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Review of Jatak Kahanian

July 28, 2013
A colourful illustration depicting a jataka about a tigress
A colourful illustration depicting a jataka about a tigress

Jataka tales are the stories narrated by Mahatama Buddha for his followers, especially those who lived as ascetics. These tales have been drawn from famous legends concerning the reincarnations of the Buddha. Not only do they represent one of the most important documents of Buddhist literature, they are equally important as a collection of Indian folktales. Many of these stories resemble the Grimm brothers' tales in their moral tone and also in their structure. It is generally accepted that these tales were transmitted orally in Pali language over a long period of time.

Scholars agree that many of these stories were popular tales adapted as didactic literature in the teaching of Buddhism. The number of stories that were actually told by Gautama Buddha, if any, cannot be determined. Around the beginning of Common Era, Indian Buddhists began to collect fables, or the jataka tales, illuminating various human virtues and foibles - from kindness, cooperation, loyalty and self-discipline on the one hand to greed, pride, foolishness, and treachery on the other. Historians of oral literature believe that the collection, as we know it today, was most likely compiled around the 5th century - around nine centuries after the death of Gautama Buddha - by Ceylonese monks.

It was not until the 19th century that Europeans had access to this wealth of colourful literary Indian texts. In 1880, Rhys Davids translated the first 40 tales from the Pali language into English. The complete collection was subsequently translated by various scholars under the editorship of G.B. Cowell. In 1939, Noor Inayat Khan, a direct descendant of Tipu Sultan, selected and translated 20 jataka tales into English. Khan's father was a musician and Sufi teacher and had great influence on the ideological and practical aspects of his daughter's life. This collection of 20 tales, titled Jatak Kahanian, has been further translated beautifully into Urdu by Asif Farrukhi.

Jataka tales are central to Buddhist practice. Used by preachers to convey the norms of ethical, social, and religious behaviour in an easily accessible format, they do not turn into morally loaded lectures. Instead, they remain simple and easy to comprehend, stories that everyone can relate to. Simple and fun, the moral in the tales is subtle enough to complement and not overpower their sweet nature. They not only produce monastic ideals but also provide a glimpse of a good social life, teaching the doctrine of karma and rebirth to unsophisticated believers as simply "the doctrine of reward and punishment."

The tales also maintain the magical and timeless beauty of their Eastern origins. This collection has heavy emphasis on self-sacrifice, service, and responsibility. Instead of being populated with people, these stories cast animals who would have been a part of the immediate environment of people into leading roles; this may have contributed to giving the tales a universal appeal that helped them travel around the world. Loved by children and adults alike, they tell of people and animals that were moved to acts of sacrifice by the noble example of their fellow creatures.

The first story of the collection presents a leader of monkeys as a model for human kings; he sacrifices his own life to ensure the timely evacuation of his followers from their abode to save them from an unprovoked attack. Another tale teaches us the importance of talking less and only after thorough deliberations, especially if we hold a position of authority. A king, who was noble and kind otherwise, used to talk a lot without properly listening to others. He learned his lesson by observing a tortoise who was being flown to the sky by two birds with the help of a stick which they held in their beaks and the tortoise in his mouth. When some kids laughed at the tortoise for flying in this manner, he foolishly opened his mouth to respond to them and fell from the sky, breaking his back. Another tale criticises greed in humans and tells of a poor woman who gets a bird with feathers of gold which the bird gives her one at a time. But after some time, the woman's greed overpowers her and she removes all the feathers only to discover that they are not made of gold.

These stories are ideal for reading to children, as they tell of dramatic crises that are resolved by non-violent means and are easy to discuss in terms of everyday experiences. Challenging circumstances bring forth courage and the capacity to love, opening the way to solutions against seemingly impossible odds. We are not often exposed to stories that are not resolved with violence or by the dominance of one person's will or physical might.

The lessons of jataka tales are multiple. They teach us to think with humility, patience, contentment and delight; to act with kindness, honesty, and generosity; to relate to others with respect, forgiveness, gratitude, and responsibility; to find meaning in life through courage, service, principles, and aspiration.

These tales use argument by analogy as they narrate how some people or animals behaved in a particular situation and try to inspire the listeners by the kindness shown by the characters of the tales. They do not use rational and logical arguments to build a system of ethics like philosophers do.

These stories, like all literary creations, are reflective of their times. For instance, Gautama Buddha in his many reincarnations never appears as a female, be it human or animal. All the important roles are male, depicting a patriarchal society. Some of the tales even portray a negative image of women.

The language of the Urdu translations is poetic yet accessible, the original Buddhist messages firmly intact. The diction used reminds the reader of the origin of the stories. Each story is accompanied with a beautifully rendered drawing, making the book visually attractive as well. It's for everyone who loves fine stories about their fellow wise, and not-so-wise, creatures.

Jatak Kahanian

(Short stories)

Translated by Asif Farrukhi

Sang-e-Meel Publications, Lahore

ISBN: 969-35-2577-9