A jātaka, or “birth story,” is a story relating an episode in a past life of the Buddha. Many such stories are found in the literature and art of Buddhist countries, alongside other past-life stories such as avadānas (or, in Pāli, apadānas). Scholars have long been interested in jātakas as fables, as many of the stories likely began life outside of the genre of jātaka. However, to the Buddhist traditions, jātakas illustrate the long path to buddhahood and the acquisition by the bodhisatt(v)a (buddha-to-be) of the perfections required for that attainment. Jātaka stories are illustrated at the oldest Buddhist sites and told in scriptural texts, yet they also feature in cartoon books and television programs. They are part of the lifeblood of Theravada societies and underpin the rationale of the Mahayana.
Although the jātaka genre is vast, an overview of the textual sources can be obtained by looking at the relevant entries in the surveys of Buddhist literature: Hinüber 1996, Norman 1983, and Winternitz 1927. Hinüber and Norman limit themselves to Pāli texts, but Winternitz includes discussion of Sanskrit materials from all the early Indian Buddhist schools. A concise overview of the jātaka genre (the literary concept rather than the texts) is provided in Strong 2001, and Skilling 2009 and Crosby 2014 are useful introductions to the genre, with a focus on Theravada countries.
Crosby, Kate. “The Jātaka.” In Theravada Buddhism: Continuity, Diversity, and Identity. By Kate Crosby, 99–111. Chichester, UK: Wiley Blackwell, 2014.
An overview of the jātaka genre in Theravada Buddhism, including consideration of vernacular compositions and the role of the stories in ritual and festive contexts.
Hinüber, Oskar von. A Handbook of Pāli Literature. Indian Philology and South Asian Studies 2. Berlin and New York: De Gruyter, 1996.
Includes a detailed entry for the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā as well as other Pāli jātaka texts.
Norman, K. R. Pāli Literature: Including the Canonical Literature in Prakrit and Sanskrit of All the Hīnayāna Schools of Buddhism. History of Indian Literature 7. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz, 1983.
A thorough survey of Pāli literature, including discussion of all the Theravada jātaka texts.
Skilling, Peter. “Jātaka and Paññāsa-jātaka in South-East Asia.” In Buddhism and Buddhist Literature of South-East Asia: Selected Papers. Edited by Claudio Cicuzza, 161–217. Bangkok, Thailand: Fragile Palm Leaves Foundation, 2009.
Originally published in Journal of the Pali Text Society 28 (2006): 113–173. Although focused on the place of jātakas in Southeast Asia, this article also contains an insightful overview of the genre in Buddhism more generally.
Strong, John S. “Previous Lives of the Buddha.” In The Buddha: A Short Biography. By John S. Strong, 15–34. Oxford: Oneworld, 2001.
A basic overview of the jātaka genre, including discussion of karmic consequences, past buddhas, the path to buddhahood, and the Buddha’s perfections and imperfections.
Winternitz, M. A History of Indian Literature. Vol. 2, Buddhist Literature and Jaina Literature. Translated by S. Ketkar and H. Kohn. Calcutta: University of Calcutta, 1927.
Includes a complete survey of Buddhist texts with thought-provoking commentary. There are many editions and reprints of this work, and any of them is worth looking at.
Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.
How to Subscribe
Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions and individuals. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.
Purchase an Ebook Version of This Article
Ebooks of the Oxford Bibliographies Online subject articles are available in North America via a number of retailers including Amazon, vitalsource, and more. Simply search on their sites for Oxford Bibliographies Online Research Guides and your desired subject article.
If you would like to purchase an eBook article and live outside North America please email firstname.lastname@example.org to express your interest.
- Abhijñā/Ṛddhi (Extraordinary Knowledge and Powers)
- Abortion, Buddhism and
- Ajanta Caves
- Ambedkar Buddhism
- Ancient Indian Society
- Archaeology of Early Buddhism
- Art and Architecture In China, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture in India, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture in Japan, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture in Nepal, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture in Tibet, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture on the "Silk Road," Buddhist
- Asceticism, Buddhism and
- Awakening of Faith
- Beats, Buddhism and the
- Bhāviveka / Bhāvaviveka
- Bodh Gaya
- Body, Buddhism and the
- Buddha, Three Bodies of the (Trikāya)
- Buddhism and Ethics
- Buddhism and Law
- Buddhism and Marxism
- Buddhism and Modern Literature
- Buddhist Art and Architecture in Sri Lanka and Southeast A...
- Buddhist Hermeneutics
- Buddhist Ordination
- Buddhist Theories of Causality (karma, pratītyasamutpāda, ...
- Buddhist Thought and Western Philosophy
- Buddhist Thought, Embryology in
- Buddhist-Christian Dialogue
- Cambodian Buddhism
- Canon, History of the Buddhist
- Caste, Buddhism and
- Central Asia, Buddhism in
- China, Esoteric Buddhism in, (Zhenyan and Mijiao)
- Chinese Buddhist Publishing and Print Culture, 1900-1950
- Colonialism and Postcolonialism
- Compassion (karuṇā)
- Cosmology, Astronomy and Astrology
- Culture, Material
- Dalai Lama
- Demons and the Demonic in Buddhism
- Dignāga and Dharmakīrti, The Philosophical Works and Influ...
- Drigung Kagyu (’Bri gung bKa’ brgyud)
- Dzogchen (rDzogs chen)
- Early Buddhist Philosophy (Abhidharma/Abhidhamma)
- Early Modern European Encounters with Buddhism
- East Asian Buddhist Art, Portraiture in
- Ellora Caves
- Emptiness (Śūnyatā)
- Environment, Buddhism and the
- Ethics of Violence, Buddhist
- Family, Buddhism and the
- Feminist Approaches to the Study of Buddhism
- Four Noble Truths
- Funeral Practices
- Gandhāra, Buddhism in
- Gelugpa (dGe lugs pa)
- Gender, Buddhism and
- Hakuin Ekaku
- History of Buddhisms in China
- Image Consecrations
- India, Buddhism in
- India, Mahāmudrā in
- Internationalism, Buddhism and
- Intersections Between Buddhism and Hinduism in Thailand
- Iranian World, Buddhism in the
- Islam, Buddhism and
- Japan, Buddhism in
- Korea, Buddhism in
- Laos, Buddhism in
- Linji and the Linjilu
- Literature, Chan
- Literature, Tantric
- Local Religion, Buddhism as
- Lotus Sūtra
- Mahayana, Early
- Mahāvairocana Sūtra/Tantra
- Malaysia, Buddhism in
- Mantras and Dhāraṇīs
- Merit Transfer
- Miracles, Buddhist
- Modernism, Buddhist
- Monasticism in East Asia
- Mongolia, Buddhism in
- Mongolia, Buddhist Art and Architecture in
- Music, and Buddhism
- Myanmar, Buddhism in
- New Medias, Buddhism in
- New Religions in Japan (Shinshūkyō), Buddhism and
- Śāntideva (Bodhicaryāvatāra)
- Nuns, Lives, and Rules
- Oral and Literate Traditions
- Pagan (Bagan)
- Perfection of Wisdom
- Perfections (Six and Ten)
- Philosophy, Chinese Buddhist
- Philosophy, Classical Indian Buddhist
- Philosophy, Classical Japanese Buddhist
- Philosophy, Tibetan Buddhist
- Pilgrimage in India
- Pilgrimage in Japan
- Pilgrimage in Tibet
- Psychology and Psychotherapy, Buddhism in
- Pure Land Buddhism
- Pure Land Sūtras
- Religious Tourism, Buddhism and
- Saṃsāra and Rebirth
- Self, Non-Self, and Personal Identity
- Shinto, Buddhism and
- Soka Gakkai
- South and Southeast Asia, Devatās, Nats, And Phii In
- Southeast Asia, Buddhism in
- Sri Lanka, Monasticism in
- Sōtō Zen (Japan)
- Stūpa Pagoda Caitya
- Suffering (Dukkha)
- Sutta (Pāli/Theravada Canon)
- Texts, Dunhuang
- Thai Buddhism
- Thích Nhất Hạnh
- Three Turnings of the Wheel of Doctrine (Dharma-Cakra)
- Tibet, Buddhism in
- Tibet, Mahāmudrā in
- Tibetan Book of the Dead
- Tri Songdetsen
- Uighur Buddhism
- Verse Literature, Tibetan Buddhist
- Vidyādhara (weikza/weizzā)
- Vietnam, Buddhism in
- Vision and Visualization
- Visualization/Contemplation Sutras
- Warrior Monk Traditions
- West (North America and Europe), Buddhism in the
- Wheel of Life (Bhava-Cakra)
- Women in Buddhism
- Women in the West, Prominent Buddhist
- Zen, Premodern Japanese