Jataka means ‘about birth’ and is the name of a book in the Khuddaka Nikaya, the fifth part of the Sutta Pitaka which is the first division of the Tipitaka, the sacred scriptures of Buddhism. The Jàtaka consists of 547 stories, some quite brief, others very long, illustrating Buddhist virtues like kindness, prudence, honesty, self-sacrifice, common sense, courage and determination.
The characters in many of the stories are animals. The early Buddhists culled these stories from the great store of Indian folklore and fables and ‘Buddhistized’ them by saying that the hero of each story was actually the Buddha in one of his former lives as a bodhisattva. The Jàtaka consists of four parts.
Preceding all the stories is a long introduction (nidànakathà). Each story is prefaced by a ‘story of the present (paccuppanna vanna), giving the reasons why the Buddha told the story, and ends with a ‘connection’ (samodhàna) in which the characters in the story are identified. The stories themselves (atãta vatthu) are in prose and imbedded within them are verses (gàtha), of which there are about 2500 altogether. Only these verses are considered the actual words of the Buddha. With their lively plots, well-defined characters and flashes of humour, the Jàtaka has long been the most popular book in the scriptures. Scholars believe that some of the fables of Aesop and many other collections of folklore have their origins in the Jàtaka.
The Jataka, trans by R.Chalmers, H.T.Francis, E.B.Cowell and W.H.D.Rouse, 1990.