Once the Buddha Was a Monkey: Jatakamala

Arya Sura

translated from the Sanskrit by Peter Khoroche
The University of Chicago Press 1989
A book review by Danny Yee © 2007 https://dannyreviews.com/
The thirty four stories in Arya Sura's Jatakamala are morality tales about incarnations of the Buddha, as animals, princes, gods, and humans of all kinds. Reworked in Sanskrit from older stories, probably in the 4th century AD, they illustrate the Buddhist virtues.

As well as expounding Buddhist ideas, the stories offer a view of life in ancient India. They are also charming, and entertaining enough to be read just for fun.

Each story begins with the statement of a moral.

"No gift given in good faith to a worthy recipient can be called small, its effect is so great."
"Those who make a practice of good behavior can win over the hearts even of their enemies."
"Self-respect is what keeps good people from overstepping the bounds of propriety."

There follows a stereotyped opening sentence and some scene-setting, which often involves a description of natural beauty or social harmony.

"According to tradition, the Bodhisattva was once born as an ibex in a remote forest region. In the absence of man it was a peaceful place, inhabited by all sorts of animals. Trees and shrubs grew in plenty, their roots smothered by dense undergrowth. Neither the paths nor the borders of the forest showed any trace of traveler's footprints or wheel ruts. It was a landscape of riverbeds, anthills, gullies, and rough ground."

In other stories the Bodhisattva is a merchant, a supremely able ship's captain, a scion of a great Brahmin family, Sakra lord of the gods, lord of the fish in quite a small lake, a wild buffalo, and so forth.

From there the stories unfold differently, with a variety of elements. A typical example might involve encounters with kings, demons, spirits, or animals, the creation of some tension, and the adoption by the Bodhisattva of an unexpected or counter-cultural behaviour. This is then explained or expounded on and brings the story to a happy resolution.

The stories illustrate virtues such as charity, speaking truth, loyalty, forbearance and compassion, often taken to extremes. This is done through their function as parables and through the incorporation of brief sermons and lectures, and in one case a philosophical disputation.

Some of the ideas in the Jatakamala are strange to modern sensibilities — avoiding animal sacrifice by creating a police state, for example — but no more so than many of the Bible stories.

December 2007

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%T Once the Buddha Was a Monkey: Jatakamala
%A Sura, Arya
%E Khoroche, Peter
%M Sanskrit
%F Khoroche, Peter
%I The University of Chicago Press
%D 1989
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0226782158
%P 273pp