Tales of compassion

IF the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Epics and the Puranas constituted the prime stream of India's literary heritage, the mystic lore, the Jatakas, the Panchatantra and the Brihat Katha (only a part of which is available to us as the Kathasaritsagara) constituted the second and a worthy supplementary stream, the pragmatic and ethical lore.

How old are the Jatakas, the world's first collection of didactic stories? According to historical evidence, they were officially discussed for the first time at the Vaisali Buddhist Conference in 380 B.C., but at least some of them must have travelled abroad, simply as striking tales, a century prior to that. Plato (c 429 - c 347) refers to the story of the donkey donning a lion's skin and scaring away people, one of the most popular Jatakas, known as the Sihachamma Jataka.

There are 547 Jatakas in all and in each one of them the Bodhisattva or the Spirit of the Buddha in his lives prior to becoming the Enlightened One is the key figure. The proposition is, the essence of one's existence (I am refraining from using the term soul in keeping with Buddhist mysticism) absorbs many kinds of experiences before achieving the status of Buddhatva.

The Jatakamala in Sanskrit by Arya Shura occupies a special place in this branch of the Buddhist literature. As the translator informs us, "Scholarly opinion places the composition of the Jatakamala around the fourth century AD. It seems to have been current well into the next millennium. Some of its stories and stanzas appear in the Ajanta cave frescoes which are dated to the sixth century... The Chinese pilgrim I-Tsing mentioned it among the works he found popular in India during his travels at the end of the seventh century".

Fourteen of the 34 stories of the Jatakamala are not to be found in the main bulk of the Jatakas. Arya Shura's choice seems to have been based on a single theme, the culture of compassion that can be accomplished through a refinement of passions. While some of the stories in the main bulk are dramatic and gripping — for example, in the Vedabdha Jataka (which finds a shorter incarnation in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales), three young men out in search of a demon in the forest stumble upon a heap of gems and end up killing one another instead of the demon, pointing out how the real demon dwells within, in one's lust and ignorance while one looks for it without — all the stories of the Jatakamala are sober and simple.

For example, the 21st story tells of a Brahmin who retires into the forest along with his wife, renouncing the world. A king sees the lady and is enamoured of her. "What would you do if some rowdy tries to humiliate the lady?" asks the king. "Well, the enemy would not escape me; he would be subdued," replies the Brahmin. The king is amused. He orders his men to force the lady into his chariot. While she laments her fate, the Brahmin sits still, his poise undisturbed. "What are you going to do to your enemy?" asks the king. "I've already vanquished him," says the hermit. "The enemy was my anger. But I have totally subdued it." Such is the power of the hermit's equanimity that the king is overwhelmed. He bows to him and apologises to his wife.

A touching portrayal of the magnificence of compassion is the 24th story. A man loses his way in the forest and, hungry, climbs to a tree to pluck its fruit when he falls into a pit. He is there for two days unable to come out. But a great ape sees him and, risking his own life, rescues him from certain death. Then the exhausted ape sleeps for a while, asking the man to guard him. Awfully hungry, the man decides to kill the ape and feed on his flesh. He hurls a boulder aiming at the trusting benefactor's head. The missile, however, misses its target.

"I felt proud at having performed a difficult deed, but you have performed something even more difficult!" says the ape, that the man, instead of feeling naturally grateful, could stoop to that low a condition of consciousness! And the compassionate ape leads him out of the forest to safety. The ape, needless to say, was none other than Bodhisattva.

A.N.D. Haksar's translation is excellent. The serenity of his language does justice to the dignity of the original Sanskrit.

Jatakamala: Stories from the Buddha's Previous Births, translated from the Sanskrit by A.N.D. Haksar, HarperCollins India, Rs. 295.

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