By Intizar Husain
Last week, while on a brief visit toKarachi, I had the opportunity to participate in a discussion on the Jataka tales of Gautama Buddha. We were looking at a short collection of 20 Jataka tales, translated into English by Noor Inayat Khan and into Urdu by Asif Farrukhi. Noor Inayat, said Farrukhi, was a descendant of Tipu Sultan and was shot dead by the Nazis during the Second World War.
Buddhist sermons are well-known to us, but most of us don’t realise that Buddha was also a great storyteller. His storytelling has been overshadowed by his sermonising. In fact, Jataka tales (birth tales) are distinguished from his sermons and contain a unique experience.
I have come across a few collections where these tales have been compiled without any reference to their context which is important in understanding them. We should keep in mind that while delivering his sermons Buddha addressed congregations of devotees and people in general, explaining the message meant for their deliverance. At the same time he liked to tell stories while sitting in the inner circle of bhikshus, sharing the experiences he had gained during the cycle of his births, as he migrated from one body to another, be it human or animal.
It was usually at night that bhikshus would gather together after their wanderings. The great master too would sit among them, listening attentively to what they had observed and heard during their visits to neighboring towns. On seeing a bhikshu perturbed, he would ask in a quiet voice: “O Bhikshu, why are you so perturbed. There is nothing new in what you witnessed. The unfortunate event is just a repetition of what had happened in the distant past.”
And he would then start narrating a tale in the first person: “It happened one hundred thousand years ago when I was living inBanarasin the capacity of an attendant to the Raja. The whole town was in great trouble. It was a painful experience for me too. However, I succeeded in helping them come through the trouble safely”.
On other occasions he tells tales in the third person. One such tale is of a group of monkeys living in a garden. The garden belonged to a Raja whose men, in an attempt to rescue the garden from this infestation, planned to kill all the monkeys. The monkeys referred their case to the wise old monkey among them who, at the risk to its own life, managed to help them.
Buddha, after narrating this tale, asked the bhikshus: “Do you know who this old wise monkey was?”
“No, we don’t know.”
“It was I who, then born in the janam of a monkey, was living with them. And it was I who, in a wise way, managed to get them out safe and sound from the
danger zone. And with that my janam as a monkey came to its end. I was then reborn as a Raj-Hans.”
Buddha believed that from time immemorial he had been in a state of flux, transmigrating from one janam to the other and from one body to the other, which was not always of the same species.
In each janam he lived a long life performing deeds for the betterment of the species to which he belonged. What a unique and amazing experience! With him and his followers it is a matter of faith. Others are free to interpret this experience in their own way. One may interpret it as the experience of a highly imaginative soul. To be more precise, one may say that the creatively rich imagination of Shakia Muni had elevated him to a state of mind where he lived manifold lives, enabling him to feel one with all kinds of living creatures.
Here is a great soul, who, with his experience of transmigration, has developed the capacity to identify with all living beings and to feel one with them in their distress. And how vividly he remembers his experiences of living in his different janams!
The multifaceted experiences in the Jataka tales are about a deep sense of unity with all the living beings. With this unique experience and unique expression, Buddha stands distinguished as a storyteller in the fraternity of storytellers and fiction writers.