Traditional Indian Tales for Children–the Jatakas

The Jataka Tales and Jain Puranas
The Jataka or ‘birth’ tales, stories from the various births of the Buddha also aim at religious and moral instruction and are often retold for children. They have been preserved in all branches of Buddhism. Written in Pali, they are tales of the Bodhisattvas or the previous lives of the Buddha in which he appears as a king, an outcaste, a god, or even some kind of animal, but in each he displays a sharp insight into the ways of the world while adhering to the path of right conduct. These stories highlight the perils of existence, show up human foibles and follies with wit and humour and demonstrate that a virtuous and intelligent approach is the only way to deal with the ups and downs of fortune. Though openly didactic, they are also subtly persuasive. The earliest is said to go back to the third century B.C. The fifth century Sinhalese commentary, Jatakatthakatha, attributed to a Buddhist scholar named Buddhaghosa contains 550 stories of varying lengths. Many of them display similarities to stories from the Mahabharata, Panchatantra, Puranas and have also been found in Aesop’s Fables. The story of the Monkey and the Crocodile appears in three forms in the Vanrinda Jataka, Sumsumara Jataka and Vanara Jataka and relate the attempts of Devadutta to kill the Buddha. Each Jataka opens with a preface which explains the occasion that led to its telling. At the end the Buddha discloses his identity as one of the characters in the story.
The Jatakas demonstrate the adaptability of traditional stories which have been used to communicate the teachings of Buddhism. Stories like King Virtue stress the qualities of fortitude and non-violence. In this story, despite his powerful army, the upright King of Benaras does not resist the attack of the King of Kosala who covets his prosperous kingdom. However, his determination in the face of adversity influences supernatural elements to act in his behalf and he regains his kingdom even while impressing his enemy with the power of virtuous conduct. At the end, as if driving home the moral, the king ruminates that if it had not been for his fortitude, he would have been overcome. Similarly, Prince Wicked, which is quite similar to a story from the Panchatantra, the wicked prince of Benaras who repays kindness with evil, receives his just deserts. His people overthrow him and install the hermit who saved him from drowning and who was ill-treated in return by the prince who is now the ruler, in his place. The Buddha is the king and the hermit respectively in these stories. In stories like The Earthquake, another traditional tale in which a foolish rabbit thinks the earth is about to fall apart and spreads panic he is the noble lion who saves the animals from self destruction. He is also a benevolent lion in The Hawks’ Friends, which is another adapted Panchatantra story. While many of the Jatakas are set in Benaras, there are others which talk of sea faring adventures like Supparata the Mariner, a skilful navigator, who despite the loss of his eyesight, finds treasure for his ship and brings it home safely. They focus on the qualities of a true leader, wise and fearless, who guides his flock and protects them from harm, on the evils of caste and the power of non-violence. These stories were disseminated throughout the Buddhist world and have been found in Srilanka, Thailand, Japan and other countries where the faith was practiced. Even now these stories are retold for children and have found their way into many school texts.
There is also the Jain narrative literature in Prakrit which is full of folktales, fairy tales, animal fables, parables, legends and humorous anecdotes, many of which are told to children. These too are traditional tales which have been adapted to the teachings of the Jain religion. They extol the virtues of righteous conduct in this birth so as to attain a better status in the next and the merits of non-violence and vegetarianism. There is the Jain version of the Ramayana, the Padmacharita, written by Vimala Suri in the 4th century A.D. or later. The Padmapurana is another version. The tirthankara Rishabh is glorified in this work and the priestly class, animal sacrifice and meat eating denounced. The Harmvamshpurana is the Jain Mahabharata written by Jinasena in 783 A.D. The stories of Krishna and Balarama are narrated by Gautam the disciple of Mahavira. Krishna is not depicted as a god here but as a kshatriya hero. The Trisatilaksana Mahapurana (The Great Purana of Sixty Three Eminent or Great Men) was written by Jinanath and Gunabhadra in the 9th century A.D. These are stories of the lives of great Jain teachers like Rishabh and Mahavira. They impart religious and moral instruction, talk about samskaras and duties while giving historical information. The Vasudevhindi, which we shall come to later, is the Jain version of the Brihatkatha of Gunaddhya. The Vikramditya stories have been appropriated too and he has been depicted as a Jain ruler. The Simhasandvatrimsika was written in the eleventh century by Ksemankarjan, a Jain scholar who enlarged it and Simhapramoda has been mentioned as the writer of the Vetalpanchvimsati in the fifteenth century. It is said the Jains thereby helped to preserve much of traditional literature.
The stories from the Jain literature are of varying lengths. They contain adapted stories from the epics, like that of Draupadi, whose previous births are depicted, not in a very flattering manner, but she is finally redeemed. A twist is introduced from the Ramayana story when she is abducted like Sita, but rescued by Krishna. Narada is shown as a mischief maker who feels slighted when she does not give him enough attention. There are also historical stories like that of Chanakya, stories of wit and wisdom like that of an Indian Archimedes, of good judgement, humorous ones too, in some of which Jain monks outsmart Buddhists. The power of true faith is extolled as in the story of the chaste Subhadra. Many of these adapted traditional tales included a sermon from a kevalin or enlightened monk explaining the cause of the good fortune or misfortune of the characters in the story at the end. They concentrate more on portraying the real lives of ordinary people rather than the doings of kings and courtiers.
According to Hertel, the Buddhists changed popular stories by introducing Bodhisattavas in the form of an exemplary human, divine or animal character. But the Jains preserved the story, only added a moral at the end. The original animal stories were more realistic than moralistic but the Jain monks could not resist exploiting them to make their sermons more interesting so they added morals to them. Among their aims, according to Dr. Jagdishchandra Jain was to aid in the education of the young, which clearly places them in the realm of children’s literature.

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