In my project to tweet all of the jātakas in turn I have reached number 27:
JA27 State elephant is good friends with dog, and when dog taken away he refuses to eat. Minister (=Buddha) understands and gets dog back.
It seemed to me to be a relatively uninteresting story, one of many in which the Buddha-to-be proves his wisdom by working out a puzzling situation, in this case the refusal of the state elephant to eat.
However, Jayarava has pointed me in the direction of a rather interesting parallel – the story of a friendship between elephant and dog in a rather different context. The short news film about this unusual friendship makes cheering viewing:
As Jayarava commented to me when pointing out this parallel, life imitates art. Or perhaps the art followed life. It seems to me that many of the animal stories in the jātakas suggest a real-life appreciation and understanding of the creatures they depict. As I discussed in a post some time ago, watching nature documentaries can often get me thinking again about the narratives I study.
It is not just the case in the narratives of course. The oft-quoted refrain of the Sutta-nipāta discourse on solitary wandering – that one should “wander lonely as a rhinoceros” – is sometimes interpreted as an injunction to “wander lonely as a rhinoceros horn“. I had absolutely no interest this difference of interpretation (apart from a general question: how can a horn wander lonely?!) until I watched a documentary exploring the solitary lifestyle of the rhinoceros. It seems pretty clear that the comparison of a solitary renouncer with a rhino would have made perfect sense to its original audience, whose understanding of their local wildlife far outstrips my own, and presumably that of the commentators who switched the referent to the horn.