Book Reviews


Jatakamala: translated from the Sanskrit by A.N.D. Haksar, 
Harper Collins, 2003, 300 pages, Rs.295/-.

If the original tradition of India is contained in the Vedas, the Vedanta, epics, Puranas andKathasaritsagar ('Ocean of Stories'), its Buddhist corpus is the Tripitaka. In a way, the counterpart of the Kathasaritsagar is the Jatakasconsisting of 547 stories of past births of Buddha as Bodhisatva ('enlightened being') in animal and human form. Though compiled in c. 4th century BC, it was given final shape by Buddhaghosha in c. 5th century AD in Pali. At least a century before this (some say in the 1st century AD) a select garland of accounts of 34 past births of Buddha was composed by the noble (Arya) Shura in Sanskrit in the champu (mixed verse and prose) genre. The literary style resembles that of the Panchatantra and theHitopadesa. Some of the stories are depicted on the Ajanta frescoes (6th century) while 33 of the 34 episodes are portrayed in the first 135 panels on the upper register of Borobudur's first gallery balustrade extending all the way from the eastern entrance to the southwest corner that was built between the end of the 7th and the beginning of the 8th century AD. The 8th century Chinese pilgrim I-Tsing explained that "The object of composing the Birth Stories in verses is to teach the doctrine of universal salvation in a beautiful style, agreeable to the popular mind and attractive to readers.' Each of the stories presents one aspect of the requisite perfections paramitas that a Bodhisattva must master on his or her way to achieving enlightenment. Tradition holds that each tale also embodies the remaining nine virtues because they inevitably must play their respective supporting roles whenever the Bodhisattva implements a task of perfection.

Some of these tales travelled abroad. Plato (c. 429- c. 347 BC) refers to the story of the donkey donning a lion's skin and scaring away people (theSihachamma Jataka). The Vedabdha Jataka is used by Chaucer in Canterbury Tales. The importance of Arya Shura's Sanskrit compilation lies in the fact that 14 of the 34 stories of the Jatakamala are not to be found in the main bulk of the Jatakas. In the same manner, the Sanskrit Ashokavadana gives a very different account of Ashoka's conversion, with no mention of the Kalinga war. Theravada, the "Doctrine of the Elders," is the school of Buddhism drawing on the texts of the Pali Canon, Tipitaka (Three Baskets).

In the 1st century AD a new Buddhist sect arose, calling itself the "greater vehicle" (Mahayana), that believed that the other Buddhist traditions were placing too much emphasis on the attainment of Nirvana as the primary goal of Buddhist spiritual practice. The better practice, they asserted, was to emulate the Buddha's earlier career as a Bodhisattva, in which every noble deed is solely motivated by his compassionate wish to save all other beings from suffering. In another marked departure, the Mahayana began to use Sanskrit to record the Buddhist scriptures, possibly as a standard to preserve the integrity of the Buddhist tradition.

The 34 stories presented in the Jatakamala demonstrate how the followers of the Mahayana tradition should seek out, nourish and encourage enlightenment in others, as well as within themselves. For this the aspiring Bodhisattva must acquire or assemble the necessary "equipment" sambhara. According to thePrajnaparamita Sutra, this consists of six perfections of virtue, or paramitas, of wisdom, charity, morality, patience, strenuousness, and meditation. Only then can he further the enlightenment of others and obtain enlightenment himself. the career of a Bodhisattva is said to consist of ten distinct stages:

  • Joyful in the knowledge that one will be able to attain enlightenment as well as assist others in doing the same (through giving'like the Earth).

  • Freedom from impurities (through morality'like the Moon).

  • Luminous with the noble doctrine (through forbearance'like the sun).

  • Brilliant with the light of virtue which consumes ignorance and the evil passions (through striving'like fire). 

  • Perception that is difficult to vanquish (through meditation'like a king).

  • Facing (through insight'like the ocean).
    Far going (through great means'like a great road).

  • Immovable (through power'like a mountain).

  • Good-minded (through aspiration'like a fountain).

  • Showered by the universal truth (through wisdom'like a cloud).

The intention is unashamedly didactic. Every story begins with a statement of what it is going to exemplify and ends by drawing out the moral lesson (unqualified love even for enemies; unrestricted charity even in extreme poverty and even sacrificing one's own body and family; undaunted courage in charity and in renunciation; empathy with those suffering; purity of heart; right conduct; fortitude in morality; steadfastness in dharma; purity of character; truth at all cost; detachment from greed and anger; acquisition of merit; love of virtue; forgiveness; forbearance; keeping virtuous company). As Haksar points out, the conclusions appear to have been added on subsequently to serve as guidance in delivering sermons, such as by the Dalai Lama who, in his a sensitive Foreword, mentions a Tibetan tradition of teaching one of these stories as the climax of the Great Prayer Festival celebrated every Tibetan New Year. The protagonist invariably displays goodness that is so perfect as to be unbelievable and therefore one doubts how far the stories could succeed as providing role-models in real life. The dialogues are also quite artificial and unconvincing, reminding us of the tenor of the Christian cycles of Mystery and Morality plays, but lacking their enlivening touches of rustic humor. There is a consistent denigration of the life of the householder, quite in contrast to its celebration in the epic tradition in which it is often depicted as superior to the ascetic's penance. There is an inherent contradiction in this which escapes the composer of the Jataka tales: the Buddhist mendicant depends for his bodily existence totally upon the householder's benevolence. There is also a clear denunciation of Digambara Jains, referred to as naked Nirgranthas, just as Buddhists are looked upon as heretics in the Jain tales. The final impression is one of propaganda.

What is of interest is that these stories draw on a heritage that is pre-Buddhist and is shared in the Jain stories about Jinas in the Brihatkathakosha, Padma Purana etc. Several stories celebrate the Bodhisattva as king of the Shibis. One of the most famous stories in the Mahabharata is about King Shibi slicing off his own flesh to satisfy two gods in disguise. The same incident features in two stories by Arya Shura. The qualities that are praised in the Jatakamala are also those that we find exemplified in Yudhishthira, whose arguments with Draupadi and Bhima during the forest exile, extolling forgiveness, forbearance, fortitude and renunciation are echoed in these tales. Sutasoma's story features king-turned-ogre Saudasa from the epic. Some of the animal stories are similar to the Panchatantra. The story of Vishvantara's giving away his children and his wife remind us of Harishchandra. The quail quelling a forest fire by his verses recalls the story of Mandapal's fledglings in the burning of the Khandava forest in the Mahabharata. The world that Arya Shura portrays is one that has not gone very far into the Puranic times. Shakra (Indra) is the only Vedic god who appears in several tales and is not shown in an unfavorable light. Once the Bodhisatva is even born as Shakra. Mara, the tempter, is the sole Buddhist deity to appear. More than other deities, we meet Yakshas here, who are ubiquitous along with Vidyadharas in Jain tales. Obviously, the stories were composed before the plethora of Buddhist and Puranic deities took shape.

The language of the translation is simple, but Haksar has perhaps erred in choosing to keep mostly to prose instead of following the champu style of the original. That might be because he is no poet, as we see in the few passages where he attempts to provide a poetic rendition. A comparison with John Strong's remarkably evocative transcreation of the Sanskrit Ashokavadana and P. Lal's of The Dhammapada throws into relief Haksar's failings though there are striking passages such as in 'The Elephant':

He shone, while falling,
like an autumn cloud;
or the radiant disc, declining,
of the moon about to set; 
or like a snowy mountain peak
torn down by the fierce wind
raised by mighty Garuda's wing.


More by :  Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya

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Comment I want to purchase a copy

Dr. Jinitha K.S.
02-Feb-2014 03:33 AM

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