- Reason and Purpose of the Jataka Stories
The scene is something like this: it is night. Bhikshus who had wandered into neighbouring bastis for alms have returned. The Buddha, too—after fulfilling his duty to preach—has come back to where they all are staying. He is sitting with the bhikshus and is listening intently to what they have heard and seen that day. Some bhikshu or the other is surprised by the strangeness of an incident he heard or saw.
“Hey Tathagata, this is strange! Why did it happen?”
However strange the incident, Tathagata is never surprised.
He answers with equanimity. “Friend, this has happened in the past, too.”
“Tathagata, when did something similar happen?”
Now the Buddha answers, “This happened eons ago. When people were in trouble in Benares, the king was worried about how to solve the problem. But his minister was wise. He advised him what to do.”
Tathagata tells the whole story. He explains the nature of the problem and what advice the minister gave. How peace and tranquillity returned. The bhikshus sigh with relief, and praise the intelligence of the minister.
“Do you know who that minister was?”
“Who was he?”
“I was that minister.”
Surprised, they ask, “Tathagata, you were that minister?”
“Yes, it was I. And who was the king? He was Ananda. And those troubled citizens? You were the citizens.” And then the Buddha adds, “After that, my life in that incarnation ended. I was reborn as a swan, spread my wings, and flew towards Mansarovar.”
Thus it is that Tathagata sits in the midst of the bhikshus and answers their questions. Sometimes he is a king and sometimes a minister, sometimes a swan or a monkey, a dog or a quail. In every birth, he fulfills the task of rescuing people from their difficulties or performs a good deed amidst fools.
One could regard these stories, together, as his autobiography. And what an autobiography! He appears as a new creature in each rebirth: a monkey among monkeys, a partridge among partridges, and a snake among snakes. Whatever creature he is born as, he partakes of its sorrows and sufferings. He helps all in their troubles. It is as though his autobiography is that of a being who bears the pain of the entire universe in his heart. The whole of creation dwells in him. Those who believe in reincarnation say that there is only one human being who remembers all his previous births, and that is Mahatma Buddha. [End Page 230]
Keeping this in mind, we can find new meanings in these stories. It is possible that one story in this tradition may collide with a story in some other tradition, or may seem similar. It is possible that a story may have moved from one tradition and made a place for itself in another. In this way, the story acquires meaning in relation to others in the Jataka tradition.
One straightforward meaning in the stories is that all the creatures on this Earth—humans, animals, beasts, birds, four-legged, two-legged, carnivores, and herbivores—have the same origin. That is to say, the world is made for all the myriad creatures, and the cycle of births and deaths is not without meaning. And since all creatures have the same origin, there is no reason to distinguish one as superior and another as inferior. Whichever creature we are born as, we fulfill the responsibility of that form. We are accountable not for our own species alone, but for the whole of creation.
But if you think about these tales carefully, meanings within meanings will unfold. These stories are distinctive, yet connected to each other. Individually they stand as stories, but strung together they constitute a circular narrative. Each story provides, through some creature, an insight into an aspect of life. Collectively, these stories transcend themselves and create a higher meaning.
Another thing. Here Mahatma Buddha is a pure storyteller. He doesn’t use the stories to preach. His sermons are distinct. When he preaches, he preaches; when he tells a story, he’s a storyteller. There’s no confusion...