What is a jātaka and how many are there?

My brother is a high school librarian, and he sometimes sets his pupils a library quiz, to test their ability to find certain books and information within them. Recently, presumably out of a desire to entertain his younger sister, he included a task about jātaka stories:

(a) What is a jataka story?

(b) How many jataka stories are there?

The pupils did pretty well, but I couldn’t resist pointing out that these apparently simple questions were actually more complicated than at first glance.

The first question is still open to debate. The most basic and widespread definition is ‘a story of a past life of the Buddha,’ and this is the general definition I tend to work with. This definition, however, forces us to consider certain stories that are not ever labelled this way as jātakas, such as the stories of the Buddha’s past lives in the Avadānaśataka.  Should we instead limit our category to those stories that explicitly refer to themselves as “jātakas? If so, we not only lose many potential narratives that have clear parallels with more established jātaka texts, but must also include a couple of stories in the Mahāvastu that – despite their “jātaka” label – are stories of the past-lives of other people and do not feature the Buddha-to-be.

And what about stories of the Buddha’s past-life encounters with past buddhas? These tend not to be called jātakas within their textual contexts, but are commonly called such by scholars, who happily refer to, for example, the “Dīpaṅkara Jātaka”. Here I am more hesitant: although I tend towards inclusivity, it is clear that such stories were considered at least a separate sub-genre, since they are collected into different texts (eg a separate chapter of the Avadānaśataka, or the Buddhavaṃsa as opposed to the Cariyāpiṭaka) and used differently in art (for example at Ajanta, where the Dipankara story is the only “jātaka”, as far as I am aware, to be depicted in stone relief rather than painting).

Deciding how to define a jātaka has been an important part of setting out the parameters for the jātaka database project that is – thanks to the hard work of Dr Chris Clark and the technical support of the Digital Innovations team – now underway here in Edinburgh. Since I am clear about my own interests, which extend to all stories of the Buddha’s past lives regardless of what emic label they have, defining jātaka in the most inclusive manner is clearly the way ahead for this project, but I remain aware of the issues it creates.

As for part b of the quiz, that one made me laugh even more, since nobody really knows the answer. There are commonly said to be 547 jātaka stories, but this is just the number in the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā, the largest and most well-known collection. Even for this one text, 547 is an approximation, since some of the 547 titles have no actual story, and some stories are repeated under multiple titles. Once you add in other jātaka collections the picture gets even more complicated, and then there are all the jātakas in the form of images, often without clear textual parallels.

Even after our database is complete, it will only – for the first phase at least – cover jātaka stories found in early Indian texts and art. And even then, there will be no definitive answer even for this limited range of texts and artistic contexts. That is largely because of the tricky question of how to decide when a story is a distinctive story, and when it is the same as another story in another text or image. What about when the story is identical except for a single verse? Or what about when two stories relate to the same characters but their actions are slightly different? And when does a visual jātaka need to be seen as a separate story rather than a depiction of a textual jātaka?

We are trying to tackle this through a “linking table” in our relational database. For each story (either textual or visual) that appears to have parallels in other texts and visual contexts, we will create an entry for the story cluster, and every instance will link to it. This will allow users to see any parallels. However, while the technical side is now sorted, the task remains of deciding what constitutes a parallel!

And so, inspired by my brother’s quiz, perhaps my next conference paper will be entitled: “What is a jātaka and how many are there?”

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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.

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