They normally start with the Buddha relating a contemporary situation facing him to a similar one that faced him in a past life, at the end of the stories, he then says who the characters represent in real life. As works of religious literature, they are similar to the secondary literature of other faiths, most notably the Hindu Puranas which depict faith-inspiring folk stories of the Hindu gods, such as Krishna.
They are also similar to the Islamic Hadith which is the actions and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad that provides an example to Muslims. The main thing I love about the Jatakas — and the main idea I think most Buddhists take from them — is that they bring the Buddha fundamentally down to our level; that is, the level of ordinary Buddhists.
In the main body Pali Suttas, and in Mahayana Sutras, we are so used to seeing the Buddha as beyond ordinary. Even though he was a human, of course, the main image of the Buddha tends to be this image of a great being who attained supreme Enlightenment through his own intelligence, integrity and effort. Whilst this view of him is true, he can sometimes seem somewhat out of reach of ordinary lay Buddhists.
By saying this, the Buddha is bringing himself down to our level. This gives us hope that we, as humans, can aspire to Enlightenment.
With his glorious image as sage and Englightened Being, we can sometimes forget that he was human, and that, before he became the Buddha, he was just like us. A being, trapped in the continuous cycle of samsara taking birth again and again in different forms in order to reach enlightenment.
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Story below. Tradition says that Siddhartha Gautama, in a previous life, eons ago, was a man named Sumedha. Sumedha made the vow that he would achieve this great goal — and thus the Jatakas begin. We can take from the Jatakas a reminder that the Buddha was once exactly the same as us — and that we can all reach enlightenment just like he did. The Jatakas remind us of our inherent Buddha Nature, universal to all sentient beings.
Jataka tales - Wikipedia
In each short life story, the Buddha, in his previous incarnations, performs an act that demonstrates a key Buddhist quality such as compassion, wisdom, self-sacrifice, and loving kindness. Since we see the Buddha Himself lived as every form of life, it helps teach us we should respect all life. In Buddhist belief, all sentient life has Buddha Nature, and any form of life could be a potential Bodhisattva. In the Jakata Tales he lived as a hare, woodpecker, ruru deer, monkey king, elephant, buffalo, and many others.
In the tale of the Monkey King, the theme is leadership and self-sacrifice:.
Stories of the Lives of the Buddha
The Buddha lived as countless human beings: men and women of different social statuses, nationality, professions, and race. This helps teach us, we should reject discrimination for any reason, without exception. He was renowned for his learning, nobility, and modest behavior. His lofty aspirations and complete honesty caused him to be revered above all others.
The mother started wailing in sadness, and seeing this, the daughter assumed her mother knew something she did not and in turn started to also believe that her husband was going to leave her. When the rumor finally reached the treasurer, he was confused but at the same time, he was honored that all these people viewed him as virtuous enough to live an ascetic life. He felt that after being held in such high regard, if he were to say it was just a rumor and continue to cling to the home life, he would not be worthy of their praise.
Thus he decided to actually renounce the world and live in the woods as a mendicant and pursue nothing but meditation and cultivation of virtue. He had extensive knowledge of the constellations so he was never lost. Even as an old man in retirement, a group of merchants still wanted him to captain their vessel.
Out of compassion he agreed, and as they set off they rejoiced, trusting that their journey would be successful. Yet on the first night, after they had lost sight of the shore and began to travel into a deeper part of the ocean inhabited by strange sea creatures, they ran into a terrible storm. They were not able to control the ship in the fierce winds.
No matter how much they struggled, they were unable to maintain their course. They were blown through many seas. Suparaga had been warning them to turn back the whole time but no matter how much they tried, the wind was too strong. At that point, Suparaga told the men to harness their courage and then bowed down, proclaiming to the men as well as the sky and ocean gods that he had never harmed a single being. To do this we need to discover who and what we are; with satire, exaggeration, and pathos, fables hold up a mirror before us.
In this way they instruct and uplift -- and do it quite effectively. To this end, fables have been repeated and adapted for each generation and life situation. Many, stemming from truths older than time, have passed orally from age to age and country to country. This accounts for their startling similarities and variations, and for the confusion surrounding their origins. Some scholars, for instance, believe that Aesop's fables were drawn from the wisdom of Egypt; others, that they were carried to Greece by way of the ancient Indo-European country of Phrygia, where Aesop was born and probably heard these stories as a child.
Archaeologists have unearthed in ancient Mesopotamia three to four thousand-year-old cuneiform tablets with proverbs that feature animal characters. They suggest that the fables were brought from Sumeria to Assyria and from there by Hittites to Phrygia.taylor.evolt.org/tihyj-algaida-web-de.php
More Stories From The Jatakas
These stories -- whose characters also include humans and gods -- captivated the Greek fancy. Little is known of Aesop's life other than from references to him in philosophical historical writings of his contemporaries. Plato, for one, mentions that Socrates, when in prison awaiting death, translated from memory Aesop's fables into verse. Others speak of Aesop as wise and eloquent, which belies his biographer's claim that the slave Aesop was grotesque in appearance, dwarfish, pot bellied, dark complexioned -- and mute, until the goddess Isis, grateful for his kindnesses to her priestess, restored his voice and the nine Muses each endowed him with her special gift.
Thereafter Aesop rose to fame and fortune.
Eventually he was granted freedom by Xanthus, the philosopher, whom he had served with distinction, having often solved problems that baffled his master and with homely aphorisms outwitted Xanthus' intellectual students. Once free, Aesop made his home in Samos and traveled widely, visiting Corinth, Athens, and elsewhere.
At Babylon he was appointed minister to the king, and in Lydia became a favorite of the wealthy King Croesus. It was there in the court of Croesus that he became acquainted with Solon the great lawgiver, and with many of the famous men of that time.
Sent to Delphi on a commission of the King, Aesop found the Delphians unworthy of their reputation; and they, fearing exposure, planned to destroy him. Concealing a golden bowl from the temple of Apollo in his baggage, they accused him of theft and sacrilege, and condemned him without a fair trial to be hurled to his death from the Phaedrian cliffs.
This, they implied, was the vengeance of Apollo, whose wrath he had apparently incurred years earlier when he had erected at Samos a shrine to honor the Muses rather than the God. His cruel death shamed and saddened the ancient world. Two hundred years later, in Athens, a statue of Aesop was placed in front of those of the Seven Sages of Greece.
During the past 2 5 00 years or so Aesop's fables have been translated and enjoyed the world over. Generations have been instructed to emulate their clarity of style and satire. In the first, we read of a lion, who awoke to discover a mouse running over his back. He seized him and was about to eat him when the mouse said, "If you will let me go, I will repay you.
Later the lion was caught by hunters and tied up. Hearing his groans the mouse came to his rescue; gnawing through the rope he set the lion free.
In the contest between the North Wind and the Sun each wagered that he was the stronger and would prove it by forcing a man to take off his coat. The Wind blew and blew, but the more he blustered, the tighter the man wrapped his coat about him. The sun just beamed, and the man, warmed and relaxed, took off his coat! The five hundred or more Jataka tales are as familiar in India as Aesop's are in the West, and enjoyed for the common sense and consideration for others they illustrate. Jataka means "birth story.
Since he had made his vow of compassion ninety-one aeons ago, these tales describe incidents in both animal and human incarnations. Some relate the mistakes he made and point out the lessons learned; others dwell on acts of kindness and wisdom which, while furthering his attainment of the Virtues Paramitas , helped and ennobled all those about him [cf. Paramita means "to go beyond," and implies that through spiritual effort one is able to leave this world's suffering and illusion and to cross over to the "other shore" of spiritual awareness. The Paramitas are one of the world's noblest codes of conduct, practical guidelines for everyone who would improve his life, be he householder or monk.
One story tells of the Bodhisattva being born as a Banyan deer in the forest of Kosala, whose king hunted deer every day with his friends in the forest, often riding through carefully planted fields in the chase. The farmers in exasperation enclosed an area where the king could hunt without destroying their crops. Inside this area the deer agreed that, rather than having many injured and many more frightened each day, one deer would be selected by lot for the royal hunt. This worked well until the lot fell to a mother with a newborn fawn. Distressed, she asked if some other deer would take her place so that the life of her fawn might be spared.
No one volunteered until the Banyan, king of the deer, came forward and himself took her place.