Hark Prince Goodspeaker
The term Jataka is denoted as a story or collection of stories, about the Buddha’s earlier incarnations.
The orthodox Buddhist considers these tales to be autobiographical accounts of Gautama Buddha and hence a part of the Buddhist sacred writings and teachings passed down the centuries.
They are also regarded as one of the oldest and most important collections of folktales extant. Though stated as five hundred and fifty, the entire collection consists 547 long and short tales.
The original Pali form of Jataka narratives (or Jataka Katha) is found written in various forms like dialogues, monologues, verses both prose and rhythmic. They also contain myth, legends, fairytales, maxims and sayings. All these go to introduce a resourceful collection of Jataka tales retold for the young and the old titled as Buddhist Tales for Young and Old (Volume One, Stories 1 – 50) Prince Goodspeaker.
Gift of truth
The publication is meant to be distributed free around the world especially for the English reading masses. The first 50 stories in the Jataka collection are retold in simple English by Todd Anderson and with an introduction by Venerable Kurunegoda Piyatissa Maha Thera of the Buddhist Literature Society, New York Buddhist Vihara, Kew Gardens, New York, USA. At the outset, it is stated that the material embedded in the publication could be freely copied and reprinted in order to encourage as a gift of truth.
This is indeed a commendable factor when one comes to think of the various types of copyright laws and regulations and the bonds interconnected as intellectual property rights. The reader of this well-illustrated compendium feels a sense of acquiring knowledge not only in the Buddhist teachings but also in the methods employed creatively in the dissemination process of knowledge.
Each Jataka tale as retold in the collection carries a moral at the end by way of an insight into the inner meaning of the narrative. For example, the first tale titled s Demons in the Desert (based on Apannaka Jataka in the main collection) revolves around a journey through the two merchants who knew each other find it difficult due to the obstacles. The first merchant journeys with 500 carts full of goods. They too carried water pots in order to quench their thirst before reaching an oasis. But the first merchant is encountered by a group of demons disguised as humans. They inform him that there is no necessity to carry water as it is in plenty. Not knowing that this is an advice of a demon he throws away the water pots. This happens to be an ignorant act. They become a prey to the disguised demons. Then the second merchant too journeys through the desert. He too goes with a group of friends in 500 carts full of goods.
Victims of disaster
They too encounter the disguised demons who declare them to discard the water pot brought in their carts. But as he, the chief merchant, was wise enough to think of the impending disaster, advised his group not to listen to the disguised demons. They enjoyed and crossed the desert using the water they brought. They were no longer the victims of the disaster. They too were vigilant.
Then they visualised the disaster that had cost the lives of his friend and his group of merchants who went in 500 carts prior to the journey. The tale comes to a close with the following words:
The next morning, the people ate breakfast and fed their bullocks as well. They added to their goods the most valuable things left from the first caravan. So they finished their journey very successfully and returned home safely so that they and their families could enjoy their profits.
The moral as laid down goes as follows: One must always be wise enough not be fooled by tricky talk and false appearances.
Enemies in friend’s clothing
The reader of the tale perceived the notion that the entire narrative is symbolic. The waterless desert is the social milieu where the man struggles to exist. The demon who comes in disguise and request the merchant to discard the water ports are the cunning people who appear and pretend to be friends. But in actual reality, they are enemies in the guise of friends. If this notion is well realised and act wisely a good human being can live happily.The tale in many ways resembles a modern short story in many ways. It could be interpreted in many more ways depending on the point of view one takes to look at the central experience as embedded. Thus an age-old tale can be both spiritual and modern.
The introduction by the Maha Thera points out: It is a pleasure to rewrite the Jataka stories in modern English understandable by the western reader. To achieve this goal, the stories are being retold in order to convey the spirit and meaning. They are not word for word translations as have been done prior to this attempt by many others inclusive of the work by Cowell and Fausboll. The Jataka stories as readers in Sri Lank know came to be translated from Pali to Sinhalese in the 14th Century. This translation gave way to many other creations like the folk ballad or Kavi Katha which in turn came to be recreated as folk plays and later on as folk ballets. Most events as uncovered in Jataka tales have given way to temple paintings and the erection of pandals (or thorana).
The bhikkhus who re-narrate Jataka tales were known by the term bhanakas. This work is an attempt to rewind the reader on several other social ideologies such as the value of perseverance, the disaster caused by greed and plunder, the need to be diligent and the need for gratitude the power of the truthfulness the joys of the spiritual life, the value of the wise leadership, the value of justice the power of friendship, the need for better advice, respect for elders etc.
The inherent power of the age-old creative wisdom is taught to the modern reader. All in all, this, though a free distributed collection of tales, is nevertheless an invaluable gift for all times to the entire world. Though Jataka tales have been translated and rewritten by many hands, this attempt could be regarded an everlasting classic for all times. This too transcends the narrow barriers of a mere gift of dana. The work is well illustrated in keeping with the contents. (Professor Sunanda Mahendra)