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Stories from the Buddha’s previous births


With its timeless message of compassion and concord, the Jatakamala or stories about the Buddha’s virtuous deeds in previous incarnations continue to hold relevance in today’s conflict ridden time, says and Haksar who has translated the ancient tales from Sanskrit.

“The Jatakamala has both religious and literary value. It has been in international academia for a very long time but it’s last full translation in English more than a century ago. It has greater relevance in the present period, which is marked with increasing acrimony and conflict,” says Haksar.

Haskar’s book is based on the celebrated Sanskrit collection of 34 stories composed 1700 years ago, in the 4th century by poet Arya Shura and is well known in both sacred Buddhist and classical Sanskrit literature.

In these tales the Buddha appears in different incarnations- divine, human and animal form. As a ruler or a merchant, a teacher or a student, a loving father and husband or a respectful but determined son. He is also born an ape and an elephant, a hare and a deer, a swan, a woodpecker and a fish among others.

Some of as stories and verses from the Jatakamala can be found in the Ajanta paintings. The cave frescoes date to the 6th century. A century later Chinese traveler I-Tsing mentions it among the works he found popular in India during his travels.

Arya Shura’s text was translated into Chinese and Tibetan and its verses are found in two anthologies of Chinese poetry as far apart as 10th century Bengal and 15th century Kashmir. “All this indicates that the Jatakamala had a currency for
1000 years, both in this country and outside,” says Haksar. Haksar’s 2003 translation containing a foreword by Tibetan
spiritual leader the Dalai Lama has been republished now by Harper Collins.

“Not only do these beautiful tales have a timeless quality to them, but also the qualities of compassion, friendliness and concern for others are no less important than when the stories were written,” writes the Dalai Lama.

According to tradition, the Tibetan spiritual leader is expected to teach one of the stories at the beginning of every Tibetan New Year.

“Much  the stories is about putting fundamental human values into practice. The Dalai Lama himself is the symbol of those values and so am even more grateful for his words,” says the author.

Haksar says the Jatakas or birth stories are found in the Pali canonical work ‘Khuddaka Nikaya’ of the ‘Sutta Pitaka’ which he believes was dated in about 377 BC as discussed in the Vaishali Buddhist Conference in 380 BC.

“A century after Vaishali these tales were taken to Sri Lanka by prince turned monk Mahender, the son of our famous emperor Ashok. This also is a reminder of the old cultural ties between our two countries India and Lanka. These relations going from 377 BC to 2015 today span more than a millennium ,” says Haksar.

The author has had a distinguished career as a diplomat serving as Indian High Commissioner to Kenya and the Seychelles, minister to the United States and ambassador to Portugal and Yugoslavia.

In modern times the Jatakmala was among the earlier Sanskrit  works, says Haksar, which came to notice in the

The text was found 200 years ago by a British officer in Nepal. It was taken to Europe eventually published and edited by Dutch scholar Hendrik Kern and appeared in 1891 as the first volume of the newly started Harvard Oriental Series.

“It is sitting in the library downstairs at the India International Centre. The text was translated a few years later in English by another scholar but there have been no other translations for another 100 years,” says Haksar.

Somewhere in the middle of the millennium in the 5th century AD the stores were shaped in the present pali form in Sri Lanka by the scholar monk Buddhaghosha. Twelve of Arya Shura’s 34 tales are not found in the Pali jatakas at all, says Haksar. All the tales are presented in very picturesque settings like  a sea voyage, a forest fire, the charms of the harem, the horrors of hell and in these stories also couched all kinds of riddles faced in human life and the solutions that Buddha offers for it.

“All these described in fine poetry of and prose a champu form of Sanskrit,” says Haksar. The tale of Buddha as an ape which rescues a man, and as a student who chides his teacher for wrong advice are among the tales not found in Pali.

“There is a tale in which the boddisatva is a king of gods  who lectures an earthly ruler about the perils of liquor. This
incarnation as Indira i might add is also an pertinent illustration to these days of the historic religious intermingling in this country for the Buddha himself is depicted as an incarnation of Vishnu in the puranic literature which may be somewhat later than the Jatakamala,” says Haksar.

Talking about the contemporary relevance of Sanskrit the author says the language has tended to be associated in the public minds namely with religion and philosophy. “Some famous works of literary excellence have come to public domain through occasional translations,” says Haksar whose previous translations from the ancient language include “Kama Sutra”, “The seduction of Shiva” and “The Courtesan’s Keeper. He has also compiled “A treasury of Sanskrit Poetry” for the Indian Council for Cultural Relations.

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