Jātaka is the Sanskrit and Pāli term for a particular genre of Buddhist literature. A jātaka is a story in which one of the characters—usually the hero—is identified as a previous birth of the historical Buddha, generally appearing as a man, a deity, or one of the higher animals (but only rarely as a female of any kind). The existence of the jātaka genre is based on the notion that the Buddha, on the night of his enlightenment, attained the recollection of his previous lives, which then, throughout his life, he often had occasion to relate in order to illustrate a point, drive home a moral lesson, or shed light on some situation. It is these stories that constitute the jātakas.
The jātaka genre appears to be very old, for the term jātaka is included in an ancient categorization of Buddhist literary styles, and depictions of jātaka stories appear in Indian Buddhist art as early as the second century b.c.e.
All of the lives related in the jātakas are understood to have taken place during the Buddha's bodhisattva career, only after he had made a firm vow to become a buddha in the distant future. The general function of the jātakas, then, is to illustrate how the bodhisattva, in life after life, cultivated various virtues and qualities that ultimately contributed to his attainment of buddhahood. Accordingly, most jātakas portray the bodhisattva as an exemplary figure, highlighting such features as his wisdom, compassion, or ascetic detachment. Many jātakas, in fact, are explicitly intended to illustrate the bodhisattva's cultivation of one of the pĀramitĀ (perfection) needed for buddhahood. In the Śāśajātaka, for example, the bodhisattva is a hare who offers his own body as food to a wandering traveler, thus cultivating the "perfection of generosity." In the Brāhmaṇajātaka, he is a boy who refuses to steal even when his brahmin teacher urges him to do so, thus cultivating the "perfection of morality." And in the Kṣāntijātaka, he is an ascetic who calmly tolerates the mutilation inflicted on him by an angry king, thus cultivating the "perfection of forbearance." Some jātaka collections are even arranged on this basis: The JĀtakamĀlĀ (Garland of Jātakas) of Āryaśūra, a famous Sanskrit collection from approximately the fourth century c.e., arranges the bulk of its thirty-four stories (including the three mentioned above) in accordance with the first three of the six perfections; the Cariyāpiṭaka (Collection on [the Bodhisatta's] Conduct) of the Pāli canon arranges its thirty-five versified jātakas in accordance with the TheravĀda list of ten perfections.
The jātaka genre was used to assimilate an enormous amount of traditional Indian folklore into the Buddhist fold, including many tales whose moral lessons were not specifically Buddhist (or that had no moral lesson at all). Any traditional tale could be transformed into a jātaka simply by turning one of its characters into a previous birth of the Buddha. This is especially true of the Jātakaṭṭhakathā (Explanation of the Birth Stories), a massive Pāli collection of 547 prose and verse jātakas, of which only the verses are considered canonical. Much of the contents of the Jātakaṭṭhakathā are likely non-Buddhist in origin, including, for example, many animal fables, folk tales, and fairy tales. Similarly, as the jātaka genre spread to Buddhist cultures outside of India, it often drew on local folklore to domesticate existing jātakas or compose wholly new ones more relevant to new environments.
Jātaka stories exist not only in Sanskrit and Pāli literature, but also in the Chinese and Tibetan canons, as well as in many vernacular languages and texts. Throughout history and throughout the Buddhist world, jātakas have played a major role in the dissemination of Buddhist teachings, being the constant focus of sermons, rituals, festivals, and many varieties of art and performance. The relevance of the jātakas to everyday Buddhist life is perhaps most apparent in the Theravāda cultures of Southeast Asia, where many jātakas of the Pāli tradition are widely known and frequently alluded to in everyday conversation and moral argument.
Cowell, E. B., ed. The Jātaka or Stories of the Buddha's Former Births, 3 vols. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1990.
Jones, John Garrett. Tales and Teachings of the Buddha: The Jātaka Stories in Relation to the Pāli Canon. London: Allen and Unwin, 1979.
Khoroche, Peter, trans. Once the Buddha Was a Monkey: Ārya Śūra's Jātakamālā. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.
Schober, Juliane, ed. Sacred Biography in the Buddhist Traditions of South and Southeast Asia. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997.