"The Great Ape Jataka (Mahakapi Jataka)," Caroline A. F. Rhys Davids, trans. Stories of the Buddha.
New York: Dover, 1990. pp. 149-153.
"Ruru Jataka," W.H.D. Rouse, trans., in E. B. Cowell, ed. The Jataka, (London: Luzac & Co., 1957
[1905 with Cambridge UP]), pp. 161-6.
Both of these texts relate tales of the historical Buddha's past lives—one in which the Buddha was
born as a monkey or ape king and one as a golden deer. These jataka tales represent one facet of
Buddhist narrative, which includes stories of the Buddha's historical life (c. 5th c. BCE), teachings of
the Buddha, and later explorations of Buddhist practice by monks, nuns, and lay practitioners.
Biographical stories and stories of the Buddha's past lives often serve as major sources of subject
matter for Buddhist monuments, and both of these stories are often depicted in sculptural relief and
painting. The Great Ape Jataka, for example, appears in relief on both the railing of the great stupa
(or burial mound) at Sanchi in central India (c. 100 BCE) and the railing of the Bharhut stupa (c.
100-80 BCE). Exploring how these ancient stories come alive through sculptural depiction gives us
insight into the workings of visual narrative and the relationship between these stories and Buddhist
practices of pilgrimage, worship, and storytelling. Furthermore, both of these stories involve
teachings about the proper way of leading or ruling, linking the fabric of Buddhism to politics and
During the night that the Buddha achieved Enlightenment under the branches of the Bodhi tree, all
of his past lives were revealed to him. Each jataka begins in a framing narrative that occurs in the
storyteller's present. The teller is always the "Enlightened One" or Buddha, usually prompted to tell
the story because of some controversy or issue his followers debate. One can imagine the difficulty
of attracting followers and establishing a new way of understanding how to live, and thus the telling
of the jataka tales serves as a way for the Buddha to explain facets of Buddhist dharma (sometimes
translated as the "Law") to his relatively new followers. Foremost among his followers is Ananda,
who figures often in these stories as he has traveled with the Buddha in his past lives as well.
Devadatta also reappears often; he is the Buddha's foil, the example of an ungrateful follower who
does not truly understand Buddhist teachings.
The historical Buddha is not the only Enlightened One—one of his names, Tathagata, means "he
who comes and goes in the same way (as those who preceded him)" indicating that he is one of
many Buddhas. Bodhisattvas are those who are able to achieve Enlightenment but forgo final
extinguishment (nirvana) in order to teach others about Buddhist dharma. Thus, the Buddha in his
past lives is called "Bodhisat" referring to this space prior to full Enlightenment.
Both jataka tales presented here represent two widely accepted translations from the original Pali,
an ancient Indian language. Like many ancient texts, these were originally oral tales, written down
over a wide span of time. Thus, different versions of the stories arise with different translators and
indeed different source texts. When these narratives are used to analyze visual representations of
jatakas, we must take care not to privilege either the image or the text, as it is likely that the text
we have today was different from that told to the lay visitor at Sanchi or the sculptor at Bharhut.
Furthermore, stories are shaped by their visual representation, and it is also likely that these very
sculptures helped to refigure the stories as they were told and re-told. Comparing visual and textual
narratives allow us to mine these images and stories for their full range of diverse interpretation,
asking which message the patron or artist of a particular image wished to highlight as they retold the
story of the monkey king or the tale of the golden deer.
weal: prosperity, well-being