Jataka summaries and making connections

I have just created a page on this blog on which to store my summary Jatakas so that they don’t simply disappear into the Twitter-ether. Putting the list together as one, even though I have only got to number 28, is already making me think again about how the collection is organised. There are some intriguing links between the stories, sometimes overlapping with one another to create a natural flow:

1 and 2 are both about merchant caravans traversing the desert. (Transitioning into 3, in which the Buddha-to-be is a merchant as well…)

3, 4 and 5 are all about using your wit and honesty to make money.

6 and 7 have parallels in the Epics, and probably resonate with them deliberately.

8, 9 and 10 are all about the value of kingship.

11 to 16 all concern deer.

18 and 19 are about the wrongs of animal sacrifice.

20 and 21 are about the murderous attempts of Devadatta, and simultaneously in 20 to 24 the Buddha-to-be is a wise animal, while stories 23 to 25 are about horses, and 25 to 27 feature the Buddha-to-be as a wise minister able to understand animals.

What are we to make of such links? For a start, they support the idea that the collection originally circulated orally, and required thematic links to aid the memory. The expansive nature of the text might also be worth mentioning here: with room to slot in more and more stories, the text grew but not without some sense of structure being maintained. One gets the sense that as stories were added they were put in what was perceived to be the most natural home for them, not simply added at the end of chapters or sections.

The overall structure of the text, as many know, is according to the number of verses each story contains. I am still in the section – consisting of 150 stories – in which each story contains a single verse. Within that section there are also subdivisions into chapters, though these are of uncertain age and do not necessarily follow a real logic. So 1-10 form the “Apaṇṇaka” (True) chapter (named, most likely, after the very first story), while 11-20 are the “Sīla” (Morality) chapter and 21-30 are the “Kurunga” (Antelope) chapter (again, probably named after its first story). What is clear from the summaries, however, is that even within these divisions – and indeed cutting across them – is another internal logic that is more fluid, but that nonetheless enables the reader/hearer/memoriser/sermoniser to make links between different tales. I will be revisiting this as my summaries progress…

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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 and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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