Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The Jataka Tales of India

While the Ramayana and Mahabharata belong to the Hindu tradition in India, the Jataka tales belong to the Buddhist tradition. The reason I've included them in this class is that the collection of the Jataka tales was taking shape at about the same time that the epics were taking shape (around the fourth century B.C.E.), and there is even some overlap between the Jataka tales and the epics. For example, some of the Jataka tales show up in the epics (like the famous story of King Shibi), and there is even a Jataka tale that tells the story of Rama (Dasharatha-Jataka).

So, what are the Jataka tales? The word "Jataka" means "birth," and these are tales about the Buddha's previous births, his incarnations in the past. The idea is that the Buddha would tell these stories to his followers, using them in much the same way that Jesus would tell parables to his followers. The difference is that in the Buddha's Jataka tales, the Buddha himself is a character: sometimes a person, sometimes an animal, and sometimes a tree-spirit or other nature-spirit. You can find out much more about the Jataka tales at Wikipedia.

There are many different Jataka reading options you can choose from if you would like to learn more about these Buddhist stories. I have arranged them here based on how long the books are; since the stories are quite short, though, you can use any of these options for just a half-week's reading or one week's reading, even if the collection of stories is very large and good for several weeks. Some of the long collections have hundreds of stories! If you like working with shorter stories for your storytelling experiments, giving more room for your own imagination to expand the story, then the Jataka tales are a great reading option to explore.


Jataka comic books. There are 15 Jataka comic books on Reserve in Bizzell, and each comic book is good for one reading diary post. Here is just one example: Jackal Stories: Jataka Tales of the Sly and the Shrewd. Most of the Jataka comic books are organized by a shared theme or, as here, a shared character: stories about the trickster jackal.

One Week of Reading

Free online: Twenty Jataka Tales by Noor Inayat.
This is a lovely collection of Jataka tales for children, and if you are going to read just one Jataka collection, this is the one I would recommend. The author was a remarkable woman: she was born in 1914 (her father was the famed Sufi musician Inayat Khan), and she published this book in 1939. During World War II she served as an SOE undercover agent for the British, and she was executed at Dachau in 1944. You can learn more about Noor Inayat at Wikipedia:

Free online: Jataka Tales and More Jataka Tales by Ellen C. Babbitt.
This is a children's version of the Jataka tales, and it also has an audiobook version. It's a popular choice as a reading option in the Myth-Folklore class that I teach also! The emphasis here is on the animal Jataka stories (not all the Jataka stories are about animals, but many of them are). The stories here are very short, so you can read Jataka Tales for Reading A during the week, and then More Jataka Tales for Reading B.

Free online: The Giant Crab, and Other Tales from Old India by W. H. D. Rouse.
Although Rouse also published scholarly translations of the Jatakas, he put together this collection for children, and it has some fun illustrations too. Rouse freely alters the stories to make them more like fairy tales and, as he says in the introduction: "I hope no one will imagine this to be a scientific book. It is meant to amuse children; and if it succeeds in this, its aim will be hit."

One or Two or More Weeks (these are long books, but you can read as much/little as want; they are broken up into reading-diary-sized chunks):

Free online: Eastern Stories and Legends by Marie Shedlock.
This is a really nice Jataka collection which I use in the Myth-Folklore class also. Unlike the other one-week books, this is not a book for children, and it provides a really good introduction to the jatakas that are of real interest and importance for the Buddhist religious tradition.

Free online: Jataka Tales, edited by H.T. Francis and E. J. Thomas.
This is a selection of Jatakas chosen from the 6-volume Cowell edition, focusing on the jatakas of most importance. If you have a serious interest in the Buddhist tradition, this is the book to read, and you might also want to look at its detailed introduction as well (appx. 10 pages at the beginning of the book).

Free online: The Gatakamala, or Garland of Birth Stories by Aryasura, translated by J. S. Speyer. This is a collection of 34 jataka stories that were rendered into Sanskrit (from Pali) by Arya Sura, perhaps around the first century C.E. If you are interested in the literary development of the Jatakas, this book is very useful. The Jatakas originally circulated as oral folktales, but over time they became an inspiration for more literary storytellers (much as happened with Aesop's fables in ancient Greece and Rome).

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