Tales and fables are one of the important vehicles which convey a people’s way of looking at things. They are unfailing sources of information concerning their view of life as it is or as it ought to be. Ancient folklore in India has been regarded as one of the most original branches of literature containing some of the authentic revelations of India’s attitude to life and the Indian consciousness. Not the least of these is the Jatakas, a collection of tales the earliest of which are deemed to date back to the third century B.C. These are stories ostensibly recounting the previous existences of the Buddha.
For the modern reader with not even a smattering of Buddhism or its religious theories, there are certain constraints that may stand in the way of comprehending the surface action of the narratives. The overcoming of these constraints, though not the end-all and be-all of reading, is yet necessary as a precondition for a fuller appreciation of these tales. First, there are the fantastic elements. Of course, in fiction, these things are taken for granted. But oftentimes, it is not enough to “suspend disbelief.” One would have to breathe the atmosphere of the story, or really feel its ambience, know its internal laws operative within its own frame of reference. Then, he must understand that the Jatakas tales are told for a definitely didactic purpose, that is, to put across certain principles representing the Buddhist religious ideals. Hence, the moral tag at the end of some of these stories need not cause offense nor leave a bad taste in the mouth. And what should not be forgotten is the fact that the Jatakas is first of all a literary work of the imagination lending itself as a handmaiden of religion. In India, between art and religion, there is not much, if any divorce. As a matter of fact, literature, philosophy and religion are so integrated that one cannot speak of one without drawing in the other.
Different tales from the Jatakas are chosen here to give a representative sampling of the spectrum of motifs that run through the collection.
There is, for instance, the story of the Bodhisattwa who was born as Brahmaddata. He was so upright a ruler that no one could find fault with him. But he was obsessed with the idea of finding someone who would reveal to him his defects. For this purpose, he travelled far and wide. Then along a narrow road he came across the king of Kosala, Mallika by name, who was also wandering about for exactly the same purpose. Their respective drivers asked each other to make way, citing their Master’s virtues as ground for the other’s giving way. King Mallika’s driver recited: “Great King Mallika is rough to the rough,/But to the gentle he returns gentleness,/And badness bestows on those that are bad….” King Brahmaddata’s driver exclaimed: “By mildness alone he conquers anger,/By goodness he repays the bad./By lavish gifts he vanquishes misers,/And falsehood he overcomes with truth….” King Mallika and his driver were convinced of the superior nobility of the king of Banares that they made way for the latter. They went back to their respective kingdoms, spent their lives in deeds of goodness till they attained to Heaven.
Then, too, there is the story of the Bodhisattwa born as Sivi, king of Aritthapura. He was of a generous nature so that he even felt the acts of charity which he did to be not enough. He then conceived of literally giving a part of himself, of his very own physical body. Indra, the king of the Gods, on reading his thoughts, decided to put to the test his resolution. Disguised as a blind beggar, he stretched out his hands to Sivi and asked for one of his eyes. But Sivi, a good man that he was, was only too willing to part not just with one but with his two eyes. For this purpose he called for the service of his surgeon. Afterwards, Sivi retired to a hermitage. Now blind, he wished for nothing but death. Indra came to see him but said he cannot grant his death-wish but that by the very fruit of Sivi’s gift shall his eyes be restored. King Sivi’s eyes grew again in their sockets, the eyes of the Attainment of Truth. Returning back to his kingdom, he preached: “Let no one deny anything that is asked of him. In all mortal beings the finest treasure is self-sacrifice. I sacrificed perishable eyes, and received the Eye of Knowledge in return. Be generous, my people. Never eat a meal without giving away something; let others have a share.”
Another story is that of the Bodhisattwa born as the son of an elephant king. In time he himself became the King of Banares. His name was Chhaddanta. He was noble and justly ruled his subjects of eight thousand elephants. He passed his days in the company of his two queens, Cullasubhadda and Mahasubhadda. Cullasubhadda got jealous of Mahasubhadda, for it seemed to her that the King gave the latter preferential treatment. She then harbored a grudge against Chhaddanta. She went on hunger strike causing her death. But she was reborn as a daughter of the royal family of Maddla. Her name now is Subhada. The king and queen married her to the King of Banares. Remembering all the events of her previous life, Queen Subhada thought of revenging herself against Chhaddanta. She then hired a hunter with instructions to look for a six-tusked elephant (Chhaddanta) and kill him by depriving him of his tusks. King Chhaddanta soon afterwards fell into the trap prepared by the hunter who attacked him with a poisoned shaft. But the King bore his pain and bitterness and anger. From the hunter he understood that all this was the work of Cullasubhadda. He accordingly asked the hunter to saw off his tusks and actually helped him do it. He died shortly afterwards after saying: “Friend hunter, I give away my tusks not because I have no fondness for them but because the tusks of Omniscience are a thousand times dearer to me. May this act of mine lead me to knowledge.” Meanwhile, the queen Subhadda received the tusks together with the news that the elephant king was dead. The tusks emitted six glorious rays of different colors. Then, thinking of him who had been her dear Lord, she was seized with sorrow. Her heart was shattered with grief and she died.
Evidently, the foregoing stories deal with the deepest concerns of the Buddhist faith, the Mahayana ideal of love and compassion, of sacrifice and forgiveness, and of regard for the well-being of others. It is worth recalling that a Bodhisattwa is one who, after earning his right to entering Nirvana, postpones his own entry to it in order to help his fellowmen toward Enlightenment.
Thus, in the tales just related, the reincarnated Bodhisattwa, whether as King Brahmaddata or King Sivi or as the elephant-king Chhaddanta, never attains to Enlightenment for his own sake or for his own self-centered weal. The self-abnegation, or better yet, the self-sacrifice done by making the gift of eyes or by having one’s tusks sawed off to one’s death may appear excessive or even absurd to the modern man’s temper. But these facts of the tales should not be viewed in the light of the Western golden mean. Rather, they should be taken on their own terms as expressions of selflessness, the highest form of love and one of the roads that lead to the Buddhist goal of transcendental wisdom.
In the preceding stories, it can be seen that those who came into personal contact or have direct dealings with the reincarnated Bodhisattwa did not get away untransformed in their moral sense or spiritual outlook. King Malika and his driver learned the superior nobility of returning love for hatred, good for evil, truth for falsehood, and accordingly renounced their more retributive ethic of lex taliones. And it may be said that Queen Subhhada did not die of grief over King Chhanddanta whose death she herself had designed without the inner realization of her heinous deed and the corresponding change of heart.
The Bodhisattwa’s overriding commitment to the redemption of others stems from his deep sense of oneness with all that lives. He knows the law that everything is related to everything else, and with that knowledge salvation for him means nothing if there yet remains a single being still immersed in the ocean of Samsara. One cannot but be reminded here of familiar Dostoevskean statements like: “All is responsible for all,” or “What good is salvation if only one is saved?” Indeed, for the Bodhisattwa, the universal salvation of all beings is the supreme good; and the real task at hand is the attainment of spiritual perfection by first seeking the salvation of others. As a poet puts it, “He findeth not who seeks his own;/The soul is lost that’s saved alone.” Thus, while the Theravadin’s search for Nirvana could easily become a selfish goal of individual liberation, the Mahayana ideal has a social or universal dimension. This explains the apparent extravagance of the Bodhisattwa’s generosity or the seeming nonsensicality of his actions in the tales. And it is within this Mahayana Buddhist universe of discourse that the stories take on their true significance.
A corollary of the Mahayana ideal of spiritual communion of all living beings is the doctrine of abstention from the taking of life. This is the principle of ahimsa, which the Bodhisattwa exemplified in the story of the “Sacrificial Goat.” A goat was to be sacrificed by a Brahmin in a feast for his ancestors. While being dressed for the purpose, the goat recalled that on that very day he would be liberated. This made him laugh loudly even as the sad fate in store for him moved the Brahmin to tears. Asked to explain himself, the goat said, “In one of my past existences, I, too, was a Brahmin. By killing a goat at a feast for the dead, I had my head cut off four hundred and ninety-nine times. This is my five-hundredth birth, and it is the last. As soon as you kill me, I shall be liberated forever. That’s why I laughed. But I cried, too, because the penalty for killing a goat is the same for you as it was for me. I pity you because by taking my life you are condemning yourself to have your head cut off five hundred times. The Brahmin then said he would not kill him and even guard him all the time. But the goat said, ”Weak is your protection, and strong is the force of my deeds.” And, indeed, as the goat was browsing in a bush, a thunderbolt killed him. At this point, while a crowd gathered around the goat, the Bodhisattwa, born as a tree-divinity, seated himself in mid-air and proclaimed: “If only men know that existence is pain,/Living beings would cease from taking life./Beware, beware! Stern is the slayer’s doom.”
What is explicit, too, in the above story is the all too often forgotten truth that man is the decreer of his own fate, the maker of his own happiness or gloom. For the Buddhist, as for the Hindu, this is the law of karma, the inexorable law of universal equilibrium, of cause and effect, of action and reaction, not only in the physical sphere but also in the moral, spiritual or transcendent plane. No one gets away from this since how can one escape from himself? If one has disturbed the universal balance by the taking of life, one is bound to restore order by paying for it in the same measure, if not in this life, then in another. This is the meaning of what in our story the goat meant by saying, “Strong is the force of my deeds.”
The Bodhisattwa also plays other roles in the less serious tales dealing with common problems of life. At one time, we find him as an arbitrator, settling disputes wisely as in the case of the tiger and the lion. The former averred that it was the dark half of the month that was cold, whereas the latter maintained that it was the moonlit half of the month. This Bodhisattwa said, thus: “Be it the moonlit half or be it the dark,/How will it affect the cold, oh foolish ones?/You must know that the cold is caused by the wind,/And so I decided that both of you are right.”
We find the Bodhisattwa, too, as an adviser to a king, warning him against talkativeness. Or we find him as a lion, or a bird. In all these, the words coming off his mouth never ring false or platitudinous. This is so because his statements spring from a deep moral ground and spiritual insight.