Jātaka, the past lives of the Buddha

Jātaka, the past lives of the Buddha, lecture by Thierry Zéphir, Chargé d'études at the Guimet National Museum of Asian Arts, Professor at the École du Louvre.

Thierry Zéphir begins by recalling the context in which Buddhism appeared. From the 2rd millennium BC, Aryan populations settled in northern India and inaugurated the Vedic period, named after the corpus of sacred texts on which religious belief is based. The Veda (Knowledge) consists of four groups of texts and carries in germ the further developments of various aspects of the religions of the subcontinent. From the year 1000 BC JC, the brāhmana evoke the notion of samsara (belief in the reincarnation of souls) and, to the 7rd s. BC. JC, the Upanishad introduce that of karman (the subjection of the destiny of souls to acts and their consequences).
Vedic religious practice is based on a very complex ritualism of which priests (brāhmana) hold the keys. In reaction to a system perceived as too elitist, various currents of thought manifest themselves towards the 6rd-5rd s. BC. JC: Jainism and Buddhism emerge, both founded, among others, on the notion of non-violence. The dates of the founders of these two streams are uncertain. The founder of Jainism, Vardhamāna (Mahāvīra), would be dead at the end of 6rd s. BC. JC at the age of 72 years. If Sinhala Buddhism proposes the date of 483 av. JC for the death of the historical Buddha at the age of 80 years, it is now considered that a date around 400 av. JC seems more likely.
Shakyamuni Buddha, in his first sermon, the Dharmachakrapravartana-sūbetween (the sūtra of the setting in motion of the Wheel of the Law), exposes the Four Noble Truths: finding of the existence of duhkha (pain), origin of duhkha, cessation of duhkha and the Noble Path Octuple leading to the cessation of duhkha.
The Buddha will use the Jātaka to illustrate his teaching throughout his life. All of these teachings have been preserved in texts including the oldest, the pāli canon is called Tripitaka (three baskets). The first basket, the Sutta Pitaka lists the words of the Buddha recited by Ananda, the disciple with exceptional memory, after his death, then transmitted orally before being written down to the 1er century of our era. This is the largest part of the barrel and it is in this basket that we find the JAtaka. Vinaya Pitaka is a set of texts exposing the rules of monastic life. TheAbhidharma Pitaka contains all the analytical and psychological commentaries on the teaching of the Buddha.
There is 547 Jātaka in the pāli canon, but there are more of them added in different parts of Asia (Chinese, Tibetan, etc.). The JAtaka relate episodes of the Buddha's past lives in which he displayed all the qualities (generosity, filial piety, self-denial, compassion, etc.) that enabled him to be reborn in this last life and to attain parinirvana (complete extinction). The Jātaka of the pāli canon are all presented in the same way: they are introduced by the phrase "so I have heard" (since supposed to be reported by Ananda), the story is then developed into an alternation of prose and verse and ends by a moral. The language is elegant and the stories are conducted in an alert manner.

Dipankara Jātaka. Schist and gold leaf. Gandhara. (2th century) © Metropolitan Museum. NY

Kukkuta Jātaka. Sandstone. Palisade (vedika) of the Bahrhut stupa. (2nd - 1st century BC). Indian Museum. Calcutta. India.

 Rurumiga Jātaka. Sandstone. Palisade (vedika) of the Bahrhut stupa. (2nd - 1st century BC). Indian Museum. Calcutta, India.

There are six forms of existence in the Buddhist world: God (deva), anti-god (Asura), man (Manushya), animal (tiryak), hungry ghost (Black) and damned (naraka). It must be remembered that all these conditions are temporary, even the damned can reincarnate in a higher state. In the Jātaka, the historical Buddha was essentially reincarnated under three of these conditions: god, man and animal; this is probably due to the fact that these three incarnations spoke the most to the minds and hearts of the listeners. The human condition is the one through which it is imperative to pass in order to claim access to nirvana. Another set of texts, the avadāna (glorious deeds), explaining in a very distant way the events that led the Buddha to the state of Awakened
Le Dipankara Jātaka is one of the most represented and tells the story of the ascetic Megha and Buddha Dipankara. On a Gandian landscape of 2rd s., we see Megha prostrate, spreading her long hair so that the Buddha can cross a muddy passage without defiling his feet. As a result of this gesture of respect and devotion, Buddha Dipankara predicts that Megha will be reborn in a future life in Sakyamuni and will attain enlightenment. This Jātaka has often been featured in the art of Gandhara and Central Asia.
A lot of Jātaka bring animals into contact because the animal condition is particularly conducive to explaining qualities or defects and to make the faithful perceive what to do and avoid doing.
A bas-relief of the Bharhut stupa palisade (2rd-1er s. BC. JC India) illustrates the Kukkuta Jātaka (No. 383). We see a rooster and a cat sitting at the foot of the tree. The story tells that a cat tried to deceive a cock (in the idea of ​​eating it) by proposing to become his devoted wife. After several attempts at cajoleries, the rooster (who was the bodhisattva), treating her of all the names, frightened her and she fled. It is a warning against flattery because moral qualities and elevation of spirit are important to Buddhists. In addition to the lesson, this JAtaka translated a psychology peculiar to Buddhism which puts, all the same, to the index the feminine. Indeed, in the most ancient forms of Buddhism, the feminine condition was not the best and the woman is often perceived as a dangerous being to be wary of. These texts, beyond the lessons of morals, are also very valuable to understand the cultural context of the fifth century BC. JC in India.
Le Rurumiga JAtaka (No. 482) warns against the violation of the given word. Mahādhanaka, having squandered all the fortune inherited from his parents, threw himself into a river. A golden stag (the bodhisattva) who lived nearby saved him from drowning but advised him not to disclose his existence. Back in Benares, our man hastened to reveal to the king the presence of the deer in the hope of recovering his fortune and a hunt was organized. Seeing the hunters arrive, the deer told the king the story. The latter denounced the treachery of Mahādhanaka and promised the deer that all the animals would be free. This tale was also illustrated on the palisade of the stupa of Bharhut. Such a relief was a warning to Buddhists against violating oaths. So all the vices and faults of humans are dealt with in Jātaka and for the faithful of that time (1er-2rd s. of our era), the reliefs were perfectly understandable. It is not known who, images or texts, preceded the other and some of the older scenes are not identifiable in light of Jātaka. There was probably, at the time the oldest of the Buddhist art in India, an iconographic tradition which was found combined with the literary tradition a little later.

Kacchapa Jātaka. Sandstone. Temple No. 2. (XNIXXth century). Nalanda. India.

Shankhacharya Avadāna. Dried earth. (6th s - 7th s.) Tumshuk. MNAA-Guimet.

Mahakapi Jātaka. Sandstone. Torana (portico) West of stupa N ° 1. (1st BC - 1st century AD). Sānchi. India.

If the historical Buddha could have been an actor in different forms, he also witnessed a scene that unfolded before his eyes. So the Kacchapa JAtaka (N ° 215) tells how a turtle, invited by two geese, seized in its mouth a stick that the two birds took at each end to take it in the air. Provoked by children, the talkative animal opened its mouth to admonish them and fell, crashing to the ground. The bodhisattva, who was the minister of the king of Benares, took the opportunity to lecture the latter, who was also an inveterate talker. The moral of the story is that speech spoken without thinking can be devastating for oneself and for others. This tale will be taken by La Fontaine in the turtle and the two ducks.
other JAtaka extol the qualities and merits of the protagonists to encourage the faithful to behave in the same way. Thus, three exceptional bas reliefs in dried earth from Tumshuk, (7rd s. Xinjiang-China) which illustrate the Sujati JAtaka, Shankhacharya AvadAna and Vishvantara JAtaka. For these three panels, there are enough iconographic elements for a Buddhist to identify the subject. In the Shankhacharya AvadAnawe see three characters including the bodhisattva in meditation surrounded by two apsara. On her bun, we can notice a nest with two chicks. The story goes that during a long meditation, birds came to nest on his bun. When the bodhisattva realized this, he would have vowed to remain motionless until the chicks were able to fly. It is an example of compassion and selflessness towards all living things. These reliefs illustrate the integration of JAtaka in Buddhism Mahāyāna while the Pali cannon is part of Buddhism Theravada. It should be noted that we can find in the Mahāyāna of Jātaka that do not exist in the pāli canon.
In the Shasha JAtaka the bodhisattva is reborn as a hare. The story is about the hare, a jackal, an otter, a monkey and a Brahmin who is none other than the Indra god willing to test the capacity of generosity and extreme gift of these animals. The Brahman asks the animals to give some of their food for a ceremony. The jackal gave some meat, the otter some fish, the monkey some fruits but the hare said "as I can only give you grass, I will sacrifice myself and throw myself into the sacrificial fire". Indra, resuming his true personality, replied that his only word was sufficient as his generosity was great. In the Buddhist religion, giving and above all providing for religious needs is considered a cardinal virtue.

Shibi Jātaka. Shale. Gandhara (Pakistan). (2ème s.-3ème s.). British Museum.

The Jātaka of the tigress. Lacquer. Tamamushi no Zushi (Japanese reliquary) (7th century). Nara. Japan.

Sama Jātaka. Sandstone. Torana (portico) West of the stupa N ° 1. (1er BC - 1er after JC). Sanchi. India.

Le Mahakapi Jātaka (N ° 407) is a very famous tale which exalts the gift of oneself but also the energy and the will. The story goes that the bodhisattva was born as a monkey king, ruling over 80.000 congeners. They lived near the Ganges and ate the fruits of a large mango tree. King Brahmadatta of Benares, desirous of possessing the mango tree, had the tree surrounded by his soldiers, in order to kill the animals, but the bodhisattva made a bridge over the river with his own body and by this means allowed all the tribe to escape. Devadatta, the jealous and wicked cousin of the Buddha, was in this life one of the monkeys and, thinking that he had a good chance of destroying his enemy, jumped on his back and broke his spine. The king, seeing the Bodhisattva's good deed and repenting of his own attempt to kill him, took great care of him and had a talk before he died. Thereafter he made him make a royal funeral. It should be noted that the fact of crossing a river is, in Buddhist thought, an illustration of the journey towards progress, towards spirituality. This tale has been illustrated in all parts of Asia and integrated into the Mahāyānic tradition as can be seen in Borobudur (8rd s. Java).
Le Shibi Jātaka also illustrates this gift of self but with a clearly marked dramatic character. One day, while King Shibi (the Bodhisattva) was seated in the middle of his courtyard, a dove came and took refuge on his knees because she was being pursued by a hawk. The falcon asked the king for the bird because it was his family's livelihood. Accepting the right of the hawk, the king offered him his own flesh in order to fulfill his duty to protect his subjects. A remarkable Gandhara panel (2rd-3rd s. Pakistan) develops the story perfectly. One sees the king, seated on his throne and supported by his queen while a servant holds a knife to take the flesh. Under the throne, one can see the dove. In the center, another servant holds a balance so that the weight of flesh is equivalent to that of the bird. Above, the flying falcon watches the scene. On the right, Indra and Brahma, who are often spectators in these tales, contemplate the event with admiration. This Jātaka has also been illustrated many times, in painting since Ajantā (5rd-6rd s. India) to the Mogao Caves, Dunhuang (4rd-5rd s. China), in sculpture from Gandhara to Borobudur in Indonesia. Sujati Jātaka exalts the filial love and the gift of self which are qualities particularly appreciated by Buddhists.
Le JAtaka of the tigress, shown on the Tamamushi No. Zushi, Japanese reliquary of 7rd s., shows a character who jumps off a cliff at the foot of which is a cat. This painting is the story of Prince Mahāsattva, who met a hungry tigress who could no longer feed her children. By compassion the prince chooses to sacrifice his life, by killing himself, to save the felines. The painting shows him leaving his clothes, falling off the cliff and devoured by the tigress and his young. Here again, the extreme gift of self is exalted.
The Sama JAtaka (No. 540) also speaks of filial piety. Sama (the bodhisattva) was the son of a hermit and his wife, both blind, the couple totally dependent on him. He looked after his parents perfectly and provided for all their needs. One day when he was fetching water from the river, the king of Benares, who was hunting there, accidentally killed him. Just before he died, Sama explained his situation to the king, and he made a vow to replace him with the old parents. Seeing this, Indra resurrected Sama, restored sight to the parents and released the king from his vow. This filial piety and the extreme generosity of a sovereign are illustrated on a bas-relief of Sānchi's stupa N ° 1 (1er-2rd s. India) but have also been very successful in Southeast Asia.
The Nimi JAtaka (N ° 541) tells the story of King Nimi (one of the last reincarnations of the Bodhisattva), extremely pious and virtuous, who wanted to know the fate of beings of all origins according to their actions. He asked the coachman of the god Indra to visit all the stays where a soul, meritorious or not, can be found after one life or another. He will first go through the underworld where sinners suffer horrible suffering portrayed in detail, then the heavenly stays which are very pleasant to finish at the summit of Mount Meru, stay of Indra, the king of the gods. On his return to the earthly world he will tell his subjects all he has seen and commit them to lead a virtuous life. This JAtaka is illustrated on an exceptional Burmese manuscript of MNAA-Guimet which was exhibited during the exhibition Buddha, the golden legend. This 950 cm long painting, folded in accordion, dates from 1869 and describes with a lot of details the horrors of the underworld as the pleasures and the amusements of the skies.

Vishvantara Jātaka. Sandstone. Torana (portico) North of stupa N ° 1. (1st BC - 1st century AD). Sānchi. India.

The Vishvantara JAtaka (No. 547), the last of the Pāli canon, is one of the most popular in all of Asia because it tells the penultimate incarnation of Buddha Sākyamuni. The story goes that King Vishvantara, having vowed never to refuse a request, gave up all he held dear. At the request of the Brahmans, he gave his white elephant (jewel of a universal sovereign) which earned him to be banished from the kingdom; then, always at the request of ascetics, he offered his chariot and his horse, his children and finally his wife. Indra, having wanted to test the gift of generosity of the future Buddha, then manifested himself to give him back all he had given. This Jātaka has been one of the most represented throughout the centuries, from India to China and throughout Southeast Asia. One of the most beautiful transcriptions in sculpture is on a torana (portico) of stupa N ° 1 of Sānchi (1er-2rd s. India). The whole story is detailed and many feelings are expressed despite a certain naivety in the sculpture. The tale depicts proponents of the opposing religion, Hinduism, which are critically described and demonstrates that Buddhists are paragons of virtue. King Vishvantara embodies here the quintessence of the Bodhisattva's virtues, Buddhist compassion beyond even the sacrifice of his own life.
Some paintings show the Buddha surrounded by his previous lives or the three contant shows JAtaka as in a Tibetan painting of 18rd s. where are three of these stories.
The importance of JAtaka is perceptible by the number of representations in all artistic forms and in the whole Buddhist world, with, possibly, local interpretations which made it possible to teach the Faith in an imaginative and comprehensible way by all the faithful.

Vishvantara Jātaka. Cave painting N ° 17. Ajantā. (5th - 6th century). India.


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