Jātakamālā or Garland of Birth Stories

Editor's Preface (by F. Max Muller)

[v] After all the necessary preparations for the first and second series of the Sacred Books of the East, consisting in all of forty-nine volumes, with two volumes of General Index, had been completed, I still received several offers of translations of important texts which I felt reluctant to leave unpublished. As they were chiefly translations of Buddhist texts, I mentioned the fact to several of my Buddhist friends, and I was highly gratified when I was informed that H. M. the King of Siam, being desirous that the true teaching of the Buddha should become more widely known in Europe, had been graciously pleased to promise that material support without which the publication of these translations would have been impossible.

I therefore resolved to do what I could for helping to spread a more correct knowledge of the religion of Buddha: but after the first three volumes of this new Series of the Sacred Books of the Buddhists is published, it will mainly depend on the interest which the public may take in this work, whether it can be continued or not.

As long as my health allows me to do so I shall be quite willing to continue what has been a labour of love to me during many years of my life. It was not always an easy task. The constant correspondence with my fellow-workers has taxed my time and my strength far more than I expected. The difficulty was not only to select from the very large mass of Sacred Books those that seemed most important [vi] and most likely to be useful for enabling us to gain a correct view of the great religions of the East, but to find scholars competent and willing to undertake the labour of translation.

I can perfectly understand the unwillingness of most scholars to devote their time to mere translations. With every year the translation of such works as the Veda or the Avesta, instead of becoming easier, becomes really more perplexing and more difficult. Difficulties of which we formerly had no suspicion have been brought to light by the ever increasing number of fresh students, and precautions have now to be taken against dangers the very existence of which was never dreamt of in former years. I do not exaggerate when I say that the translation of some of the hymns of the Veda, often clearly corrupt in the original, has become as difficult as the deciphering of hieroglyphic or cuneiform inscriptions, where at all events the text may be depended on.

What critical scholars like is to translate a verse here and a verse there, possibly a hymn or a whole chapter with various readings, critical notes and brilliant conjectures; but to translate a whole book without shirking a single line is a task from which most of them recoil. Nor have the labours of those who have hitherto ventured on a more complete translation of the Ṛg-veda, such as Wilson, Grassmann, Ludwig and Griffith, been received as they ought to have been, with gratitude for what they have achieved, and with allowances for what they failed to achieve. I therefore remarked in the Preface to the first volume of this collection, p. xlii:

“Oriental scholars have been blamed for not having as yet supplied a want so generally felt, and so frequently expressed, as a complete, trustworthy, and readable translation of the principal Sacred Books of the Eastern Religions. The reasons, however, why hitherto they have shrunk from such an undertaking are clear enough. The difficulties in many cases of giving complete translations, and not selections only, are very great.

There is still much work to be done for a critical restoration of the original texts, for an examination of their grammar and metres, and for determining the exact meaning of many words and passages. That kind of work is naturally far [vii] more attractive to scholars than a mere translation, particularly when they cannot but feel that, with the progress of our knowledge, many a passage which now seems clear and easy, may, on being re-examined, assume a new import.

Thus while scholars who would be most competent to undertake a translation prefer to devote their time to more special researches, the work of a complete translation is deferred to the future, and historians are left under the impression that Oriental scholarship is still in so unsatisfactory a state as to make any reliance on translations of the Veda, the Avesta, or the Tāo-te king extremely hazardous.

It is clear, therefore, that a translation of the principal Sacred Books of the East can be carried out only at a certain sacrifice. Scholars must leave for a time their own special researches in order to render the general results already obtained accessible to the public at large. And even then, useful results can be achieved viribus unitis only.”

My expectations, however, have not been deceived. My appeal was most generously responded to by the best Oriental scholars in England, France, Germany, Holland and America. Nor have these scholars, who were not afraid to come forward with translations which they knew to be far from final, had to regret their courage and their public spirit. The most competent judges have accepted what we had to offer in a grateful and indulgent spirit. There has only been one painful exception in the case of a scholar who has himself never ventured on the translation of a sacred text, and who seems to have imagined that he could render more useful service by finding fault with the translation of certain words and passages, or by suggesting an entirely different and, in his eyes, a far more excellent method of translation.

All scholars know how easy it is to glean a few straws, and how laborious to mow a whole field. There are passages in everyone of the Sacred Books, even in such carefully edited texts as the Old and New Testaments, on which interpreters will always differ; and we know how, after centuries of constant labour bestowed on those texts, the most learned and careful scholars have not been able to agree, or to avoid oversights in their Revised Version of the Bible. Could we expect anything different in the first attempts at translating the Sacred Books of other religions? Valuable emendations, [viii] offered in a scholar-like spirit, would have been most gratefully accepted by myself and by my fellow workers. But seldom, nay hardly ever, have emendations been proposed that would essentially alter the textus receptus or throw new light on really obscure passages, while the offensive tone adopted by our critic made it impossible to answer him. As he is no longer among the living, I shall say no more.

I feel bound, however, for the sake of those who do not know me, to correct one remark, as invidious as it was groundless, made by the same departed scholar, namely that I had received an excessive honurarium as Editor of the Sacred Books of the East, nay, as he expressed it, that I had levied tribute of my fellow workers. The fact is that during all the years which I devoted to the superintending of the publication of the fifty volumes of the Sacred Books of the East, I have not had the smallest addition to my income. I was relieved by the University of Oxford from the duty of delivering my public lectures, so that I might devote my time to this large literary undertaking brought out by our University Press.

My labour, even the mere official correspondence with my many contributors, was certainly not less than that of delivering lectures which I had been in the habit of delivering for twenty-five years. My private lectures were continued all the same, and the publications of my pupils are there to show how ungrudgingly I gave them my time and my assistance in their literary labours. It is difficult to see of what interest such matters can be to other people, or with what object they are dragged before the public. I should have felt ashamed to notice such an accusation, if the accuser had not been a man whose scholarship deserved respect. I have never claimed any credit for the sacrifices which I have made both in time and in money, for objects which were near and dear to my heart.

It has been, as I said, a labour of love, and I shall always feel most grateful to the University of Oxford, and to my fellow-translators, for having enabled me to realise this long cherished plan of making the world better [ix] acquainted with the Sacred Books of the principal religions of mankind, a work which has borne fruit already, and will, I hope, bear still richer fruit in the future.

If the members of the principal religions of the world wish to understand one another, to bear with one another, and possibly to recognise certain great truths which, without being aware of it, they share in common with one another, the only solid and sound foundation for such a religious peace-movement will be supplied by a study of the Sacred Books of each religion.

One such religious Peace-Congress has been held already in America. Preparations for another are now being made; and it is certainly a sign of the times when we see Cardinal Gibbons, after conferring with Pope Leo XIII at Rome, assuring those who are organising this new Congress: “The Pope will be with you, I know it. Write, agitate, and do not be timid.” Le Pape sera avec vous, je le sais. écrivez, agissez, ne soyez pas timides. Revue de Paris, Sept. I, 1895, p. 136.01

The Jātakamālā, of which Prof. Speyer has given us an English translation in this volume, is a work well known to students of Buddhism. The edition of the Sanskrit text by Prof. Kern is not only an editio princeps, but the text as restored by him will probably remain the final text, and Prof. Speyer in translating has had but seldom to depart from it.

Jātaka has generally been translated by Birth-story or Tale of Anterior Births, and it would be difficult to find a better rendering. This class of stories is peculiar to Buddhism; for although the idea that every man had passed through many existences before his birth on earth and will pass through many more after his death was, like most Buddhist theories, borrowed from the Brāhmans, yet its employment for teaching the great lessons of morality seems to have been the work of Buddha and his pupils.

In addition to this there was another theory, likewise Brahmanic in its origin, but again more fully developed for practical purposes by the Buddhists, that of Karma, a firm belief that an [x] unbroken chain of cause and effect binds all existences together. The great problems of the justice of the government of the world, of the earthly sufferings of the innocent, and the apparent happiness of the wicked, were to the Indian mind solved once for all by the firm conviction that what we experience here is the result of something that has happened before, that there is an unbroken heredity in the world, and that we not only benefit by, but also suffer from our ancestors.

In order fully to understand the drift of the Jātakas we must, however, bear in mind one more article of the Buddhist faith, namely that, though ordinary mortals remember nothing of their former existences beyond the fact that they did exist, which is involved in the very fact of their self-consciousness, highly enlightened beings have the gift of recalling their former vicissitudes. It is well known that Pythagoras claimed the same gift of remembering his former lives, or at all events is reported to have claimed it. A Buddha is supposed to know whatever has happened to him in every existence through which he has passed: and it seems to have been the constant habit of the historical Buddha, Buddha Sākyamuni, to explain to his disciples things that were happening by things that had happened countless ages before.

Those lessons seem certainly to have impressed his hearers, after they once believed that what they had to suffer here on earth was not the result of mere chance, but the result of their own former deeds or of the deeds of their fellow-creatures, that they were in fact paying off a debt which they had contracted long ago. It was an equally impressive lesson that whatever good they might do on earth would be placed to their account in a future life, because the whole world was one large system in which nothing could ever be lost, though many of the links of the chain of cause and effect might escape human observation or recollection.

The Buddha, in telling these stories of his former births or existences, speaks of himself, not exactly as the same individual, but rather as the enlightened one, [xi] the Buddha as he existed at any and at every time; and from a moral point of view, the enlightened meant the good, the perfect man. We must not suppose that his hearers were expected to believe, in our sense of the word, all the circumstances of his former existences as told by Buddha Sākyamuni. Even for an Indian imagination it would have been hard to accept them as matters of fact. A Jātaka was not much more than what a parable is with us, and as little as Christians are expected to accept the story of Lazarus resting in Abraham's bosom as a matter of fact (though, I believe, the house of Dives is shown at Jerusalem) were the Buddhists bound to believe that Buddha as an individual or as an historical person, had formerly been a crow or a hare.

The views of the Buddhists on the world and its temporary tenants, whether men, animals, or trees, are totally different from our own, though we know how even among ourselves the theories of heredity have led some philosophers to hold that we, or our ancestors, existed at one time in an animal, and why not in a vegetable or mineral state. It is difficult for us to enter fully into the Buddhist views of the world; I would only warn my readers that they must not imagine that highly educated men among the Buddhists were so silly as to accept the Jātakas as ancient history.

It would be more correct, I believe, to look upon these Birth-stories as homilies used for educational purposes and for inculcating the moral lessons of Buddhism. This is clearly implied in the remarks at the end of certain Jātakas, such as “This story is also to be used when discoursing on the Buddha” (p. 148), or “This story may be used with the object of showing the difficulty of finding companions for a religious life” (p. 172). We know that Christian divines also made use of popular stories for similar purposes. In India many of these stories must have existed long before the rise of Buddhism, as they exist even now, in the memory of the people. It is known how some of them reached Greece and Rome and the Western world [xii] through various well-ascertained channels, Migration of Fables, in Chips from a German Workshop, vol. iv, p.·412.02 and how they still supply our nurseries with the earliest lessons of morality, good sense, and good manners.

It may be said that the lessons of morality inculcated in these homilies are too exaggerated to be of any practical usefulness. Still this modus docendi is very common in Sacred Books, where we often find an extreme standard held up in the hope of producing an impression that may be useful in less extreme cases. To offer the other cheek to whosoever shall strike our right cheek, to give up our cloak to him who takes away our coat, to declare that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God, are all lessons which we also take cum grano salis. They ask for much in the hope that something may be given. That there is danger too in this mode of teaching cannot be denied. We are told that Ārya Śūra, in order to follow the example of Buddha in a former birth, threw himself in this life before a starving tigress to be devoured. Let us hope that this too was only a Jātaka.

When once a taste for these moralising stories had arisen, probably owing to Buddha's daily intercourse with the common people, their number grew most rapidly. The supply was unlimited, all that was required was the moral application, the Haec fabula docet. The Buddhists give their number as 550. The earliest are probably those which are found in different parts of the Buddhist Canon. In the Cariyā-piṭaka there is a collection of thirty-five stories of the former lives of Buddha, in each of which he acquired one of the ten Pāramitās or Great Perfections which fit a human being for Buddhahood. See Buddhist Birth-stories, translated by Rhys Davids, p. lv. 03 A similar collection is found in the Buddhavaṁsa, Some doubt attaches to the canonicity of the Cariyāpiṭaka and the Buddhavaṁsa (see Childers, s. v. Nikāya). 04 which contains an account of the life of the coming Buddha, the Bodhisat, in the various [xiii] characters which he filled during the periods of the twenty-four previous Buddhas.

The Jātaka stories are therefore at least as old as the compilation of the Buddhist Canon at the Council of Vesāli, about 377 B. C. Dhammapada, p. xxx, S.B.E., vol x.05 It was at that Council that the great schism took place, and that the ancient Canon was rearranged or disarranged. Among the books thus tampered with is mentioned the Jātaka, which therefore must be considered as having existed, and formed part of the old Canon before the Council of Vesāli. This is what the Dīpavaṁsa (V, 32) says on the subject:

“The Bhikkhus of the Great Council settled a doctrine contrary (to the true Faith). Altering the original text they made another text. They transposed Suttas which belonged to one place (of the collection) to another place; they destroyed the true meaning of the Faith, in the Vinaya and in the five collections (of the Suttas) .... Rejecting single passages of the Suttas and of the proposed Vinaya, they composed other Suttas and another Vinaya which had (only) the appearance (of the genuine ones). Rejecting the following texts, viz. the Parivāra, which is the abstract of the contents (of the Vinaya), the six sections of the Abhidhamma, the Paṭisambhidā, the Niddesa, and some portions of the Jātaka, they composed new ones.”

Whatever else this may prove with regard to the way in which the ancient Canon was preserved, it shows at all events that Jātakas existed before the Vesāli Council as an integral portion of the sacred Canon, and we learn at the same time that it was possible even then to compose new chapters of that canon, and probably also to add new Jātaka stories.

Whether we possess the text of the Jātaka in exactly that form in which it existed previous to the Council of Vesāli in 377 B.C. is another question. Strictly speaking we must be satisfied with the time of Vattagāmani in whose reign, 88-76 B.C., writing for literary purposes seems to have become more general in India, and the Buddhist Canon was for the first time reduced to writing.

What we possess is the Pāli text of the Jātaka as [xiv] it has been preserved in Ceylon. The tradition is that these 550 Jātaka stories, composed in Pāli, were taken to Ceylon by Mahinda, about 250 B. C., that the commentary was there translated into Singhalese, and that the commentary was retranslated into Pāli by Buddhaghosa, in the fifth century A.D. It is in this commentary alone that the text of the Jātakas has come down to us. This text has been edited by Dr. Fausböll. He has distinguished in his edition between three component elements, the tale, the frame, and the verbal interpretation. This text, of which the beginning was translated in 1880 by Prof. Rhys Davids, is now being translated by Mr. R. Chalmers, Mr. W. R. D. Rouse, Mr. H. T. Francis and Mr. R. A. Neil, and the first volume of their translation has appeared in 1895 under the able editorship of Professor Cowell.

As Professor Speyer has explained, the Jātakamālā, the Garland of Birth-stories, which he has translated, is a totally different work. It is a Sanskrit rendering of only thirty-four Jātakas ascribed to Ārya Śūra. “While the Pāli Jātaka is written in the plainest prose style, the work of Ārya Śūra has higher pretensions, and is in fact a kind of kāvya, a work of art. It was used by the Northern Buddhists, while the Pāli Jātaka belongs to the Canon of the Southern Buddhists. The date of Ārya Śūra is difficult to fix. Tāranātha (p. 90) states that Śūra was known by many names, such as Aśvaghoṣa, Mātṛceṭa, Pitṛceṭa, Durdarṣa (sic). Dharmika-subhūti, Maticitra. He also states that towards the end of his life Śūra was in correspondence with king Kanika (Kaniṣka ?), and that he began to write the hundred Jātakas illustrating Buddha's acquirement of the ten Pāramitās (see p. xiv), but died when he had finished only thirty-four. It is certainly curious that our Jātakamālā contains thirty-four Jātakas. If therefore we could rely on Tāranātha, [xv] Ārya Śūra, being identical with Aśvaghoṣa, the author of the Buddhacarita, would have lived in the first century of our era. He is mentioned as a great authority on metres (Tāranātha, p. 18 I), and he certainly handles his metres with great skill. But dates are always the weak point in the history of Indian Literature. Possibly the study of Tibetan Literature, and a knowledge of the authorities on which Tāranātha relied, may throw more light hereafter on the date of Śūra and Aśvaghoṣa.

OXFORD, October, 1895.