Revisiting the Jataka Tales

 Jolly Somasundaram, reviewing “Jataka Stories Retold” (in English) By P G Punchihewa and Mallika Karunaratne ………… ISBN No:  978-955-54441-1-8:  186 pages:  Price Rs 360.

Hinduism and Buddhism, the world’s oldest practised religions, have similar salvation mechanisms.  Their believers could achieve Moksha or Nirvana through numerous re-births- -there are no 19A term limits for them. Their re-birth workout is spread over aeons of time. In these re-births, self-correction takes place, eventually making them suitable to achieve the ultimate.

Against this hypothesis, in Abrahamic religions- Judaism, Christianity and Islam- salvation is through a one-shot operation. After closure of a one term life on Earth — the minimum that 19A makes possible — Divine Judgement is delivered, and, rewards and punishments apportioned. Many are called but a few are chosen. There is no opportunity for self-correction of drop-outs, neither is there an appeal against Divine Judgement. It is not known what happens to residuals. [In contrast] in the re-birth option there are no residuals or drop-outs since each has to industriously work on their own deficit balancing strategies.  

The founder of Buddhism is Gautama Buddha. In consonance with his propositions, he also had re-births. Because of his very advanced mental capability he could recollect them. It was not time travel but mind travel, where the arrow of the mind could go forward or backward. There are 547 birth stories (Jatakas) which deal with the births of Gautama Buddha. These relate his work-in-progress at transit stops- also called births- in Buddha’s moral upward mobility towards Nirvana.

Narrated with animal and human forms, these Jatakas have a vividness and immediacy which captures the attention of both child and adult alike. The authors have sifted through the entire compendium of Jatakas and selected thirty-two of them, for publication in English. While doing so, they have simplified the original, but not made them simplistic. In publication, the authors aim was to appeal to all readers.

Puncihewa and Karunaratne are eminently suitable for this task. Both, who are Buddhists, have a mastery of the necessary languages, Sinhala, English and Pali. Both are Honours graduates of the University of Peradeniya, one in Sinhala and the other in Geography. Both joined the senior public service immediately on graduation, and, while in service, continued their academic interests, each gaining a Ph D, a rare achievement for a busy, serving public officer. They are also writers having won several national literary prizes.

The authors had introduced an interesting innovation in their publication, that of heading each Jataka tale with a title, which captures the essence of that particular Jathaka. The 32 headings are worth repeating, Leadership, Entrepreneurship, The Honest Trader, The Power of Loving Words, Hypocrisy, Wise Counselling, Canine Wisdom, A Sagacious Vow, A Valuable Lesson, Heedlessness, Laziness Leads to Failure, Laziness leads to Failure, Gratitude 1 and 2, Revenge, Crafty Jackal,  Greedy Crow, Smart Monkey, Guard Your Tongue, Unfounded Fear, Two Different Encounters, Filial Affection, A Magnanimous Act, Genuine Friendship, Neck to Neck, The Foiled Trick, Respect for Elders, Strength in Unity, Friendship, Compassion, A Clever Trick, Hoity-Toity, Naughty Parrot.

At the end of each tale, they pose a few incisive questions, stimulating further thought on the subject, the answering of which would reveal the deeper meaning of the relevant tale. The Jatakas, appeal at different levels, as a straight forward tale that grips the imagination of children- similar to Sinbad the Sailor and Cinderella- devoured by children with relish. These Jatakas also served as templates for moral enhancement. A statement from the Mahavamsa, written almost a millennium later, could be retro-fitted “it was written for the serene joy of the pious.”

The second tale in the book is on Entrepreneurship. The tale draws from Cullasetthi Jataka. Though the tale is 2 ½ millennia old, it has contemporary resonance. A young lad, Cullasetthi, saw a dead mouse on the road, fed it to a cat and was rewarded with a few cents (Those who feel squeamish might reflect that the protein humans consume, are also dead meat: beef, chicken, pork, venison, sushi is raw fish). Using this money, he set in line an upwardly mobile business career, gradually increasing his capitalist ventures, shifting gears from small entrepreneur to a medium term one. Then he went big time, using information as a factor of production. Getting inside information that a horse trader was expected by ship, he surmised that the horses would need fodder which was in short supply. He brought up all the fodder available, cornering the market. He was in clover: he was able to reap monopoly profits. On another occasion, he pitched camp at a strategic spot (location, location, location) which commanded the entry point to the palace and erected a barrier to exit, unless a cess was paid. On another occasion, he got a Royal Decree for a monopoly and gained rentier income, a precursor of the license raj. Business is the management of risk. In a world where there was no insurance to download part of the risk, he bore the entirety of the risk himself: he had no moral hazard to contend with. He ended in the 1%. In Sri Lanka there were similar entrepreneurs, Hiniappuhamy (Malibans) and Gnanam (Mascons) were some of them. They started life by pounding the pavements, hand carrying their goods and grew into millionaires like Culasseti.  Each Jataka tale has a message to impart.

Sri Lanka is a community that hegemonises learning. At age two to three, parents give the child their first lesson, accompanied by religious blessings, by getting the child to draw the first letter of the alphabet on the sand. The education continues in temples for Buddhist children. This publication would be an excellent introduction to the Jataka Tales. It should on the book-shelf of every English speaking Buddhist family.


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