The Jataka tales are one of the greatest instances of folk literature that India has produced. Hough used as vehicles of Buddhist ethical teaching; these stories are mostly of secular origin and highlight the moral pitfalls that can befall an individual in everyday life. The stories are purported to be told by the Buddha in various incarnations in human and animal form as the Bodhisattva. At the end of each story he identifies the role that he himself played, as well as those of others, particularly his disciples. A great way of not only learning about Indian culture, but also how to keep to that straight and narrow ethical path!
The Jataka as we possess it occurs in the second of the three great divisions of the Pali Buddhist scriptures. It consists of 547 Jatakas each containing the life of Buddha during some incarnation in one of his previous existences as a Bodhisatta. Some of the tales occur more than once in a different setting or in a variant version and occasionally several stories are included in one birth.
Each separate story is embedded in a framework, which forms the story of the present. This is generally an account of some incident in the life of the historic Buddha, such as an act of disobedience or folly among the brethren of the order, the discussion of a question of ethics, or an instance of eminent virtue. Buddha then tells a story of the past, an event in one of his previous existences, which explains the present incident as a repetition of the former one, or as a parallel case and shows the moral consequences.
All stories contain the Bodhisatta (one being destined to enlightenment) as well as verses occur in all the births. It is these verses which are canonical, the prose being a commentary explaining how the verses came to be spoken.
Although much of the Jataka is merely moral instruction to the unconverted it also expounds teaching which leads to enlightenment, such as the doctrine of impermanence, belief in the Buddha, the rejection of superstitious rites, freedom from lust, hatred and delusion and other bonds which the disciple must break as he advances on the noble path.
The present selection has been made with the purpose of brining together the Jataka stories of the
most widespread interest.
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