Jātaka in Theravada Buddhism
Temple walls in South East Asia often feature the Jātaka stories they play an important role in cultural life, inspiring literature, theatre and other art forms.
This collection of illustrated manuscripts numbering some 457 are stories the Buddha told. They relate to one or another of his previous lives before becoming the enlightened one, or Buddha. In these former lives, they refer to him as a Bodhisatta, a Buddha in waiting, in both human and non-human forms.
The Jãtaka birth stories are the most vivid and accessible part of Buddhist teaching. They attribute the ten longest to his last ten lives and on attaining the perfections could be reborn as the historical Buddha.
Conquer meanness with generosity. Conquer dishonesty with truth.
Each story begins with an observation of what prompted its telling and ends with the Buddha cross-checking people’s lives with those from the past. The last ten Jãtaka stories are amongst the most popular with Thai Buddhists the ‘Vessantara Jãtaka’ is among the best known.
This tale of the present is the prelude to the story from a past life, and in many Jãtakas, it’s related thematically, while in others the connection is unclear. For example, the Vessantara Jãtaka (#547) refers to two miracles the Buddha performed to win over his kinsmen, but this does not correlate with the central theme, generosity.
Most of the Jãtaka stories are tales of morality. They teach the values of dhamma to two audiences those within the storyline listening to the Buddha talk and those that read the narrative.
The Bodhisatta to the surprise of many is not always virtuous. Although they are super-beings, they sometimes do despicable acts being reborn as a wicked person. Some examples of his immoral behaviour are rude speech (#536), gambling (#62), lying (#547), theft (#318) or assault (#89).
Therefore, the Jãtaka stories illustrate how the Bodhisatta gathered various virtues and traits in his life and afterlife, which ultimately contributed to his attainment of Buddhahood.