Creation of the

The Jātakas, the stories of the earlier lives of Buddha, have been a popular means of disseminating Buddhist ideas and have inspired artworks in Buddhist countries.

Summary of Event

The Jātakas (Buddhist Birth-Stories, 1925) are the stories of the previous lives of Śākyamuni, the historical Buddha, before he attained final enlightenment. The most well-known collection of these stories is in the Pāli canon. In the canon, the Jātakas are the tenth book of the Khuddaka Nikāya of the Sutta Piṭaka. Each of the 547 stories consists of verse and prose. The stories range from very short animal fables to long jātakas that run on for pages. Strictly speaking only the verses, with a few exceptions, are considered canonical. The Jātakas are divided up into nipātas, according to the number of verses they contain. For example, the first nipāta has stories that have a single verse; however, among the higher numbered nipātas, the number does not always match the number of verses. The last nipāta, known as the Mahānipāta, consists of ten long jātakas. Buddha

In the Pāli Jātakas, the texts usually begin by describing a particular incident in the present, which prompts Buddha to tell about his previous incarnation. The verses are usually embedded in the telling of the story. The text ends with Buddha identifying the characters in the story with the members of Buddha’s present circle.

A commentary, called the Nidānakathā, has been attached to the Pāli Jātakas, introducing the background of these stories. It begins by relating the story of Sumedha, who resolves to become enlightened, and proceeds down to the events leading up to and following the enlightenment of Buddha, ending with the establishment of the Jetavana Retreat.

According to the tradition in Sri Lanka, the Jātakas originally consisted of verses to which a commentary was added with the stories. This text was in Singhalese, the language of Sri Lanka. In the fifth century c.e., Buddhaghosa is said to have translated these verses and commentary into Pāli. After the work of twentieth century scholar T. W. Rhys Davids, this tradition has not found acceptance, primarily because the Jātakas commentary is unlike other translations made by Buddhaghosa.

The question remains as to when the Jātakas first appeared. The earliest concrete evidence for the Jātakas is found in the relief sculptures of the Bhārhut stupa from the third or second century b.c.e. Of twenty-four scenes identified as illustrating the Jātakas, eighteen can be traced to the present collection. These reliefs seem to indicate that stories of the previous lives of Buddha were circulating before the third century b.c.e. This dating seems to be confirmed by scholar K. R. Norman’s arguments. He has noted that Sanskrit versions of the Jātaka stories are at times almost identical with their Pāli counterparts. This implies that the two versions are based on earlier material. Because Sanskrit was not in common use in translating Buddhist works until the third century b.c.e., it is likely that the source of the Pāli and Sanskrit versions goes back at least to the fourth century b.c.e.

There has been a long argument as to whether the verse or the prose of the stories is older. Norman has pointed out differences between the verses and the prose stories surrounding them; he believes these indicate that the writer of the prose parts misunderstood the verses. This would seem to show that the prose was a later addition. However, Norman also readily acknowledges that it is difficult, if not impossible at times, to understand the verses without the surrounding stories.

It is also clear that most of the stories were not Buddhist in origin but were adapted into a Buddhist context through references to Buddhist doctrines and by identifying the main character as a bodhisattva (a future Buddha). There are exceptions, most notably the “Kaliṇgabodhi Jātaka” (number 479), in which King Kaliṇga honors the Bodhi tree, under which Buddha attained enlightenment.

That the stories were not Buddhist in origin is demonstrated by their appearance elsewhere in India, outside their Buddhist guise. Similar stories are found in the Indian fable collections Pañcatantra (c. 200 b.c.e.; The Fables of Pilpay, 1699) and Hitopadeśa (after 200 b.c.e.; English translation, 1880). The “Dasaratha Jātaka” (number 461) is a miniature retelling of the Rāmāyaṇa (c. 500 b.c.e., some material added later; English translation, 1870-1889), one of the major Hindu epics. Stories similar to the Jātakas appear not only in India but also all over the world.

Since the nineteenth century, it has often been argued that the fable tradition began in India and migrated to Europe. Although this idea has not won universal approval, interesting parallels can be seen between the stories found in the Jātakas and those found elsewhere. Rhys Davids, for example, noted that the story of the ass in the lion skin (number 189 in the Jātaka) turns up in Aesop and other Western fable collections. In number 67 of the Jātakas, a woman attempts to free her husband, brother, and son, who have been mistakenly imprisoned for a crime. The king asks that she decide which of the three she would have released. She chooses her brother because she is able to find another husband and have another son. A similar line of reasoning is found in Herodotus’s Historiai Herodotou (c. 424 b.c.e.; The History, 1709) 3.118-120 and Sophocles’ Antigonē (441 b.c.e.; Antigone, 1729) 902-12.


The Jātaka stories have been translated into the languages of all Buddhist lands and have proved to be a popular means of teaching Buddhist values. It is interesting to note that a noncanonical Pāli collection of fifty jātakas, the Paññāsa Jātaka, is found in Thailand, Cambodia, and Burma. Although some of the stories are based on Indian material, others appear to be of local origin.

The Jātakas not only have appeared in literature but also have played a major role in the artwork of Buddhist countries. As mentioned before, the earliest evidence for the Jātakas in India is found in the relief sculptures in Bharhut. The Jātakas are also portrayed in artworks in Sāñcī (second century b.c.e.), Bodh Gayā (first century b.c.e.), Amāravatī (second century c.e.), Nāgārjunakoṇḍa (third century c.e.), and Ajaṇṭā (sixth century c.e.). From India, the Jātaka stories have migrated and found their place in the artistic traditions of other Buddhist countries.

Further Reading

  • Ahir, D. C. The Influence of the Jātakas on Art and Literature. Delhi: B.R. Publishing, 2000. A collection of essays on the influence of the Jātakas on art and literature, both inside and outside India. Indexes.
  • Cowell, E. B. The Jātaka: Or, The Stories of the Buddha’s Former Births. 7 vols. 1895-1913. Reprint. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981. The standard translation of all the Jātakas in the Pāli canon. The preface gives a description of the development of the Jātakas. Indexes.
  • Norman, K. R. Pali Literature. Wiesbaden, Germany: Otto Harrossowitz, 1983. This standard account of Pāli literature gives a concise description of the Jātakas. Bibliography and indexes.
  • Rhys Davids, T. W. Buddhist Birth Stories: The Oldest Collection of Folk-Lore Extant. Translated by T. W. Rhys Davids. 1880. Reprint. London: Routledge, 2000. Translation of the Nidānakathā and selected Jātakas. The lengthy introduction gives a detailed discussion of the development of the Jātakas. Also it cites various parallels from the literature of other countries. Index of Jātakas.
  • Wray, Elizabeth, Clare Rosenfield, and Dorothy Bailey. Ten Lives of the Buddha: Siamese Painting and Jātaka Tales. Rev. ed. New York: Weatherhill, 1996. This book offers versions of the last ten Jātakas, with illustrations from Thai temples. The appendices consist of the history of the development of the Jātakas and an essay on Siamese temple painting. Thirty-two plates. Bibliography.

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