The Importance of The Jātaka

For those who have not heard of The Jātaka, it is a set of 547 tales, and is one of the books in the canon of Buddhist scripture (Norton 1294). In Buddhism, there is the belief of reincarnation. That once you die, you are reborn as another being and have the chance to create a better life. All the tales in The Jātaka are believed to be records of Buddha’s actions in all of his previous lives (Norton 1295). The Jātaka tales adopt the view that all living creatures seek liberation from the cycle of lifetimes by pursuing goodness (Norton 1295). This describes the belief I previously mentioned about how people are reborn as another human being, given the chance to create better lives, until you reach fulfillment, or in this case, “enlightenment.” Enlightenment is described as a state of complete understanding of the nature of reality, the created universe, and human life (Norton 1295). If at the moment of death, the sum of a person’s good deeds outweighs the sum of evil actions, then the self is ready for salvation (Norton 1295). If the evil deeds outweigh the good, then you will be reborn into a body with the opportunity to earn salvation in this whole new lifetime (Norton 1295).

Within the religion, most believe The Jātaka is just a record of Buddha’s actions before reaching enlightenment, and it seems to me that The Jātaka is written as somewhat of a moral compass, almost in regards to religion. The Jātaka can be viewed as fables. Fables are basically short stories with some kind of moral behind it. They are typically told to children in an effort to teach them how they should act, or what kinds of actions they should avoid. They are told as an attempt to make children realize there are consequences to our actions, and we need to be sure we are making the right choices, the good choices.

I have only read a few of the tales in The Jātaka, but we really only need a few to dig a little deeper into the meaning of The Jātaka as a whole. Three of the tales in The Jātaka that I have read are “The Golden Goose,” “The Hare’s Self-Sacrifice,” and “The Monkey’s Heroic Self-Sacrifice.” “The Golden Goose” tale tells about how Buddha, as a goose, gives his golden feathers to his widow and daughters form his former life. The mother then became greedy and plucked all of his feathers at once, which cause the feathers to turn into crane feathers and they were no longer valuable. This story can be looked at as a tale to turn you away from greed. If you think about this as a children’s story, the use of animals could be on purpose to keep their attention. The Jātaka tales are tied closely to the ideal of a bodhisattva’s “six Perfections”: selfless giving to others, moral clarity and firmness, patience or forbearance, unstinting effort in the pursuit of the right goals, meditation, and wisdom (Norton 1296). With that being said, in relation to religion and history, this tale could be one of Buddha’s lives being told to show the importance of selfless giving. Perhaps each tale in The Jātaka tells of different stories each with a different one of the six perfections as the focal point.

“The Hare’s Self-Sacrifice” is a little bit more complicated than that of “The Golden Goose.” “The Hare’s Self-Sacrifice” involves Buddha, of course, but also includes the Hindu god Indra. This tale symbolizes a competition between him and Buddha for moral authority over the universe (Norton 1296). The tale also suggests that the spots we see on the moon every night are in the shape of a hare, in order to commemorate this lifetime of the Buddha. In this tale, the Hare, aka Buddha, was the only one to offer food to someone in need. The other animals were too selfish, and did not want to give any of what they had. In fact, the Hare offered his own flesh as a source for food. So far, “The Golden Goose” related more to the six imperfections, while “The Hare’s Self-Sacrifice” is more closely related towards religion and history. In a way, our third story, called “The Monkey’s Heroic Sacrifice,” combines the importance of these two stories. In “The Golden Goose,” the main message was to stay away from greed, and the consequences of being greedy. “The Hare’s Self-Sacrifice” focused more on selfless doing and religion. “The Monkey’s Heroic Self-Sacrifice” tells of a king who is very greedy, and takes over the mango tree, in which all the monkeys live through. Allowing no one but him to have access to the mangoes. Then, the monkeys try to eat all the mangoes because Buddha knows the king will not give them any at all, and will kill them. When they are trying to eat the mangoes, however, the king has his army try and kill all of them. Buddha then selflessly makes himself into a bridge in order to save all the other monkeys. As we can see, this tale tries to point us away from greed just like the other stories, but also is about the big selfless act of Buddha.

Even though each of these stories relates more toward something different, we are able to see some of the six perfections in all of these tales. In “the Golden Goose,” we see Buddha, as a goose, selflessly give away his feathers so that the mother and children are not having to live off the charity of neighbors. Then we see her being greedy with it and the feathers losing their value as a consequence. In “The Hare’s Self-Sacrifice,” we see Buddha selflessly offering his own flesh as a source for food for someone in need. In “The Monkey’s Heroic Self-Sacrifice,” the monkey selflessly offers to make his own body into a bridge, knowing he could die, as a way to save all the others. In all three of these tales, the Buddha makes selfless decisions, which in turn keeps him on the track to accumulate the right amount of goodness in order to reach enlightenment. These stories are made for everyone.  They can be told to children, as moral fables. Then, they can be told to common people, as a way to show them the importance of the six perfections, and as a religious guide.