In their desire to be all things to all men, the Buddhists of India presented the doctrine of the Enlightened One in the form of learned treatises to one kind of public, in the form of delightful tales to another. In the translation of the philosophical treatises a strict, and even pedantic, literalness ought to be observed. This is not so, on the other hand, with the Tales and Fables, which lose most of their charm and flavour in the process.
The conventions of Indian story telling are, indeed, so different from our own, that their literal reproduction makes tiresome reading. The six volumes of the Cambridge translation of the Pali version of the Jatakas are of great value to scholars for philological, historical and archaeological purposes. No one, however, would read them for pleasure. In order to be more widely appreciated, the Birth Stories must obviously be retold in the idiom of to-day. This need not, as Miss Beswick's selections demonstrate, involve any distortion of the underlying teachings, and her rendering is alive with the spiritual purpose and message which unknown monks thousands of years ago have infused into the folklore of India.
The Jataka Tales (Birth-Stories)-of which there are 547-are tales told by the Buddha of his previous births as bird, animal, man. They were remembered and recorded by his followers not long after his death. It is not a new idea that some people can recall their past lives on earth (though much so-called memory is wishful thinking or imagination) for Pythagoras, whom no one could accuse of wishful thinking or embroidery, gave instances of a few of his own past lives.
And since the main teaching of the Buddha was that actions bring their due effects under immutable law, against which all prayers are unavailing, and that each life is the outcome of previous lives, it is not surprising that part of his method of impressing this on his listeners was by means of the descriptions of the past lives of himself and of others, showing not only the relationship between people but also in graphic form what evil is like and what good qualities are like.
Throughout the stories we see the line of life possessing those spiritual qualities which blossom in Buddhahood acting in and through various types of bodies, always helping, always reasoning, acting after forethought, full of effort and animated by love, finally developing the power to sacrifice life itself.
The qualities of friendship are brought out clearly in such delightful stories as the deer, the woodpecker and the tortoise; or in finer form in the actions of Banyan, the golden deer, the great-hearted monkey, and the love of the elephant's wife caught by a crab. Duty is extolled: determination and perseverance are shown as necessary qualities to possess, and the power of evil is shown in all its degradation. It is interesting, by the way, to note that throughout the animal stories there is little or no evil in them, but when the stories deal with human beings we see cruelty and evil in abundance ! The stories were told around some incident then happening, and it is in their relationship with that incident that we find their true lesson.
At the close of the story the Buddha always identified the birth so that lines of action and character stand out clearly from the past to the present, sometimes the same, some-times changed for the better. It is not surprising that his favourite disciple, Ananda, and the two chief members of his Brotherhood, Sariputta and Mog-gallana, should appear very often with him as his friends of the past, and Devadatta, his cousin who tried often to destroy him in various ways, as his enemy. With poetic licence these some-times appear as human beings while the life-to-become-the-Buddha was still in animal form, as in the case of the birth as the " Obedient Elephant ", where Ananda was the mahout and Devadatta the evil king. After the death of the Buddha representations of the stories were carved on stone or painted on rock, as on the gates of the great Sanchi Stupa or memorial, the eastern gate of which was taken as one of the archaeological series of stamps by India when attaining her freedom. Also at the Bharhut Stupa and the Ajanta caves.
Much more of the Buddha's teaching can of course be found elsewhere, in The Dhammapada,1 the Footsteps of the Law, a collection of sayings of the Buddha accepted as such at the Council of King Asoka, 240 B.C., and in the voluminous writings that have grown up around the teachings during the centuries. Who was the Buddha ? Dr. Radhakrishnan in his lecture, 1 A Selection is published in the Wisdom of the East Series: The Dhammapada, trans. by Nirada Thera.
Gautama the Buddha ', 1938 (one of the annual Henriette Hertz Trust lectures on a Master Mind, at the British Academy), said " He belongs to the history of the world's thought, to the general inheritance of all cultivated men ; for, judged by intellectual integrity, moral earnestness and spiritual insight, he is undoubtedly one of the greatest figures in history." As for biographical information about this great Sage, there is no doubt that he was born of a royal family at Kapilavastu in north-east India about 5oo B.C. His father was King Suddhodana, his mother Queen Maya. Before he was born, Queen Maya dreamt that a star fell from Heaven and entered her womb, and when the child was born it is said that the rocks gave water for his first bath while the trees made a bower for the queen.
He was given the name of Siddharta, which is a shortened form of Sarvdrtthasiddha-the ' realization of all desires '. His family name was Gautama----` on earth the most victorious '. The story tells of the visit of the Wise Men ' to see the baby, of the warnings given to the king that his son might not rule the king-dom, of the young boy surprising his tutors with his knowledge, of his play with his cousins and the shooting down of a swan giving the boy his first knowledge of pain. The swan was shot down with an arrow by his cousin Devadatta but Siddharta picked it up and, calming the fluttering bird, removed the arrow.
Wondering why the bird should have fallen he pricked his own flesh with the sharp point of the arrow and felt pain for the first time. When his cousin claimed the bird as his by right of conquest, the prince said that it was his, for he had saved its life. We read of the great tournament held for the hand of beautiful Yasodhara, and of Siddharta's triumph and marriage.
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