THE Jatakas, or Birth-stories, form one of the sacred books of the Buddhists and relate to the adventures of the Buddha in his former existences, the best character in any story being identified with the Master.
These legends were continually introduced into the religious discourses of the Buddhist teachers to illustrate the doctrines of their faith or to magnify the glory and sanctity of the Buddha, somewhat as medieval preachers in Europe used to enliven their sermons by introducing fables and popular tales to rouse the flagging interest of their hearers.
Sculptured scenes from the Jatakas, found upon the carved railings around the relic shrines of Sanchi and Amaravati and of Bharhut, indicate that the "Birth-stories" were widely known in the third century B.C., and were then considered as part of the sacred history of the religion. At first the tales were probably handed down orally, and it is uncertain when they were put together in systematic form.
While some of the stories are Buddhistic and depend for their point on some custom or idea peculiar to Buddhism, many are age-old fables, the flotsam and jetsam of folk-lore, which have appeared under various guises throughout the centuries, as when they were used by Boccaccio or Poggio, merely as merry tales, or by Chaucer, who unwittingly puts a Jataka story into the mouth of his pardoners when he tells the tale of "the Ryotoures three."
Quaint humor and gentle earnestness distinguish these legends and they teach many wholesome lessons, among them the duty of kindness to animals.
Dr. Felix Adler in his "Moral Instruction of Children," says:
The Jataka Tales contain deep truths, and are calculated to impress lessons of great moral beauty. The tale of the Merchant of Seri, who gave up all that he had in exchange for a golden dish, embodies much the same idea as the parable of the priceless Pearl, in the New Testament. The tale of the Measures of Rice illustrates the importance of a true estimate of values. The tale of the Banyan Deer, which offered its life to save a roe and her young, illustrates self-sacrifice of the noblest sort. The tale of the Sandy Road is one of the finest in the collection.
And he adds that these tales "are, as everyone must admit, nobly conceived, lofty in meaning, and many a helpful sermon might be preached from them as texts."