spread in the past – and that remains true today. Among Buddhists, it isn’t different. Today we are going to talk about Jataka, the Buddhist tales originally from India that narrate the past lives of Buda Shakyamuni, who lived from 563 BC to 483 BC.
The Jataka tales are a collection of 547 Buddhist stories of morality in which Buddha tells about some of his past lives and the path to enlightenment. The term Jataka means “narrative of birth” in the Pali language. Despite being part of the Pali Canon, the sacred Buddhist book, the tales lean more towards folklore than religion. In the Jatakas, the Buddhist stories, the Bodhisattva (someone determined to become enlightened, like a student before becoming Buddha) is usually born as an animal and overcomes difficulties or solves problems in a creative and funny way.
The stories represent directly or indirectly the tireless improvement of the Bodhisattva throughout their countless rebirths, over which they practiced the Ten Perfections: generosity, virtue, renunciation, determination, energy, patience, loving kindness, wisdom, truthfulness, and equanimity.
Each Jataka represents one of Buddha’s rebirths in different realms of the cyclic existence called Samsara and shows how the law of cause and effect, also known as karma, works.
Going beyond “once upon a time” stories, the Jatakas were used due to their moral and spiritual teachings.
Buddha is a title given in Buddhism to beings who become fully awake to the true nature of phenomena and share such discovery with others.
Such awakening consists of the understanding that all phenomena are impermanent, unsatisfying and impersonal, and those that become Buddha become aware of this reality, thus living to the fullest and free from mental conditioning.
Buddha can also refer to Siddhartha Gautama, a prince from a Nepal region who renounced his throne to dedicate himself to the search of eradicating the causes of suffering of all beings. In this search, Siddhartha Gautama found the path to enlightenment and became a master and spiritual teacher, founding Buddhism.
Once upon a time, there lived a herd of eighty thousand elephants at the bottom of the majestic Himalayas. Their leader was a majestic white elephant who was extremely kind-hearted. He dearly loved his old and blind mother and took great care of her.
Each day, the white elephant would go deep into the forest in search the best of wild fruit to offer his mother. He used to send fruits for his mother through his messengers. The messengers were a bunch of greedy elephants. They used to eat the fruits themselves and never gave anything to the white elephant’s old mother. The white elephant was completely disappointed with his herd.
Then one day, he decided to abandon the herd and go with his mother to Mount Candorana to live in a cave beside a beautiful lake that had lovely pink lotuses.
It so happened that one day, a forester from Banaras lost his way in the forest and was absolutely terrified to find himself alone in the thick woods. He was weeping bitterly and desperately looking to find some help. The white elephant took pity on the man and promised to help him. He knew every inch of that dense forest and showed him the way out to Banaras city. The forester thanked the white elephant and happily went home.
Then after some days, the forester got to hear the news that king Brahmadutta’s personal elephant had died and he was looking for a new elephant. The forester thought that if he would tell the king about the majestic white elephant that he had seen on Mount Candorana, he would certainly get a reward. So, he went and told the king about the white elephant. The king decided to go in the search of that white elephant the very next day.
The forester then led the king and his men to the place where the white elephant lived. When the white elephant saw the forester, he realized that it was he who had led the king’s men to him. He was very upset at the man’s selfishness and ingratitude. He decided not to put up a fight because it would have led to unnecessary bloodshed. So, the white elephant went along with the king and his men to the Banaras city.
That night when the white elephant did not return home, his mother was very worried. She had heard all the commotion outside and had guessed that the king’s men must have taken away her son. She just lay down in her cave and cried bitterly.
Meanwhile, the white elephant was led in to the beautiful city of Banaras where he was given a grand reception in the royal elephant shed. The keepers had laid out a feast for him and decorated the stable with fragrant flowers. But, the elephant neither touched the food nor seemed to be impressed with the beautiful and comfortable shed. He just sat there with a sad expression on his face.
The matter was reported to the king. The king came to visit the white elephant and find out what ailed him. On questioning, the white elephant told the king about his blind old mother. He expressed a desire to go back to her as in his absence she would not be able to sustain herself and die.
The compassionate king was touched by the elephant’s story and asked him to return to his blind, old mother and take care of her as he had been doing all along. The happy elephant went running home as fast as he could. His mother could immediately recognise the scent of her son and was overjoyed to have him back. She blessed the kind king with peace, prosperity and joy till the end of his days.
The white elephant took good care of his mother till the day she died. The king often used to come and visit him in the forest. And when the white elephant died himself, the king erected a statue of him by the side of the lake and held an annual elephant festival there in his memory.
Once upon a time, hundreds of wild goats lived in a cave situated upon a hill. A wolf also lived with his wife in another cave nearby. Just like all the other wolves, the wolf couple also liked the taste of goat-meat. So they caught the goats, one after another, and ate them all. But, there was one wise goat who always managed to outsmart the wolf couple. No matter how hard the wolf couple tried to catch the wise goat, she somehow always outsmarted them.
One day the wolf said to his wife, “My dear, let us play a trick on that wise goat. You go alone to her cave and tell her that I am dead. Try to win over her sympathy by looking sad and then seek her help in burying my body. I am sure that the goat will feel sorry for you and agree to come here with you. When she will come near me, I will bite her in the neck and kill her. Both of us will enjoy her delicious meat then.”
The wolf then lay down, and his wife went to meet the goat, saying what she had been told to say. The wise goat heard the she-wolf’s story but kept sitting inside the cave and said, “”My dear, you and your late husband have killed all my relatives and friends. I do not think I am too safe out there with you.”
“Do not be afraid! I am mourning the death of my husband and thus I have decided not to kill any animal for one week,” said the wolf. “And my husband is dead now. So, what harm can a dead wolf do to you?”
The she-wolf managed to convince the goat to accompany her. The wise goat set out to the wolf’s cave but as she was still unsure of the she-wolf’s intentions, she asked the she-wolf to stay ahead of her.
Meanwhile the he-wolf who was pretending to be dead since a long time in front of his cave, started to get impatient. He was hungry and he raised up his head a little to see whether the goat was coming with his wife or not. The goat saw him raise his head, and ran back to her cave.
“Why did you have to raise your head? We almost had the wise goat in our clutches,” the she-wolf scolded her husband. He had no good answer. The she-wolf said, “Though your foolishness has spoiled everything, I will still try once again to bring the goat back to our cave.”
The she-wolf went back to the wise goat’s cave and said, “My friend, your presence is divine! The moment you came near my husband, he sprung back to life. He is now very much better. I am indeed very thankful to you. Let us be friends and have a good time together.”
The wise goat knew that the she-wolf was again trying to pull a trick on her. She said, “My friend, I am glad to hear the good news. We must share it with as many animals as we can. I will bring some of my friends also to your cave. Then we can all have a good time together.”
The she-wolf had no idea who these friends were, so she asked the goat, “Who are your friends? Tell me their names.” The wise goat said, “I will bring the two hounds, Old Gray and Young Tan and a big bull-dog called Four-Eyes. I will also ask them to bring their mates.”
The she-wolf was scared of the dogs and fled to her cave. She told her husband about the ferocious friends of the wise goat. The wolf couple took to their heels and the wise goat never saw either of them again.
Once, a farmer had two big and strong oxen by the names of Big Red and Little Red on his farm. He also owned a little pig that used to live with the oxen. The oxen used to work very hard in the farmer’s field. The pig did nothing and just idled around.
One day, the farmer fixed his daughter’s wedding. He ordered his men to fatten the pig for the wedding feast. And since that day, the farmer’s men started feeding a rich diet to the pig.
Seeing this, Little Red said to Big Red, “Brother, just look at the good fortune of this lazy pig! He is getting to eat all the delicious dishes without doing anything. Despite working so hard in the fields, we get to eat only some straws and grass.”
Big Red replied, “Dear brother, do not envy the pig. He is eating the food of death. He is being fattened up for the wedding feast. He would soon be slaughtered by the farmer. It is better to eat dry grass and straws and live long rather than have a rich feast and get killed.”
Text: Luisa Scherer
Translation: Mariana Gruber