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.
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