The Jataka Tales, as exemplified in my research are essentially a sacred series of writings native to India, in which the previous births of Gautama Buddha in both his human and animal forms are illustrated. In these stories, The Buddha may appear as a king, god, monk or even animal. Yet, as represented in these tales, in whatever form he is chosen to incarnate, the Bodhisattva has always exhibited some form virtue or spirituality that the tale will later represent, as depicted in the three stories I will be focusing on. Essentially, the Jataka Tales are a collection of anthropomorphized stories, where much like the traditional fables, the stories are told as lessons meant to hold, or rather teach, a particular moral lesson. Like all great myths, these stories are as much about ourselves as they are about the Buddha and this essay will delve into the comparisons in those of the morals taught by Gautama Buddha himself and his Bodhisattvas.
The first Jataka Tale I will firstly be discussing is that of the “Hungry Tigress”, In this story, Gautama Buddha is born as a wealthy prince in a land suffering from a terrible drought. When walking in the countryside with his three brothers, he comes across a starving tigress and her cubs, Buddha in this instant decides to selflessly give up his body to the tigress, unlike his brothers, in order for her to feed her cubs. This story, holds a valuable moral lesson. In this case, by sacrificing his living body to the tigress, he teaches the value of compassion, but moreover the important action of self-sacrifice. Centuries later a pillar is raised to commemorate the deed, teaching the truth that noble and compassionate deeds live on forever. Interestingly enough, this story concerning compassion and the tigress, is one of the most popular of the Jataka Tales and is the most prevalent amongst other cultures, such as those of japan and Thailand.
The second piece is that of the Bodhisattva’s incarnation as the monkey king. In this story depicted on the Great Sanchi Stupa, Buddha is born as a strong monkey living in the branches of a large mango tree near the Ganges river. It is said that the fruit from this tree is so succulent and sweet it posed danger to the monkey clans livelihood if anybody was to find out. One day a king came across the tree and selfishly wanting the fruits to himself and ordered his troops to remove and kill the monkeys. In this scenario, much like the previous one in the “Hungry Tigress” tale, the bodhisattva shows great self-sacrifice by allowing his friends to painfully climb over his back and towards safety on the other side of the river. After doing so, the monkey king comes down to teach the selfish king about the value and importance of selflessness, where much like he had done with his troops earlier in the story, put their safety and livelihoods before his. In comparison, this story is also about self-sacrifice and compassion.
Finally, the last Jataka story I will be elaborating on is that of the Ruru Jataka, or “The Golden Stag”. In this story found on the Barhut Stupa, the bodhisattva appears as a beautiful and regal golden buck living in the kingdoms neighboring forests. The Bodhisattva in this story knows that his golden fleece and remarkable appearance would make him desirable to men, who in turn would wish to kill him; So, for his own safety he remained hidden in the forest. On one occasion, this golden buck came across a drowning man and despite the possible danger and repercussions of revealing himself to this man, he selflessly dove in after to save him. After saving the man he asked him to keep his existence a secret but the man betrayed him and told the king. The king in turn was angry at the man’s betrayal towards his savior and punished him. In this jataka, the value of loyalty is expressed, but most importantly, as proven in the previous two stories, it was more profoundly the enduring actions of self-sacrifice and compassion that earned him recognition.
Clearly, as represented by the many previous Bodhisattvas, there is a lot to learn from Gautama Buddha’s previous incarnations. The importance placed in the morals of these popular folk stories became prevalent when Buddhist monks began to narrate them, paralleling them to Buddha’s teachings. In comparison with the Jataka Tales, the Buddha teaches four noble truths; suffering, cause of suffering, end of suffering, and the eightfold path. I believe these truths are expressed in these past bodhisattva’s lives;
In order to better answer this question, one must first look at the teaching of Gautama Buddha’s legacy and evaluate the function of sacrifice within the Buddhist tradition. In his life, Buddha exemplified the value of, much like in the Jataka Tales, self-sacrifice, and encouraged his followers to act in similar manners. In one occasion on June 11, 1963 the monk Thich Quang Duc committed the act of self-immolation in Saigon Vietnam. This act of self-sacrifice completely shocked most tourists who did not understand why a person would follow through on such a horrific and painful act. Without trying to explore or understand any other possible explanations behind this decision, many concluded his actions were extremists and geared towards a political agenda, yet nobody stopped to explore the feasible explanations within this monk’s religion. This example sparks the question behind the action of self-immolation as an act of religious adherence and piety to Buddhism. Essentially, as the
Buddha explained, one must be selfless and detached from earthly constructs in order to attain such enlightenment, yet one must also learn to manage the earthy consequences of such decisions, for example asceticism.