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Tales, Jataka

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Tales, Jataka

The Jātakas (Sanskrit जातक) (also known in other languages as: Burmese: ဇာတ်တော်, pronounced: [zaʔ tɔ̀]; Khmer: ជាតក [cietɑk]; Lao: ຊາດົກ sadok; Thai: ชาดก chadok) refer to a voluminous body of literature native to India concerning the previous births (jāti) of the Bodhisattva. These are the stories that tell about the previous lives of the Buddha, in both human and animal form. The future Buddha may appear in them as a king, an outcast, a god, an elephant—but, in whatever form, he exhibits some virtue that the tale thereby inculcates.[1]

In Theravada Buddhism, the Jatakas are a textual division of the Pali Canon, included in the Khuddaka Nikaya of the Sutta Pitaka. The term Jataka may also refer to a traditional commentary on this book.


The Jatakas were originally amongst the earliest Buddhist literature, with metrical analysis methods dating their average contents to around the 4th century BCE.[2] The Mahāsāṃghika Caitika sects from the Āndhra region took the Jatakas as canonical literature, and are known to have rejected some of the Theravada Jatakas which dated past the time of King Ashoka.[3] The Caitikas claimed that their own Jatakas represented the original collection before the Buddhist tradition split into various lineages.[4]

According to A.K. Warder, the Jatakas are the precursors to the various legendary biographies of the Buddha, which were composed at later dates.[5] Although many Jatakas were written from an early period, which describe previous lives of the Buddha, very little biographical material about Gautama's own life has been recorded.[6]

The Jataka-Mala of Arya Shura in Sanskrit gives 34 Jataka stories.[7] At Ajanta, Jataka scenes are inscribed with quotes from Arya Shura,[8] with script datable to sixth century. It had already been translated into Chinese in 434 CE. Borobudur contains depictions of all 34 Jatakas from Jataka Mala.[9]


The Theravada Jatakas comprise 547 poems, arranged roughly by increasing number of verses. According to Professor von Hinüber,[10] 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 and motifs found in the Jataka such as the Rabbit in the Moon of the Śaśajâtaka (Jataka Tales: no.316),[11] are found in numerous other languages and media. For example, The Monkey and the Crocodile, The Turtle Who Couldn't Stop Talking and The Crab and the Crane that are listed below also famously feature in the Hindu Panchatantra, the Sanskrit niti-shastra that ubiquitously influenced world literature.[12] Many of the stories and motifs being translations from the Pali but others are instead derived from vernacular oral traditions prior to the Pali compositions.[13]

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.


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.

Apocryphal Jatakas of the Pali Buddhist canon, such as those belonging to the Paññāsajātaka collection, have been adapted to fit local culture in certain South East Asian countries and have been retold with amendments to the plots to better reflect Buddhist morals.[14]

Celebrations and ceremonies

In Theravada countries several of the longer Jatakas such as Rathasena Jataka[15] and Vessantara Jataka,[16] are still performed in dance,[17] theatre, and formal (quasi-ritual) recitation.[18] Such celebrations are associated with particular holidays on the lunar calendar used by Cambodia, Thailand and Laos.


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,[19] Bristol. There are also numerous translations of selections and individual stories from various languages.

  • Google Books (edited and induced from The Morall Philosophie of Doni by Sir Thomas North, 1570)

List of Jatakas

This list includes stories based on or related to the Jatakas:

See also


Further reading

  • Concordance of Buddhist Birth Stories, Pali Text Society, Lancaster, tabulates correspondences between various jataka collections.
  • The Jatakas — Birth Stories of the Bodhisatta,, Sandra Shaw, Penguin Classics, Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2006
  • Twenty Jataka Tales,, Noor Inayat Khan, Inner Traditions, 1985
  • Apocryphal Birth-stories (Paññāsa-Jātaka), Isaline Blew Horner, Padmanabh S. Jaini, Pali Text Society, ISBN 9780860132332
  • E.B. Cowell (ed): "The Jataka or Stories of the Buddhaś former Births, Vol.1-6, Cambridge at the University Press 1895 Vol. 6 / 18.9 MB

External links

  • Jataka Tales by Ellen C. Babbitt on
  • Jataka Tales re-told by Ellen C. Babbitt with illustrations by Ellsworth Young
  • II of E. B. Cowell 1895 3 volume (6 book) edition.
  • III of E. B. Cowell 1895 3 volume (6 book) edition.
  • Jataka - Volume 6 of E. B. Cowell 1895 3 volume (6 book) edition.
  • Jataka Tales - by Ellen C. Babbitt 1912
  • Buddhist Birth Stories (
  • Jataka Tales - English Animation
  • Jataka Stories - Small selection
  • "The Illustrated Jataka & Other Stories of the Buddha" by Dr C. B. Varma - Illustrated, English
  • Jataka: from Pali Proper Names
  • Buddhist tales
  • Sept 26 -29th 2012 Leipzig Conference on The Pañcatantra Across Cultures and Disciplines
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