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Much Travelled Tales

Pradip Bhattacharya

Translated by A.N.D. Haksar
Harper Collins, New Delhi, 2003, pp. 300, Rs. 295.00


If the original tradition of India is contained in the Vedas, the Vedanta, epics, Puranas and the Kathasaritsagar (“Ocean of Stories”), its Buddhist corpus is the Tripitaka.  In a way, the counterpart of the Kathasaritsagar is the Jatakas consisting of 547 stories of past births of the 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 the 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 the Hitopadesa. 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 (the Sihachamma 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 ...

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