The Rāmāyaṇa and the Jātakas

So I have finished reading the Rāmāyaṇa already, in the Princeton translation series. It really felt very short after the Mahābhārata, helped of course by being in such an accessible translation, and probably also by the fact that I had read most of it before. Still, it was not only enjoyable but highly informative. I found some further useful material for my study of the gods as narrative characters, and reflected a lot on the resonances that the text has with Buddhist jātaka stories.

The latter subject was prominent in my mind because another major task of early 2014 was to finish off a translation, with Sarah Shaw, of the final ten stories of the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā, which will be published by Silkworm Press in 2015. As I read and reread the stories in the final stages of editing, I saw much evidence of their wider Indian narrative context. While we find references to wider Indian (and what we might, perhaps problematically, label Hindu) characters, motifs and practices in many jātaka stories, the final ten seem especially saturated with them. But what intrigued me as I moved between the jātakas and the Rāmāyaṇa was the shared material of these two texts in particular.

The most obvious shared aspect is the story of Sāma, as it is known in the Buddhist context. Sāma is the Buddha-to-be, and he looks after his blind ascetic parents in the forest with great diligence until he is shot by a king out hunting. As Sāma lies dying on the ground, he does not curse the king but only laments the fact that his parents will surely die without someone to bring them food and water. The king, tormented with guilt, offers to look after Sāma’s parents. However, after the king brings Sāma’s parents to their apparently dead son, it transpires that he is still alive, just about. Through declarations of truth made by Sāma’s mother, his father, and a local goddess who was Sāma’s mother in a past life, the poison in Sāma’s veins is expelled, and he regains consciousness. The king is converted to dharmic rule, and all is well. (This is how the story is told in the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā. A somewhat different Buddhist version is found in the Mahāvastu.)

Another version of this story is found in book 2 (Ayodhyākāṇḍa) of the Rāmāyaṇa, where it serves to justify why Rāma’s father, King Daśaratha, is cursed to die lamenting for his son. It turns out that earlier in his life King Daśaratha had been out hunting and had accidentally shot a young brahmin ascetic. Hearing this youth bewail the helplessness of his aged parents, and fearing the curses of these ascetics, Daśaratha confessed his actions to the ascetic’s parents, and led them to his body. Crucially in this version the young ascetic actually dies, and though he does attain heaven (and comes back to reassure his parents of that fact), his father still curses the king for his actions. It is this that explains why Daśaratha must suffer the exile of his favourite son, Rāma.

Other parallels are more a question of style or motif rather than whole story. Long laments at the loss of Rāma to the forest parallel those in jātaka stories in which the Bodhisatta is exiled or lined up for sacrifice. A conversation between Rāma and his charioteer, who wishes to remain in the forest with him, parallels a conversation in the Temiya Jātaka. Indra’s sending of his chariot and charioteer Mātali to help Rāma in the war resonates with Mātali’s mission to bring King Nimi up to heaven in the Nimi Jātaka. And as has been pointed out before, the Vessantara Jātaka has structural parallels with the Rāmāyaṇa, speaking as it does of a prince who is exiled to the forest, experiences the loss of his beloved wife, regains her, and eventual regains the kingdom.

These parallels, and others between the jātakas and other aspects of wider Indian mythology and narrative, remind us of the Indian-ness of the jātakas. There is evidence that some of the references to Indian practices – for example in the long anti-Vedic diatribe at the end of the Bhūridatta Jātaka – were not fully understood by later commentators. Certainly it seems clear that as the stories moved out of their Indian context some of their wider resonances were lost on their new audiences. Personally I find my reading of the jātakas has been massively enriched by my reading of the Epics. I hope in due course to make my own contributions to the existing scholarship on the interactions between these bodies of narrative.

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About naomiappleton

I work in the Divinity School at the University of Edinburgh, where I research and teach subjects related to South and Southeast Asian religions.
This entry was posted in Buddhism, Buddhist texts, Jataka, Religious narrative. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Rāmāyaṇa and the Jātakas

  1. Pingback: Reflections on the Rāmāyaṇa and the Great Ten Jātakas | The Story of Story in South Asia

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