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date: 15 November 2019


Summary and Keywords

A jātaka story narrates an episode in a past life of the Buddha. Such tales are found in a variety of Buddhist texts, the largest and best known of which is the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā, a collection of almost 550 stories in the Pāli language preserved by the Theravāda school. Jātaka stories emphasize the Buddha’s great abilities as visionary and storyteller, and illustrate moral lessons, the workings of karma, or the perfections required for the attainment of buddhahood. A focus of a large number of stories is the ideal of generosity, which, for an aspiring buddha, includes being prepared to give away one’s own children, or the flesh and blood from one’s own body. In addition to their widespread presence in texts, jātaka stories have been depicted at Buddhist stūpa and temple sites since before the beginning of the Common Era, and continue to be a popular form of Buddhist visual art to this day. They also play an important role in the cultural life of some Buddhist countries, inspiring literature, theater, opera, and other art forms. Their place in the Buddha’s sacred biography gives them a special symbolic value, which is behind some uses of the stories in art and ritual. The Vessantara-jātaka, understood in Theravāda tradition as narrating the Buddha’s penultimate human birth and his acquisition of the perfection of generosity, takes on a particularly important role in artistic, ritual, and festive contexts. In addition, there is evidence to suggest that the jātaka genre as a whole had an important role in the formation and communication of ideas about buddhahood, karma and merit, and the place of the Buddha in relation to other buddhas and bodhisattvas.

Keywords: jātaka, narrative, art, Buddhism, Buddha, bodhisattva, perfections, biography

The Jātaka Genre

Simply defined, a jātaka story is a tale of a past life of the Buddha. The Buddha is said to have seen all his past lives during the night in which he attained awakening, as a result of entering an advanced meditative state.1 He is understood to have told the stories at various stages during his teaching career, to illustrate the workings of karma, or the preparations he underwent for buddhahood, or the characters and propensities of the people around him. Several hundred stories were compiled in various texts, illustrated at Buddhist sites, and integrated into sermons, rituals, and festivals.

It is clear that jātaka was considered one of the genres of Buddhist composition from a fairly early period, since it is included in the lists of nine or twelve aṅgas (limbs) of the teaching, alongside such prominent genres as sūtra (discourses), udāna (inspired utterances), and gāthā (verses).2 Their preservation seems to have been assigned to specialized jātaka-bhāṇakas, or reciters, who would have memorized the stories and taught them on various occasions, though it is not clear quite what the stories consisted of in the early period, nor how they were used.3 In contrast to the sūtra and vinaya texts, of which large parts are shared across the various schools into which Buddhism split in the few hundred years following the death of the Buddha, there is no evidence of a single shared jātaka collection, though individual stories are found across different schools. Rather, we find several different jātaka texts that preserve differing understandings of what the jātaka genre is and is for. The jātaka genre also often overlaps with other genres of Buddhist narrative, particularly avadånas. Indeed, tales of the Buddha’s past lives are sometimes labeled bodhisattva-avadānas instead of (or as well as) jātakas.

There is much variety in jātaka tales and texts, but several key themes can be discerned that often thread through the genre. Firstly, the stories are used to demonstrate the superior vision and knowledge of the Buddha, who not only is able to see his own past lives (an ability that is usually understood to testify to his mastery of meditation), but also has a story to suit every occasion. The identification of a story as a jātaka often seems to be made with the aim of demonstrating that all stories originate with the fantastic storyteller-teacher and supreme meditator that is the Buddha.4

The second major association of the jātaka genre is with the long life story and multilife path of the Buddha. Jātaka stories became understood as narrating the lifetimes of the Buddha between his initial vow to buddhahood and his achievement of that state, in other words during his time as a bodhisattva (Sanskrit) or bodhisatta (Pāli), a being destined for buddhahood. In some collections jātakas are explicitly said to demonstrate the long path to buddhahood, and the perfections or virtues required for its attainment. In the Theravāda tradition these perfections usually number ten: giving (dāna), good conduct (sīla), renunciation (nekkhamma), wisdom (paññā), energy (viriya), forbearance (khanti), truth (sacca), determination (adhiṭṭhāna), loving kindness (mettā), and equanimity (upekkhā). In other Indian and Mahāyāna texts we more often find six perfections—giving (dāna), good conduct (śīla), forbearance (kṣanti), energy (vīrya), meditation (samādhi/dhyāna), and wisdom (prajñā)—but the message is the same: jātakas illustrate these great virtues. Such illustrations not only inspire awe at the great achievements of the Buddha, but also encourage the audience to pursue these virtues themselves, even if their emulation of the glorious Bodhisattva (Buddha-to-be) will inevitably be weak.

One perfection above all others came to be strongly associated with the jātakas and that is generosity, or giving, known in Pāli and Sanskrit as dāna. Generosity is a key value in the Buddhist worldview, since it demonstrates nonattachment (to the thing given), compassion (for a recipient in need), or faith (for a recipient in the Buddhist monastic community), and in practical terms ensures the continuation of the monastic order, which could not survive without gifts of food and shelter. Several particularly famous jātaka stories take this virtue to extremes. Many stories tell of the Buddha-to-be making gifts of parts of his body, giving his eyes to a blind man, slicing off his flesh to ransom a dove from a hawk, or allowing a starving tigress to devour him.5 Another famous tale—the most popular in the Theravāda world, where it is understood to narrate the last-but-one human life of the Buddha—tells of the Buddha’s past life as Prince Vessantara (or Viśvantara in Sanskrit). Vessantara’s great generosity leads to his being banished to the forest with his two children and loyal wife. In a heart-wrenching scene, he then gives his children to a Brahmin who wishes to have them for slaves. The next morning the king of the gods, Śakra, takes on a disguise as a Brahmin (as he does fairly regularly in the jātakas) and asks for Vessantara’s wife, whom Vessantara freely gives. A great family reunion ensues, with Vessantara’s wife (the Buddha’s wife in a past life) immediately returned to him, the children ransomed by their grandfather, and Vessantara invited home to rule; the evil Brahmin who beat the children cruelly dies from overeating. Such happy endings, however, cannot disguise the tension in the story, which takes generosity to an extreme that few audience members or readers are wholly comfortable with.

Stories of the Bodhisattva’s extreme generosity serve to demonstrate the lengths to which the Buddha-to-be had to go in order to prepare himself for buddhahood. His path is shown to be extraordinarily hard, and we don’t generally get the impression from jātaka texts that ordinary Buddhists should be emulating his extreme generosity. Rather, Buddhists are inspired by the Buddha’s great dedication to becoming a buddha, and are grateful for his life-changing establishment of the Buddhist teachings and community. Other stories, particularly those in the avadāna genre, emphasize the enormous merit that can be gained from acts of devotion or small gifts given to Buddhist recipients, whether to the Buddha himself, members of his monastic community, or images and reliquaries. The Buddha, by becoming Buddha, has instituted the greatest “field of merit” available, and made it possible for his followers to achieve great spiritual and karmic benefits without going to the extraordinary lengths that he had to in his past lives during times when there was no Buddhism in the world.6 Meanwhile, Buddhists are also inspired to emulate the Buddha’s actions in a weaker form, by giving a son to the monastery as an ordinand, for example, or by donating blood and registering as an organ donor.7

However, the Buddha’s long path, as we discover in jātaka stories, was not an individual path of gradually accrued virtue, but a communal path involving repeated interactions with others. Commenting on the long-standing propensities of key characters from the Buddha’s retinue, and highlighting their multilife relationship with him, appears to be another key theme of jātaka stories in some texts, including the copious Jātakatthavaṇṇanā. Story after story demonstrates the multilife hatred and incompetence of the Buddha’s cousin and nemesis Devadatta, while many other tales show the Buddha’s repeated friendships with senior monks such as his attendant Ānanda. The Buddha’s multilife relationship with his parents, wife, and son is also common in the stories, often reinforcing the strength of attachment to his family that had to be overcome in his final life. The jātakas therefore build up a sense of a whole Buddhist community moving toward its final formation, in which most of its members achieve liberation.

Jātaka tales, then, can demonstrate the Buddha’s prowess as a meditator and storyteller, as well as his extraordinary path, involving incredible acts of virtue, self-sacrifice, and generosity. They can be awe-inspiring for their audiences, who can barely believe the lengths to which the Buddha had to go in order to bring them the benefits of his teachings and institutions. The tales can also serve as exemplars, even if the audience’s emulation of the Buddha’s activities may be weak in some cases. They also create a sense of community and of multilife encounters with the Buddha, commenting on the characters and propensities of members of his retinue, and allowing audience members to imagine themselves into a relationship with him.

It is worth noting that the jātaka genre is a uniquely Buddhist genre. The Jains, while they shared the Buddhist love of multilife stories and told some stories about the past lives of their Jinas, did not have a jātaka genre, since they held that aspiring to become a liberated teacher would bind bad karma. For Jains, the karma that leads to tīrthaṅkara-hood is bound two lives before that attainment, without the person knowing.8 Brahmanical Hindu literature, meanwhile, tended to prefer tales of mythical lineages and divine interventions, rather than karmic histories or multilife biographies.

Jātaka Texts

The biggest and best-known jātaka text is the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā or Jātakatthakathā (Commentary on the Jātaka), which is a collection of almost 550 stories in the Pāli language, preserved by the Theravāda school. The text has verses at its core, and these are believed to be canonical or buddhavacana (word of the Buddha), and are preserved as part of the Khuddaka Nikāya of the Theravāda scriptures. However, these verses come to life only with their surrounding prose narrative, which is nonetheless considered commentarial, and was only fixed—after a long history—in the 5th century ce. The commentary is traditionally ascribed to Buddhaghosa, though this attribution is unlikely to be accurate.9

The stories of the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā follow a set structure. A “story of the present” explains the circumstances in which the Buddha was prompted to tell a tale of one of his many past lives, which then forms the “story of the past.” The verse or verses are usually in the story of the past. The story ends with the Buddha revealing who in the past story was who in the present: minimally, the Buddha himself is identified as one of the characters in the past, and usually other members of his family or monastic retinue also feature. The hundreds of jātakas in this collection are presented in order of increasing number of verses, from 150 short stories containing a single verse each, through to 10 long stories that are more akin to epic ballads. A biographical preface, the Nidāna-kathā (Story of the origins), adds the stories of the Buddha-to-be aspiring to buddhahood at the feet of twenty-four buddhas of the past, as well as of his final birth and early life, introducing a sense of chronology and path to the text as a whole.

The Nidāna-kathā links the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā with two other important jātaka texts of the Pāli tradition. The Buddhavaṃsa (Lineage of Buddha[s]) begins with the story of how Sumedha, who later becomes the Buddha of our time, encounters a past buddha named Dīpaṅkara, and makes an aspiration to buddhahood. This aspiration is repeated at the feet of the twenty-four past buddhas of this current time cycle, about whom a few formulaic details are given. The Buddhavaṃsa also records how the Buddha-to-be reflected on the ten perfections needed for the attainment of buddhahood, and the Cariyapiṭaka (Basket of conduct) provides thirty-five short verse summaries of some of the lifetimes in which he worked toward those perfections, largely overlapping with stories found in the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā. These two texts, both included in the Khuddaka Nikāya, build on the idea that jātakas are part of the sacred biography of the Buddha and exemplify the path to buddhahood. This ideology, married with the set structure of the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā stories, also fed into the various nonclassical jātaka collections of Southeast Asia, which are collectively known as Paññāsa Jātaka (Fifty Jātakas) texts.

Although the Theravāda seems to be the only school to have collected together its jātakas into a single collection of such magnitude as the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā, jātaka stories are found in other important Indian texts. The Mahāvastu (Great story) includes many jātakas in among its broadly biographical frame, often using tales of the past as mirrors for events in the life story of the Buddha. The Avadānaśataka (One hundred stories) contains two chapters of ten jātakas each, among its one hundred tales of karmic consequences. The Divyāvadāna (Divine stories) also includes jātaka stories, as do many later collections of avadānas. Jātakas are also embedded in some sūtra and vinaya texts, most famously in the copious narratives of the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya (Monastic regulations of the Mūlasarvāstivāda school).10 Āryaśūra’s Jātakamālā (Garland of jātakas) retells thirty-four stories, most with parallels in the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā, in elegant Sanskrit verse and prose, and sets a standard for subsequent Jātakamālā texts by other authors.11 Stories were also collected together in Jātakastava (Jātaka-praise) texts, which eulogize the Buddha’s achievements with reference to his past lives.12

The understanding of what a jātaka is and what form it should take differs both within and between texts, demonstrating how widespread and diverse the genre is. For example, in the Cariyapiṭaka and Jātakamālā the stories are told in praise of the Buddha’s past virtues, but in the former the tales are first-person declarations in the voice of the Buddha, while in the latter they are poetic compositions by a named author, in the third person. In neither text is there any narrative frame explaining why or to whom the stories were originally told. Both the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā and the Mahāvastu make it clear that the Buddha was the original teller of his jātaka stories, thereby asserting his impressive status as visionary and revealer, and we also often see the audience response and hear tales of the past lives of other members of the Buddha’s community or family. The Mahāvastu tends to use jātakas to mirror events in the final life of the Buddha; for example, a cluster of stories about his wooing of his wife in the past explain the necessity of his courtship in his final life. Such mirrorings are common in the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā too, but there are also other relationships between past and present in that text, for example karmic causes of present circumstances.

Karmic connections are foregrounded in the stories found in the Avadānaśataka, yet there is internal variety even in this text. While the first ten jātakas included (Avadānaśataka 11–20) demonstrate the devotional relationship between the Buddha-to-be and buddhas of the past that results in his receipt of honor in the present, the second set (Avadānaśataka 31–40) tell of extreme acts of virtue or generosity in times of no past buddha. Again the audience response is noted in the text: the first ten stories are said to inspire awe and veneration from the monastic community, while the second group is said to inspire emulation of the Buddha’s virtues. The focus on karma and merit in this text is in line with the generic conventions of avadānas, which tend to tell stories of past and future lives, aspirations and achievements, and the power of the Buddhist “field of merit.”

A further shift occurs when jātaka stories are included in Mahāyāna texts, for here the focus is on the bodhisattva path and the perfections as an ideal to be followed by more than just a single extraordinary individual. This tends to result in the use of stories to glorify the great achievements of the Buddha as an exemplary bodhisattva, for example in the list of fifty jātakas in the Rāṣṭrapālaparipṛcchā, or the use of the stories in the Bodhisattvapiṭaka to elucidate the six perfections.13 Here a celebration of the great past acts of the Buddha is tied to the notion that he is an exemplar to be followed by all aspiring bodhisattvas. There is therefore a subtle tendency to downplay the individual in favor of the idea of a multiplicity of bodhisattvas, though it is notable that the jātaka genre remains almost exclusively associated with the “historical” Buddha.

Jātakas and the Arts

Illustrations of jātaka stories have been popular at Buddhist sites at least since they first adorned the stone gateways and railings that surround the stūpa at Bharhut in Madhya Pradesh in the 1st century bce.14 Similar stone reliefs can be found at nearby Sanchi, and at the South Indian sites of Kanaganahalli, Nagarjunakonda, and Amaravati, all dating to the first few centuries ce.15 These early reliefs are often monoscenic, though sometimes several scenes are depicted in a single roundel or panel. The Vessantara-jātaka (or, in Sanskrit, Viśvantara-jātaka) is singled out for special treatment at Sanchi, where it is illustrated in a series of panels, testifying to its particular importance.

These early reliefs depicting jātakas provide evidence for the widespread currency of the stories during the early centuries CE, and suggest that they were considered appropriate for illustration at stūpa sites. This location for the stories suggests an early association between the jātaka genre and the sacred biography of the Buddha, an association strengthened by the presence of scenes from the final life of the Buddha at the same sites. As a part of what made the Buddha who he was, the jātakas form an important element in his long life story, a life story that often continues through the presence of his relics at the stūpa site.

Although jātaka stories appear at these early sites, at this stage there is no clear link to a textual collection. Some of the stories at Bharhut are labeled with Prākrit inscriptions, and many have been identified with stories now found in the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā, though the titles do not always match up with those used in this collection, and some stories have not been convincingly identified at all. At other sites stories have been identified through comparison with written texts, though some stories vary in their depiction, and some scenes cannot be recognized. The early visual history of jātaka stories therefore provides an alternative perspective to the extant textual collections.

The popularity of jātaka stories at Buddhist sites continued unabated through subsequent centuries and across the Buddhist world. The stories were included in stūpa complexes in Gandhara in the far northwest, an area of intense Buddhist activity in the early centuries of the Common Era.16 The stories also appear in a different type of setting, namely monastic cave complexes, such as the western Indian sites of Ajanta and Bagh. The Ajanta Caves (Maharashtra) include jātaka stories painted in intricate murals dating from the 5th century CE, often covering an entire wall with their complicated multiscenic narratives.17 Murals in caves found along the Silk Route toward China, such as at Dunhuang and Kizil, also testify to the popularity of jātaka stories.18 The depiction of jātaka stories was important as well in many later sites, for example the great monument at Borobudur in Java.19

In Southeast Asia we often find depictions of the final ten stories of the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā, which are understood as making up the final ten lives of the Buddha and are associated with the ten perfections required for buddhahood. The first evidence of the ten being depicted together as a set is from 11th-century Mon temples of lower Burma (Myanmar), but the group of ten became particularly common from the 18th century onward, especially in Thailand.20 The ten appear on the inside walls of temple uposatha halls, painted on cloth banners, or depicted on gold-lacquered scripture cabinets.21 They are also commonly illustrated on manuscripts, especially those containing compilations of chanting texts.22 The full quota of jātaka stories was not forgotten with this focus on the ten, however: Wat Khrua Wan (Thonburi, Thailand, first half of the 19th century) has over 500 of the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā stories painted in square panels in its uposatha hall, while the Ananda Temple in Pagan (Burma [Myanmar], 11th–12th century CE) has terracotta tiles depicting all 550 stories.

The inclusion of jātaka images in such a diverse range of Buddhist sites testifies not only to their enduring popularity, but also to their importance as part of the sacred biography of the Buddha, and their continued relevance as a teaching aid. Their appearance is not limited to the visual arts, for their literary value is also an important part of the stories’ appeal. The tales have been reworked as plays, radio plays, television and film adaptations, poems, songs, opera, and dance, and they continue to be an important part of the cultural heritage of Buddhist countries, especially those from the Theravāda world. For example, in Burma the poetic genre Pyo usually draws on jātaka stories,23 and much traditional Thai literature rests on the jātakas, especially the Paññāsa Jātaka,24 while a series of Thai opera-ballets is reinterpreting the final ten jātakas of the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā for a modern audience.25

Jātakas in Buddhist Life

Textual and artistic evidence suggests that jātaka stories have played an important role in Buddhist life throughout history. Although we do not have much detailed information about the ways in which Buddhists have interacted with the stories, certain trends can be seen.

Jātaka stories often form a part of sermons and other forms of teaching, and it seems likely that this has always been their primary function. We know little of the early audiences for the stories, though they probably included both monks and nuns and laypeople, since the many stories vary in their messages. Some stories emphasize the importance of renunciation or focus on the dangers of sense pleasures, messages particularly suitable for a monastic audience. Many others laud the giving of gifts or moral activity, or emphasize the glories of the Buddha that make Buddhism and its institutions so worthy of support; such messages are more suitable for lay supporters. The stories would have been conducive to a wide variety of teaching uses, from simple moral lessons to illustrations of the path to buddhahood.

It would be wrong, however, to view jātakas as simply a form of narrative teaching. Because of their association with the sacred biography of the Buddha, and with the perfections that make buddhahood possible, jātaka stories also have various symbolic roles. Some of the ways in which they are used in visual form testify to this. For example, at some sites, jātaka stories have been illustrated in deliberately inaccessible places, covered from view or out of reach. In such cases the symbolic value of the stories is more important than their role as teachings, and they add some form of potency or sacrality to the site.26 Another example is found in 18th-century central Thai manuscript culture, in which we often see jātakas decorating folded paper manuscripts, known as samut khoi. However, the text that they accompany is never the jātaka stories, but rather a selection of chanting texts that have no connection to the narratives. While it is possible that the illustrations are there as visual prompts for sermons, it is perhaps more likely that they are present as symbolic of buddhahood and the ten perfections. That the stories chosen are invariably the final ten stories of the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā, which are understood to relate the final ten lives of the Buddha-to-be and his fulfillment of the ten perfections, further supports such an interpretation.27 The ten stories and their association with the ten perfections also form the subject of popular chants, further indicating their special status not as moral tales, but as sacred biography and potent reminders of perfection. Symbolic and narrative value are not, of course, mutually exclusive: the use of jātaka stories in the ritual consecration of Buddha images in Thailand suggests that they simultaneously remind the Buddha(-image) who he is by recounting his life story and infuse him with the buddhahood that he achieved.28

A story that has particular potency is the Vessantara-jātaka, the final tale in the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā and a story understood in Theravāda Buddhist tradition as narrating the Buddha’s antepenultimate birth (and his penultimate human birth, his subsequent birth being in a heavenly realm).29 This story has long held particular importance in the Buddhist world, as is attested by its widespread presence, often in a more elaborate form than other stories, in artistic representations. The story is also associated with a series of pilgrimage sites in Gandhara mentioned by the 6th- and 7th-century Chinese pilgrims Songyun and Xuanzang.30 In Southeast Asia the Vessantara story is the subject of several traditions of ritual recitation and reenactment, sometimes accompanied by special visual prompts including painted scrolls.31 The villain of the story, the Brahmin Jūjuka who asks for Vessantara’s children as slaves, has even become an object of veneration and protection in Thailand: since he is the recipient of the ultimate gift, his amulets or shrines bring prosperity and good luck.

In addition to all these areas of Buddhist life and practice, the stories played an important role in doctrinal formations, at least in the early period. The layers of the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā, for example, suggest that during this text’s gradual consolidation the idea of a jātaka as illustrative of the bodhisattva path was developing.32 This association, applied to an existing and varied body of stories, threw up certain challenges, since emerging ideas about the path to buddhahood had to be reconciled with, for example, stories of the Bodhisattva’s immoral conduct. The consistent maleness of the Buddha in his past lives also resulted in various discussions of the extent to which being a man is a necessary prerequisite for the bodhisattva path.33 In other schools, jātaka stories were also used to explore notions of buddhahood and the qualities required for it, as well as understandings of karma and merit, and the place of the Buddha in relation to other buddhas and bodhisattvas.

Review of the Literature

Scholarship on jātaka stories historically tended to focus on the Pāli collection, and has been hampered by a number of assumptions about the value of that text. The Jātakatthavaṇṇanā was edited in the late 19th century, and a full team translation was completed in 1907. There was wide interest in this text during this early period of Buddhist scholarship, but its value was seen as being limited to two areas: Firstly, it was mined for data as an assumed witness to the social and cultural conditions of early India, despite the problems inherent in dating the collection and its various layers.34 Secondly, the stories were studied as world folklore, with connections to other narrative collections both within India and outside it.35 While such studies provided fascinating evidence for the ability of stories to cross geographic and cultural borders, they did not add much to scholarly understandings of the stories in their Buddhist context.

As an example of this early approach to jātakas, T. W. Rhys Davids, one of the first scholars to examine the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā, described it both as “full of information on the daily habits and customs and beliefs of the people of India, and on every variety of the numerous questions that arise as to their economic and social conditions,” and “the most reliable, the most complete, and the most ancient collection of folklore now extant in any literature in the world.”36 Despite the enthusiasm of Rhys Davids and others, this early approach established the view that the stories were neither very Buddhist nor an example of real literary culture. It was assumed that they held little Buddhist value, since they were simply folktales, shared with other cultures and contexts, and used as entertainment or simple moral teachings, aimed at a popular audience, addressing worldly concerns.

In recent decades the scholarly approach to jātakas has changed, however. With new attention being paid to the ways in which narrative sources provide insight into Buddhist thought, thanks in large part to the work of such scholars as Steven Collins and John Strong,37 jātakas have finally been acknowledged as a serious expression of ideas about the Buddha, buddhahood, the bodhisattva path, and Buddhist ethics.38 In addition, other texts containing jātaka stories, such as the Paññāsa Jātaka, Avadānaśataka, Divyāvadāna, and Mahāvastu, have begun to be studied seriously as Buddhist literature, and questions are starting to be asked about how jātakas are integrated into these and other collections. Thematic studies of the jātaka genre have also begun to appear, most notably a pioneering study of gift-of-the-body jātakas.39 Fresh editorial and translation work is also under way, though much more is needed in this area, with the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā and several other jātaka-rich texts in need of new translations.

In addition to these studies of jātaka texts, there have been some important explorations of the stories’ presence in the art and culture of the Buddhist world. While it was initially assumed that jātaka illustrations were always meant to provide a visual narrative representation of a story, recent scholarship has explored the role of jātaka depictions in instilling power or sacredness in a site, as part of the sacred biography of the Buddha and as symbolic of the perfections.40 A similar association between jātakas and the potency of buddhahood has been shown to be behind some uses of the stories in the ritual consecration of images.41 Further work on the uses of jātaka stories in Buddhist life, including sermons, rituals, and festivals, remains a key priority for our understanding of the genre.

Primary Sources

Some of the main collections of jātaka stories are available in English translations:


E. B. Cowell, ed. (several translators). The Jātaka, or Stories of the Buddha’s Former Births. 6 vols. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1895–1907.

This full translation was an impressive achievement in its day, and remains of great importance despite its sometimes turgid Victorian English, with the verses rendered in rhyming couplets and the rude bits translated into Latin. It has been reprinted multiple times and is also freely available online.

Naomi Appleton and Sarah Shaw, trans. The Ten Great Birth Stories of the Buddha. 2 vols. Chiang Mai: Silkworm, 2015.

The final ten stories of the collection, which are believed to narrate the final ten lives of the Buddha and his culmination of the ten perfections.

Sarah Shaw, trans. The Jātakas: Birth Stories of the Bodhisatta. Delhi: Penguin, 2006.

A selection of twenty-six stories from the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā, with introduction and notes.

Margaret Cone and Richard F. Gomrich, trans. The Perfect Generosity of Prince Vessantara: A Buddhist Epic. 2d ed. Bristol, U.K.: Pali Text Society, 2011.

A very scholarly translation of this, the most popular story of the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā, by Cone, and a helpful introduction to the story by Gombrich.

Buddhavaṃsa and Cariyāpiṭaka

I. B. Horner, trans. The Minor Anthologies of the Pali Canon, Part III: Chronicle of Buddhas (Buddhavaṃsa) and Basket of Conduct (Cariyāpiṭaka). Oxford: Pali Text Society, 1975.

A somewhat dated but still very usable translation of these two short texts from the Khuddaka Nikāya.

Paññāsa Jātaka

I. B. Horner and Padmanabh S. Jaini, trans. Apocryphal Birth-Stories (Paññāsa-Jātaka). 2 vols. Sacred Books of the Buddhists 38. London: Pali Text Society, 1985–1986.

A full translation of a Pāli collection from Burma, which is just one of several examples of the Paññāsa Jātaka genre.


Peter Khoroche, trans. When the Buddha Was a Monkey: Ārya Śūra’s Jātakamālā. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

A very accessible translation of a delightful short collection of Sanskrit jātakas.


J. J. Jones, trans. The Mahāvastu. 3 vols. London: Luzac, 1949–1956.

The jātaka stories are spread throughout this long biographical text, but easily identified from Jones’s contents page.


Naomi Appleton, trans. “The Second Decade of the Avadānaśataka.” Asian Literature and Translation 1.7 (2013): 136; and “The Fourth Decade of the AvadānaśatakaAsian Literature and Translation 2.5 (2014): 135.

These two chapters of ten stories each represent all the jātaka stories found in Avadånaśataka.

Links to Digital Materials

A helpful overview of what is known so far about the South Indian site Kanaganahalli, and a large number of photographs.

A blog compiled by Professor Isao Kurita showcasing images of Gandhāran art, including some wonderful examples of the story of Dīpaṅkara Buddha.

A wonderful archive of photographs of Buddhist art, including, for example, over five hundred images of the Ajanta Caves.

Further Reading

Anālayo. The Genesis of the Bodhisattva Ideal. Hamburg Buddhist Studies 1. Hamburg: Hamburg University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Appleton, Naomi. Jātaka Stories in Theravāda Buddhism: Narrating the Bodhisatta Path. Farnham, U.K.: Ashgate, 2010.Find this resource:

Brown, Robert L. “Narrative as Icon: The Jātaka Stories in Ancient Indian and Southeast Asian Architecture.” In Sacred Biography in the Buddhist Traditions of South and Southeast Asia. Edited by Juliane Schober, 64–109. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997.Find this resource:

Collins, Steven, ed. Readings of the Vessantara Jātaka. Readings in Buddhist Literature Series. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016.Find this resource:

Crosby, Kate. “The Jātaka.” In Theravāda Buddhism: Continuity, Diversity, and Identity. By Kate Crosby, 99–111. Chichester, U.K.: Wiley Blackwell, 2014.Find this resource:

Hinüber, Oskar von. Entstehung und Aufbau der Jātaka-Sammlung: Studien zur Literatur des Theravāda-Buddhismus. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1998.Find this resource:

Ohnuma, Reiko. Head, Eyes, Flesh, and Blood: Giving Away the Body in Indian Buddhist Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Skilling, Peter. “Jātaka and Paññāsa-jātaka in South-East Asia.” In Buddhism and Buddhist Literature of South-East Asia: Selected Papers. Edited by Claudio Cicuzza, 161–217. Bangkok: Fragile Palm Leaves Foundation, 2009.Find this resource:

Skilling, Peter, ed. Past Lives of the Buddha: Wat Si Chum; Art, Architecture, and Inscriptions. Bangkok: River, 2008.Find this resource:

Strong, John S. “Previous Lives of the Buddha.” In The Buddha: A Short Biography. Edited by John S. Strong, 15–34. Oxford: Oneworld, 2001.Find this resource:

Walters, Jonathan S. “Stūpa, Story, and Empire: Constructions of the Buddha Biography in Early Post-Aśokan India.” In Sacred Biography in the Buddhist Traditions of South and Southeast Asia. Edited by Juliane Schober, 160–192. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997.Find this resource:


(1.) For a discussion see Donald S. Lopez, “Memories of the Buddha,” in In the Mirror of Memory: Reflections on Mindfulness and Remembrance in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism, ed. Janet Gyatso (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992), 21–45.

(2.) The list of nine, which is found in Pāli scriptures (including suttas) as well as in the Mahāsāṅghika Vinaya, is understood to be older than the list of twelve, which tends to be less stable. The list may well have been expanded to mirror the Jain division of scriptures into twelve aṅgas.

(3.) On the bhāṇaka traditions see E. W. Adikaram, Early History of Buddhism in Ceylon (Dehiwala, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Cultural Centre, 1946), 24–32; and S. Mori, “The Origin and History of the Bhānaka Tradition,” in Ānanda: Papers on Buddhism and Indology, ed. Y. Karunadasa (Colombo, Sri Lanka: Felicitation Volume Editorial Committee, 1990), 123–129. Jātaka-bhāṇakas are mentioned in the Milindapañha and various Pāli commentaries, as well as in a Sri Lankan inscription from the first century CE.

(4.) On this aspect of the genre, which is dependent on the narrative framing as a dialogue between the Buddha and his followers, see Naomi Appleton, “The Buddha as Storyteller: The Dialogical Setting of Jātaka Stories,” in Dialogue in Early South Asian Religions: Hindu, Buddhist and Jain Traditions, ed. Brian Black and Laurie Patton (Farnham, U.K.: Ashgate, 2015), 99–112.

(5.) For a study of such stories see Reiko Ohnuma, Head, Eyes, Flesh, and Blood: Giving Away the Body in Indian Buddhist Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).

(6.) Ohnuma has argued that the presence or absence of a “field of merit,” along with the concomitant variety in virtuous action needed on the part of the hero, is the basis of the distinction between the jātaka and avadāna genres: Head, Eyes, Flesh, and Blood, especially 40–48.

(7.) See Bob Simpson, “Impossible Gifts: Bodies, Buddhism and Bioethics in Contemporary Sri Lanka,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 10.4 (2004): 839–859.

(8.) Padmanabh S. Jaini, “Tīrthaṅkara-Prakṛti and the Bodhisattva Path,” Journal of the Pali Text Society 9 (1981): 96–104; and Naomi Appleton, “The Multi-life Stories of Buddha and Mahāvīra: A Comparison,” Buddhist Studies Review 29.1 (2012): 5–16.

(9.) On the history and structure of this text see Oskar von Hinüber, Entstehung und Aufbau der Jātaka-Sammlung (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1998).

(10.) Summaries (in German) of the many narratives found in the Tibetan version of this text, along with extensive notes, can be found in Jampa Losang Panglung, Die Erzählstoffe des Mūlasarvāstivāda-Vinaya: Analysiert auf Grund der tibetischen Übersetzung, Studia Philologica Buddhica Monograph Series 3 (Tokyo: Reiyukai Library, 1981).

(11.) For a study of two other Jātakamāla texts see Michael Hahn, Haribhaṭṭa and Gopadatta: Two Authors in the Succession of Āryaśūra on the Rediscovery of Parts of Their Jātakamālās, 2d ed. Studia Philologica Buddhica Occasional Paper series (Tokyo: International Institute for Buddhist Studies, 1992).

(12.) One such text, mentioning fifty-one jātaka stories, is preserved in Khotanese, and a shorter one by Jñānayaśas is found in Sanskrit. See Mark J. Dresden, “The Jātakastava or ‘Praise of the Buddha’s Former Births’: Indo-Scythian (Khotanese) Text, English Translation, Grammatical Notes, and Glossaries,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 45.5 (1955): 397–508; and D. R. Shackleton Bailey, trans., “The Jātakastava of Jñānayaśas,” in Asiatica: Festschrift Friedrich Weller zum 65, ed. Johannes Schubert and Ulrich Schneider (Leipzig: Harrassowitz, 1954), 22–29.

(13.) Daniel Boucher, Bodhisattvas of the Forest and the Formation of the Mahāyāna: A Study and Translation of the Rāṣṭrapālaparipṛcchā-sūtra, Studies in the Buddhist Traditions (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2008); and Ulrich Pagel, The Bodhisattvapiṭaka: Its Doctrines, Practices and Their Position in Mahāyāna Literature (Tring, U.K.: Institute of Buddhist Studies, 1995).

(14.) On the jātakas at Bharhut see Alexander Cunningham, The Stūpa of Bharhut (London: W. H. Allen, 1879), especially 48–82; and Benimadhab Barua, Barhut, Book II: Jātaka Scenes (Calcutta: Indian Research Institute, 1934).

(15.) On Nagarjunakonda and Amaravati see B. Subrahmanyam, Jātakas in South Indian Art (Delhi: Bharatiya Kala Prakashan, 2005). Kanaganahalli, also known as Kanganhalli and Kaganhalli, was only discovered in the late 1990s, and work is still under way to identify its many illustrations, but a good preliminary overview and a host of images can be found on the "Kanganhalli, Gulbarga District, Karnataka" page of Christian Luczanits's website. See also Monika Zin, “Narrative Reliefs in Kanaganahalli: Their Importance for Buddhist Studies,” Mārg 63.1 (2011): 13–21.

(16.) Isao Kurita, Gandhāran Art, 2 vols. (Tokyo: Nigensha, 2003). See also Isao Kurita's blog, Gandharan Archives Kurita.

(17.) Dieter Schlingloff, Studies in the Ajanta Paintings: Identifications and Interpretations (Delhi: Ajanta Publications, 1987); and Guide to the Ajanta Paintings I: Narrative Wall Paintings (Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1999).

(18.) A listing of jātaka murals in Dunhuang and elsewhere in China can be found in Alexander Peter Bell, Didactic Narration: Jātaka Iconography in Dunhuang with a Catalogue of Jataka Representations in China (Münster, Germany: Litt Verlag, 2000).

(19.) Luis O. Gómez and Hiram W. Woodward Jr., eds., Barabuḍur: History and Significance of a Buddhist Monument (Berkeley, CA: Asian Humanities Press, 1981).

(20.) Elizabeth Wray, Clare Rosenfield, Dorothy Bailey, and Joe D. Wray, Ten Lives of the Buddha: Siamese Temple Painting and Jataka Tales (New York and Tokyo: Weatherhill, 1996).

(21.) For some beautiful examples of the latter see Peter Skilling, ed., Past Lives of the Buddha: Wat Si Chum; Art, Architecture and Inscriptions (Bangkok: River Books, 2008), 72–73.

(22.) For a detailed study of one such manuscript, with reproductions of all of its illustrations, see Naomi Appleton, Sarah Shaw, and Toshiya Unebe, Illuminating the Life of the Buddha: An Illustrated Chanting Book from Eighteenth-Century Siam (Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2013).

(23.) John Okell, “‘Translation’ and ‘Embellishment’ in an Early Burmese Jātaka Poem,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland 3.4 (1967): 133–148.

(24.) For example, see Justin McDaniel, “Creative Engagement: Sujavaṇṇa Wua Luang and Its Contribution to Buddhist Literature,” Journal of the Siam Society 88.1&2 (2000): 156–177.

(25.) These are the work of Thai-American composer Somtow Sucharitkul: DASJATI—The Ten Lives of the Buddha.

(26.) Robert L. Brown, “Narrative as Icon: The Jātaka Stories in Ancient Indian and Southeast Asian Architecture,” in Sacred Biography in the Buddhist Traditions of South and Southeast Asia, ed. Juliane Schober (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997), 64–109.

(27.) Appleton, Shaw, and Unebe, Illuminating the Life of the Buddha.

(28.) Donald Swearer, Becoming the Buddha: The Ritual of Image Consecration in Thailand (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004).

(29.) Steven Collins, ed., Readings of the Vessantara Jātaka, Readings in Buddhist Literature Series (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).

(30.) Alfred Foucher, Notes on the Ancient Geography of Gandhara (A Commentary on a Chapter of Hiuan Tsang), trans. from French by H. Hargreaves (Calcutta: Archaeological Survey of India, 1915).

(31.) For one such scroll, alongside an examination of the wider ritual tradition, see Leedom Lefferts and Sandra Cate, Buddhist Storytelling in Thailand and Laos: The Vessantara Jataka Scroll and the Asian Civilisations Museum (Singapore: Asian Civilisations Museum, 2012).

(32.) Naomi Appleton, Jātaka Stories in Theravāda Buddhism (Farnham, U.K.: Ashgate, 2010), especially 41–64.

(33.) Naomi Appleton, “In the Footsteps of the Buddha? Women and the Bodhisatta Path in Theravāda Buddhism,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 27.1 (2011): 33–51.

(34.) The most comprehensive work of this kind was Ratilal N. Mehta, Pre-Buddhist India: A Political, Administrative, Economic, Social and Geographical Survey of India Based Mainly on the Jātaka Stories (Bombay: Examiner, 1939).

(35.) These studies are helpfully summarized and supplemented in Merlin Peris, Greek Story Motifs in the Jatakas (Colombo, Sri Lanka: Godage International, 2004).

(36.) T. W. Rhys Davids, Buddhist India (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1903), 189, 208. See also his Buddhist Birth Stories (London: George Routledge, 1880).

(37.) In particular, John S. Strong, The Legend of King Aśoka (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), and The Legend and Cult of Upagupta (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992); and Steven Collins, Nirvana and Other Buddhist Felicities (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

(38.) For discussions of how jātakas fit into constructions of the bodhisattva path see Anālayo, The Genesis of the Bodhisattva Ideal (Hamburg: Hamburg University Press, 2010); and Appleton, Jātaka Stories in Theravāda Buddhism.

(39.) Ohnuma, Head, Eyes, Flesh, and Blood.

(40.) Most notably Brown, “Narrative as Icon.”

(41.) Swearer, Becoming the Buddha.